AÏssatou Hayatou on Silencing the Guns
September 21st is United Nations International Peace Day which calls for an end to violence and wars. The African Union puts a huge emphasis on this day and its significance. I recently sat down and spoke to AÏssatou Hayatou, a Cameroonian diplomat who was the former operations manager of Silencing the Guns, a campaign that seeks to bring all Africans together to end gun violence. She spoke to me be about the campaign’s goals, its history, the effects of COVID 19, and the role women play.
Me: What was your position in this campaign?
AÏssatou: As of August 1st, 2020, I am the former operations manager, meaning I organize partnerships, administration, and campaign teams. We have our higher reps, who are a separate team in the African Union and I would organize everything such as awareness meetings and trainings for people about our vision.
Me: What are the goals you hope to achieve with this campaign?
AÏssatou: First and foremost the most important achievement would be to build momentum for peace efforts on the continent. We want to see more honor by political leaders and all levels of society. We want to see an awakening of peace and to have everyone involved. When people accept peace in their lives, we can bring peace to the divides. We have a responsibility as African people to bring peace and make it a common endeavor. Silencing the guns is a call for the change in behavior in how we address violence on the continent. We don’t believe foreign intervention can help on its own, and we don’t believe in a 100% military solution will help. Therefore we need popular support from the everyday African person, we need them to be educated on solving conflict peacefully. African governments as well need to be more responsible for their citizens and address the root causes of violence, especially with causes of poverty inequality, lack of education, and lack of employment. The military needs to support human development, to support all citizens with jobs, and education. The call for silencing the guns is a call for change in the way we address the security issue in Africa, we need to give people a reason to not pick up the gun. If criminal groups do not find recruitment that is a victory. After so many years of conflict, we get to a point that we know that without peace there is no development. So we need to invest in development and fight the illicit money flows that impoverish Africa and the corruption that enables it.
Me: Can you explain to me the history of this campaign?
AÏssatou: Africa has suffered major events that have cost years of development, going back to the time of slavery when millions of people were violently ripped from their homes and then there was colonialism which was domination via violence. By the early 60s, Africans were fighting for independence and of course, armed pro-colonial resistance formed. By the 90s almost all countries were freed and this was done by African unity, and what remained was Apartheid so the struggle developed as liberation from that. By the mid-90s apartheid and colonialism had ended with the election of Nelson Mandela. Africa was then faced with its destiny, but there is still influence from foreign powers that manipulate leaders, and now the fight is a power struggle. The fight became contestations, with coup de etas that lead to more bloodshed on the continent by groups who want power. So again and again Africans suffer the consequences of war and genocide, such as in Rwanda. As well as localized conflicts between rebel groups and militias in central and west Africa. By the time we reached the 2000’s, we had a lot of displaced populations, due to conflicts in places like Darfur with rival groups fighting. Throughout the 2010’s we faced a huge conflict in the Sahelian and Sahara region with the Arab spring, which lead to instability and culminated in the death of Muammar-al Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator. Gaddafi’s death had a large impact on the continent because of his enormous stock of weapons that were left for grabs. Terrorist groups and illicit traffickers started using the most sophisticated weapons, and they proliferated all over the Sahel. The UN DR Congo mission and UN French Mali intervention have been active since 2006 and 2013, respectively, were not as successful as people hoped. The mission in the Central African Republic is going well but there is still widespread violence. By the end of 2015, we knew there would be no development without peace, and that peace could only come from within Africa.
Me: How has COVID 19 affected the campaign?
AÏssatou: COVID 19 has taken a huge toll on the campaign. It has given us another type of enemy, and all the attention was given to fight it. Africa is the least and the last affected continent by the virus so this gave us a chance to be better prepared and manage it better than most expected. In terms of impact, fragile economies were hit hard, unemployment will increase, and many small businesses are likely to shut down. We have seen economies fall by 20% but COVID 19 did not lead to reduced violence. However, paradoxically the cooperation between African states has increased. 55 countries have come together to address the issue, and this gives us hope to address peace issues. The lockdown has aided with negotiations between rebel groups and governments. If we can coordinate action to address COVID we can do this for peace too. But this is an awareness campaign and the people we need to reach, the most vulnerable to violence, are in the remote areas. Even if we want to conduct the campaign online these people typically don’t have access to the internet and the lock-down has not helped that. September 2020 is going to be designated as amnesty month by the African Union. The plan was to invite illicit weapons carriers to hand their firearms over and receive amnesty. COVID has demobilized the disarming program and we can’t possibly do the groundwork. Natural disasters have also compounded are efforts, droughts, locust invasions, COVID 19, and flooding that has displaced over 1 million people have emerged new threats of criminality.
Me: What role do women play in the campaign?
AÏssatou: Women are in the leadership and forefront of the campaign. My own experience in the past two years has shown that youth and women organizations are the most efficient in implementing the campaign on the ground. Women are typically the victims of violence so it makes sense they would lead the campaign. Women in the parliament have also brought the campaign to their home countries. Aya Chebbi is the special envoy for the youth campaign and is doing a fantastic job in mobilizing young people. She connects to thousands of young Africans via social media and raises awareness about peace and African unity. The special envoy for women in peace and security, Bineta Diop, is leading various peace platforms, which have chapters in three-quarters of the continent. Women organizations are the most active because women are the pillars of their communities in Africa, and the primary people to be affected by violence.