Amidst pleas from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a global ceasefire to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, violent conflict in Africa rages on. On March 23, Guterres urged warring parties worldwide to unite against the COVID-19 pandemic by laying down their arms temporarily.
“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said in a virtual press conference. “That is why today I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put [the] armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” It was the first appeal for a global ceasefire that the UN has made in its 75-year history. In response to the call, parties from a mere 11 conflicts around the world expressed willingness to respond. Of these, 5 were in Africa: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan.
Though this might appear a promising sign, these five states are dwarfed by the 18 African countries experiencing state-based conflicts, with many more instances of non-state conflicts and one-sided violence on the continent. Many African countries in crisis, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali have seen no relief since the virus’ outbreak. Even more so, conflict persists in the five African countries where ceasefires were supposedly being negotiated. Mere days after Libyan parties’ alleged acquiescence to Guterres’ appeal, rebel forces escalated their attacks in the country’s northwestern region. In the Central African Republic, only two of the fourteen main armed factions have committed to cooperating with health authorities and enforcing preventative measures.
Indeed, Govinda Clayton of the Washington Post notes that most COVID-19 ceasefires are precarious at best. They tend to be unilateral, with no provisions for international monitoring, and lack detailed guidance. Given that successful ceasefires tend to be precise, detailed, and enforced by outside parties, it seems that the few COVID-induced ceasefires which have been enacted are doomed to fail. The persistence of conflict represents a massive threat in the context of a global pandemic. Dangerous conditions in conflict zones prevent health workers and humanitarian actors from gaining access to besieged populations. The effect that armed conflict can have on infectious disease response has already been brutally illustrated with the DRC’s Ebola crisis: armed actors have aggravated mistrust between locals and foreign health officials, and a deteriorating security environment prevents effective and widespread health interventions. No doubt the most vulnerable sectors of society will pay the greatest price during this crisis. UNICEF head Henrietta Fore seconded Guterres’ calls for a global ceasefire, citing the grave danger that COVID-19 poses to the 250 million children worldwide living in conflict zones.
Subsequent economic recessions and school closures, worsened by continued conflict, will have devastating consequences for Africa’s children. Though the African Union designated 2020 the target year for their campaign to ‘silence the guns of Africa,’ conflict on the continent has become only more deafening in past months. Even as much of the world has been brought to an abrupt standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa’s warring parties refuse to pause their campaigns of violence, threatening millions in the process.
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