The next time a major crisis that needs swift military action breaks out anywhere in Africa, an African force will be on high alert to intervene within days. This was the message from African leaders at the recently concluded 23rd bi-annual African Union (AU) summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
At the summit, South African President Jacob Zuma, who spearheads the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) initiative, said that all the countries contributing troops have been visited by the AU, and will be ready to go by October this year.
Doubts remain, however, about the cost of the force and who will take care of the final bill. The original idea behind the force was to find 'African solutions for African problems,' and to avoid having to call on foreign forces when there is a crisis. This was the case in Mali last year when France launched Operation Serval to stave off an immediate threat from Islamist rebels against the capital, Bamako.
André Roux, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says the cost of the preparations could place a burden on participating countries before any intervention even starts.
The force is expected to consist of three battalions from three different countries, and should be on high-level alert to intervene at any time. This means that each of the participating countries - of which there are 10 in total, for now - will have to make available around 1 000 highly trained troops, who will either be on high alert or on standby. This is expected to be on a rotational basis between regions.
A deployment for six months could cost US$28 million per country. If the AU offers to airlift troops to where they are required, the burden on countries would be considerably reduced, says Roux.
In total, deploying such a rapid force - in anticipation of a longer-term peace force, which could take some time - could cost up to US$100 million for the first year of operations when including the cost of getting vehicles and equipment in and out of the mission.
The question is, if the AU has to ask for money from non-African, international donors, does this not defeat the objective of making this a truly African solution?
At the Malabo summit, a budget of just under US$522 million was approved for the AU for 2015, which includes US$144 million for operational costs and US$380 million for programmes. This is a considerable increase from the US$308 million budgeted for this year. Traditionally, a big chunk of this has been funded by outside organisations like the European Union, which, for example gives €55 million to its AU Support Programme.
Good news for the AU is that Egypt has rejoined the organisation after sanctions against the country had been imposed following the ousting of former president, Mohamed Morsi, in July last year. Egypt, together with Libya, Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria, used to be one of the major financiers of the AU, contributing up to 15% of its budget.
Since the ousting of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and the ensuing chaos, one can just surmise that the stream of funding from Tripoli has also been cut off.
Since Egypt had apparently been lobbying fiercely for re-admission, perhaps it will resume its sponsorship to take some of the burden off the other member states.
Nevertheless, South Africa is leading the project - so there is no doubt that South Africa will have to be ready and has to commit resources to prepare its battalion, which already means incurring costs.
There is, however, no budget line for this preparation as yet - and preparation costs have to come from the existing external operations budget, extending the already stretched peacekeeping budget even more.
Roux fears that other external deployments of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it serves as part of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (UN FIB), could suffer due to this extra pressure on troops and equipment.
He points out that to have a battalion deployed externally requires more than 1 000 troops, and normally necessitates up to 3 000 since there should be provision for retraining, rotation, a rest period and the combat and mission readiness training for a battalion that has served a certain amount of time abroad.
South Africa has a number of highly trained troops from various arms of service of the SANDF, but lacks sufficient numbers of trained infantry. Zuma proposed ACIRC at the May 2013 summit of the AU in Addis Ababa, following the French military intervention in Mali. A subsequent summit was held in Pretoria in November last year, attended by the heads of state of Uganda, Chad and Tanzania.
The ACIRC is expected to be led from Addis Ababa and coordinated by the AU Peace and Security Council. This is a departure from the regional brigades of the African Standby Force (ASF) that are based in the five regions of the AU. Plans are afoot to make sure the ASF is fully operational to do peacekeeping by 2015.
Experts point out that the ACIRC is decidedly different from the ASF, which will have to include all the components of peacekeeping as defined by the UN, including the military, humanitarian and political aspects of such a mission.
During a discussion on the future of peacekeeping that was hosted by the Brookings Institute, Hervé Ladsous, Under Secretary General of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (USG DPKO) said last month that the UN and its partners are thoroughly rethinking peace operations and how these very costly operations can be made more effective.
Current conflicts, like those in the Central African Republic, have shown that a rapid capability, as well as peacekeeping with a robust mandate, is needed in some very complex and challenging cases. Ladsous said peacekeeping is a 'collective effort' that should be shared by all members of the UN. Some have argued that there should also be an increased role for non-state actors in peacekeeping, which could, potentially, take some financial burden off countries.
Financing intervention in conflicts outside their borders remains a tall order for African countries, who have other challenges at home. However, if lives are to be saved and if the AU is serious about its effort to 'end all wars in Africa by 2020,' all member states will have to participate in rapid intervention and peacekeeping on the continent.
This is especially true for the critical early stages when a 'coalition of the willing and able,' as defined in the ACIRC concept, is needed to do humanitarian intervention (which includes limited war-fighting), before the mission can become a peacekeeping operation, where there is peace to keep.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant