In July the African Union declared the month of September the Africa Amnesty Month to “silence the guns” by 2020.
Dedicating the month is meant to promote country-led initiatives for voluntary surrender of illicit weapons in civilian possession on the conditions of anonymity and immunity from prosecution.
We are just a year from the 2020 deadline. How has the amnesty month managed in mopping up the Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) that cause all the havoc?
Let’s start with the good news that keeps on being mentioned. The "Silencing the Guns" campaign has been credited as among factors that have led to the peace agreements in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, elections in Madagascar and Congo, and the renewal of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.
This progress in managing and resolving the conflicts is laudable. It is the bad news that makes one pause when the distance is considered before the problem of SALW is solved.
African Union estimates that it says are on the lower side, show that African civilian actors, who include private individuals, registered businesses such as private security companies, and non-state armed groups, hold more than 40 million—or almost 80 per cent—of all small arms on the continent.
In contrast, the continent’s armed forces and law enforcement agencies hold less than 11 million small arms.
Among the 40 million civilian-held firearms, 5.84 million are recorded as being officially registered, while more than 16 million are unregistered.
The status of the remaining 18.2 million SALW remains unclear. This is nearly half of all civilian-held weapons in Africa that could be in wrong hands.
Eastern Africa has a total of 7.8 million SALW in civilian hands. If we take the suggested Africa-wide status of nearly half of the weapons being unclear, there could be at least 3.5 million in the wrong hands in the region.
Aside from the September Amnesty Month, these numbers are despite SALW Amenities to combat illicit trade and proliferation of firearms being well established in the regional and global instruments.
One such instrument is the Nairobi Protocol that enjoins 15 countries under the Regional Centre for Small Arms (RECSA). The Protocol aims at the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa.
While all the 15 states have signed the Nairobi Protocol, only nine — Rwanda, DR Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda and Burundi — have ratified it.
Four of RECSA member countries that are yet to ratify – DR Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic – are not only among the 20 most fragile states according to the 2019 Fragile States Index, but have often been sources of SALW that porous borders have abetted illicit arms flows.
Other well known factors that abet the proliferation of small arms, as recounted by Ramtane Lamamra, the African Union's high representative for the "Silencing the Guns" campaign, include corruption, illegal financial flows and the illegal exploitation of natural resources, poor governance and bad leadership are also a major source of instability and conflict in Africa.
With such factors, and the deeper the problem they are, there arise realities such as border zones with large numbers of illegal arms that force some border communities to rely on firearms for the protection of livestock and livelihoods.
For this reason, the delay is acknowledged if success is to be registered in mopping up illicit arms. This means that even where there are efforts to disarm, including other targeted groups such as urban recreational shooters and hunters including vigilante and other self-defence groups, such disarming programs have to be carefully tailored to respond to the particular realities.
As a final word, the AU Agenda 2063 stresses that “in order to achieve sustainable conflict prevention and resolution, a culture of peace and tolerance must be cultivated and nurtured in our children and youth, among others, through peace education”.
On this, four key targets are articulated in Aspiration 4 of the Agenda. The first one urges that by 2020 all guns will be silent. The second states that it is imperative to end all wars, violent conflicts, the prevention of gender-based violence and of genocide.
The other two aspirations are hopeful that Africa will be a Peaceful and Secure Continent, with harmony among communities starting at grassroots level; and that the management of our diversity will be a source of wealth, harmony and social and economic transformation rather than a source of conflict.
Therefore, silencing the guns is imperative if the other aspirations are to be realised. The 2020 deadline seems a bit short.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.