Standing by or standing up: is the African Standby Force nearly ready for action?

The upcoming Amani II field exercise in South Africa should bring more clarity on the relationship between ACIRC and the African Standby Force.

The African Union (AU) – and especially South Africa – regards the AU’s nascent African Standby Force (ASF) as a means to pre-empt alleged Western meddling in Africa. It is rather ironic, then, that the European Union (EU) will participate quite significantly in the ASF’s first full field military exercise in South Africa, starting in October.

Amani Africa II exercises are mainly funded through the EU’s African Peace Facility, and the EU permanent planning team has a mandate from the AU to help plan and conduct them – though the AU remains in charge, of course. 

More than 5 000 soldiers, police officers and civilians from around the continent are expected to come to South Africa for Amani Africa II, which will take place at the SA Army Combat Training Centre in Lohatlha, Northern Cape from 19 October to 7 November.

It is expected to be the single largest ‘multi-dimensional’ military exercise ever held in democratic South Africa. As it so often does, South Africa stepped into the breach to host this exercise, which was supposed to be held in Lesotho late last year – before political and security unrest ruled that out.

Dr Sayibu Pabi Gariba, of the AU peace support division’s Amani Africa II exercise core planning team, told the online journal Defence Web that the total deployment at Lohatlha would be above the 5 000 mark, comprising troops from regional standby forces. He mentioned the Southern African Development community (SADC) as the main force, plus ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), EASF (East Africa Standby Force) and ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States). This suggested that one of the AU’s five official regions, North Africa, would be absent from the exercise.

ACIRC has never been deployed, not least because of political resistance and rivalries
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The main field exercise at Lohatlha will be the culmination of a series of smaller preparatory exercises in the Amani Africa II cycle over the past five years. ‘Amani Africa’ means ‘peace in Africa’ in Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. The AU said the exercise is meant to evaluate the readiness of the ASF and its rapid deployment capability ‘to respond swiftly to ensuring conflicts unhampered by any heavy political and instrumental burdens’ by the end of this year. This deadline had already been shifted from the original one of 2010.

‘Unhampered by any heavy political and instrumental burdens’ appears to a rather delicate reference to the need felt by the AU and its member states to resolve conflicts on the continent without relying on outside powers. The euphemism was presumably necessitated by the slightly awkward fact that the AU is relying rather heavily on EU support for Amani Africa II.

Amani II will also be an occasion for the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) force, a forerunner to the AU’s African Standby Force (ASF), to show its stuff. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smaïl Chergui earlier indicated that both forces would take part in the exercise. South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation confirmed this at a press conference earlier this month.

There has been considerable confusion about how exactly the ASF and ACIRC relate to each other. ACIRC was established two years ago, very much at South Africa’s behest, because South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders felt that the ASF was taking too long to get going. Meanwhile, Africa was being embarrassed by having to depend on foreign powers, as it did especially on French military intervention in Mali and the Central African Republic.

ACIRC has never been deployed, not least because of political resistance and rivalries between African countries. Nigeria, in particular, at least under former President Goodluck Jonathan, was deeply suspicious of it – apparently seeing it as a vehicle for South Africa’s hegemonic ambitions on the continent, especially coming so soon after Pretoria had aggressively campaigned to install cabinet minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the chair of the AU Commission.

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says that the challenge with ACIRC is similar to the challenge of ASF. ‘Whichever structure is put in place will require that countries put investments and provide capacity for it. In the case of South Africa, the mismatch between the defence review and the budgets for the army show that more must be done to ensure that those processes are effectively implemented.’

The AU deployed peace support operations before, and can draw from these experiences
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There had been reports that ACIRC might be disbanded or merged into the ASF as its rapid deployment capability at last month’s summit in Sandton. This did not happen, probably to avoid a loss of face for the host country. Instead, the summit leaders agreed that ‘Africa must also be self-reliant in finding African solutions to African problems in the peace and security domain, both in terms of funding and enhancing our collective capability to respond to conflict situations. [ACIRC] is the interim mechanism that we have created for this purpose while we are operationalising our African Standby Force.’

