Silencing the Guns: Promoting Sustained Peace in Africa
The 36th ordinary session of the African Union (AU) opened in early February not only as the beginning of South Africa’s chairship year, but also representing the deadline of the institutions’s landmark Silencing the Guns initiative, undertaken in 2013 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of what was then known as the Organization of African Unity. The ambition to bring about an end to war, civil conflict, gender-based violence, and genocide in Africa over the course of seven years was a lofty goal by any metric, and as many parts of the continent remain mired in conflict it is clear that there is still much work to be done. In a nod to the 2013 goal, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa opened this year’s summit under the theme Silencing the Guns, renewing the AU pledge to work towards an end to armed conflict while announcing efforts to integrate traditional security concerns with development priorities. Ramaphosa’s goals are laudable, and his efforts to address economic integration, reduced corruption, and women’s empowerment as a benchmark of sustainable peace are important considerations for preventing future conflicts. However, if the AU hopes to make measurable progress towards bringing an end to current hostilities on the continent, they must undertake targeted security and governance initiatives, building on past successes in peace agreements to ensure a peaceful future in some of Africa’s most conflict-riven countries.
Under the chairship of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the AU made a number of important movements towards enhancing the security situations in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), representing two of the continent’s longest-running conflicts. While both countries have AU-mediated peace deals in place, further intervention is needed to solidify integration efforts and prevent backsliding into conflict.
CAR has experienced armed conflict since its independence, the current spate of violence, however spiked in 2013 as groups of fighters—divided along religious lines—launched wholesale attacks on villages throughout the country and attempted to gain control of the government. In spite of President Touadera’s attempts at disarmament, hostilities have persisted, killing thousands and displacing more than half a million. In 2019, the AU successfully facilitated the signing of a peace agreement between President Touadera and CAR rebel forces which called for demobilization of armed groups and transitional measures to integrate security forces and government figures.
One of the stickiest issues encumbering previous peace efforts were provisions for a power-sharing arrangement in CAR ensuring that both government and rebel interests are adequately represented in the decision-making process around the country’s future. While the AU-negotiated deal provides arrangements for power-sharing on paper, in practice these efforts have not proceeded smoothly. Rebels rejected outright President Touadera’s initial deal allocating just 8 national posts to their leaders. While rebel representation has since been increased to 13 posts, bad blood persists.
The AU built into the peace agreement monitoring mechanisms for both civilian and military issues, but thus far they have done little to push signatories on their commitments to transitional government. This inaction likely stems from the soft language of the agreement itself. The government pledged to promote “equity and representation” in transitional governance arrangements, but there is no language outlining quantifiable goals, such as the number of government posts allocated to rebel leaders. Now that the AU has secured an initial peace deal, it should engage with the CAR parties to set clear benchmarks, negotiating expectations for conduct in the lead up to national elections and holding leaders accountable should they fail to meet them.
South Sudan’s civil war has raged since 2013, the result of political infighting between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader and former Vice President Riek Machar. Subsequent violence has killed 380,000 people and displaced four million, according to CFR estimates. Over the past seven years Kiir and Machar have signed 12 peace deals, yet none have successfully led to a sustained cessation of hostilities. The Rome Declaration, the latest attempt at peace in South Sudan was signed by both sides in January 2020, igniting hope that the AU-facilitated deal might succeed where others have failed.
Importantly, the Rome Declaration differs from previous agreements in the two key concessions it extracted from the warring politicians: Kiir agreed to unwind the gerrymandered state borders that unfairly advantaged certain ethnic groups in state politics; Machar conceded that his private security forces would stay out of Juba. While they seem to be minor developments in a convoluted political situation, these concessions signal a willingness from both sides to move forward with the unity government. It will fall to the AU, however, to assuage tensions that threaten to unwind a peace deal for the thirteenth time.
Ramaphosa has already announced plans to host AU meetings on South Sudan this year, but while the political backing of the continent-wide body was necessary to bring the agreement to fruition, smaller-scale efforts are more likely to build sustained momentum. The AU should take advantage of reform-minded leaders in the East African region to put pressure on Kiir and Machar to adhere to the commitments they made under the Rome Declaration. Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan are invested in South Sudanese stability not only in the interest of neighborhood security, but also as a selling point for their own political futures (Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy is up for reelection this year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2021). These factors, combined with pressure from Ramaphosa could certainly galvanize regional momentum to help keep Kiir and and Machar on track towards peace.
From terrorist attacks in Mali, armed separatist movements in Cameroon, and violence against women behind countless doors, Africa has a long way to go towards realizing the goal of Silencing the Guns. But in CAR and South Sudan, two of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, efforts at peace are halfway done. Ramaphosa should mobilize his year as AU Chairperson to build on existing agreements, generating diplomatic buy-in from leaders in CAR and South Sudan as well as calling on neighboring states to lay the foundation for a new and more peaceful decade of African governance.