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Why a strong African Union standby force is long overdue

Jama Mahmoud

As African Union leaders gather for their heads of State and governments summit in Kigali, Rwanda, one issue should command urgent attention from them. For several years, there has been a plan to create an African Union standby force, which can be relied upon to tackle political and humanitarian crises on the continent.

The idea behind this proposal is sound and noble. It is a truism that the people best placed to tackle the challenges that emerge on the continent are Africans. As the world has seen in numerous examples from Iraq to Libya, when the West intervenes, it is often driven by self-interest and leaves only chaos in its wake. That is why the idea of a standby force is welcome.

Article 13 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union states that a standby force should exist in the five sub-regions within the continent to serve as a guarantor of peace and stability and to keep self-interested external parties out of the continent.

The standby force is to be composed of multidimensional capabilities, including military, police and civilian, on standby in their countries of origin and ready for rapid deployment. Thus the initial concept of the ASF was that of a quick reaction capacity that would enable Africans to respond swiftly to a crisis unhampered by any heavy political and instrumental burdens.

The range of functions assigned to the ASF includes: Observation and monitoring missions, other types of peace support operations, intervention in a member state in respect of grave circumstances or at the request of the member state to restore peace and security, preventive deployment to prevent a dispute or conflict from spreading to neighbouring areas or states, peace building including post-conflict disarmament and demobilisation, humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of civilian populations in conflict areas and support efforts to address major natural disasters and any other functions that may be mandated by the assembly of Heads of State.

It is regrettable that there has not been the level of progress one would have hoped for in the quick establishment of the ASF. Such a force, for example, would be ideally suited to take part in seeking to stabilise the situation in conflict areas such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

More importantly, it would also maintain the principle of African solidarity and avoid the current situation where Western powers are using divide and rule tactics to attain their objectives.

The decision by Senegal’s President Macky Sall to sign an accord with the United States in May to allow for “the permanent presence” of American soldiers in the west African country is one step which undermines the principle of collective action and responsibility within the AU membership.

A key point of the accord will give US troops access to areas in Senegal, such as airports and military installations, in order to respond to security or health needs, according to officials, who did not talk about US bases in the country. Such decisions are not in the best interests of Africa.

A wiser approach would be to consolidate the ASF so that there is no need for the stationing of troops from foreign countries on the continent. The example of the Middle East shows that this is the best approach to safeguard African interests and advance the cause of peace.

It would be unwise to surrender to external agendas that can only undermine African unity and the heads of state should treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves when they meet in Kigali. —The writer works for a peace and security think tank based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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