Silencing Guns during the Global Health Pandemic

This piece comes at a critical time when the world is battling to contain the further spread of the novel Corona Virus (COVID-19), which threatens to collapse health systems the world over. Over a million infections and 70 000 plus deaths have been recorded to date, with conservative projections showing that figures could go higher before flattening out. Globally, the majority of countries have implemented national lockdowns, shut borders and temporary suspended international travel. According to publicly available data from World Health Organization (WHO) and Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC), Africa has of now recorded the least cases in comparison to other regions of the world. However, this is not a reason to be complacent. Africa must remain vigilant and attentive more-so given our weak public health infrastructure, and high levels of poverty that render some of WHO’s guidelines on the prevention of COVID-19 hard to enforce and implement. Africa faces yet another challenge, that of war and violence which could imperil efforts to contain spread of the virus. In this piece, I look at what silencing the guns means in the midst of a global health crisis.

2020 marks the decade in which African leaders agreed on steps to silence all gun activity on the continent. The decision was arrived at during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in May 2013. At the meeting African leaders undertook a commitment not to bequeath the burden of wars to future generations by pledging to eliminate all wars on the continent and silence the guns by 2020. Four years later in January 2017, Heads of States and Government attending the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa endorsed a Master Roadmap of Practical Steps for silencing the guns. The Master Plan is premised on the principle that Africa should assertively assume total and complete responsibility for its peace and security processes by implementing effective conflict prevention and resolution strategies. It also commits to post conflict reconstruction processes that build peace and create conducive conditions for sustainable development.

However, the persistence of conflict, war and violence in some parts of the continent calls into question the degree of commitment by African leaders to bequeath to future generations a peaceful, stable and prosperous continent. For example, in spite of global efforts directed at containing the spread of COVID-19, armed conflict and violence continues unabated in Cameron, the Sahel region, Lake Chad Basin and Mali. In Mozambique, rebel and insurgents groups have captured strategic territories and continue to make advances in other areas. Elsewhere, communities recovering from destruction wrought by the war find themselves in very precarious situations with no basic public services like clinics and water supplies – all destroyed by years of violence and war. Such communities are obviously at a higher risk should the number of cases on the continent increase. Additionally, people living in conflict prone areas have to contend with the threat of both COVID-19 and war. The most vulnerable of these are women and children but also people living with disabilities.

What have we learned?

Like any global pandemic in history, COVID-19 is not here to stay. In the coming months and weeks, its spread will begin to slow down and eventually will be contained. There are however a few lessons to be learned from this experience. First is that investing in public health systems is as important as investing in peace and security efforts. Going forward, there is need to vigorously implement the Abuja Declaration of 2001 which mandates member states of the African Union to implement at least 15 percent of their national budgets to improve the health sector. To date, a number of countries have not implemented this provision. Second, in recognition of COVID-19 threat in conflict prone areas, the African Union Commission (AUC) and its partners must endeavour to deal not only with the causes of conflict but with underlying drivers of conflict and the latent harbingers of violence that find expression through inequality and feelings of marginalization. This could imply prioritizing investing in public health infrastructure even in conflict prone areas to cater for situations when such pandemics strike again in future.

In conclusion, while the 2020 ‘deadline’ seem rather ambitious, it has galvanised the necessary political action at the highest level to deal with the threat of violence, conflict and war, which continues to inhibit development on the African continent. However, silencing the guns alone is inadequate to deal with composite challenges confronting the continent. A commitment to silencing the guns must be accompanied by structural reforms that address why some people choose to take up arms in the first instance. This calls for holistic and multidimensional approaches that address political, economic, social and environmental challenges that foment war and conflict.


About the Author:

Darlington Tshuma is a PhD candidate in the Peacebuilding Program at the Durban University of Technology; South Africa. He is a Canon Collins Scholar specialising in peace, conflict and security studies.