African defense ministers are examining a revolutionary concept in continental peacekeeping, a permanent, centrally controlled international force capable of intervening wherever a crisis might develop.
Defense ministers and senior military officials from more than 30 countries met Friday to assess progress toward the creation of an African Standby Force. The force would be divided into five military units, one for each of Africa's five regional economic blocs, and a central logistics site.
The force would be designed to respond to military crises, and would be controlled by the African Union Peace and Security Commission.
Opening the meeting, AU Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra pointed out that the continent has been a study in contrast over the past months. Speaking in French, he said many countries remain stable, while others have been part of a worrisome trend back toward the bad old days when governments were changed through military coups.
"one of the major developments was an epidemic of coups d'etat, which we had thought had passed into history," he said. He called it a "real step backward," citing recent coups in Mauritania, Guinea and Madagascar, as well as the assassination of Guinea-Bissau's João Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.
Speaking to VOA afterward, Lamamra called the concept of a permanent ready-to-go peacekeeping force evidence of a dramatic change in Africa's basic defense strategy.
"This is the right opportunity against unconstitutional changes in government. Leaders of the armed forces in Africa should be in the future educated in a spirit of pan-Africanism which is to conceive of the continental security as a whole and also not to look at the neighboring country as a potential threat. So this is a major shift in strategic thinking and we hope it will succeed," he said.
Lamamra said the spate of recent unconstitutional changes of government had revived interest in the standby force concept.
"What we have recorded since August 2008 is a bad phenomenon and we are striving to stop it at that, not to have the phenomenon expand and become a real disaster, questioning if not destructing the progress we have achieved toward the democratic process in the continent," he added.
Lamamra admitted there are some sticky issues to be worked out. Among the most contentious is whether individual African governments would be willing to relinquish command of their troops to a central continental authority. That issue will have to be decided at the head of state level, possibly at the next African Union summit in July.
Lamamra delivered the keynote address at the conference in place of AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping. The chairman is currently in Mauritania, acting as a mediator as that west African country tries to resolve the constitutional crisis caused by last year's military takeover.