At a security summit in Paris this week, representatives of 53 African states stressed the need for a pan-African military force. But that’s an old idea that hasn’t worked before. So how realistic is it this time round?
The idea was floated during the heady days of the anti-colonial struggles. It was discussed in the post-independence era to try to prevent the new African states from turning into Cold War pawns. When the Cold War ended, the concept gained a brief sense of urgency. Along the way, it has taken different forms, acronyms and proposed structures.
But the dream of establishing some sort of permanent, pan-African military force never materialised.
More than half-a-century after Ghana’s founding father Kwame Nkrumah first floated the idea, an African Standby Force – or ASF, as it’s known in its latest avatar – is still being touted as the next, almost-new, big thing.
At a summit on African security in Paris this week, leaders and representatives of 53 African nations stressed the need to build a pan-African military force capable of intervening in regional conflicts.
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, summit host, French President François Hollande stressed that, “Africa should be able to get together to intervene and react swiftly to crises. Therefore, a rapid reaction force should take place in the coming months.”
“African solutions to African problems” has been the favoured slogan at international gatherings over the past few years and the Paris meeting was no exception, with Hollande frequently repeating the rallying cry during the two-day summit.
But the French military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) have exposed the challenges confronting African-owned solutions to the continent’s problems.
"Although we are very grateful to France [for its interventions] it was still a humiliation for Africa because 50 years after independence, we have not been able to solve our own problems," said Guinean President Alpha Condé during a working session on Friday.
Successes in Somalia and Congo
Mali and the CAR may have underscored the weaknesses of African military capabilities. But African Union (AU) forces in recent years have also had remarkable successes in peacekeeping missions across the continent.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) for instance, has surprised the international community by performing better than expected in a country where US and UN troops have been routed in the past.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, AU forces in partnership with UN troops and the Congolese army recently managed to defeat M23 rebels.
The combination of the recent AU peacekeeping successes, and the lessons from Mali and the CAR, have lent a renewed urgency to the longstanding mission to create a pan-African standby force, according to Patrick Smith, editor of The Africa Report.
“I think it’s substantive,” said Smith, referring to new moves to get the ASF off the ground. “If you see what happened in the Congo for instance, I think that has emboldened governments in Africa to do more.”
But, Smith added, “It’s very important to get political approval from African leaders about the structure and terms under which this force will operate.”
Many missed deadlines
The ASF in its current form was originally envisaged at the 2002 AU Durban summit. A year later, an ASF policy framework set a timeline for the force to be operational by 2010.
But the deadline was never met and a target extension of 2013 has now been pushed back to 2015.
“The 2015 target is achievable, but only as an organisational chart,” said Philippe Hugon, a researcher at the Paris-based ISIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques).
The ASF’s organisational structure is divided into five regional zones – eastern, western, southern, central and northern – with the headquarters in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
The five regional standby forces are expected to have brigades of about 3,000 troops each, providing the ASF with a combined standby capacity of about 15,000 troops. Some of the regional brigades, such as the Nairobi-based Eastern African Standby Force (EASF), have made considerable progress in establishing military and police components.
Many experts believe that by relying on regional frameworks and blocs – such as the West African ECOWAS and the Southern African SADC – the ASF has managed to overcome some of the biggest challenges confronting its predecessors: a fear that African governments will be forced to relinquish their national command authorities to a continental command structure.
But within geographic divisions, there are anxieties about the dominance of regional heavyweights. "In West Africa, Francophone [French-speaking] countries do not necessarily want to be under the control of a powerful [English-speaking] Nigeria," noted Hugon.
Who’s footing the bills?
Fears of regional heavyweight dominance are also linked with the ASF’s critical funding challenge. “Bigger countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt are prepared to increase their funding. But the smaller countries are not happy with that because they think it will affect their influence,” said Smith.
The recent AU peacekeeping successes in Somalia and Congo have been funded by Western powers – a situation that may not be ideal, but is largely accepted as a practical reality by the international community.
At the Paris summit this week, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the EU would provide 50 million euros to support the AU mission in the CAR, which is working in partnership with French troops on the ground. He also noted that Brussels has mobilised nearly 1 billion euros to support African peacekeeping forces.
The limits of Western military training
France has pledged help in logistics and training, with Hollande announcing that Paris would be training 20,000 African soldiers over the next five years.
But while military training initiatives sound impressive at summits, their true worth – or lack thereof – tend to get exposed on the battlefield.
By March 2012, the failures became glaringly apparent when a US-trained Malian officer, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in a military coup, sparking the fall of northern Mali to jihadist control – which required a French military intervention.
Despite the many cautionary signs, many African leaders and observers are optimistic that this time, the long-awaited dream of a pan-African military force will be achieved. As Senegalese President Macky Sall noted at the Paris summit on Saturday, “I agree it didn’t work in the past. But there is a new perception that defence has become an urgent matter to create development. If there is no security, there’s no development.”
Date created : 2013-12-08