African leaders recently agreed to set up a joint military force to perform peacekeeping functions on the continent. Members of the African Union, meeting in Libya, hope to have part of the force ready by some time next year. The concept has been applauded by the United Nations and donor countries urging African self-sufficiency and responsibility, but analysts say a standby force must overcome many obstacles to be fully functional and successful.
The African Standby Force would be formed by brigades from north, west, east, south and central Africa. Troops would intervene on humanitarian and peace-building grounds, as well as in cases of genocide and serious threats to legitimate order. An African body modeled on the U.N. Security Council would have the sole authority to deploy, manage and terminate the force’s missions. The African Union hopes to have a fully operational force ready by 2010. It has already sent peacekeeping troops to Burundi, but the mission has been plagued by financial problems.
Barbara Hughes is coordinator for the U.S. government’s Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance program. It provides training and equipment to armies in 11 African countries. Ms. Hughes says one of the biggest problems facing a Standby Force will be funding.
"It’s hard to believe they can function at any stand-by brigade level for some time, largely for financial reasons. It’s going to be an expensive proposition. I imagine that some of these countries are going to have expectations that it’s like an aid program for them, that they’re not going to have to expend their own national resources. There’s a lot of sorting out to do."
Tuliameni Kalomoh is the U.N. assistant secretary general for political affairs. He says funding won’t be an insurmountable problem because the troops for the regional brigades will be based in their home countries. He says there will be no cost to maintain a specific base with troops in stand-by mode. Mr.Kalomoh says one advantage of the African force is that it would be able to respond more quickly than United Nations peacekeepers.
"You need a rapid reaction because normally the United Nations takes a very long time to mobilize a force – from Bangladesh, Pakistan. The African force is a readily mobilized force that can easily be mobilized and deployed. Then you have a better chance of preventing a conflict from escalating."
The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has been sending soldiers from its member states to intervene in regional crises since 1990. That was when a Nigerian-led force was first sent to Liberia. The troops have operated on shoestring budgets and received a fraction of the pay of their United Nations counterparts. They would become part of the African Union force.
Pan-African independence leader Kwame Nkrumah once proposed a standing African army. The idea was that it would help liberate African territories still under colonialism or white minority rule. But the idea failed to gain support. Some African leaders feared such an army could be used to push them aside. Although the African Union pledges goals for the common African good, the sovereignty won during the independence struggle of the 1960s is still important to African states.
Barbara Hughes, of the U.S. Military Training Program for Africa:
"You have to assume that individual countries will want to exercise their sovereign right to make that political decision about whether or not their troops are going to go to a peacekeeping operation and even if they’re in a standing brigade you would not think that they would want to devolve sovereignty to an organization to say that they can commit their country’s troops to an operation outside of their country. It very much remains to be seen whether that’s possible. It hasn’t been possible in Europe."
Mr. Kalomoh says the sovereignty issue won’t be a problem. He says more important issues need to be worked out. These include organizing command structures, staffing and criteria for deploying. Ms. Hughes agrees.
"If you would rotate functions – one African leader told me people were thinking that we would rotate functions so that one country in a region wouldn’t become dominant in a specialty area. Can you imagine having a communications unit, say from Nigeria, which is a large military and probably has a lot of equipment and a year from now the communications function is going to go to Benin which has a puny military and not much equipment."
Mr. Kalomoh doesn’t foresee a problem in this area.
"I’m sure each one country will be asked to provide support or to provide a force in the areas where they have a comparative advantage. I believe once created and once European partners of the African union and continent are convinced this is a force for good I’m sure the logistical and other problems will be overcome."
The effort to create the stand-by force is being applauded by the United Nations and Western donors. The European Union has pledged 250 million dollars to support the program.
"We think it’s great. Just that level of attention by the leadership makes a difference. It makes it a priority. Seeing leadership talk seriously about peacekeeping about being responsible for peacekeeping outside their own countries really is a sea change."
Part of the reason that change came about stems from the creation of the African Union itself. It replaced the Organization for African Unity in 2002. The OAU was established in 1963 and was accused of protecting the continent’s post-colonial despots. Mr. Kalomoh says OAU and the African Union have had different goals.
"One of the prime goals of the OAU was to bring about total independence of the continent – there is no greater cost to freedom and democracy than that. But I think the cold war time did distort commitment to really live up to the principles of democracy but right now I think democracy does not mean only elections, but change in people’s lives."
The African Union promotes democratic principles and institutions. It also encourages popular participation in what it pledges will be a more peaceful and economically sovereign Africa.