Does the unwieldy label of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises conceal a real determination to act?

At the first heads of state meeting of contributing countries, Chad, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa lead the way in pledging forces to the ACIRC.

All the attention this week on the unconditional surrender of the M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – including the Southern African Development Community (SADC)/International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) summit on the topic in Pretoria which South African President Jacob Zuma hosted on Monday night – rather overshadowed another important summit which he hosted the next night.

After the big SADC/ICGLR summit which nine heads of state attended, Tuesday’s summit on the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) was something of an anti-climax. Only four leaders were present and it also failed to attract much media attention, mainly, it seems, because the ACIRC invites such scepticism; it seems so perfectly to encapsulate the African Union’s (AU) propensity to prevaricate and procrastinate.

The AU summit in Addis Ababa in May decided to create the ACIRC because of its embarrassment at being found so badly wanting when jihadist and separatist insurgents launched their offensive to try to take over Mali. While Africa dithered and mulled over its response, the former colonial power France intervened decisively with Operation Serval, stopping the insurgents in their tracks.

The AU’s African Standby Force (ASF) should really have done the job in Mali. But at the May summit, the AU leaders said it was not going to be ready for some time, because, as then AU peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra in effect explained, it was intended to be such a perfect instrument that creating it would be a long process.

So the leaders agreed on a stopgap measure, the ACIRC, which would be a voluntary mechanism of countries ready to come together quickly to tackle specific crises. And so Tuesday’s meeting was the first gathering of the volunteers at summit level. The four leaders who attended were Zuma, Chad’s President Idriss Déby, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete.

Niger, Ghana, Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria and Sudan were represented at a lower level. Zuma was explicit in his opening remarks about the genesis of the ACIRC as a mechanism Africa felt it needed to ensure ‘African solutions for African problems’ – swiftly and independently of external powers. He suggested that this mechanism should be up and running by the end of the year.

But in a statement afterwards the leaders said they had decided to establish a Working Group of all Chiefs of Defence Staff of volunteering countries. The leaders had agreed on guidelines to help the defence chiefs to draft practical proposals for setting up the ACIRC. The chiefs would report back to the leaders of volunteering countries who would in turn report to the next AU summit in January 2014.

None of which sounds very ‘immediate’.

Nonetheless official sources insist there is a real determination by the core group of volunteers to create a rapid response force relatively rapidly. The volunteers were asked to pledge forces at Tuesday’s meeting. Déby, Museveni and Kikwete each pledged a reinforced battalion, while South Africa pledged a motorized battalion, sources said. South Africa and Tanzania are already quite committed with a battalion each in the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which contributed decisively to the DRC army’s victory over the M23. And Uganda’s military is even more deeply committed through its major contribution to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force in Somalia.

Nevertheless the sense of Tuesday’s meeting was that these new pledges would be over and above existing operations, if necessary. The commitment of the other volunteers at the meeting was less, as symbolised by their lower-level representation. They pledged logistics, training and equipment for the envisaged force, or said they would have to consult further with their governments before committing themselves.

Déby’s interest is evidently in the new rapid response force intervening in Chad’s neighbour, the Central African Republic (CAR), which remains in chaos after the ousting of President François Bozizé by Seleka rebels in March this year. One can imagine, although he may not have said so, that that is a mission Zuma could support. After the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF) small force in CAR was overrun by Seleka on its way to the capital Bangui in March, Zuma let it be known that he would like the SANDF to return in greater force to restore order (and, some might think, settle the score with Seleka).

The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and AU have theoretically agreed on a substantial reinforcement of the peacekeeping force that ECCAS now has in CAR but it so far just exists on paper and is likely to remain there.

What Museveni and Kikwete’s ideas for using the rapid response force might be is not clear. Museveni, especially, has always had ambitions beyond what for him are evidently the rather narrow confines of Uganda. The absence of Nigeria from Tuesday’s summit was remarked upon. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had earlier expressed enthusiastic support for the ACIRC but later tried to block it. Some observers believe he is too pre-occupied with fighting the Boko Haram Islamist militants in northern Nigeria to be able to lend forces to anyone else – but is too proud to admit it.

Ethiopia’s position also seems ambivalent. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was presumably expected at the summit at some point since Zuma welcomed him in the written version of his opening remarks. Instead foreign minister Tedros Ghebreyesus represented Ethiopia at Tuesday’s meeting. Desalegn had enthusiastically – and publicly – offered Ethiopia’s support for the ACIRC at the May AU summit. But others in his government who are politically influential evidently do not share Desalegn’s enthusiasm for getting involved in anything that does not directly serve Ethiopia’s interests.

One might legitimately ask why the AU did not just accelerate the establishment of the ASF rather than creating this new bureaucracy. The trouble with the ASF, officials reply, is that all AU members are supposed to be involved and that is really why it is taking so long to stand up.

And so the ACIRC is intended to be, not a whole new bureaucracy, but merely a way to secure AU legitimacy for what will essentially be coalitions of the willing, volunteers ready to put boots on the ground in a hurry in any given crisis. We shall see. 

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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