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Sep 19, 2014 | Commentary

As I wrote on another occasion, news on the African Standby Force (ASF) usually start by the sentence ‘there has been tremendous progress,’ followed by the disclaimer, ‘but.’ It is about time to respond to such a claim.

Just recently Oscar Nkala commented that “ten East African nations have pledged to contribute three motorized battalions, one mechanised battalion, one light infantry battalion and three companies of 850 men each towards the setting up of the Eastern Africa Standby Force (EASF) which is set to become operational by December under the auspices of the African Union (AU).” Yet key questions remain: what has actually been promised; how often was it promised before; and why would one expect the pledges now to become reality.

Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda announced last week in Kigali a list of battalions, both motorised and light, that would be at the disposal as one of the ASF’s five brigades (four if one accounts for the nonexistence of the Northern Brigade). Even smaller military powers like Comoros, Djibouti, and Somalia have announced their willingness to provide a range of fully equipped companies of up to 850 personnel. Well, apart from the fact that a company does not equal 850 personnel, the accuracy of this seemingly exact denomination need to be challenged.

It will be interesting to see how these forces are provided by countries that count their military by pelotons and companies, at best. A good example is the Seychelles, which promises sending special police forces of up to 170 men within 10 days. One is moved by such an investment in the common security environment. However, where would the country muster these forces, considering they only count 200 soldiers, 200 coast guard, and an air force of 20 as their own?

According to Rwandan General Nzambamwita, “from the pledges made, we got all the troops and the police officers we needed to put at the disposal of the force to enable it to do rapid deployments, at any time.” The force would even become the regional African Union crisis response force with power to intervene coercively. This is impressive but where is the locus of this power? Is the African Union Peace and Security Council still in the picture? Does it have access and commanding ‘power’ over these forces? Let us address these questions by a look at the political, conceptual, and financial ownership of the states forming the Eastern brigade.

One has to keep in mind that international donors and African aid recipients share a common objective, the lessening of Africa’s dependence on international action or inaction, and an increasing capacity to react quickly and appropriately to prevent conflict. ‘Ownership’ has thus been the mantra of donors’ programmes, together with the motto of ‘partnership.’ The balance sheet on the African side looks as follows:

Firstly, ‘ideological ownership,’ as measured by the reiteration of high-level statements, has obviously been achieved for quite some time. The object of this ownership is, however, a moving target. African partners have continued to pay lip service to the ASF – after surviving the failure of the first Roadmap to achieve implementation, the second that provided an extension and aimed to establish the ASF by 2012, and a third that made 2015 the final benchmark. It is already clear that this will not be achieved for various reasons.

As a result, the five brigade-strong ASF envisioned for 2012 has since been scaled down to five battalions, which would constitute a ‘provisional’ Rapid Reaction Force (RRF). This decision was driven by the hope that one would at least achieve something by the third extended deadline that could count as a working part of the ASF. At this point in time not even the RRF limited target seems to be anywhere close to delivery. And donors like the EU, who had invested rough one billion Euros over the stretch of a decade, are invited to ask why their contribution has gained so little measurable results.

If ‘political ownership’ is defined as the willingness of African states to participate in actual ASF operations, participation levels remain poor. Of course, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda have made laudable and very respectable contributions in Somalia and the Central African Republic. But a look at the military cooperation of the East African Community (EAC) states – Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania – shows what these states actually aim at: military solutions to any kind of security problem.

EAC states work in close military cooperation, in which they take functional, conceptual, and even financial responsibility as expressions of true political ownership. Yet they fail to deliver such cooperation towards their respective ASF membership – Burundi as member of both the EASF and Central African Brigade; Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda as members of the EASF; and Tanzania with the South African Development Community brigade.

There is still no binding Memorandum of Understanding that would enable the AU Peace and Security Council to, firstly, become the deciding-body it was supposed to be, and, secondly to enable the determined and hard-working staff at the Peace Support Operations Division to fulfil their tasks. Action rests with the national governments, who have not been forthcoming in their willingness to make the ASF reality. The recent crisis in Mali and the wider Sahel spring to mind: French forces had to be invited due to a lack of determination with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the broader African Peace and Security Architecture to deal with such crises.

Then there is ‘sociological ownership,’ which is a kind of emotional adhesion and personal commitment to contribute to the ASF project, which is shared by small groups of specialists working at the AU headquarters in Addis and at some regional brigades’ headquarters. However, the lack of commitment of their own states, which summoned them to Addis, is not exactly encouraging. One has to pay tribute to these people who literally work against the odds.

‘Technical ownership’ is characterised by the understanding, acceptance, and ability to implement ASF concepts. It remains crucial, to the extent that work on the ASF has largely been led by military establishments and is little understood by other relevant agencies or ministries. Still, and very much contrary to the concept of a multi-dimensional force, the military is shaping the day-to-day work of the ASF. Any capacity building support that would advance fire power and tactical abilities of soldiers is happily accepted while the civilian and police components of the ASF dwell a life of Cinderella.

Most importantly, ‘financial ownership’ remains but a distant objective. There is no autonomous financing of the ASF whatsoever. To make it short, the most audible claim that the Eastern brigade ASF would now finally be in place by 2015, made at the above mentioned EASF meeting, ended with the habitual: we shall now establish the force in earnest, and ask everyone interested to provide the funding. Full stop.


Olaf Bachmann holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, where he is a visiting fellow and educator within the Department of War Studies’ Conflict, Security and Development Group.