Africa: Do the African Union's Annual Themes Deliver?

“Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development” - the theme of the 36th Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the African Union.

How effective is the African Union's (AU) policy of choosing a theme each year to drive its agenda across the continent? In 2019 the theme was refugees and finding durable solutions to forced displacement. This year it's about 'Silencing the Guns' and creating conditions that enable development.

Is this exercise merely a question of hosting a range of meetings across the continent, or is there real impact on the ground? Given the vast scope of these themes, it's difficult to see what can realistically be achieved in only one year. Looking back at the 2019 focus provides useful lessons that could help deliver more concrete results on the current and future themes.

Last year's theme of refugees, returnees and internally displaced people achieved results in five areas. A strong partnership between the AU and the United Nations (UN) was key to these achievements.

First, it strengthened normative frameworks on forced displacement. South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia ratified the AU's Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention). Although still way behind the goal of achieving universal ratification, it is welcomed. Ratifying treaties doesn't guarantee implementation but it plays an important role in reminding state parties about their responsibilities.

Conflict remains the single most important driver of forced displacement in Africa

Second, there was a renewed political commitment by some African states. Rwanda and Niger for example have facilitated humanitarian evacuation of 5 506 stranded African refugees and asylum seekers from Libya since 2017, most of them in 2019.

Third, implementation of the 2019 theme was inclusive. The participation of civil society organisations was facilitated through the AU-UN Humanitarian Matters and Disaster Risk Management Cluster. A steering committee ensured that academia and other stakeholders, including refugees and internally displaced people, could directly engage with governments, the AU and the UN.

Fourth, the 2019 theme secretariat was run jointly by the AU and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It was effective at supporting the coordination of activities, drafting communiqués, and making contact with stakeholders.

Fifth, awareness about forced displacement in Africa was enhanced. Four continental meetings highlighted the importance of implementing the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention and the Kampala Convention, and called for solidarity and responsibility sharing. Another meeting with the Pan-African Parliament helped galvanise support.

Africa hasn't made any significant move to deal with the 25.2 million forcibly displaced people

Gender and youth issues were also emphasised. A dialogue with refugee women was held in June and the 2019 AU Humanitarian Summit focused on gender aspects of forced displacement. Youth consultations were conducted in December 2019.

The effectiveness of the 2019 theme was limited by two major challenges. First, forced displacement wasn't among Egypt's six priority areas of its chairmanship for 2019. Although it hosted various meetings on the topic, Egypt could have contributed more by allocating resources, designating a focal person in the secretariat, and working more closely with the theme's champion, President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

The second problem was that the theme didn't make a significant contribution to durable solutions, which means local integration, repatriation and resettlement.

Except for the 5 506 humanitarian evacuations by Rwanda and Niger and 48 000 migrant voluntary returnees through the AU-EU-UN Tripartite Task Force, Africa hasn't made any significant move to deal with the 25.2 million displaced people comprising 7.4 million refugees and 17.8 million internally displaced people.

Africa is home to half the world's active conflicts and one third of its forcibly displaced people

Africa's protracted conflicts are an obstacle to facilitating the return of refugees. The continent is home to half of active conflicts globally and one third of the world's forcibly displaced population. To address forced displacement, Africa must ensure that its 2020 theme - Silencing the Guns - delivers results.

Dr Khabele Matlosa, director of the AU's Department of Political Affairs, told ISS Today that 'addressing structural root causes is the key component linking the two themes together.' Successful responses to forced displacement lie not in decreasing the number of displaced people, but in dealing with the drivers of their displacement. And conflict is the single most important driver.

Similarly, the goal of Silencing the Guns isn't to reduce the number of guns in Africa, but to tackle the reason people take up arms in the first place. In this way, the two AU themes are intrinsically connected. The AU needs to ensure that such linkages are maximised so that impact can extend beyond each theme's designated year.

This would help realise the AU's Agenda 2063, which aims to build an 'integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.' This goal can only be realised if Africa silences its guns, paving the way for durable solutions to its millions of forcibly displaced people.

Tsion Tadesse Abebe, Senior Researcher, Migration, ISS Addis Ababa

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