Silencing the guns 2020: Truth or fantasy?

By Rachael Nyirongo

Rachael Nyirongo is an attorney in possession of a Baccalaureus Legum (LL.B) degree from the Nelson Mandela University and a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Cape Town. Originally from Malawi, she is a Legal Research Intern at the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) in Cape Town, currently conducting a comparative analysis of Anglo Gold Ashanti’s human rights record in Southern, West and East Africa.

 The African Union’s (AU’s) 50th celebration of its establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), its first iteration, introduced Agenda 2063 with the slogan, “The Africa We Want”. ‘Silencing the Guns’ a flagship project of Agenda 2063, has as its goal ending all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and genocide on the continent. Silencing the Guns’ Operational Manager, Aïssatou Hayatou, stated that the African leaders came together to ensure that they would not leave conflict as a legacy for generations to come.[1]

The theme for 2020, “Silencing the Guns by 2020,” captures the determination by some member states to reach the goal of eradicating conflict on the continent. Moreover, Ms Hayatou expressed the importance of youth participation in the process, as this is for their future. In November 2018, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) launched the Youth for Peace Africa Programme. The program collaborates with the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), youth departments of governments and civil society[2] and is a platform for youth to participate in the peace initiatives of the continent.

Yet today Africa continues to battle with insurgents, jihadists and increasing cases of transnational organised crime. Groups such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS) remain at large and are becoming better organised, developing into cross-border rebel groups. This has been a significant cause of the refugee crisis and sub-regional economic struggles.

Seven years after its launch, the AU has seen some successes in its efforts to maintain peace and security on the continent, however there have been many missed opportunities over the years. In 2014, the PSC met to discuss the way forward for the Silencing the Guns flagship project and the need to develop a roadmap for the achievement of the goals.

The PSC agreed on the adoption of structural changes, such as the operationalisation of the African Union Standby Force (ASF). Participants also agreed on the need to identify the basis of conflict on the continent, conduct further research on the flow of illicit weapons and publicly shame those who were at the centre of these issues.[3] While the conversations of a strategic plan were ongoing, that same year Africa saw the highest number of fatalities caused by political conflict since the 1950s.[4]

In 2016, the PSC presented the African Union Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by the Year 2020 (also known as the Lusaka Roadmap), a strategic plan with “realistic, practical, time-bound implementable steps” for achieving the goal by 2020. It addressed issues such as political hindrances, illicit flows of weapons, poor governance within states and the need for funding.

Successes thus far

Positive steps have been taken towards silencing the guns. In 2016 the ASF was declared fully operational for the first time since its establishment in 2003. Although it is yet to be deployed, its first continental logistical base has been established in Cameroon, which will aid the AU in providing better logistical support to peacekeeping missions. Further, there have been talks on how the ASF can cooperate and communicate better with the Standby Forces of the Regional Economic Communities. The ASF is an important asset to the AU for rapid responses and reduces dependency on the UN. UN peacekeeping missions are only deployed when a peace agreement has been reached ‑ which can take months. The ASF plans to be able to respond within two weeks as a preventative measure.

The Lusaka Roadmap identifies the need to address peace matters through preventative measures, peace-making, peace support and national reconciliation.[5] In the past few years, African states have signed peace agreements with rebel groups including in January 2020 when the transitional government in Sudan signed an agreement with the leader of one of the two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). This agreement granted two of the regions in Sudan special status, including the right to enact their own laws.[6] The Central African Republic (CAR) government signed a peace agreement with 14 rebel groups in February 2019 – a deal which afforded the rebel group leaders’ positions at ministerial level.

The peace agreements are progressive in several aspects. First the willingness of African governments to cooperate and compromise with their opponents is itself a win. Second, the agreements have enabled more collaborative efforts between the AU and its global partners as well as amongst African countries. For instance, the CAR peace agreement came after eight failed attempts in seven years following these collaborative efforts.[7] This time, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) took the lead in the mediation process between the rebel groups, civil society and government, consulting all for a year before the agreement was finally signed. With the support of ECCAS, the peace talks were led by the AU and UN and preparations were supported by the EU, Russia and Sudan.

