African Standby Force turns 20: has it helped keep the peace? The pros and cons

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It’s been 20 years since the African Standby Force was established by the African Union (AU). The standby force is mandated to implement the AU’s right to intervene in African situations that require military force. This year, the AU is reviewing the force’s successes and failures.

Cedric de Coning and Andrew E. Yaw Tchie, who have studied the evolving nature of African-led peace operations, provide an overview of the standby force and where it fits in the continent’s security architecture.

1. Why was the African Standby Force established?

The AU adopted the African Standby Force’s policy framework in 2004. The force was envisaged as one of the core elements of the African Peace and Security Architecture, which includes, among other bodies, the Peace and Security Council.

The African Standby Force was established to enable the Peace and Security Council to deploy peace support operations to prevent, manage or help resolve crisis situations.

The AU’s peace and security protocol also envisages enforcement operations in response to war crimes, crimes against humanity, serious abuses of human rights and genocide. Most of the peace operations undertaken by African institutions have been to support host states to deal with armed insurgencies or stabilise political transitions. To date, the AU hasn’t authorised such an enforcement operation yet.

The standby force’s original concept aimed for multidimensional forces (that is, civilian, police and military components) stationed in their countries of origin and ready for rapid deployment. Five regional brigade-sized standby forces were established, one each in east, west, central, north and southern Africa. Each brigade has about 5,000 members for an overall strength of 25,000 personnel.

The standby force was declared fully operational in 2016. In 2017, the force’s capabilities were used to plan and deploy an Economic Community of West African States mission to The Gambia, while the Southern African Development Community (SADC) deployed a mission to Lesotho. More recently, the SADC deployed missions to Mozambique in 2021 and to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2024, both in line with the African Standby Force framework. Likewise, the East African Community deployed a regional force to restore stability in eastern DRC in 2022.

The AU – through its eight regional economic communities and other institutions – has deployed 27 peace operations since the African Standby Force was established. However, neither the Peace and Security Council nor African member states have used the standby arrangements as originally envisaged.

What has affected the deployment of the African Standby Force?

Time has shown that three unfounded assumptions underpinned the AU’s original conception of how the African Standby Force would work.

First, it assumed that the Peace and Security Council, as the continent’s highest organ responsible for peace and security, would initiate deployment of the standby force. However, many of the peace operations deployed over the past 20 years were initiated or led by the eight regional economic communities, or by groups of member states that formed a coalition of the willing.

One of the reasons for this is that most interventions require member states to approve the use of their armed forces and to take on some deployment costs. A decision to deploy a state’s armed forces outside its borders usually requires government commitment and approval.

For example, the host country participated in approving the decision to deploy the SADC mission to Mozambique in 2021, as did all the other countries involved. The Peace and Security Council endorsed the deployment, providing the operation with additional political credibility and access to AU logistical equipment and support.

There is, therefore, a need for the African Standby Force to be adapted to the way member states take decisions to deploy peace operations. It needs to reflect states’ need to participate directly in decision-making processes and at the highest levels.

The second assumption was that the five AU regions – east, central, north, southern and west – would be the most appropriate structures to develop the African Standby Force. This made political sense as these five regions are used to elect members of various AU bodies. However, this isn’t a good model for a continental standby arrangement.

This is because, first, several conflicts have occurred on the borders of two regional communities. It has, therefore, made more sense to involve the countries with a stake in the conflict, rather than one of the regional communities. Second, not all members of a regional community are equally affected by a conflict. Typically, those geographically closest to it have sufficient interest in the conflict’s management or resolution, and would be willing to contribute to a peace support operation. Further, very few African countries have the strategic airlift capability to sustain their forces if they were deployed far away.

The third assumption was that establishing standby forces and keeping them ready for action would enable rapid deployments. In theory, this makes sense. In reality, neither the African Union, European Union nor the United Nations has used any standby forces that they have tried to establish over the years.

The reason this hasn’t worked is that each conflict is unique. It requires a specific coalition of states that have a stake in managing the conflict to come together to contain spillover effects.

What needs to change?

A military-heavy approach to peace operations is inadequate to deal with the multifaceted challenges that arise with conflict. These operations should be guided by comprehensive political strategies. They should draw on multidimensional capabilities and have flexible (just-in-time) standby arrangements. They need adequate financing, support and smart partnership arrangements.

Overall, however, because of the African Standby Force, the continent has a common peace support operation project. Before it, the continent was divided. Armed forces were trained in the peace operations doctrine of choice of their international partners. Now the AU peace support operations doctrine serves the continental peace and security architecture.

Additionally, as a result of the standby force, Africa has developed significant peace operations capabilities over the past 20 years. For example, African troop-contributing countries currently provide around half of all UN peacekeepers. There are African missions deployed in Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Mozambique, eastern DRC and the Lake Chad Basin. The African Standby Force project has contributed to generating the African capabilities required for these operations.

It’s therefore important to revitalise and reconceptualise the force so that it continues to perform its enabling and unifying role in support of the African Peace and Security Architecture into the future.

Written by Cedric de Coning, Senior Researcher, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and Andrew E. Yaw Tchie, Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and Visiting Professor University of Buckingham.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.