Will ACIRC survive the AU Summit?

It has been operational for just under a year, but the future of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) is already in doubt. A question likely to be discussed at the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg is how the controversial peacekeeping force can be incorporated into existing AU structures – or whether to keep it alive at all.

Analysts say it is unlikely that a decision will be made at the summit to scrap ACIRC entirely, given the urgent need for such a force and the fact that it is an initiative spearheaded by South Africa.

Created at the 21st AU Summit in 2013, ACIRC has been divisive from the start. The force is intended to provide the AU with the kind of rapid military response that could be deployed to stop or prevent emerging genocides, crimes against humanity, or war crimes by armed rebel forces.

This is an essential tool for the AU that is often perceived as being slow to act, and was launched in reaction to the AU’s perceived failure to intervene effectively in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).

This is an essential tool for the AU that is often perceived as being slow to act

Planning for a similar force, however, already exists within the AU. The African Standby Force (ASF) is a pillar of the African Peace and Security Architecture, and its Rapid Deployment Capability is supposed to be able to deploy anywhere on the continent within 14 days. However, full operationalisation of the ASF is long overdue, and its Rapid Deployment Capability is non-existent at this stage.

ACIRC is self-funded and voluntary

There are some crucial differences between ACIRC and the rapid response force envisaged for the ASF. 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.

In practice, this means that while ACIRC is more responsive and less of a burden on the AU itself, its deployment is contingent on member states’ volunteering resources and participation. On the other hand, the ASF’s Rapid Deployment Capability will be a more predictable tool, and the AU will have greater control over its deployment (provided that regional economic communities cooperate) – but it will be far more difficult to operationalise.

Neither is perfect, however. ‘The key challenge [for ACIRC] lies in the word “immediate”, which is quite impossible given that no one south of the Sahara has adequate air- or even sealift, and those to the north have so far largely avoided providing that capability,’ commented Helmoed Heitman, a South African defence analyst. ‘But ACIRC might be a better bet than the ASF, which was predicated entirely on the countries of a region dealing with its problems. The result was there to be seen in Mali, where the standby force stood by and watched; and in the CAR where the elements of the Central African Standby Brigade stood aside and let the rebels into Bangui – except for the Chadian troops, who joined the rebels,’ said Heitman.

Two mutually exclusive forces

Nonetheless, despite their differences and shortcomings, the two proposed forces are intended to do the same thing. Although ACIRC was originally envisaged as an interim solution until the ASF became operational, it has become clear that the two are mutually exclusive. As long as funding, resources and political will are directed towards ACIRC, the ASF will never properly get off the ground.

The real question is whether there is enough synergy between business leadership and politicians

The AU knows it must make a decision: does ACIRC have a future?

Broadly speaking, there are three options confronting defence chiefs and heads of state and government at the AU Summit in Johannesburg. First, ACIRC could be scrapped entirely, and the AU could focus its energies on implementing the ASF’s Rapid Deployment Capability. Second, it could somehow be incorporated into the ASF, perhaps replacing the Rapid Deployment Capability but working with ASF structures. Third, it could continue in its current form.

‘Despite discussions that might come up, I do not see that ACIRC is going to be off the table. It is the only valid current response capability. If there’s another Mali now, and we don’t have ACIRC, we don’t have the ability to intervene and save lives,’ said Andre Roux, an Institute for Security Studies consultant and conflict management expert. ‘There’s a massive difference between normal peacekeeping and that [rapid response] capacity. While ACIRC remains a coalition of the willing and able, I don’t see it going away. This is a capacity that is being volunteered for use in the absence of capacity in the ASF.’

Integration into the ASF a likely scenario

Other analysts concur that despite opposition from some AU member states – particularly Nigeria, which is suspicious of South Africa’s motives in spearheading the force – ACIRC is more likely to be somehow integrated into the ASF than to disappear.

‘It would be tricky to dismantle ACIRC, which is spearheaded by South Africa [the country hosting the summit]. If there are changes then they could be in name or integrating ACIRC in the [ASF]. It will be humiliating for the host if ACIRC is dismantled,’ said Norman Sempijja, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand and co-author of an upcoming policy brief on ACIRC’s effectiveness. ‘We also need to remember that [ACIRC] was a temporary measure. So I think they may find a way of integrating it in the overall ASF.’

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