/ 5 February 2020

To really silence the guns, the AU’s resolve must be stronger

African Union
The year 2020 is the culmination of one of the flagship projects of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: silencing the guns in Africa. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

The year 2020 is the culmination of one of the flagship projects of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: silencing the guns in Africa. This is also the AU’s chosen theme for this year.

Yet, the security situation on the continent has become bleaker at the start of 2020 than it was two to three years ago. Despite all efforts and the progress made in some areas — such as the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the peace agreement in the Central African Republic (CAR); and the transition in Sudan — the deterioration of existing conflicts and the emergence of new ones means that the continent is in a more violent situation than a decade ago (this not a problem unique to Africa, as the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project highlighted earlier this month). 

In a speech outlining South Africa’s priorities ahead of chairing the AU in 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa observed: “Violent conflict continues to hamper our efforts to achieve continental peace development.” 

And as Africa Confidential pointed out in its latest analysis, the conflicts currently raging in various parts of the continent “are dragging down indices for social progress, economic growth and stability”. 

From North Africa to West Africa and the Sahel to the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions, the guns are getting louder. This situation seems to make a mockery of the theme of the year.  

Of particular concern is Libya, where, after the launch of a new offensive by rebel forces against the internationally recognised government, fighting has increased. This threatens “a civil war which could lead to permanent division of the country”, according to Ghassan Salamé, the United Nations representative to Libya. The fighting has led to atrocities against civilians, among them migrants and refugees.

The flurry of summits held in Russia and, later, in Germany are indicative of rising concerns. But the situation is of more immediate and direct concern for the countries bordering Libya and the wider Sahel region and beyond in Africa. President Macky Sall of Senegal put it well when he said at a recent press conference that the “whole African continent is worried about the consequences of what is happening in Libya”. 

“Africa’s worry is that there’s a risk that all these weapons [from Libya] will transit through the Sahel,” Sall added. 

This risks inflaming an already dangerous situation in the Sahel. The number of violent incidents in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has increased sharply. According to the UN, it has grown fivefold since 2016 and doubled in 2019 compared to 2018. Its geographic scope has also expanded, with the violence spreading across the region.

As chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, I am gravely concerned about the human consequences of these developments. As the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) pointed out in a recent statement, the sharp increase in armed attacks on communities, schools, health centres and other public institutions has reached unprecedented levels. 

The human toll of this dramatic spike in violent incidents involving militant armed groups and intercommunal clashes in the Sahel has also skyrocketed. Last year was the deadliest in two decades with at least 5 360 reported fatalities. Since the beginning of 2019, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced across the three worst-affected countries — Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — including 670 000 children.

Various reports from the Great Lakes Region show not only that the peace agreement in CAR is fragile, but that tension among countries of the region is mounting, threatening to result in a major deterioration of the situation in the restive and violence-afflicted eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

READ MORE: Tensions loom over the Great Lakes region

The situation in the East and Horn of Africa is not any better either. Although the ceasefire in South Sudan continues to hold, the region witnessed increased attacks by al-has Shabab in Somalia and in Kenya. Despite increasing military pressure, the terror group has shown it can expand geographically while maintaining its ability to launch lethal attacks.

As the guns seem to be growing louder at the beginning of 2020, the resolve to silence them should become even stronger. Indeed, the challenge for the AU is how to rise to the occasion and redouble its efforts to  mobilise the required leadership by member states for concrete measures to settle the conflicts raging in various parts of the continent.  

Although there are a number of agenda items on the AU summit in February, there is nothing more pressing and strategic than addressing the expanding threat of conflicts and violence on the continent. It is imperative that the summit holds a special debate on this worrying situation.