Silencing the guns in Africa by 2020

The African Union initiative is intended to achieve a conflict-free Africa, prevent genocide, make peace a reality for all and rid the continent of wars, violent conflicts, human rights violations, and humanitarian disasters.

In 2013 African Union (AU) member state representatives gathered at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the Organisation of African Unity was established in 1963, to celebrate the body’s 50th anniversary.

The leaders sat down to reflect and tackle the tough questions: What progress have we made towards the achieving of the objectives set by the AU and looking forward, what is our proposed vision for Africa for the next 50 years? Furthermore, what is the biggest challenge to realizing the aspirations of our people?

Most agreed that conflict remains one of the biggest challenges facing Africa. The AU also sees conflict as one of the biggest impediments to the implementation of Agenda 2063. Of course, there were other challenges facing the continent, including poverty, inequality, unemployment, climate change, illegal financial flows, corruption, etc, yet conflict tops the list.

Before leaving Addis Ababa, the AU leaders resolved not to pass the burden of conflict to future generations, so they adopted “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020” as one of the flagship projects of the wider developmental blueprint Agenda 2063.

The initiative was intended to achieve a conflict-free Africa, prevent genocide, make peace a reality for all and rid the continent of wars, violent conflicts, human rights violations, and humanitarian disasters. The leaders hoped to have all the guns silenced by 2020.

Over the past two decades, the guns have been silenced in previous hotspots such as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Significant strides have been made in difficult cases such as Somalia and Sudan.

However, fighting is still observable in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Lake Chad Basin, which includes Chad and parts of Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Violent extremism in the Sahel and parts of the Horn and eastern Africa is also a challenge.

There are also threats from terrorism and transnational crime on the continent. Communal conflicts between herders and farmers over water and pasture; violent urban crime and cultural practices such as cattle rustling, are also of concern because firearms have become the weapons of choice, replacing traditional and less deadly weapons.

A 2017 study by Oxfam, The Human Cost of Uncontrolled Arms in Africa, estimates that at least 500,000 people die every year and millions of others are displaced or abused as a result of armed violence and conflict.

Who has the guns in Africa? 80% of all small arms in Africa are in the hands of civilians, according to the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent Geneva-based research centre which generates evidence-based, impartial, and policy-relevant knowledge and analysis on small arms and armed violence issues for governments, policy-makers, researchers, and civil society.

Civilians, including rebel groups and militias, hold more than 40 million small arms and light weapons, while government-related entities hold fewer than 11 million, according to the 2019 SAS and African Union study, Weapons Compass: Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa.

Where do the guns come from? Most of the weapons in Africa are imported. Official military expenditure in Africa stood at around $40.2 billion in 2018, with North Africa spending $22.2 billion and sub-Saharan Africa $18.8 billion.

The top arms suppliers to Africa between 2014 and 2018 were Russia, China, Ukraine, Germany and France, and the largest recipients were Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database provides information on all international transfers of major arms (including sales, gifts and production under license) to states, international organizations and non-state groups.

Twenty-two African countries also manufacture various kinds of small arms and light weapons. Homemade artisanal weapons production is also prevalent on the continent, with those weapons reported to be fueling criminality in some countries.

While African countries can control the purchase of legal arms, it is difficult to track the illegal trafficking and flows on the continent. Porous borders and long coastlines also enable traffickers to smuggle small arms between countries. There are also concerns about how well national arms stocks are managed to ensure that the weapons do not end up in the wrong hands.

To accelerate action, the AU has launched in early 2020 a continent-wide campaign on “Silencing the Guns” to mobilise all stakeholders to prioritize efforts on peace and effective socio-economic development. Challenges that lead people to violent conflicts, including poverty, historical injustices, inequality, unemployment, climate change, illegal financial flows, and corruption should be addressed too for the guns to be silenced.

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