What role do amnesty programmes play in resolving conflicts across the continent, and ultimately helping to Silence the Guns?
In my opinion, among other things, actively controlling and managing the circulation of illegally obtained firearms and ammunition is the best approach to silence guns. The plague of illegal weapons and arms [and] their illicit spread and use in many regions of Africa, causes enormous pain, population displacement, disruption of livelihoods, infrastructure destruction, interruption of economic activity, etc.
Illegaly acquired arms are fuelling conflicts on the continent. We stand to gain enormously if we manage to mop up these arms.
Africa Amnesty Month (AAM) is part of continental efforts to realise the goal of creating a conflict-free, integrated and prosperous Africa, as envisioned in Agenda 2063, by encouraging the citizenry to voluntarily surrender their illicit weapons and ammunition without prosecution. The programme is an opportunity to increase the number of registered weapons in order to protect people from gun violence. Illegally acquired arms are fuelling conflicts on the continent. We stand to gain enormously if we manage to mop up these arms, which are circulating freely due to porous borders and a growing linkage between organised criminal groups and conflicts.
What successes and the ongoing challenges have we seen since Africa Amnesty Month was first observed in 2017?
In December 2019, South Africa launched a six-month amnesty on small arms and light weapons and collected more than 46 000 weapons.
At the continental level, some successes have been achieved. For example, in 2017, the programme was held in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Sudan, and Zambia, raising significant awareness about Amnesty Month. In December 2019, South Africa launched a six-month amnesty on small arms and light weapons and collected more than 46 000 weapons within the period. In 2020, the African Amnesty Month initiative was implemented in seven countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Kenya. A total of 1 602 weapons were destroyed in March and April 2022, when three African countries officially marked the end of their ‘Africa Amnesty Month’ project with a public destruction event. In all these instances, weapons were collected and destroyed in those countries. People came willingly to surrender their guns without fear of prosecution, thereby creating safer environments for the citizens of those countries to thrive. This is truly an Amnesty Month inspiration.
In addition to the commemorations, numerous countries have improved their gun control laws as a result of the AAM. This has resulted in better licensing, registration, tracking, and monitoring systems for gun ownership. Many other nations – including those that recently experienced conflict, those that are presently experiencing conflict, and even those that currently enjoy a state of relative calm – are making an effort to adopt these initiatives.
These weapons mostly come from outside the continent, and sometimes they are recycled from one conflict area to another.
On the challenges, the implementation phase of some of these legislations has lagged. In addition, there has been reluctance on the part of those carrying the weapons to come forward, hence the need for widespread publicity on the merits of the initiative, such as the no blaming, no prosecution, no charges, and no penalties components. The most daunting challenge, however, is the fact that these weapons mostly come from outside the continent, and sometimes they are recycled from one conflict area to another.
How has the response among member states and other counterparts changed?
As part of events to mark the 2022 edition, there was a torching ceremony to destroy all collected small arms and weapons.
As mentioned, many more African countries have embraced the AAM concept since its launch in 2017. Many more are joining the movement, as evidenced by the commemoration of this year's edition of the AAM, which was held – historically, for the first time – outside the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa. This year it was commemorated in Lomé, Togo, on 5 September 2022. As part of events to mark the 2022 edition, there was a torching ceremony to destroy all collected small arms and weapons that had been voluntarily surrendered by individuals.
It is envisaged that the AAM will be held in a different country next year, following the decision taken during the PSC’s 1 029th meeting, held on 8 September 2021, to commemorate the AAM on the ground, in a selected member state, to ensure that the objectives of this initiative are popularised and to encourage broad participation.
How has the threat posed by illicit arms evolved since the first Africa Amnesty Month?
Since the first AAM in 2017, we’ve seen the emergence of new conflict dynamics. This includes violent extremism, which continues to spread across the continent; weak governance-induced instability; external interferences; and growing superpower competition with its attendant negative impacts on global security – particularly for Africa. These factors unfortunately continue to contribute to the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in Africa.
In addition, the majority of African states have struggled to establish effective regulatory systems to control small arms trading activities and ensure their legitimate possession and use. Mismanagement and corruption in procurement and stockpile security, as well as cross-border trafficking and political rivalries, also contribute to the diversion and leakage of official arms into the hands of unauthorised users, including organised crime and terrorist groups.
It is hoped that the creation of national institutions, such as national commissions and focal points, to coordinate the fight against the illicit trade and trafficking in small arms and light will go a long way in a quest to silence the guns, especially if they work in synergy with the AAM initiative.
Amnesty Month allows people to surrender illegal small arms and light weapons without fear of arrest, penalties or prosecution. What other incentives are there?
The assurances of peace and security, justice, employment for idle youth, tools and capital for self-employment and community-specific needs in exchange for people's illicit arms are incentives to consider.
How much traction has there been among member states in the run-up to this year’s Amnesty Month?
To date, the PSC has held five meetings in the commemoration of AAM since 2017. The continued commemoration of AAM by member states, regional economic communities and regional mechanisms and partners builds trust among state security institutions as weapons custodians and citizens. It also enables the development of programmes and policy frameworks that facilitate the surrender of weapons to the relevant government authorities in the month of September without fear of prosecution.
Since 2018, the AU Commission has kept up its assistance for member states as they carry out various AAM commemorative activities, notably in collaboration with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). Some heads of state and senior government officials actively participated in this year’s commemoration, demonstrating strong commitment to the cause. Liberia, Tanzania and Togo were among the nations that benefited financially and technically from the AU-UN partnership in 2022 as they implemented the AAM. Given the rising commitment, it appears that AAM is gaining more traction among member states and partners each year.
What are the key activities and initiatives for this year’s Amnesty Month?
For this year’s AAM, a commemorative ceremony will be held in Lomé, Togo – as mentioned above. The torching ceremony will form part of the Lomé programme to show the dedication of the Togolese people and government to the AAM's objectives.
The commemoration aims to encourage civilians to voluntarily surrender illicit weapons in their possession on condition of anonymity and immunity from prosecution. It also aims to promote disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programmes, and to encourage the participation of African civil society – including youth and women, non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations, the private sector, and the media – to promote the surrender of illicit firearms by civilians during the AAM.
Download the PDF here: HE Kwasi Asante