The African Union (AU)-directed African Standby Force (ASF) has not been deployed since its establishment in 2003. This is despite the AU's extensive experience with peace support operations in countries like Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).
However the AU is continuing its efforts to see the force deployed in crisis situations, and some progress has been seen recently in getting the ASF ready. The inauguration of the first ASF continental logistics base in Douala, Cameroon, on 5 January 2018 was a positive step. The base is set to boost the AU's capacity to provide logistical support to peace support operations.
In 2016, the AU special technical committee on defence, safety and security had declared the ASF fully operational following the AMANI Africa II field training exercise in South Africa. The AU has carried out command-post training and exercises to boost the military, police and civilian components of the multi-dimensional ASF.
AU heads of state and the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in 2017 mandated a team to verify the ASF regional standby forces' operational readiness, identify gaps and challenges and provide recommendations. The assessment showed that although significant progress had been made by West, Southern and East Africa in establishing their regional standby forces, the Central and North Africa regions were still lagging behind.
Central and North Africa are still lagging behind in establishing their regional standby forces
Aspects of the original concept for the ASF, which dates back 15 years, are also outdated in view of lessons learnt from AU missions and growing security threats like terrorism, transnational crimes and humanitarian crises.
In October 2018, several workshops took place as part of AU efforts to enhance the conceptual and legal foundation of the ASF. A broader AU doctrine on peace support operations was discussed, which would include strategic guidance on a number of tools used by the AU. These important technical matters must be resolved, but the question of whether the ASF is deployed or not depends on political will and actual crises happening in Africa.
New thinking is needed about the contexts in which ASF interventions would be required. Current security realities require African peacekeepers to increasingly deal with violent extremism, transnational organised crime and piracy.
They are also called on during humanitarian disasters, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and the massive displacement of refugees and migrants. Most of these threats defy national and regional boundaries and require greater synergies between the various ASF regional standby forces and member states.
The AU, unlike the UN, is increasingly willing to engage in peace enforcement missions
Asymmetric threats like violent extremism have led to the establishment of ad hoc regional mechanisms such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force fighting terrorism in the Sahel and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area.
These arrangements help bridge regional divisions, with some G5 Sahel members and the MNJTF belonging to the Economic Community of West African States and others part of the Economic Community of Central African States.
However the AU must further develop ad hoc regional security arrangements as a tool to tackle specific conflict situations. Both the G5 Sahel and MNJTF were authorised by the United Nations Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council, and more understanding is needed to streamline the day-to-day command and control, reporting and accountability aspects of these arrangements.
Beyond regional configurations, policymakers are considering harmonising the flexible elements of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) within the ASF. ACIRC was created in 2013 following lessons learnt from Africa's lack of rapid deployment capacity to crises such as in the case of Mali. Like the ASF, it too has never been deployed.
African peacekeepers have to deal with violent extremism, transnational organised crime and piracy
ACIRC was initially conceptualised as a voluntary framework for rapid intervention in crises across the continent, pending the ASF becoming operational. ACIRC's flexible nature stems from the fact that its 14 voluntary members could be sent anywhere in Africa without being constrained by geographical location, as is the case with the ASF's five regional brigades.
Considering that ACIRC is itself a political issue surrounded by controversy, friction could arise as it is being harmonised with the ASF. Nevertheless a flexible approach for the ASF would mitigate the uneven capacities of the regional standby forces. It would enable the AU to summon forces from member states that are willing and able to deploy rapidly in conflict situations.
Over recent decades it has become clear that the AU is increasingly willing to engage in peace enforcement missions, unlike the UN which deploys only after peace deals have been reached. The AU Mission in Somalia is an example of this more offensive approach. An AU peace support operation doctrine would thus include deployment to enforce peace and stabilise crisis areas so that the UN could take over.
The October meetings also dealt with the legal framework that regulates the relationship between the AU and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) on ASF-related matters. A memorandum of understanding will be signed by next year that clarifies the role of the AU and RECs in mandating an ASF, as well as the command and control of the regional forces. One benefit will be a reduction in tensions between the AU and RECs on how to use the ASF.
All these developments will be considered as the AU peace support operations doctrine is being developed. But without political commitment by African states and regional bodies, the development of policies, doctrine and concepts will remain a paper exercise.
Despite the AU Commission's many efforts at the technical level, decisions about whether or not the ASF is eventually deployed are made elsewhere. The political will of African states and their regional organisations is key to committing resources, ensuring functional regional headquarters, and deciding whether or not standby forces are deployed to crisis situations.
Ndubuisi Christian Ani, Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa
A version of this article was first published by the ISS PSC Report.