President Cyril Ramaphosa and Africa Union chairman and Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Picture: Siya Duda/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Africa Union chairman and Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Picture: Siya Duda/GCIS

Seven years ago, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, then AU Commission chair, sat down to pen an e-mail from the future. "Few believed that our pledge in the [AU’s] 50th anniversary declaration to silence the guns by 2020 was possible," she wrote.

And, indeed, it wasn’t. It’s 2020, and the guns in Africa are far from silent.

But while Dlamini Zuma could have been accused at the time of being overoptimistic — even naive — in pre-emptively claiming peace for the continent, she now claims the deadline was never meant literally.

The whole point, she told the SABC this week, was to have "programmes and projects" aimed at bringing peace to Africa. "What is important is that we brought the focus to the guns — that the guns must be silenced," she said.

Peace was supposed to be one of the milestones in Agenda 2063, the AU’s 50-year development plan, but right now it seems further off than before.

The long-running conflicts in Libya and South Sudan were major topics at this year’s AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which ended on Monday. The spreading "cancer" of terrorism was of great concern too.

AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, in his address on Sunday, reminded heads of state and government that terrorism is not new to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, where it kills dozens of soldiers and civilians almost every week. Also, he said, it’s spreading.

"The monster is still there, in active awakening, threatening to collapse certain states," said Mahamat. "It has taken root in the depths of the continent, far beyond its traditional homes, as evidenced by the heinous crimes committed by terrorist groups on the civilian populations in Mozambique, Tanzania and the eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], where the main victims of barbarism are women and children."

AU commissioner for peace & security Smaïl Chergui says terrorists in the Sahel have employed "new equipment and new techniques in the way they are directly attacking security forces and also civilians".

Combating terrorism in this region "should be a matter of great importance for this continent", he said, and the G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania — "should not be left alone" to do so.

The AU’s recent peacekeeping successes are characterised by incremental rather than dramatic progress, but they’re not insignificant. Mahamat listed the formation of a government of national unity in South Sudan (in partnership with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) as one of the AU’s successes.

There is also the work of the AU Mission in Somalia, which is helping combat terrorism and supporting the government’s stabilisation and reconstruction efforts. And there’s a joint operation with the UN in the Central African Republic.

Sudan is perhaps the AU’s most dramatic success of the past year. There, mediation led to the establishment of transitional institutions, and the AU has called on the US to remove the country from its list of states sponsoring terrorism, to enable funds to flow back into the country for development.

However, observers have cautioned that a lack of follow-through by the AU could reverse the gains made by the regional body.

There are challenges, too. Mahamat strongly criticised the UN in recent weeks for marginalising the continent when it comes to Libya. Africa has rejected the military solution pushed by countries such as Turkey and Russia, preferring "a genuinely inclusive political process instead", he said.

The AU’s high-level committee on Libya is set to get more involved, "in accordance with the principle of the solution [to] African problems by Africans, far from interference from outside with perilous agendas for Africa".

The snag has been that Egypt, which chaired the AU in 2019, has been seen to be taking sides in the conflict, complicating AU intervention.

An influx of weapons from countries such as France has also been recognised as a driver of the conflict.

UN secretary-general António Guterres, however, has pledged his support, adding that the solution isn’t only military.

He told AU heads of state that, "ultimately, silencing the guns is not just about peace and security but also about inclusive, sustainable development and human rights".

This is set to be enabled by Agenda 2063, which feeds into the UN’s sustainable development goals. These aim to eradicate poverty by 2030.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who this week assumed the position of AU chair for a year themed "Silencing the Guns", has been advocating for greater trade to drive development.

This year will also be when the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement takes effect, and this represents a far more concrete and achievable gain for Ramaphosa than bringing peace to the continent in a year.

SA has decided to link the two. Mxolisi Nkosi, deputy director-general for global governance in the department of international relations & co-operation, says it is significant for Ramaphosa that "part of his legacy would be that he ... presided over the AU summit that declared the implementation of the AfCFTA".

SA is set to host back-to-back extraordinary summits in May — ahead of the trade agreement coming into effect in July — on the AfCFTA and silencing the guns.

In the matter of traditional peacekeeping, SA has a positive track record, having intervened in crises such as Burundi, the DRC and South Sudan. And as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council this year, it is well placed to help push Africa’s peace agenda.

But the focus on economics will be strong. In his address to the AU summit on Sunday, Ramaphosa spoke of the AfCFTA at length before touching on silencing the guns.

"Today we stand at the cusp of the greatest step towards continental unity since the founding of the Organisation of African Unity," he said.

The AfCFTA, he continued, will enable Africans "to work together through intra-Africa trade" and boost industrialisation and African businesses, which should be "able to operate in a large- scale market unfettered by regulatory fragmentation".

"It is to us that the task has fallen to build an Africa that is prosperous and at peace with itself."

There are compelling grounds to believe that deeper, mutually beneficial economic ties make the price of war so much higher
Ebrahim Patel

Ramaphosa has charged trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel with concluding outstanding matters on the AfCFTA — tariff lines, rules of origin, dispute resolution, trade and services, and generation issues, according to Nkosi.

Patel says African trade integration, which will result in the biggest common market in the world, will draw countries together more closely.

"Cross-border supply chains link the fortunes of nations very strongly. If we are to achieve enduring peace, the Africa integration project must be implemented effectively," he says.

"There are compelling grounds to believe that deeper, mutually beneficial economic ties make the price of war so much higher, and it builds domestic constituencies in favour of peace."

But the nature of conflict has changed in the past decade.

Elissa Jobson, International Crisis Group’s advocacy director for Africa, says increased trade will be accompanied by economic development — but this needs to be done correctly to avoid an adverse effect on stability. The free trade area will take a while to establish, and dividends won’t be seen immediately.

Protests in Sudan and Ethiopia, for example, were about the lack of economic opportunities and the search for political freedoms. Jobson says jihadist movements often gain a foothold where the state is absent.

"You can have as much intra-Africa trade as you like, but if you don’t have governments providing jobs and services, this type of conflict won’t be reduced."

She also says economic inequalities should be addressed so that educated young people have opportunities.

"If we do see increases in intra-African trade, the gains shouldn’t just be concentrated in the capitals, but should also be pushed out to the periphery."

At this year’s summit, there was a move away from the guns-and-soldiers approach to peacekeeping. Unlike previous years, for example, there was no talk of the Africa standby force (ASF) in the plenary hall.

The African capacity for immediate response to crises (ACIRC) — set up in 2013 and pushed by former president Jacob Zuma as an interim measure, preceding the ASF — was an agenda item on this year’s programme. But it didn’t warrant any corridor talk; even the UN has abandoned support for the programme.

Mohamed Diatta, from the Addis Ababa office of the Institute for Security Studies, says the ACIRC has only eaten money. "Where has it ever been deployed?" he asks. "Never. So what is the purpose of ACIRC, honestly?"

Intervention by such a force — consisting of troops from 14 countries — would be difficult in any case, as countries are "very jealous of their sovereignty", says Diatta. Conflicts are better dealt with at regional level.

While economic development could help support peace, Diatta says peace is also an important facilitator of economic development.

And, he cautions, if economic development is to support stability, it must be inclusive. "Studies have shown that, in essence, trade creates a lot more inequality."

The writer’s trip to the AU summit in Addis Ababa was sponsored by the department of international relations & co-operation