How much longer will the African Standby Force (ASF) simply continue to 'stand by' while France and others deal with Africa's crises?
As African leaders prepare for their 22nd Assembly of Heads of State of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa next week, questions around the implementation of the ASF have become more urgent than ever.
French military intervention in Mali in January 2013 and again in the Central African Republic (CAR) later last year have pushed this issue to the top of the agenda.
Plans for an African military force have been around for many years. In fact, as far back as the founding of the Organisation for African Unity in 1963, former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah already spoke about 'a common defence system with an African high command.'
On 25 May 2013 at the 50th Anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity/African Union, South African President Jacob Zumareminded colleagues that 'a free and self-sustaining Africa will be a pipe dream if we remain beholden to external sources.'
Judging from what's happened on the continent over the last couple of months, it is evident that the AU should urgently conduct a strategic review of all aspects of AU peace operations and of the ASF operational strategy. This is imperative if the AU wants to meet the deadline for the full implementation of the ASF by 2015.
Equally crucial will be a commitment by big powers on the continent to contribute in accordance with their capabilities in peacekeeping missions, and also to assist with airlift capability.
Africa was indeed neither ready nor equipped to do without external help in many crises in the last number of years - but that doesn't mean Africans are not being deployed in conflict zones across the continent on a massive scale.
To the contrary; in the last decade, ten AU and Regional Missions were deployed. During this period we saw a steady increase in contributing to UN peacekeeping, from about 10 000 in 2003 to 35 000 in 2013. This implies that more than 75 000 African peacekeepers participated in UN and African peace operations during 2013.
The number of the planned ASF of about 25 000 troops (five regional standby forces of 5 000 soldiers each) has therefore already been achieved.
What's more, African soldiers are paying a heavy price for this deployment. Over 3 000 African soldiers have, for example, been killed in Somalia as part of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Unofficial estimates are that this figure might be much higher.
Plans are also afoot to create an African Capacity for Immediate Responses to Crises (ACIRC), with a strong mandate to intervene in crises at short notice.
During a meeting in Addis Ababa on 14 January, the AU Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security (STCDSS) recommended that the ACIRC be 'captured as a phase in the implementation roadmap and operationalisation of the ASF', which already includes a Rapid Deployment Capability.
What, then, are the challenges and gaps to be addressed by the AU to ensure that the ASF will be fully operational by 2015?
The issue of funding is crucial, given that all African peace operations and activities remain almost entirely externally funded.
It is clear the AU must find ways to self-fund its activities to a much greater extent. With up to half of Africa's around one billion people living in poverty, some very innovative thinking is required to lower the external funding and to ensure that African governments meet their financial obligations towards the AU Peace Operations.
One suggestion to save costs is that African countries should refrain from using their involvement in peacekeeping operations as a source of national income, but rather to charge the AU the actual incremental cost of deployment and for the replacement of equipment lost during operations.
African militaries pay their troops badly, so their contingents should not be as expensive as they currently are.
More should be done to convince big regional powers to pull their weight. Some argue that South Africa is doing far less than it should given the strength of its economy; Angola does very little in terms of peacekeeping, except for a small deployment to Guinea-Bissau, despite a large army and reasonable airlift capacity; and Egypt with its enormous transport fleet could offer to airlift troops to conflict zones.
In fact, with proper cooperation and coordination, Africa might not need to rely on US and European for the airlifting of troops, since the aircraft in African air forces are already capable of transporting everything but heavy vehicles. This may be resolved by a reconfiguration of capabilities.
Evidently, as part of its restructuring and review of the ASF, the AU should conduct an audit of the technical capabilities and availability of military assets on the continent.
This will be part of a bigger strategic review that will have to relook the initial concept of the ASF and redesign it to become an affordable and effective force.
The strategic review and redesign will not be feasible without a well-staffed (military, police and civilians) AU Peace Support Operations Division, with a Chief of Staff and heads of the three components equal in rank and influence.
The original plans - made as far back as 2003 - were ambitious and based on the way the United Nations (UN) conducted peacekeeping at the time, but the ASF planning should be based on current African capacities and shaped to address the evolving nature of African conflicts. It should also ensure the shortest turnaround time, since conflicts can escalate extremely quickly.
It must be kept in mind that African military intervention and the ASF are still only a temporary, stop-gap measure to stall conflict and save lives until a fully-fledged UN force can take over. Ultimately, the UN remains responsible for world peace; not the AU.
Establishing standards for equipment, personnel, rosters and procedures is another critical aspect of the restructured ASF mission to ensure that the right resources at the right time and place are available.
Well-positioned logistic bases for the ASF - west and east - are also required for strategic airlifting to take place. Importantly, the balance between the civilian and military components of peace missions should also be reviewed.
Equipment without capable personnel is worthless. Africa has made a lot of progress through the establishment of Centres of Excellence, well-designed training programs and trainers who meet high standards under the auspices of the African Peace Support Trainers Association (APSTA).
Exercises such as Amani Africa II, planned for October 2014, require proper design, planning and well-monitored execution.
It also needs full participation of Regional Economic Communities, Regional Missions and member states of the AU. Without such commitment these exercises may become a burden rather than a golden opportunity to test standards, procedures and readiness of forces.
For the ASF to succeed it is also crucial that internal differences and lack of coordination within the AU be addressed.
The debate around regional brigades came to the fore with the overthrow of former president François Bozizé in the CAR in March last year, when regional forces simply stood aside.
Subsequently, the Chadian component of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) mission came under attack and was accused of complicity with the Séléka rebels.
Ultimately, it comes down to an issue of trust between countries and member states of the AU. The ASF will work if it is thoroughly redesigned, if Africa's big military powers commit manpower and resources and if African peacekeepers are properly trained and equipped.
Annette Leijenaar, Division Head, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria and Helmoed Heitman, independent international military analyst and writer