These peace agreements are just a stepping stone to what needs to be achieved in these countries to create real sustainable peace. In most cases, more problems have arisen within months of the adopted agreements. The CAR is a prime example of this: Despite the government’s willingness to work with the rebel groups, rebels have continued to attack civilians and humanitarian aid workers within the country. Just six months after the agreement was signed, over a million people were internally displaced, hundreds killed and attacks on aid workers had doubled. There is concern that the rebel leaders will go unpunished for their actions.

The harsh reality

According to research carried out by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), the number of conflicts on the continent has been on the rise since 2013. State-based and non-state conflict significantly increased between 2017 and 2018. Non-state conflicts are a cause for greater concern as they are not only escalating, but rebel groups, especially IS, have ventured into this territory. The UN has been leading peacekeeping efforts on the continent but the AU has started taking more of an initiative to find African solutions to these challenges by launching peacekeeping missions in the biggest conflict hotspots on the continent, including Somalia and Sudan.

However, as expressed by the AU and African states, funding continues to hinder these efforts. The AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the AU’s longest-running peacekeeping mission, faces funding uncertainties. This mission has been a big success in many ways. It succeeded in pushing back Al-Shabaab and reclaiming the capital whilst protecting the transitional, and eventually federal, governments. African states collaborated by deploying troops, ultimately making AMISOM the biggest peacekeeping initiative globally in terms of personnel in 2017. However, because of its size and the duration of the mission, it expenses mounted, costing $1billion per year since 2014. The UN and EU provided funding, whilst the USA is providing training workshops for the troops. The result is that, despite Al-Shabaab still being at large and the high probability of resurgence, AMISOM will be pulling out of Somalia in 2021 due to funding uncertainties. Al-Shabaab has been forced out of Mogadishu and other Somalian cities, however the group remains undefeated and militants are joining other jihadists in Tanzania and Mozambique.[8]

Kenya, one of the main contributing states to AMISOM, has been attacked by Al-Shabaab multiple times in attempts to force Kenya to remove their troops from Somalian territory. In the past, President Uhuru Kenyatta has stated that Kenya will not withdraw from Somalia until it is certain of stability. Should Kenya choose to remain, it will not only have to bear the costs but also suffer the damage Al-Shabaab will continue to inflict on Kenya, which is a big risk. Somalia’s Federal Government and National Army are not adequately capacitated to suppress Al-Shabaab on their own. As the gradual removal of troops has begun, those spaces are quickly being filled by Al-Shabaab.[9] If funding was available, keeping AMISOM in Somalia would in the best interest of the entire region.

Financial incapacities

As funding is holding the AU back from meeting its goals, it has outlined plans to become more independent. In January 2016, African leaders agreed to increase their contribution to costs until Africa takes responsibility for 25% of peacekeeping missions by 2021. The balance of costs would be subsidised by international partners. With this in mind, the AU has been working to find ways in which African countries can contribute more to the AU. African contributions are determined according to GDP per country but by 2016 only 40% of the AU budget was paid for by African states. About 65% of that contribution came from just five countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Libya and Algeria).[10]

In July 2016, the AU imposed a compulsory contribution levy of 0.2% on all imports from non-African states. In 2018, however, the Deputy Chairperson of the AU reported that only 45% of African states were complying with the compulsory contributions and only half of the estimated contributions had been received. In 2018 the AU decided to impose stringent sanctions on states that did not pay at least 50% of their estimated contributions within six months, one year or two years. The sanctions vary and include member states losing their ability to participate in AU activities, to take the floor in meetings, or to attend any meeting or have any representation within the institution. It does allow leeway for states that can prove that their inability to contribute is beyond their control. The approach has been successful and in November 2019, the AU Peace Fund Board of Trustees reported that 50 states had contributed $131million since 2017 and it was getting closer to its goal of $400million by 2021.[11] Not only is this the highest number of contributing states since its initiation in 1993, having a fully operative Peace Fund would mean the AU would no longer be completely dependent on foreign funds for its peacekeeping missions.

Areas of growing concern

There have been significant signs of progress in the journey to sustainable peace on the continent, but there are issues that the AU has not been able to address. The third agenda in the Lusaka Roadmap addresses how to deal with the illicit inflow of weapons onto the continent. In line with implementing the practical steps of the plan, the AU has encouraged states to implement regional and international treaties that regulate the flow of weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was established in 2018 with a purpose and objective to, “prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion” in an aim to “promote cooperation, transparency and responsible action amongst states”.[12] Garnering the cooperation of Africa states in this regard has been difficult as only 25 states have ratified this so far and 15 are signatories.

