Resolving the African Standby Force’s identity crisis

The role of the African Standby Force (ASF) as a continental response mechanism for countries’ complex peacekeeping and peace enforcement needs, is again under the spotlight. This follows the East African Community’s (EAC) June decision to deploy a regional military force to help stabilise the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the deployment’s noble objectives, it is unclear whether the force will be part of the ASF.

This is not the first time a regional economic community (REC) has opted to deploy a regional force in response to security threats. In July 2021, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent troops to Mozambique (SAMIM) to counter terrorism in Cabo Delgado. SAMIM was only later recognised as an ASF deployment by the Peace and Security Council (PSC).

The EAC force could add to the proliferation of African-led military missions mandated outside the ASF framework. This development stems from the lack of clarity in the division of labour between the African Union (AU) and RECs. There is also a lack of clarity about who should control the mandating process.

The PSC Protocol clearly indicates that the AU should be in full command and control of ASF missions

In response to these underlying issues, AU policy actors have been discussing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the ASF with RECs and regional mechanisms (RMs). This follows a decision by the Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security in May for such an MoU. Experts hope the MoU will clarify the division of labour and respond to questions about the political, legal and operational decision-making process of deploying the ASF.

However, working arrangements between the AU and RECs are expected to face hurdles linked to REC/RM command control preferences, countries’ multiple memberships of RECs and RMs, and political challenges. These require the AU to consult extensively on the ASF’s feasibility as the main mechanism for implementing African peace support operations (PSOs). The AU also needs a policy framework beyond the PSO Doctrine – which is limited to AU-mandated PSOs – to enable a viable working relationship with RECs and RMs.

Defining and deploying the ASF

The draft MoU, seen by PSC Report, provides definitions of terms that differentiate AU-authorised, endorsed and/or recognised PSOs from AU PSOs. The latter are those missions mandated by the AU Assembly and/or the PSC. This, however, does not adequately clarify the type of missions considered part of the ASF.

Clarity is needed because SAMIM, for instance, is mandated by SADC but was endorsed only by the PSC during its 1062nd meeting in January 2022, six months after its deployment. Despite the AU not having command and control of SAMIM and the mission not being required to adhere to the AU PSO Doctrine, the PSC has confirmed the SAMIM has been deployed ‘within the framework of the ASF.’

This does not conform with the PSC Protocol, which requires the AU to be in full command and control of ASF missions through a special representative, force commander and police commissioner appointed by the AU Commission chairperson. The absence of clarity on the type and scope of ASF missions has resulted in a crisis of identity for the ASF.

Defining the ASF also affects the articulation of its deployment. Should the PSC discuss a crisis before any REC/RM deploys a PSO or other special operation? Such clarification is important to avoid the confusion witnessed with the Mozambique mission. SADC asked to use ASF capabilities, although, at the time, SAMIM was neither deployed under the ASF framework, nor mandated and authorised by the PSC.

A legal framework should include standards and procedures on deploying PSOs across the continent

On the contrary, the PSC had not discussed the terrorist threat in Mozambique because SADC had pronounced itself in charge. This highlighted the confusion about REC/RM deployment, and command and control of the ASF without AU endorsement. Any AU–RECs/RMs working arrangement should detail the political and operational process of deploying the ASF, and the circumstances under which regional missions may later be recognised as ASF deployments. The draft MoU does not provide operational guidance of REC-mandated military missions.

Regional limitations

Africa's peace and security challenges are increasingly cross-regional, straddling more than one REC. This is the case with the Boko Haram threat in the Lake Chad Basin. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) mandated to respond to this threat is an ad-hoc cross-regional mission authorised by the AU.

The regional arrangement of the ASF conceptualised by the MoU diverges from its original concept. While the ASF can be mandated by the AU to deploy in any region of the continent, the MoU brings this into question. Linking the deployment of the ASF to REC/RM mandating power limits its geographical scope.

The MoU also ponders whether cross-regional ‘coalitions of the willing’ missions such as the MNJTF that don’t fall under any region or REC/RM can be classified as ASF and access the force’s capabilities. The MoU is not clear if the ASF may be deployed by two RECs/RMs responding to a common threat.

Countries’ concerns about the ASF must be addressed during the MoU’s consultation stage

Inversely, other regions have multiple RECs, such as the EAC and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in East Africa. The MoU should state whether a mission mandated by one REC, such as the EAC deployment to the DRC, may come under the framework of the East African Standby Force. It should also stipulate whether a REC in a region with other RECs also have jurisdiction, can lead an ASF deployment. This indicates the potential complications if RECs take over ASF command and control.

Forging ahead

The challenges associated with the MoU have their roots in the PSO Doctrine and the lack of a comprehensive AU PSO policy framework that guides not only AU-mandated missions, but all African-led missions. A comprehensive legal framework should include standards and procedures to guide the deployment of PSOs across the continent.

If it comes into force, the MoU’s success will depend on buy-in from member states and RECs/RMs. Achieving this is only possible if their concerns about the ASF are addressed in the consultation stage. This includes their preference to deploy ad-hoc missions, the lack of commitment to provide capabilities and funding to the ASF, and a reluctance to see the AU lead peace support missions in their regions.  

It is not sufficient to sign an MoU without resolving the ASF’s identity crisis and the many challenges that stand in its way. Developing a clear legal procedure for mandating and deploying PSOs in general and the ASF, in particular, is also urgent.  

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