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Lessons from Africa’s peace operations experience

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Picture: GCIS – From left, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The ASF was successful as a political project, but, the evolution of peace operations over the past 20 years in Africa differed in important ways from the assumptions made in the original ASF concept, the writer says.

By Cedric de Coning

The policy framework of the African Standby Force (ASF) was adopted in 2004. In 2024, the African Union (AU) will take stock of the first twenty years of ASF development and operationalisation. My assessment is that the ASF was successful as a political project. However, the evolution of peace operations over the past 20 years in Africa differed in important ways from the assumptions made in the original ASF concept, and there is thus a need to re-think and revitalise the ASF.

The ASF was envisaged as one of the core elements of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), alongside the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise and the Peace Fund. Its purpose was to enable the PSC to deploy peace support operations or to undertake enforcement interventions as foreseen in Articles 4(h) and (j) of the AU Constitutive Act, i.e. in cases where war crimes, serious abuses of human rights or genocide may require a military intervention.

The ASF concept assumed that by preparing and maintaining multidimensional (i.e. civilian, police and military components) forces, stationed in their countries of origin and ready for rapid deployment, the PSC will have at its disposal the operational capability to rapidly deploy peace operations or military intervention forces when needed. To operationalise the ASF, the AU developed an ASF doctrine and a series of policies that dealt with how the ASF capabilities should be generated and employed. Five brigade-sized multidimensional standby arrangements were to be established in East, Central, North, Southern and West Africa.

The way in which peace operations evolved in reality over the past 20 years differed from the ASF concept’s assumptions in a number of ways. Although the AU, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and other African institutions have deployed around 27 peace operations since the ASF was established, neither the PSC nor African Member States have used the ASF’s standby arrangements as envisaged, to deploy these operations. To understand why this is the case, the AU’s Member States tasked the AU Commission to undertake a strategic review of the ASF.

There is thus a need for the ASF concept to be adapted to the way Member States take decisions to deploy peace operations, because these reflect their need to participate directly in these decision-making processes and at the highest level

The ASF concept made three assumptions that time proved were unfounded. First, the ASF concept assumed that the PSC, as the continent’s highest organ responsible for peace and security, supported by the various other elements of the APSA, would be the body to initiate the deployment of peace operations and interventions on the Continent.

However, many of the peace operations that were deployed over the past 20 years were initiated and, in many cases, led by RECs or groups of Member States that formed a coalition of the willing. One of the possible reasons is because most of the deployed operations required the Member States to approve not only the use of their armed forces but also some of the costs associated with their deployment.

A decision to deploy a state’s armed forces outside of its borders usually requires the head of state or government commitment and approval, and sometimes also parliamentary approval or consultation. Member States preferred to use decision-making mechanisms where they were directly involved in making these decisions rather than delegating that responsibility to the PSC. For example, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state and government took the decision to deploy a SADC mission to Mozambique (SAMIM).

This meant that the decision was taken at the highest level, that the host country participated in that decision, and that all the countries involved, especially those deploying multidimensional capabilities, were part of the decision-making process. Subsequently, the AU PSC endorsed the SADC mission, and this provided the operation with additional political credibility as well as access to AU logistical equipment and support. There is thus a need for the ASF concept to be adapted to the way Member States take decisions to deploy peace operations, because these reflect their need to participate directly in these decision-making processes and at the highest level.

The second ASF concept assumption that did not materialise, was that the five AU regions will be the most appropriate structures to develop the ASF. Although this made good political sense, as the same five regions are used to elect the members of the PSC and various other AU bodies, it turned out not to be a good model for standby or rapid deployment mechanisms. Three existing RECs were used for this purpose: Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in central Africa, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in west Africa and SADC in southern Africa.

For the eastern and northern regions, two regional mechanisms were established especially for the ASF, as the north lacked a functioning REC and in eastern Africa there were several RECs (COMESA, EAC & IGAD) but none included all the countries in the AU’s eastern region. Over the past 20 years, all three of these RECs deployed peace operations, for example, ECOWAS to the Gambia, ECCAS to Central African Republic and SADC to Mozambique. However, the two regional arrangements have not deployed any operations. It appears Member States prefer to use the more established REC structures, and in the east African region, for example, Member States preferred to deploy forces using the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) or the East African Community (EAC).

