Armed conflict, corona virus pandemic and a ceasefire: Impact on children in Africa

By Divina Maloum (16 years old), founder of Children for Peace and co-winner with Greta Thunberg of the 2019 International Children’s Peace Prize.

Divina Maloum receiving the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2019

The growth of violent extremism – and the devastating impact of groups espousing violent ideologies – is not only setting in motion a dramatic reversal of development gains already made, but threatening to stunt prospects of development for decades to come.  As a result of the activities of Al Shabaab[1]  for example, there has been an estimated 25 percent drop in tourism in Kenya, a sector that provides a vital source of jobs and income for the country. Similarly, following the increasing number of attacks by Boko Haram[2] foreign direct investment flows into Nigeria have declined by 21 percent between 2011 and 2014, leading to even more worrying levels of unemployment. The impact on the lives and livelihoods of those who have lost family members, friends and colleagues in the multiple tragedies in market places, universities, places of worship and schools is immeasurable. As a result of increasing levels of violence and insecurity, many children and students across the African continent are no longer able to attend school or university, undermining their quality of life both now and in the future. Indeed, the phenomenon is disproportionately impacting the youth. Marginalised from political processes, lacking in viable employment options and suffering from an increasing sense of desperation, the youth are easy targets for radicalised recruiters who lure or coerce boys and girls and young men and women with a diverse mix of religious narratives, financial incentives, a glimmer of hope, and often, with violence.

Attacks as a result of religiously-inspired violent extremism have reached unprecedented levels, and the impacts are far reaching; from 2011 to 2015, over 21,245 fatalities are estimated to have been caused by religiously inspired extremism in Africa. The presence and operations of Boko Haram, for example, have displaced over 1.2 million people internally and forced more than 200,000 Nigerians to flee to Cameroon Chad and Niger. Internal displacement often feeds into and exacerbates pre-existing conflicts and dynamics of displacement amongst pastoralists – not least since Boko Haram implements a strategy of stealing livestock and burning farmlands in rural communities. Increasing levels of insecurity forced many countries to close their border with one or many countries hitting hardest those whose livelihoods depend on cross-border informal trade.

In Kenya, there have been over 200 attacks/ incidents involving explosives or automatic weapons linked to Al Shabaab between 2011 and 2015 alone. The movement has successfully built a clandestine support network spreading from the northeast of the country to the capital Nairobi and the Indian Ocean coast – and beyond – enabling them to easily recruit vulnerable populations. In the Sahel, violent extremist groups are becoming increasingly active: in Mali, it is estimated that several hundred children have been radicalized and recruited, and harsh corporal punishments, often against women and children.

Cameroon faces since several years, significant issues of unrest and insecurity, including the increasing number of refugees coming from the Central African crisis. The ongoing conflict with Boko Haram, operating in the Far North region since 2014 has so far made at least 2,500 killed, 250,000 displaced and is triggering the rise of vigilante self-defense groups. In 2016, separatist rebels launched in the north-West and South-West Cameroon a battle for their own state making over 3 000 killings (civilians and army), and forced more than 700,000 people out from their homes, thousands fleeing across the border into Nigeria. Children and youth and women being the main victims: many of them targeted and recruited for particularly horrendous purposes and abuses. As many countries in Africa, the conflictual situation of Cameroon is characterized by illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons by civilians, including rebel groups and militias as well as government-related entities. Many actions have been implemented by civil society, governments, United Nations, African Union Commission (AUC) and Regional Economic Communities such as IGAD, Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) and Economic Western African States (ECOWAS) to prevent and respond to violent extremism and several international organizations to tackle violent extremism and radicalization. But efforts so far have produced mitigated results. Violent extremist groups are still operating and rampant.

It is in a context of security crises prevailing in many African countries in the Sahel and in Lake Chad basin that the COVID-19 broke out in China and spread around the world affecting and killing thousands of people.  More than terrorism, the COVID-19 is a dangerous invisible threat, a common enemy of humanity and development; leading to disaster, worsening the humanitarian situation increasing thereby the number of victims and death (of all gender; rich and poor, older and younger, celebrities, state officials and simple citizens, from all the races), closing schools, shutting down employment, increasing unemployment, destroying economies, leaving billions of people in a confinement situation more vulnerable than ever and the number is still counting. Countries that are most exposed to the ravages of the COVID-19 being those underdeveloped, with a weak universal health system, in worse humanitarian conditions and in conflicts. Of special concern are Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria as well in the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza Strip where the risks associated with the possible deterioration of the epidemiological situation in African countries where there is a persisting armed confrontation and the localities/camps for refugees and internally displaced persons are particularly vulnerable.

