Conflict & Resilience Monitor

COVID-19-related ceasefires in Africa: an opportunity to Silence the Guns?

2 Dec 2020

UN Photo by Violaine Martin
UN Photo by Violaine Martin

COVID-19 has significantly impacted peace processes in Africa, but it has also offered opportunities, however small, for peace. On 23 March 2020, United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres made an appeal, echoed by African Union (AU) Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, for a global ceasefire in an effort to redirect attention and resources to fighting COVID-19. In the context of the AU’s campaign to “Silence the Guns”, the UNSG explained that ceasefires would create more space for humanitarian services and diplomatic intervention in conflict areas. While experiences of conflict on the African continent may have presented conditions that are highly unlikely to result in any immediate ceasefires, some African cases have presented significant and interesting responses to the UNSG’s call. This piece briefly examines the trajectory of the seven African cases of ceasefires in relation to COVID-19, and looks at the implications for silencing of the guns.

In Libya, the UN-supported interim government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), was among the first to request a pause on the conflict, which was subsequently reciprocated by its opposition group, the Libyan National Army. In their respective statements, both groups recognised that an immediate cessation of hostilities was needed to “allow local authorities to come together in response to the unprecedented public health challenge posed by COVID-19”. This comes against the backdrop of existing diplomatic interventions to end the conflict through the 5+5 Joint Military Commission, facilitated by the UN in Geneva earlier this year, which culminated in a signed, permanent, countrywide ceasefire in October 2020. However, reports of violations of the UN arms embargo by other states and internationalisation of the conflict poses a definite risk to the fragile peace in Libya.

While experiences of conflict in Africa may have presented conditions that are highly unlikely to result in any immediate ceasefires, some African cases present significant and interesting responses to the UNSG’s call for a global ceasefire. @KEEN110997

Unlike Libya, the armed hostilities in Cameroon were not being tempered by any peace process. However, two days after the UNSG’s call for peace, the Southern Cameroon Defence Forces (SOCADEF) – one of 15 Ambazonian separatist movements – released a statement calling for a two-week ceasefire with the defence forces of the Cameroon government. In the statement released by SOCADEF, it ordered all its combat units to stand down but maintain positions for a 14-day period between 29 March 2020 and 12 April 2020, with the expressed intention of allowing international humanitarian preparation in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. SOCADEF explained that any international monitoring of the ceasefire was subject to the condition that the Ambazonian conflict be recognised as “non-international armed conflict” under international humanitarian law. The group was then willing to support the safe movement of international monitors and humanitarian actors. In maintaining the ceasefire, it called for the cooperation of the Cameroonian government. However, it seems that SOCADEF was the only armed separatist group to have stopped fighting, as the call to stand down was not supported by other armed groups under the Ambazonia Governing Council (AGovC). The AGovC had argued that such a ceasefire created opportunities for government forces to launch attacks against it. The Cameroonian government also did not reciprocate the ceasefire, and fighting between its troops and the separatist groups continued unabated. 

Similar one-sided efforts to cease fighting were made in Angola by the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC). On 13 April 2020, the group declared a unilateral ceasefire over a four-week period. FLEC spokesman, Jean Claude Nzita, announced the unilateral ceasefire as a response to the UNSG’s appeal for peace. However, on 4 June 2020, there were reports of renewed violent clashes between the FLEC and the Angolan army. Nonetheless, the FLEC released a new statement, reiterating its commitment to a ceasefire. 

Similar commitments were made in April in the Central African Republic (CAR) by two armed groups: the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC) and 3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation). Both groups committed to cooperate with the state health authorities in promoting preventative measures against COVID-19. The groups also stated that the free movement and safety of humanitarian organisations would be prioritised. Both groups are signatories to the Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR), which marked the end of the conflict in the CAR in February 2019. While the statements made by the FDPC and 3R relating to COVID-19 may have been seen as a reiteration of their commitment to peace in the country, renewed clashes between 3R and Central African armed forces presented a different reality.

In Benue State, Nigeria, the representatives of 10 agricultural and livestock communities reached a multilateral peace agreement. The chairpersons of the respective ethnic groups agreed to peaceful co-existence for the duration of, and beyond, the current pandemic. The representatives of the respective communities cited the need for unity in the fight to defeat a common enemy, and a need to entrench the value of shared humanity in their confrontation with an enemy that respects no primordial differences and which affects all human beings regardless of location, status or views, as their reasons for supporting the UNSG’s global ceasefire plea. As part of the peace agreement, the groups undertook to desist from doing or saying anything, during and beyond the pandemic, that may endanger the health of Benue communities or seek to denigrate peaceful co-existence. However, following a resurgence in conflict between herders and farmers in Nasarawa and Benue states, Nigerian Armed Forces descended on both states, serving under the mandate of Operation Safe Haven and Operation Whirl Stroke. On 19 November 2020, three bandits were killed, and numerous others were injured and/or arrested. 

In Senegal, much like the agricultural and livestock communities in Nigeria, the Provisional Committee and Unified Armed Wings of the separatist Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) committed themselves to a period of reduced military operations in an effort to support the authorities and humanitarians in tackling the pandemic. Similarly to the agricultural and livestock communities in heeding the call of the UNSG, the MFDC was cognisant of the indiscriminate threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to its communities, its nation and beyond. The separatist movement in Casamance has been in conflict with the Senegalese government since 1983, with varying degrees of success in ongoing peace processes. The renewed impetus given to such peace processes by the pandemic has created the opportunity for the MFDC and others to accelerate their efforts to find a final political solution to the oldest conflict in Africa, while concurrently building ties between the community and security forces to combat COVID-19. 

In South Sudan, the South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA) reaffirmed its commitment to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (Rome Agreement), entered into with the Government of South Sudan in January 2020. The SSOMA reiterated its concern over the safety of the South Sudanese people amid the undiscerning nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledged that the devastating effect of the pandemic called for humanity to unite and defeat this common enemy through solidarity and a shared response. In addition, in its statement, the SSOMA underscored that it would maintain its right to self-defence, should its positions be attacked during the cessation period. Subsequently, in November 2020, following an incident between the National Salvation Front (a subsidiary group of the SSOMA) and the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces, in which both sides incurred minor casualties, the SSOMA announced the withdrawal of its participation in ceasefire workshops until the Unity Government of South Sudan respects and recommits itself to the Rome Agreement. 

So, while the calls for peace during COVID-19 made by the UN and AU presented an important opportunity for peacemaking, they are yet to silence the guns in Africa effectively. The majority of the case studies show that while armed groups demonstrated varying degrees of commitment to cease fighting, this did not translate into sustainable peace. In comparison to the other influential factors informing these complex conflicts, the threat and impact of COVID-19 was not a priority.

Dr Andrea Prah is a researcher at ACCORD, and Keenan Govender is an intern at ACCORD. 

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