There were also a few cases where conflicts emerged on the borders of two regions or RECs, and which necessitated the crystallisation of new mechanisms or coalitions of states that had a stake in managing the conflict outside the five regions or existing RECs, including for example, African Mission in Somalia/African Transition Mission in Somalia (AMISOM/ATMIS), African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), and the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin. In some cases, the AU was the most appropriate body to lead these operations, but in others, like in the case of the MNJTF or the G5 Sahel force, Member States felt it was better to utilise other existing bodies like the Lake Chad Basin Commission to deploy and manage such operations.

The ASF concept also envisaged that one of the five regions would be on standby for rapid rotational deployment. So, for example, ECOWAS may be called on to be at a higher level of readiness for the first six months of 2024, should the PSC need to use the ASF to respond to a crisis over that period. Then, another region, for example, the East Africa Standby Force (EASF), will take responsibility for the following six months.

However, none of the RECs or Regional Mechanisms (RMs) have accepted that they may have to deploy outside their region. It is inconceivable that the heads of state or government of ECOWAS or SADC, for example, will agree to authorise a deployment of their standby force in response to a decision by the PSC to, for example, deploy the ASF to Sudan. However, according to the concept, the four operational regions of the ASF still go through the technical process of being officially on standby on a rotational basis.

As a result of the ASF project, Africa has developed a significant peace operations capability over the past twenty years. For example, African troop-contributing countries currently provide approximately half of all UN peacekeepers

There is thus a need to adapt the ASF concept to the reality that Member States use a variety of regional arrangements to deploy African-led peace operations, depending on which arrangement is the most appropriate for the context. In addition, there is also the reality that none of the RECs or RMs may be appropriate vehicles for mobilising forces for deployments outside their regions.

The third unfounded assumption was that establishing standby forces and maintaining them at a level of readiness would enable rapid deployments. In theory, this makes perfect sense, but in reality, neither the AU, European Union (EU) nor United Nations (UN) have used any standby forces that they have tried to establish over the years.

The reason why this has not worked is because each conflict is unique. It requires a specific coalition of states that have a stake in managing the conflict to come together for a unique force or mission design. The needs of each mission differ in important ways from what the standard standby force may have on readiness. For example, although SADC heads of state had agreed to deploy a mission to Mozambique, only the countries near Mozambique agreed to contribute forces to the mission.

This is because those countries have more of a direct interest in containing spill-over effects than SADC member states that are far away, and because the countries located in closer proximity to Mozambique can reach the mission area by land. It would be very costly for a country like Angola to deploy and sustain forces in Mozambique by air or sea.

There may also be Member States that have pledged units to a standby arrangement but who, for various reasons, cannot deploy those components at a given moment. The ASF concept thus needs to adapt to the need for just-in-time coalitions of the willing and be able to crystallise out of either existing ASF standby arrangements or for entirely new arrangements to be established based on the specific context and need of every situation.

These are some of the critical assumptions in the original ASF concept that did not stand the test of time and that need to be re-conceptualised as part of the AU’s strategic review of the ASF in 2024. Overall, however, the ASF has been a highly successful project. Because of the ASF, we now have a common African and continent-wide peace support operation project. Before the ASF, the continent was divided, and many armed forces were trained in the peace operations doctrine of choice of their international partners. Now we have one African Union peace support operations doctrine that serves the continental peace and security architecture.

As a result of the ASF project, Africa has developed a significant peace operations capability over the past twenty years. For example, African troop-contributing countries currently provide approximately half of all UN peacekeepers. In addition, there are AU missions deployed in Somalia and Ethiopia, an IGAD mission in South Sudan, a SADC mission in Mozambique, an EAC mission in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and a MNJTF mission in the Lake Chad Basin.

The ASF project has contributed significantly to generating the African capabilities required for these operations. It is thus important to revitalise and re-conceptualise the ASF so that the ASF can continue to perform its vital enabling and unifying role in support of the APSA for the next twenty years.

Cedric de Coning is senior advisor to ACCORD and a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

This article was first published on ACCORD