Small arms and lights weapons (SALW) are the main focus of the Lusaka Roadmap as these are the ones that have caused the most fatalities on the continent. Despite the goals of the UN and AU for transparent reporting on the production and flow of legal and illicit SALW, globally very few countries are complying. In a survey conducted by the Small Arms Survey (SAS) in partnership with the AU, only nine of the 21 responding states provided numbers of registered SALW, whilst eight offered estimates of illicit SALW. Lack of participation in this reporting has been global and resulted in organisations like the SAS collecting only estimates of the number of weapons on the continent. In 2017, the SAS suggested that Africa had 40 million SALW held by non-state actors (including private individuals, registered businesses such as private security companies, and non-state armed groups). In contrast, only 11 million were held by government institutions. Even out of the 40 million, only around five million were registered and 16 million were found to be unregistered.[13]

SAS has identified that the main inflow and movement of illicit weapons on the continent stems from the trafficking of illegal weapons across borders. The remainder is from the diversion of national stockpiles ‑ including stockpiles held by peacekeeping forces ‑ through theft, loss or corruption, and the production of craft or artisanal firearms. Cross-border trafficking is a major feature in the illicit arms trade, especially for organised non-state armed groups. Despite the damage these weapons are causing, the governments have not been willing to establish a transparent system. The porous borders are difficult to manage and the involvement of some government officials in these deals is problematic. Even in instances where arms or ammunition produced by certain countries were identified amongst the illicit weapons and ammunitions, governments have rarely taken the initiative to investigate this. The African governments that are involved in the manufacturing of these weapons and ammunition are not willing to sign the ATT. Many investigations have revealed that the products of large corporations (both African and international) end up in the hands of these rebel groups, at times with the help of the corporations themselves.[14]

Beyond these issues, the AU also has to look into resolving social issues that contribute to the conflict on the continent i.e. issues of with gender-based violence (GBV), irregular migration, sexual violence and human and drug trafficking.

Faced with the setbacks brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, many funders of the civil society and youth formations doing work on the ground have been requested to ‘COVID-proof’ their plans. This means a shift in areas of focus for these groups. For instance in Mozambique organisations are being forced to focus more on issues such as GBV rather than the insurgency in the north. Additionally, governments that were already struggling to contribute to the Peace Fund now have to prioritise health care expenses. Imports have been reduced globally, which is sure to affect the 0.2% contributions to be made by states to the Peace Fund. Few states are willing to comply with international norms in practice. Clearly Silencing the Guns will not be achieved by the end of this year, despite the collective interests of the continent.


[1] Zipporah Musau “Silencing the Guns campaign kicks off in 2020” Africa Renewal, 23 December 2019

[2] Muneinazvo Kujeke “Africa’s youth gain recognition as peacemakers” ISS 1 November 2018,in%20promoting%20peace%20and%20security.

[3] African Union Peace and Security Council  “Press Statement on 430th meeting of Peace and Security Council (PSC)” Press Release last updated 27 April 2014

[4] Jakkie Cilliers, “Conflict trends in Africa: a turn for the better in 2015?” Institute for Security Studies, 4 November 2015

[5] African Union, Master Roadmap on Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by the Year 2020, 2016.

[6] Aljazeera and News Agencies “Sudan’s government signs initial peace deal with rebel group” Aljazeera, 25 January 2020

[7] Elizabeth Murray and Rachel Sullivan “Central African Republic Struggles to Implement Peace Deal” United States Institute of Peace, 17 October 2019

[8] Paul D. Williams “Lessons Learned in Somalia: AMISOM and Contemporary Peace Enforcement” Council on Foreign Relations, 19 July 2018.

[9] Dr. Mesfin Gebremichael, ed., “Peace and Security Report: Somalia Conflicts Insight” Institute For Peace and Security Studies

[10] Lesley Connolly “African Funds for African Peace”, Accord: African Trends, 2016

[11] Bureau of the Chairperson “Operationalization of AU Peace Fund on track ahead of 2020”, Press Release 6 November 2019

[12] Article 1 of the Arms Trade Treaty.

[13] African Union and Small Arms Survey “Weapons Compass – Mapping Illicit Small Arms Flows in Africa” 2019.

[14] Nelson Alusala “Policy Brief: Africa and arms control Challenges and successes” enact Issue 3, April 2018.

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