Last week, the UN Security Council held an open debate on the African Union’s (AU) “Silencing the Guns in Africa” campaign, an initiative born out of the AU’s 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration in which heads of state and government took the ambitious pledge ‘not to bequeath the burden of conflicts to the next generation of Africans and undertake to end all wars in Africa by 2020’. Lasting almost 8 hours, the discussion offered a range of both hopeful and ominous observations by Member States, think thanks, and international organisations, painting a cloudy portrait of what the future holds for the African continent.
Following an historic peace accord between longtime enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there is a ‘wind of hope blowing in the Horn of Africa’, and that the detente has a ‘very important meaning in a world where we see, unfortunately, so many conflicts multiplying, and lasting forever’.
Striking a similar tone, some states cited recent peace agreements in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan as important achievements in diplomacy and peacebuilding that may be used as models for ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Mali. These successes follow a string of encouraging developments over the past three decades including peaceful outcomes in South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone.
Yet these developments are few and far between. After a period of relatively successful conflict resolution, growth and prosperity, many are of the view that the continent is now slipping in the opposite direction. Reflective of our times, several statements during the meeting illustrated a dark outlook for a continent rife with new and old conflict, trapped in a perpetual state of violence, instability, and limited growth, fueled by arms flows.
Vasu Gounden, Founder and Executive Director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), offered a poignant and thorough examination of the current state of affairs in Africa, citing deep structural challenges where skills development and employment creation have not been successful due to the lack of a ‘fundamental transformation in the structure of Africa’s economies for decades’. While most African countries remain agricultural economies with little to no shift towards an industrial or services economy, he explained, the population is growing exponentially, rapidly urbanising into ‘unplanned cities that offer no prospect of proper housing, health care, education, sanitation, water, etc.’ The result? A tinderbox ripe for ignition as the unrestrained flow of weapons completes the equation.
The Council’s 15 members unanimously adopted a resolution that outlines steps towards ending conflict in Africa and welcoming the AU’s “Silencing the Guns” initiative. The majority of governments acknowledged the persistent obstacles of poor governance, arms trafficking, corruption, or unemployment towards a peaceful and prosperous African continent. And like most UN meetings, they also offered a path forward, indicating the need for more resources, international assistance, cooperation, and accession to & compliance with arms control instruments such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Yet, as Mr. Gounden inquired, what will Member States do beyond passing this resolution? As Africa approaches this turning point, how will governments stem the flow of illicit weapons and confront the structural and systemic challenges that have stagnated much of the continent and present greater issues down the road?
For one, states must summon the political will necessary to meaningfully engage with regional and international instruments designed to confront these types of issues. Perhaps the most pressing and consequential would be to adhere to and effectively implement the ATT, as it provides a clear framework which member states can use to strengthen national and regional arms control initiatives and ultimately, reduce the proliferation of arms and ammunition on throughout the continent. As of now, 25 of the 54 African countries have joined the Treaty, and each is at different baselines in their implementation of the Treaty’s provisions. The more states join and introduce effective import and export controls, the easier it will be to harmonize arms control and diversion prevention measures across the continent. This will allow governments to exert greater authority over the destination and use of these weapons, helping to prevent lighting the unstable ‘tinderbox’ environment outlined above.
History has taught us that cooperation and healthy competition between states leads to growth, prosperity, peace and security. This insight is wielded through the strategic framework of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which seeks to build on and ‘accelerate the implementation of past and existing continental initiatives for growth and sustainable development’, including the Lagos Plan of Action, the Abuja Treaty, the New partnership for Africa’s Development, and the “Silencing the Guns” campaign. Only through good-faith commitment to these ambitious but necessary mechanisms will African states be able to begin dismantling the systemic and structural barriers that impede the continent from reaching its full potential.