After five year delay, countdown to official launch of 'Africa's NATO' begins, but hurdles remain

The African Standby Force is a military force made up of only African troops that is supposed to intervene within two weeks of an eruption of violence

EVEN as Africa posts economic growth, and some its successful and peaceful nations are the go-to place for investors right now, its security situation in several countries on the continent has deteriorated over the past few years. 

Currently, there are a mix of new and lingering conflicts going on in different parts of Africa; South Sudan, Guinea Bissau, Libya, Burundi, Lesotho and more.

There are continuous terrorism threats from Al-Shabaab in Somalia, from Boko Haram in Nigeria and the emergence of new threats such as the one recently witnessed in Sousse, Tunisia, where 38 tourists were killed on a beach.

The African Union has been working on its own solution for years now, named the African Standby Force (ASF). It’s conceptualised as a military force made up of only African troops that is supposed to intervene within two weeks should a new violent conflict erupt. The force is divided across the five regions of the continent – West, East, South, North and Central. When an intervention is needed, troops from countries in that region can be deployed.

A country can request the ASF to be deployed, however the AU can also decide to intervene in cases of genocide or crimes against humanity. This is in line with the AU’s change in policy from non-interference to non-indifference in 2001.

The Force is part of a larger AU framework focusing on preventing conflicts called the African Peace and Security Architecture. Besides the ASF, the components include the Peace and Security Council, Panel of the Wise, Continental Early Warning System and a Peace Fund.

Somalia peacekeeping

Already there’s the African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom, comprising 22,000 troops drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Kenya. The ASF seeks to scale up from this and have a permanent standby force that can be called upon any time the need arises.

But tensions can increase when neighbouring nations are involved in a country’s internal dispute. The South Sudan conflict broke out in December 2013 after a political rift between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar.

Neighbouring countries Sudan and Uganda have opposing interests and agendas in the conflict. Ugandan troops have been fighting  alongside the government forces, while Sudan’s (Khartoum) government allegedly supports the rebels.

The war in South Sudan is the kind of conflict where the ASF could have played an important role should it have been in existence. The violence has dragged on for over 18 months with little chance of a lasting peace deal to be finalised any time soon. 

Under the ASF, other regions can be called upon to deploy their troops if neighboring countries paralyse peace solutions, as has happened in Sudan – though this is not an ideal siuation.

The regional links have to be flexible in situations where it is needed. For example, Boko Haram has launched attacks on Nigerian, Cameroonian and Chadian soil, of which all three countries belong to different regions of the ASF. This demonstrates the need for regional flexibility.

Back to Nkrumah’s days

The idea of the ASF goes back to Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, one of the founding fathers of the AU, who envisioned an “African High Command” as a continental army to protect the independence of African countries, modelled along the lines of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

The need for an African force increased after neither the international community nor any African country intervened during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. The bloodshed in Rwanda, the Burundi civil war in 2001 and other conflicts led to a situation whereby about 80% of global peacekeeping missions were on the African continent without the AU being part of a peace solution.

The African Standby Force should be declared operational by December of this year after a delay of about five years. 

Different challenges caused the delay; including strategic communications and logistics, as well as clarifying the mandate of the ASF, to determine whether it should offer humanitarian assistance or respond to natural disasters. 

Then, there is the question of cooperation between different nations. Even though countries feel more committed to their own region than to the AU, there are still huge differences in doctrines, languages and cultures between countries within the same region creating obstacles to smooth cooperation.

Where’s the money?

The main challenge for the ASF is finance, a recurring issue for the AU. There is a structural dependence on partner donations for the AU budget. The readiness of the Force will be evaluated in a final exercise, named Amani II, in South Africa, this October. The larger portion of the budget for this exercise is being paid by the European Union. 

Of the $9.2 million budget, $5.2 million was donated by the EU, $3 million by the Southern African regional bloc SADC and Kenya also contributed $1 million.

Should the ASF be called upon to intervene, deployment will be for a minimum of 6 months with about 5,000 personnel, of whom 3,000 to 4,000 will be troops, and an estimated bill of $60 million. It is still unclear as to who will foot the bill; the African Peace Fund is a likely option. A donor conference may also be held to raise the needed funds, as was done for the Mali mission in 2013.

The reality of the ASF is that within each region there is a gap with one or two countries having much stronger and better-funded armed forces. The Eastern African region is an exception with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all having strong armies. 

It is often the smaller African countries that cannot afford the allowances for the troops due to budget constraints. And although the AU is regularly putting the issue of financial dependency on the agenda, many member states of the continental body do not or cannot even pay their yearly AU membership fee.

Despite the financial challenges, regions have previously deployed troops in critical situations. The intervention by the Western African region in Guinea-Bissau is an example of such an instance that was done on a shoestring budget. It proves that despite the resource challenges, solutions can be found for critical intervention missions.


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