African Union member states have voiced their determination to silence the guns that are halting development in Africa. But the timeframe set for the task seems unrealistic, says analyst Anaclet Rwegayura.
"[We express] deep concern over the persistence of violent conflicts and crisis situations in some parts of the African continent," African Union (AU) heads of state announced at the end of January, as they endorsed an "AU Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by the year 2020."
The statement speaks of the loss of innocent lives, the untold suffering of displaced persons and refugees, the destruction of infrastructure and the environment and the derailment of national development programs.
The leaders agreed that the situation had become untenable. But resolutions about peace and security have come and gone in the AU. Often, leaders and their parties simply pay lip service to these issues and fail to follow them up with action. It's understandable, therefore, that many Africans have doubts about their leaders' commitment and ability to silence the guns within three years.
Imagine what Africa would look like without the existence of guns and other weapons: it would mean the end of rebellions, resistance movements and any other names that armed groups use to legitimise their use of guns. Instead of taking up arms, people would fight against poverty, lack of education and disease and we could actually end the current state of underdevelopment that still persists in many parts of the continent.
The history of weapons in Africa
Looking back at Africa's history, however, today's leaders were not the first to attempt a continent wide policy of gun control. At the Brussels Conference of 1890, the ruling colonial powers, for instance, agreed that guns and other weapons should not fall into the hands of Africans.
As colonizers, the parties to the conference naturally had their own interests at heart and not those of the peoples of the African continent. The move was meant to control the slave trade and discourage rebellions. In this regard, it was partly successful, as Africans resisting colonization often had to fight for the continent's freedom with spears and antiquated muskets.
Today, several decades after most African countries gained their independence, the sounds of gunfire still fill the sky across a large parts of the continent. Imported AK-47s are often seen as the weapon of choice by the continent's armed groups. Thousands of Africans are today involved in conflicts in which they have been forced to fight their own kin and which have made the nationhood status of a number of countries meaningless.
Today, illegal firearms are found in every African country, no matter whether it is peaceful or embroiled in conflict. Poor governance, coupled with corruption and greed for wealth, are to blame for the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.
Investing in the young
The endorsement of the roadmap and theme of the AU summit are, however, a step in the right direction. The summit was held under the theme: "Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in the youth," and that in itself is a good idea.
Africa can successfully invest in its youth if authorities actually listen to their voices. Even though some 75 percent of Africans are under the age of 35, young Africans are too often pushed to the margins of society and not involved in decision making.
The modern scramble for natural and mineral resources in Africa is often a power play between the ruling elite, foreign powers and multinational corporations. But it is the continent's youth who are instrumentalized and often they are the ones whose futures are destroyed.
What we need today are policies that increase investments in young people and can help millions leave unemployment, hunger, poverty and guns behind.
But more importantly, governments must revisit their procedures of arms disposal and the licensing of private security groups. For instance, why should phased-out guns from the armed forces be sold to private citizens instead of being destroyed? How many firearms does an individual need for self-protection?
These are questions which are crying out for answers. Answers which are vital if the continent is to make meaningful progress towards silencing the guns by 2020.
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