Regarding what is happening with the COVID-19, a humanitarian group warned that healthcare systems across Africa could collapse under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic since conflict-hit regions have many hospitals that have already been damaged and the basic such as clean water and soap necessary to fight the virus are in short supply in many communities. In northern Mali, 93 % of Health care facilities have been already destroyed. In Burkina Faso and many others countries, as the people flee fighting in some areas, the population of many towns has doubled. Meanwhile travel restrictions being introduced by some African states mean aid programs are grinding to a halt. As many organizations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has banned non-essential travels for its staff with many consequences in humanitarian aid,  medicine and food delivery to the most vulnerable. In many countries already fighting against tropical and epidemic disease (malaria, measles; cholera, corona virus Ebola), like Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), if the health care system is not urgently supported, the future of children will be destroyed. There is fear of catastrophes if COVID-19 takes off widely. The COVID-19 is a threat to freedom, democracy and human rights spreading the feeling of fear and hatred of the westerners in many counties. In Africa, many national and international events including conferences and athletic games have been cancelled and postponed because of the corona virus. While working remotely, users have been experiencing decreased speeds of the internet because the West Africa Cable System (Wacs) which runs from Cape Town to Portugal and the UK has been damaged and with the current situation technicians encounter some difficulties in restoring it. The COVID-19 is threatening the democracy in many countries since many polls and elections in west African and east African countries have been postponed to an upcoming undetermined date, giving way to many persons and personalities to stay in their position/power beyond their mandate. In many countries westerners face virus hostility considered as being the one to spread the virus.

Much of the fear spurring on discrimination has been spread on social media and governments across Africa have cracked down on fake news about the virus. To curb the spread of the virus, many countries announced restrictive measures as confinement with several weeks lockdown causing price hikes by shops and vendors; full people queuing local markets and supermarkets for food and basic necessities. In many countries, these measures are difficulty observed since the majority of the populations are evolving in the informal sector and are leaving day by day. In many countries, borders have been shut down and flight and interurban transports have been suspended from and in affected cities. In many countries gatherings of 20 and 50 people have been banned. In some countries as Kenya, some civilians are shot dead and violated by police while enforcing the virus curfew. Tourism sector is collapsing. To date there is no vaccine, though scientists are working hardly to find a solution. While the number of direct and collateral victims of COVID-19 is increasing every day, nobody knows when the sustainable solution will arise. In many countries since the confinement measures, it has been reported an increase number of domestic violence, violence against women and children rights. To support their restrictive measures and the management of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, some governments are planning the set-up of solidarity funds of billons.  Endeavors and restrictive measures by governments are so far; seem to be insufficient to contain the plague.

Regarding this concerning situation across the world, on March 23, 2020, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres urged warring parties across the world to observe a ceasefire to assist the battle against COVID-19. He tasked UN Special Envoys in conflict zones to follow up on this appeal, working with the parties to the conflict to try to make sure that this global appeal is not only listened to but leads to concrete action, to a pause in fighting, creating the conditions for the response to COVID‑19 to be much more effective.

Across the world, though several factors such as European Union, Russia and several peace organizations have positively answered to the appeal of the UNSG, many others are still blinded by their selfish interest, failing to understand the challenges at stake, whereas the humanity is collapsing because of the COVID-19. In Libya rockets pummeled Tripoli despite ceasefire pleas. In Cameroon so far, while there are many militias operating in Cameroon’s English-speaking, only a separatist militia called Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (Socadef) is to heed the UN’s call for a global ceasefire. The members of this militia said they will down their weapons for a fortnight so people can be tested for coronavirus. But there is no indication that one of the biggest rebel group – Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) – is to follow suit and declare a ceasefire. The fighters say they are marginalised in the majority French-speaking nation. For the three years, they have been fighting government forces in the Anglophone regions with the aim of creating a breakaway state called “Ambazonia”. Cameroon, to date records over 222 cases of COVID-19 and the number is still increasing as in many African countries.

