Stop worrying and learn to love the French

Avoiding the embarrassment of relying on France to resolve crises requires a change of attitude as much as it requires establishing an independent capacity.

It is ironic that Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma occupied the chair of the African Union (AU) Commission last year with a mandate to prevent neo-colonialist – particularly French – meddling on the continent, just in time to preside over two French military interventions, with the AU's blessing. That will no doubt be on her mind at French President Francois Hollande's Africa security summit in Paris now under way where he will discuss with African leaders how France can support their efforts to tackle instability on the continent.

South African President Jacob Zuma apparently told Hollande when he was in South Africa in October that he would attend but then pulled out because of an important African National Congress (ANC) National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting this weekend.

At the January 2013 AU summit in Addis Ababa, leaders were obliged to thank France for saving the day in Mali – and to admit that France’s intervention there to stop Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists overrunning the country had worked because African governments had failed to get their act together. At the next AU summit in May, the continent’s leaders resolved to do something about this problem; they agreed to establish the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) – a mechanism which would enable volunteer African countries to form coalitions of the willing to tackle crises, with their own militaries and – more surprisingly perhaps – their own money.

That last requirement was perhaps inspired by Dlamini Zuma’s announcement when she arrived in Addis Ababa to take up her post about how shocked she was to discover that the AU Commission is also entirely funded by foreign donors. If Africa wanted to be truly independent, she has since often reiterated, it must fund its own activities.

ACIRC was intended as a stopgap measure, pending the eventual establishment of the African Standby Force, intended to be a state-of-the-art rapid response capability, and apparently just for that reason, taking forever to get going. It seems that Zuma was growing rather impatient at the delay in setting up even the stopgap measure, so he called an ACIRC summit in Pretoria in November this year.

At the summit he again stressed the urgency of getting an African rapid response force up and running, to find ‘African solutions for African problems’ and to avoid the embarrassment of having to depend on France once again. He and the three other presidents present – Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Chad’s Idriss Déby – each pledged a battalion to kickstart ACIRC, officials said. Some other countries showed varying degrees of commitment to participate in the future.

ACIRC is due to be formally approved by the next AU summit in January 2014, giving coalitions of the willing legitimacy to tackle crises on their own. Yet the pledge of four battalions at the Pretoria summit seemed a bit like wishful thinking and even the stopgap measure of ACIRC is being overtaken by events.

Déby, evidently, wanted ACIRC to cut its teeth in the Central African Republic (CAR). But the country has continued to plunge into deep chaos completely unchecked since the Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March and the UN and others are warning of genocide and of growing religious violence. The UN Security Council is expected today to adopt a French-sponsored resolution giving the Africa-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) and the French force supporting it a robust mandate under Chapter 7 of the UN charter to protect civilians against marauding rebels and others.

Regional countries – namely the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and Chad have begun reinforcing their contingents in MISCA with the aim of boosting it from 2 500 troops to its intended size of 3 600, though it is not yet there. Burundi has volunteered troops, NGOs say, but these would be ‘naked’ – i.e. requiring money and equipment – and there is some suggestion that Rwanda has also volunteered.

The gist of this all, however, is that France seems once more to be coming to the rescue. It has already started reinforcing its contingent of about 400 in CAR, with the intention of reaching a total of about 1 200. While that will be a smaller force than MISCA is even now, and though Paris has been at pains to stress that it will only be acting ‘in support of’ the African troops, the suspicion is that France will again provide the cutting edge for the foreign intervention. It will have harder troops on the ground and it will have the essential hardware, such as helicopters.

At Hollande’s summit, France will also discuss the possibility of helping the African’s get ACIRC up and running. Should Africa despair at all the help it is getting?

Comfort Ero of the International Crisis Group has suggested, in an insightful preview to Hollande’s summit this week, that Africa should stop aiming for – purely – African solutions to crises like CAR and should accept that these may sometimes require solutions that exceed Africa’s capacity and so will need the support of other players, like France. She also makes the point that the wider international community may well have its own real interests in resolving such conflicts. This was more obviously true in Mali which threatened to become a rear base for Al-Qaeda to attack Europe. But it is also true enough for the conflict in CAR which is already spilling over the country’s borders and stoking Muslim-Christian hostilities which could reverberate elsewhere.

The urge for African solutions emanates partly from a worthy desire to end Africa’s historic dependency and to act independently. But it also emanates from a less-worthy, ideological suspicion about ‘neo-colonialist’ designs by former colonial powers in Africa. Paradoxically that attitude could itself be labelled as ‘neo-colonialist’ as it is rather anachronistic in a globalised world of overlapping interests.

While continuing to strive for its own capacity to respond rapidly to crises – if only because there may often be no-one else to do the job – Africa could in the meantime avoid the embarrassment of relying on, say, France, by not berating France in the meantime. In other words, don’t be embarrassed. It’s no doubt embarrassing if you have to rely on your enemy to help you in a moment of need. It is surely not embarrassing to rely on your friend.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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