At the summit, Chergui suggested Amani Africa II would be the event where the ASF and ACIRC would be integrated. The exercise would not only be about ‘preparing for the operationalisation of the ASF,’ but it would also include a command exercise of ACIRC. ‘Which is to say they are working in communion and there is no contradiction between them. Whatever we achieve in ACIRC, will help the ASF … so we are working gradually to achieve that goal by end of the year.'

Amani Africa II should help answer some outstanding questions about how the ASF and ACIRC might work together, and for how long. For they are very different animals, at least in the way they are deployed, as the ISS Peace and Security Report notes in its July 2015 edition. 'ACIRC works directly through the AU, whereas the ASF works through regional economic communities; ACIRC is self-funded and based on the voluntary participation of member states, whereas the ASF requires significant AU funding and must coordinate large numbers of member states; and ACIRC is deployed at the behest of a lead country with AU approval, whereas the ASF is deployed by the AU itself with approval from regional economic communities.' This makes ACIRC potentially more agile, but with less authority.

The latter deficiency already appears to have presented a problem, keeping it grounded for the last two years. ACIRC is also more dependent on individual member states, de Carvalho adds. ‘ASF would potentially create a more regular and predictable structure.’ However the PSC Report also notes, as others have, that ACIRC’s functions overlap almost completely those of the ASF’s Rapid Deployment Capability, which is supposed to be able to deploy anywhere on the continent within 14 days.

ACIRC may help the ASF to meet its 2015 deadline, or at least look like it's doing so
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The report suggests, though, that this quick response ability is, ironically, the least ready part of the ASF. In fact, it is 'non-existent at present.' A picture begins to emerge of ACIRC as having served, and still continuing to serve, more of a useful public relations purpose for the AU than anything else. For two years it has made the continent appear ready for action, even if it has never been deployed. Meanwhile occasions for its deployment, such as the Boko Haram menace in West Africa, and the very bloody civil war in South Sudan, have not been wanting.

This week, for instance, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting scores of killings, rapes and widespread burning and pillage of civilian property by South Sudanese government forces and allied fighters during a military offensive in Unity State. ‘The deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian property during the offensive between April and June 2015 amount to war crimes, and the killings and rapes may also constitute crimes against humanity,’ the watchdog said.

Regional diplomats suggest that, far from resenting ACIRC as a measure to pre-empt its interventions in Africa, France would very much like it to relieve French forces in the Central African Republic. The brief history of ACIRC might suggest that the AU is reluctant to intervene in crises. But de Carvalho says ‘it is important to mention that the AU has already deployed peace support operations.’ He adds that the organisation can draw from its experiences in countries like Somalia, Mali and Burundi to create a more predictable mechanism, through the ASF. 

In the meantime, though, at Amani Africa II, ACIRC may serve the further useful purpose of helping the ASF to meet its 2015 deadline – or at least look like it is doing so – even though the ASF is not in fact fully ready for action. ACIRC will presumably do that by stepping in to play the part of the missing Rapid Deployment Capability.

One analyst believes that Amani Africa II will show up the ASF as ‘unfit for purpose, especially as regards its capacity in a rapid deployment role’ and that the exercise will, by contrast, make ACIRC look good. He notes that about 12 countries have signed up to ACIRC, including Angola and Algeria, with the continent’s greatest airlift capacities, ‘so it is far from just an RSA initiative.’

‘I think the idea that ACIRC will disappear is a myth propagated to assuage its critics within the AU family,’ says the analyst, who does not want to be named.

ACIRC will continue to play its part – at least on paper – until the Rapid Deployment Capability is up and running, the ISS PSC Report suggests. ‘As soon as the ASF can operationalise its own Rapid Deployment Capability, ACIRC will have served its purpose and is likely to be dismantled,' it concludes. An honourable discharge, no doubt, for saving, if not lives, then at least face.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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