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Permanent peacekeepers: Should the African Union have a standby army?

Permanent peacekeepers: Should the African Union have a standby army?

By Daniel Donovan

This week I was reading about the two largest economic powers in Africa, Nigeria and South Africa, attempting to mend rocky relations that have divided the two countries for decades. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and South Africa President Jacob Zuma met for the second time in as many months to discuss greater collaboration between the nations when the issue of a “standby force” controlled by the African Union (AU) “for rapid deployment in crisis areas without delays” arose between the two leaders. President Zuma actually issued support for such a move, which astonished me. Generally in the geopolitical game that is played out across the globe day-in and day-out, the thought of two regional powers uniting to yield power to the whole of the continent is unheard of. However, in an era that promises to fruit African growth that will surpass almost all other regions, a unified and peaceful continent may be the solution for increased development as Africa attempts to close the gap between themselves and a reeling European economy.

The idea of a standby or standing army is not new, as it gained traction after several bouts of post-election violence in the mid-2000s. The African Union has begun to show an amalgamation similar to Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. This alliance makes the idea of a continental armed force more promising.

There are approximately 22 conflicts ongoing in Africa, with some of the more prominent violence occurring in Somalia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), The Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, the Boko Harem violence in Northern Nigeria, the Darfur conflict in the Sudan and the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda that now conducts raids on the border of CAR and DRC. Africa also plays host to three United Nations (UN) missions, AMISOM in Somalia, UNAMID in Darfur and MONUSCO in the DRC. While the two former missions are heavily supported with African troops, the latter—until a recent change in mandate—is mostly outfitted with troops from South Asia. This has reflected in their performance as MONUSCO has been littered with poor performance and a general inability to carry out their mandate. This may be in part because they are not from Africa and therefore they do not have a ‘dog in the fight’.  A new intervention force—which will be launched at the end of the month—has been mandated by the UN Security Council to neutralise and disarm rebel groups in the DRC and will be composed of troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. Only time will tell if these continental forces will change the culture of violence rebellion in the DRC.

The other two missions have shown a much greater amount of tangible success as each group—ranks filled with African soldiers—have been able to maintain their mandate and make strides in ensuring that their assigned task is carried out. AMISOM in particular, composed of troops from Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi and Djibouti—with an independent force from Ethiopia—has defeated the Islamic group Al-Shabaab a multitude of times, capturing the capital of Mogadishu, clearing the rebel stronghold in Kismayo and assisting in bringing Somalia back from over two decades of war and warlord rule as a failed state. The recent success of AMISOM in particular has reignited the talks of a standby army, under AU control and ready to mobilise at a moment’s notice across the continent.



In order to understand the ideology of a continental standing or standby army, we must explore two questions. First, would a permanent army be beneficial to the continent? And second, would a standby army be possible and accepted universally across Africa?

It is hard to argue against such a force with 22 conflicts in Africa. The impact and effectiveness of the unit would be determined on how quickly it could deploy once a situation of concern arose. One of the main areas of alarm in which a standby force would be useful is post-election violence. With contentious elections spreading across transitional countries, the potential for rampant violence following an election between factional supporters has created problems in the past. The most notorious came after the 2007 elections in Kenya when 1,200 people died amid clashes between followers of two presidential candidates. Other similar violence has occurred in the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and the DRC. The ability of a rapidly mobilised force to prevent such incidents of reaching the level of Kenya is indeed promising.

In addition, such a force could place more hesitation among potential rebel factions planning violent actions. Militia groups and rebels may think twice if a battalion was on standby to quell any potential violence before it escalates. With many countries in Africa teetering on a fragile peace, the plausibility of onslaught occurring is definitely feasible. Therefore, a group under AU control with rapid deployment capabilities could fill a void in the security situation on the continent. The more seasoned the troops, the higher their effectiveness, which means that the longer the army is sanctioned, the more useful and intimidating they will become.

So would such a force be plausible?

The problems that are presented in such a unified agreement stem primarily from control and funding. A few obstacles that need to be ironed out in the future are questions such as: Who supplies the troops? Who chooses which scenarios to intervene and which to defer to national or regional forces? Who supplies the equipment for the troops? All of these questions must be answered before such an army could come to fruition.

While the funding for other continental forces has come from foreign donation, this money has generally been trickled down through the United Nations (UN). This means that if a standby force was created, the foreign donor countries would need to be convinced that such an army would replace other forces present in Africa or additional funding would be required. It is difficult to imagine donor countries paying double for armed forces in Africa.

Ultimately a force with these capabilities that could be depended on in a crisis would definitely be beneficial. With more unity rising within the AU, a force on the continent seems like the logical next step, especially with the two largest economic nations supporting such a move. If power and control of the force could be shared and transferred every year through regional organisations such as ECOWAS and the ICGLR, then clearly the issue of control could be settled. Finally, if all countries involved could agree on troop supply figures and funding to accompany foreign funding then this idea could become a reality and having such a force could only be more beneficial to Africa as a whole.

Although this idea is still a few years out, the fact that it is gaining traction across the continent, especially with the major players makes it no longer a “pipe dream”. If the continent could unify behind a standby army, then some of the more conflict prone regions may begin to see some semblance of peace, which would benefit Africa as a whole. It will interesting to see how this idea plays out over the next few years.

Originally released by Consultancy Africa Interpreted

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