The economic and social consequences of coronavirus in Africa could be devastating if it is not quickly contained. One should understand that the stakes of the Coronavirus are beyond different of warring parties. The damages may be for far high than the negative consequences of all the conflicts and violent extremism so far. The appeal launched by the UN Secretary General should be observed. It should allow a better response to the coronavirus and lead to some political negotiated solutions in the Sahel and Central Africa.

Since the invisible threat is the common enemy of human beings and is capable to destroy all people in conflictual and non-conflictual areas as well as in the side of each warring party, joint actions should be planned and implemented by Governments, civil society, faith based organizations, international organizations and private sector locally, regionally and internationally. The call of the UN Secretary General should be supported by regional and sub regional organizations. African Union should take position.

Based on all what is happening around the world, the Coronavirus teaches us we have to give due weight to humanity and rethink our system of cooperation by putting human being  ahead and relinquish the idea of war because we are all vulnerable and as we may destroy our lookalike, we may also be destroyed. Indeed, the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war and more. Coronavirus teaches us also that what happens in war-ravaged countries where health systems have collapsed, health professionals (few in number) have often been targeted, refugees and others displaced by violent conflict are doubly vulnerable; the same situation may happen to any country creating and supporting directly or indirectly conflicts around the world. We are all linked. No one is safe enough or has the monopole over other if he doesn’t take care and interact with others. Awkwardness, omission or intentional action made to destroy others may lead to an uncontrollable situation taking away many lives (including those of our loved ones) and affecting our own interests nationally and internationally.

The global ceasefire is absolutely essential for an effective response to the crisis in areas of conflict but is also a value in itself. War doesn’t make any sense when we have an epidemic that affects us all. It doesn’t make any sense in any circumstances. The ceasefire should be an opportunity to re-envision each government as that puts upholding basic human rights at its core, and, in doing so, better protects national and international security. There is a need of much stronger coordination nationally and regionally led by United Nations and supported by countries in making sure that not only the developed countries can respond effectively to the disease and other majors problems (including climate change, poverty, other pandemics and epidemics…) but that there is massive support to the developing countries and particularly Africa not to let the disease spread and then a huge package to respond to the economic and social consequences should be available. There is a need to mobilize funds to allow the developing countries themselves be able to have an adequate economic and social response to the crisis and then the need to make sure that, when we recover, we recover in a more sustainable and a more inclusive economy.

As African Union, regional and international organizations, World Bank, International Monetary funds and United Nations, including private sector and civil society should hold urgent virtual conferences/meetings to find out ways to collaboratively raise fund and work together to address these issues dealing with coronavirus and others problems. This critical season is a moment in which stakeholders and organizations no matter the denomination and the aim (supposed working for or defending interests of a particular group or people) must leave their selfish interest, stop political quarrel and work together to find ways to cease the fire and to address the need of the children and the youth and the peoples of the world appeal for a massive mobilization to suppress the disease and to address the dramatic economic and social impacts of the disease. This collaborative work should also prevail in each state with all the stakeholders without differentiation. If nothing is done synergistically and altogether, as every scientist and public health official says, this invisible threat is going to take all of us, everywhere, even those who are disregarding the ceasefire and are still trying to kill one another on the battlefield.

To overcome sustainably the coronavirus, all the pandemics and plagues that are sweeping around the world and are putting in peril the future of children and youth and consequently humankind; we should invest in humanity by taking actions and measures that aim at promoting human rights, humanity and not degrading them. Stakeholders should individually and collectively reassess their former priorities and look for alternatives that may prevent disasters. Disinvestment in killing technologies as weapons and nuclear arsenals that cost trillions dollars and reinvestment in sustainable development goals sectors (as Universal Health Care system, education, agriculture, digitalization) could help to suppress all the threats to our humanity, foster peacebuilding and boost the implementation of sustainable development goals worldwide and lifting many community out of poverty and disaster. Children, youth and women should stand up and be involved in this process.

[1] Al-Sehbab, also known as Haraka Al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, is an Islamic extremist group operating out of Somalia and Kenya.

[2] Boko Haram, which calls itself Wilayat Gharb Ifiqiyyah is an Islamic extremist group based in north-eastern Nigeria and is active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.