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Vol 55 No 3

Published 7th February 2014

South Africa’s volunteer force

Frustrated by delays in setting up an African standby force, Pretoria and its allies are pushing ahead with a smaller, rapid reaction force

The cannons roared and the guns blazed as diplomats and politicians arrived for the African Union summit in Addis Abba on 24-31 January. The raging conflict and wanton killing in Central African Republic and South Sudan could not have provided a worse backdrop for the summiteers or clearer proof of their organisation’s inability to pre-empt conflict or intervene effectively when the fighting starts. As the records of the United Nations and European Union show, the AU is far from alone in such failures. It also points to the magnitude of the AU’s ambitions: to build a standby military force for the region to be sent into action by an authoritative continental security council and to commission teams of independent experts to raise governance standards through peer review.

Last year’s 50th anniversary of the pan-African organisation, the AU and its precursor, the Organisation of African Unity, was distinctly self-congratulatory. This sentiment was not widely shared outside AU headquarters and presidential palaces. Nevertheless, several quiet dissidents within the system are trying to nudge the AU towards effectiveness and independence from foreign aid givers. For such reformers, it was a summit of half-measures and compromise. The formal agenda – the launch of the Year of Agriculture and Food Security – was quickly passed over in favour of the tougher negotiations about an African army and the money to finance it.

Although shrouded in caveats and questions about capacity, agreement to operationalise an African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), constituted the summit’s big decision. South Africa is behind it, driven partly by the success of an intervention force it led with Tanzania in Congo-Kinshasa and frustration that ex-colonial power France has been called in twice over the last 18 months to intervene in African wars, first in Mali and then in CAR.

The planned force marks another step to more robust military intervention by African states in African conflicts, moving further down the line from peace-keeping to peace-enforcement. Already, the South African and Tanzanian intervention force in Congo has enthused those at UN headquarters who want to see stronger mandates and logistical backing for peace-keepers in Africa. The force in Congo succeeded partly because South Africa’s credibility was on the line: it sent some of its best troops, gave them half a dozen attack helicopters, high-techology communications equipment and real-time intelligence and aerial surveillance reports.

Hastily announced by AU Commission Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the closing ceremony, the ACIRC aspires to continue that pattern of success but faces huge practical and diplomatic obstacles. Officials are yet to agree on the procedures for the start-up of the force, including setting up an Operations Command Centre at AU headquarters. Twelve countries have agreed to participate: Algeria, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, South Africa, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. For many, that group is controversial: all, apart from Angola and South Africa, are involved in some form of dispute with a neighbouring state. As the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria notes, there is not a single conflict in Africa that is not linked to a neighbour.

Champions of the ACIRC were disappointed by the response from other member states. The resolution calls for countries to be ‘encouraged to volunteer capabilities’. Perhaps the biggest loss to the cause is Nigeria. Initially supportive of South Africa’s plan, President Goodluck Jonathan changed tack and called for tight controls by the AU Peace and Security Council on the force’s deployment and mandate. A proposal that the force be independent of the AU Commission with independent command was also defeated in debate. Opponents argued that the AU constitution gives the PSC final responsibility for security on the continent: it will determine where and when the force is used.

The diplomatic problems don’t stop there. Sceptics also worry that the force could divert attention from the long-running attempts to establish a much bigger African Standby Force, with several battalions of peacekeepers to serve in AU operations across Africa. First mooted in the 1990s, this force was meant to start work in a year’s time. A committee led by Nigerian former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Gambari reported that preparations were well behind schedule. The Standby Force also needs money and troops over a fixed period and with an agreed budget. By comparison, the ACIRC is like a volunteer army but leaner and meaner.

For both forces, the diplomacy around intervention will be tough. Under Dlamini- Zuma, the AU has become more assertive towards the UN – and it wants to set the diplomatic agenda for intervention, even if the UN funds them. Yet, once it is brought into the mission, the UN also wants command and control. A discussion between Guinean President Alpha Condé, who favoured UN involvement in CAR, and Congo-Brazzaville’s President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who opposed it, was finally resolved when the new CAR Interim President, Catherine Samba- Panza, called for an early deployment of UN forces. A notch down the hierarchy lie other tensions between African regional organisations, which want to control efforts to settle conflicts in their areas, and the concerns of the AU, which sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of security. 

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