"African solutions for African problems" has long been held up as the way forward for a continent seeking to take on more responsibility. The African Standby Force will now hold its first military drills to that effect.
Discussions have been taking place since 2003 on the need for a permanent African force that can intervene swiftly whenever and wherever a crisis arises. The force known as the African Standby Force (ASF) should have been ready five years ago but numerous deadlines came and went. The new date for the force to be fully operational is December 2015.
The ASF will be made up of some 25,000 soldiers and is intended to form the backbone of Africa's Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). It will be comprised of five brigades, each coming from one of Africa's major regional groupings - ECOMOG in West Africa, SADC in southern Africa, ECCAS in central Africa, EASF in the east and NARC in the north. "The primary task of these groups is to train and keep the troops ready at any time when they are called to serve," said Teferra Shiawl-Kidanekal, Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Research in Addis Ababa and an expert on African security policy, in an interview with DW. "If the United Nations or the African Union require a number of battalions, they will send a request to the countries concerned and the countries will draw from these trained and ready forces to be deployed into that mission area," he said.
Amani Africa Two
Hallelujah Lulie, a security analyst and AU expert, sees the regional division of the force as a major advantage, as it should then be able to go into action in the shortest possible time, and also because "the forces would mostly be deployed in their own region or neighboring countries where they know the political or cultural context."
On Monday the regional contingents will meet in South Africa for the first time. Exercise director, retired Nigerian Major General Samaila Iliya, is optimistic that the exercise called Amani Africa Two will mark the real beginning of the ASF's ability to respond swiftly to crisis situations. "The forces will be on standby and can be assembled at any time to intervene on the orders of the AU's Peace and Security Council," he told DW.
That may be the theory but international practice looks very different. The UN dissolved its Standby High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG) after 13 years and a single peacekeeping operation. Battle groups of the European Union, which reached full operational capacity in January 2007, have yet to see any military action.
Castles in the air?
The ASF could also turn out to be a costly unfulfilled dream. Germany and the EU have provided generous financial and technical support for the project for more than a decade.
According to German security expert Sebastian Gräfe, 27 million euros ($30.6 million) have so far come from Germany and 1.1 billion euros from Brussels. A further 750 million euros have been earmarked for the force. According to Gräfe, "There is no lack of money coming from Europe – what is lacking is a strategical discussion about how the money can best be used."
Ethiopian security analyst Hallelujah Lulie is also skeptical about the force's financial independence. "There is a huge dependency on the money that comes from the European Union and individual member states. There are strong concerns not only from members of the African Union but also from civil society, from the media and citizens pressurizing the AU to find ways to fund its own activities," he told DW.
Frustrated by the snail's pace with which the ASF is taking shape, in 2012 a number of African states (alarmed by the Mali crisis) set up a parallel crisis resolution mechanism - the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). This has not exactly helped the image of the fledgling ASF.
AU also looking at other options
It is interesting to note that a recent AU study shows that the Union is itself moving away from the concept of a standing intervention force in favor of more flexible models. The recent establishment of a West African intervention force to combat Boko Haram shows the urgent need for action, Gräfe says.
The circumstances under which the first exercise will take place have also given critics plenty of ammunition. The training should originally have been held in Lesotho but was cancelled due to political upheavals in the small mountain kingdom. Lesotho's larger neighbor, South Africa, jumped in to fill the breach. Even before the exercise is completed, AU expert Lulie doubts whether the force will indeed be operational in the next year or two "because of the regional differences and imbalances."
At the end of January 2016, at a summit of the African Union, AU Commission chairperson Dlamini-Zuma is to make a statement specifying when the African Standby Force will be operational – all five brigades.