Standing By For the African Standby Force

Basic security and political instability have been significantly impeding African development despite the decades of aid flows to the continent. Security is necessary for sustained economic growth, but it alone does not produce development, rather its absence prevents long term growth from taking place. This, combined with political instability, undermines productivity and prevents the accumulation of private wealth and public sector growth.

Formed in 2002, the African Union is an organization composed of 53 African member states whose ambition is to foster economic integration and regional security among independent African countries. Alongside plans to create an African central bank, human rights commission, and a single African currency by 2023, the AU is also tasked with providing security to the region capable of combating the political instability and security concerns that have historically plagued the continent.

“Political instability at the local level, or conflicts that engulf regions, are together with minimal resources, the main obstacles in the way of the AU reaching the holy grail of Africa’s integration.”

Africa’s integration is reliant on a three pronged approach of development, local governance, and collective security.  At the center of the African Union’s collective security apparatus is the African Standby Force. The ASF is being designed as a continental peacekeeping system of both civilian and military components, with the goal to create a 30,000 troop force from five contributing regional areas-East, West, Central, North, and South Africa-able to deploy and intervene in cases of conflict and instability across the country. Unlike a standing army, the ASF would consist of a quick response unit able to effectively and rapidly move in to prevent the emergence, or scale, of African conflicts that have historically engulfed the continent and prevented the conditions necessary for foreign investment and stable economic growth. This ‘African solution to African problems’ would remove the over reliance the continent has long had on UN and Western powers to intervene in African conflicts.

Originally designed to be operational in 2008, it was pushed back to 2010, then 2013, and most recently given a timeline of 2015, leaving reason to believe this deadline may go unmet as well. But recent events in Mali have served as a wakeup call for the African Standby Force. While the international community and African leaders were largely quick to praise French action in the region, it served to highlight Africa’s inability to secure its own interests and again rely on outsourcing its internal security to outside actors. Foreign intervention can provide the immediate on the ground security and law and order necessary for development to occur, but it alone is not equipped to offer the political stability and good governance conditions critical to future African integration. Political governance can only be attained when those in power are seen as legitimate-the governed are willingly governed by their own-and this must come from African forces. French boots on the ground in the former French owned African lands cannot provide for legitimacy in local systems, and is an unsustainable process for achieving real African development moving forward.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the new chairperson of the AU commission, has called for new ways to address this old problem of African insecurity and instability, both with the formation of an ASF, as well as a more holistic approach which deals with the root causes that plague the nation and drive the ongoing conflict and stagnant economic climate.

The idea of an African peacekeeping force able to police its own is nothing new. Before his ousting, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was an early proponent of an African Army, and even offered to provide the location and resources to house and train African army forces. This invitation was rejected by the African Union, with many leaders suspicious of the eccentric leader’s motivation to create such an instrument of force in his own backyard. One could imagine how differently the Arab Spring might have turned out in Libya had Gaddafi been in control of such a force at his immediate disposal.

The continued presence of conflict across the war torn nation has proven both an impediment against, and catalyst for, creating the momentum of political will to establish the ASF. To date, the inability to meet operational deadlines for its implementation has exposed a myriad of problems in Africa’s first attempt at creating a rapid response, collective security apparatus. “The problems are legion, but the two biggest revolve around decision-making and funding.

Regarding the decision making problem, many of the problems haunting the ASF are those which complicate any type of collective security arraignment. Who does the decision making? When and where will the ASF deploy, what is the threshold for cause of action, and in what circumstances require action of force? Will troops from one region really want to risk their lives and fight for a far off problem in a wholly separate African region? Do individual countries supplying the ground troops have any say in the matter, and who funds such an ambitious challenge?

Which leads us to the problem of funding.

“Funding is key, funding is everything,” said Bam, speaking later to Daily Maverick. It determines capability, movement, equipment and maintenance, payments to injured soldiers. If we can sort that out, the rest can follow.” 

Mirroring Africa itself, the African Union simply does not have the resources necessary to fund these types of large scale organizational and operational commitments. This means they will continue to be largely dependent on Western donors to finance its missions. Peace in Africa, kept by Africans, funded by Foreigners? This creates a myriad of problems for the security organization moving forward, not the least of which is what influence will these foreign donors have on decision making in the country? Is it likely that outside countries would be willing to freely give hundreds of millions of dollars to fund African military forces without demanding some say in when and where these forces are used? The inability of the AU to finance its own security is likely to prevent it from acting independently in pursuit of African interests. It is a problem that has already prevented the development of the ASF, and is not likely to change in the near future. “Africa will never in the foreseeable future be able to fund large peacekeeping operations on its own.” 

2015 is the latest target date for an operational African Standby Force, and we are entering a pivotal stage in determining the future success of the continent’s collective security efforts. It is clearly in the region’s interest to successfully be able to meet and respond to its own challenges, and break its dependency on foreign control and funding. What remains to be seen is if the ASF is the answer they are looking for.

“History has placed these responsibilities in front of us. We need to take them up.”

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