African Standby Force: operational next year?

African Standby Force (ASF) is one component of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), the African continental mechanism dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution, as well as peace promotion. One of its main objectives is not to rely on external countries and intergovernmental organisations to ensure African peace and security, as it was the case until now. After several failures, lately we have witnessed new attempts to improve and revitalise the process.

Introduced in 2003 within a framework document, the ASF constitutes an African initiative that aims to set up a continental security system based on the five Regional Economic Communities (REC) and their respective brigades. Some countries, such as Zimbabwe, had been opposing foreign power’s military interventions in Africa, denouncing a form of interference in internal affairs and an infringement on national sovereignty. Initially envisioned to be operational in 2010, the ASF certification had been finally postponed to 2015; anew, all kinds of impediments have hampered the effective operationalization of the structure. Indeed, the strong support provided by external partners (leading to a lack of ownership by African players), difficulties in sharing responsibilities between the African Union and RECs, payment arrears accumulated by African States in financing AU institutions and lack of logistical coordination are key elements in understanding the few significant outcomes achieved.

But recently, AU officials stated that the multinational force has started military exercises and will be ready by January 2016. Countries have therefore attempted to gather the 25.000 required troops in order to comply with the initial goal. Field training have ensued with the deployment of 5400 soldiers within in Lohatlha, South Africa. It was notably the single largest multi-dimensional military exercise ever conducted in democratic South Africa[1]. For the first time, exercises have been leaded; the AU wants the ASF to be operational soon. The operation, named Amani Africa, which started on October 19 with an opening ceremony and lasted until November 5, was expected to be an evaluation of the ASF ability to respond to crises and monitor peacekeeping missions[2]. More precisely, the force is supposed to be “capable of deploying and intervening, within 14 days, in cases of war crimes, genocide and gross human rights abuses[3]. According to a meeting held mid-October, the ASF logistical base will be located in Douala, the Cameroon’s largest city.

Despite the will of African solutions for African problems, the AU will nonetheless ask donors for financial contributions, as the organisation lacks one billion dollars to make the force operational[4]. The ASF will indeed depend almost entirely upon external contributors, as African countries are unable to finance such a force[5]. An assessment report will be presented to the continent’s defence and security ministers at the next AU meeting that will be held in January in Addis-Ababa. But, according to an expert, the AU will not be the only stakeholder, as “the European Union will also have to decide whether the project is worth funding[6].

The force is expected to be able to intervene in countries where genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes are occurring, even without the concerned State’s consent. But AU charter provisos lack efficiency: in reality, a lack of political will, added to financial and material issues, have led to inaction with regard to human rights abuses such as ones mentioned above (notably, but not only, in South Sudan). This deadlock testifies to some major difficulties the organisation is facing, such as the two-thirds majority required at the Conference to validate an intervention – hard to obtain – but also the predominant role played by partners, especially the European Union, which has participated to most African operations through its African Peace Facility (APF), but also EU missions deployed across the continent.

These difficulties tend to raise questions about the real capacities of the ASF: even formed, could up to 25.000 troops be deployed at any time in any African country, giving political, logistical and financial issues? By comparison, if we consider the results obtained by the EU Battlegroups – created in order to improve rapid response capabilities –, which have been fully operational since 2007 but never deployed, mainly for political reasons[7], we can fear that the ASF setting up remains elusive or, for the most optimistic ones, not fully exploited.

[1] ISS, Standing by or standing up: is the African Standby Force nearly ready for action?, 23/07/2015

[2] BBC, African Standby Force starts first military exercises, 19/10/2015

[3] ISS, African Standby Force: how the AU can get it right, 30/10/2015

[4] BBC, African Standby Force starts first military exercises, 19/10/2015

[5] Geeska Africa Online, Ethiopia: African Standby Force to be Operational Early Next year, 01/11/2015

[6] Lignes de défense, La Force africaine en attente (African Standby Force) s’entraîne en Afrique du Sud, 01/11/2015

[7] ISS, African Standby Force: how the AU can get it right, 30/10/2015

Déborah Guidez

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