How can AU “Silencing the Guns” agenda respond to state failure to curb violence?

Wednesday March 18 2020

As the African Union 33rd ordinary session of the assembly gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on February 9-10 and elected Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South Africa, as chair of the AU, he took the reigns of the continental body at a moment the organisation has promised grand schemes as part of its agenda of service to the continent’s citizens. Will Mr Ramaphosa’s South African continental economic and military high profile inject new and practical fervour into the ability of the AU to translate its policies into meaningful action plans that touch African citizens’ lives?

As the session wound down, the African Union had made general statements about its efforts to implement its various programs, especially in fulfilment of its Agenda 2063, and had formed committees to champion specific agenda items, including support for the peace processes in conflict-affected countries like South Sudan, to undertake AU reforms, to actualise the various treaties on peace and security, food production and environment, political freedoms and human rights, energy production as vital for growth of manufacturing, infrastructure, Visa Free Africa and many more. Promising as this agenda and noble as its aspirations are, this does not assuage African citizens’ scepticism around the ability of the AU to deliver on its promises and has left observers wondering whether the citizens’ expectations have been raised to levels that might lead to more disappointments than to fulfilment of these promises.

As grand schemes take shape at the continental level, at the level of heads of state and government and in the hands of high-level committees, many Africans around the continent are looking to the organisation for what it will do to address their unique challenges that face them in their various and local corners. After all, continental politics, development programs, social reforms, peace and security initiatives that are espoused at that high level, can only be meaningful if there was a clear spelling out of how African citizens can experience them in their everyday lives at the local level. Activists and civil society organisations in East, Horn and Central Africa have particularly fixed their eyes on the adopted 2020 theme of the year, “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development,” which is an integral piece of its Agenda 2063, and have inquired about what it really means in terms of actual programs, beyond speeches at the summit.


The question the activists are asking is how this agenda will be operationalised to support the daunting efforts being made to reduce gun violence in specific countries and in regional blocs such as Inter-Governmental Organization on Development (IGAD) or the East Africa Community (EAC). A special convening held at the summit under the theme “Silencing the Guns to ensure Safe Schools and Learning Outcomes for Girls and Women for Africa’s development” was particularly of interest to many. It sounded relatable, something people can take away from the summit to inform their programming back home. It provided the opportunity to member states, development partners and civil society organisations to underline the need to secure schools and ensure access and retention in education systems for girls and young women, including and especially in conflict and fragility contexts.

Yet, the question remained about how such lofty programmes can be translated into real tangible actions that can be felt by citizens in each country where such actions and programs are most needed. What will a “silencing the guns” program look like in South Sudan or Northern Uganda or in South Sudan-Ethiopia-Kenya borderlands, where gun violence is acute, endemic and has thwarted efforts to extend education, healthcare, animal health and food production to these areas, for example? Such were the questions that many activists wanted to bring to the attention of the AU leaders and their development partners. Some had audience with the leaders, many did not.


Civil society activists who did not have a chance to be in Addis Ababa would have wished to be informed about how they can take up these agenda items and programmes in their own countries in order to hold their national governments to the promises they made collectively with their counterparts at the summit. In other words, it is entirely likely that government delegations simply signed on to AU agendas but neither know how to translate what they signed in Addis Ababa into a national program of action back in their countries nor have a sense of commitment at all.

Unless citizens can empower themselves through civic coalitions to demand that national governments locally implement what they have promised at the continental level, how do AU policies genuinely become part of each member state’s national programs? For example, are there any local efforts to translate and append AU agreements, programs and policies into legislation and gazette them to oblige governments to enact them into development plans, national budgets and select point persons who take charge of these plans to see them through? Can national governments even be trusted to return home with a conviction to enact AU recommendations? Who ensures that they do? What mechanisms are there to hold these governments to what they have signed onto? Or are governments just agreeing in order to be seen by their peers as continental good citizens?


Take, for example, this “Silencing the guns,” 2020 AU agenda. For people who have lived with guns for prolonged periods, especially in East Africa, it has almost become a cliché. This is because gun violence in this region is a legacy of many protracted conflicts, some dating back to anti-colonial insurgencies, some which have left behind cultures that glorify weapons and others having pervaded all levels of social and political mobilisation in the competition for public office. Very few people in this region can say it with any measure of confidence that it has real utility. The massive amount of gun violence that continues to occur in this part of Africa despite the efforts to control it and the many previous and on-going unsuccessful attempts by national governments and regional organisations to stem the tide of gun violence have fallen short of their promise. “Who is going to silence the guns, the AU or our own politico-military leaders whose only power over us is their use of guns…How does the AU know its resolutions have been locally adopted?” asked one South Sudanese peace activist I recently interviewed by phone from Juba.

Anyone who takes time to listen to stories of how people have lived with guns since the end of the colonial era, can easily detect a growing sense of disillusionment in the struggles to reduce gun violence, most especially in the case of the countries that have experienced prolonged civil wars such as South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Somalia, Central African Republic, and DR Congo. Ethiopia and Kenya also experience this, for they too, while officially not at war, suffer gun violence from outside their borders, and their citizens have also had to live with gun violence, whether by means of extremists’ explosive devices in major towns or the widespread distribution of firearms into their peripheries through their porous international borders.

On the whole, the most prominent stories that come up in these countries are about how guns have ruined lives, even as so many people continue to illicitly acquire them. The more people hate guns and the more they blame governments for failure to control their illegal acquisition and spread, the more they seem to want to acquire them for assumed self-defence. Years ago, while doing interviews in Lokichogio, Kenya, one gun-toting young Turkana herder of massive number of goats told me “It is like the dog trying to bite its own shadow…We do not like this guns, but if I did not possess one, I would be forced to fold my arms and watch another armed man drive my herds away at gun point…But as we all buy guns to protect ourselves and our livestock, our livelihoods, we all create a society where everyone is armed, which also means that no one can be safe in such a society.” How does the AU tackle this question in coordination with a national government of a member state?

The author is a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and senior analyst at The Sudd Institute.