Following President Jacob Zuma’s recent visit to Addis Ababa where, among others, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) was on the AU agenda for only the second time since the Zuma-led initiative first saw the light of day in 2013, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) maintains the rapid response force still lacks continental buy-in.
Addis Ababa, ISS consultant Liesel Louw-Vaudran said, “is the first mention of ACIRC in a very long time.
“Many thought the idea of a rapid combat force – commandeered from Addis Ababa and capable of deploying within days to stop wars and save lives – has long been abandoned in favour of a regional approach. The latter was the original design of the African Standby Force (ASF), drawn up over 10 years ago.
“When the AU tried to find a plan in the beginning of last year to fight Boko Haram, no one suggested deploying ACIRC. And yet, at least on paper, it was ready to be deployed, with a team drawing up scenarios in an office at AU headquarters, and a roster committing each of its members to have troops on standby for a period of six months. Participating countries are Algeria, Angola, Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
“The AU documents calling for setting up ACIRC specifically mention possible deployment in the case of ‘neutralisation of a terrorist threat’. But instead, the AU opted for a new force – called the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – against Boko Haram. The MNJTF is made up of the Lake Chad Basin Commission Countries (Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon), as well as Benin.
“Again, a few months ago, when African leaders were desperate to stop the devastating war in South Sudan, no one put up their hand to offer an ACIRC intervention. Leaders at the AU summit in Kigali then opted for a new African regional protection force for South Sudan.”
“What happened?” she asks in an ISS position paper and answers: “A lot of money has been spent in the last three years, conferences have been held and staff employed by ACIRC, but there is doubt whether ACIRC will realistically ever be deployed in its current form.
“On one hand, there are those who say ACIRC is the only way to prevent another situation like the one that unfolded in early 2013 in Mali, when French forces were called in to stop armed Islamist groups from advancing to the capital Bamako and threatening the Malian state. The French intervention was an embarrassment for AU leaders – and Zuma’s call in May 2013 to set up ACIRC was a direct response to what happened in Mali.
“To deploy a rapid force, so the argument goes, one would have to by-pass lengthy consultations between the AU and regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms (RMs), and be able to airlift troops into battle as soon as a green light is given by the AU Peace and Security Council – the highest decision-making body of the AU on peace and security in between summits of the AU Assembly. The AU Commission chairperson, in conjunction with and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security would be the chiefs in charge – not the REC or RM concerned.
“Those who support ACIRC say the crisis in Mali showed clearly the Regional Standby Forces of the RECs, in that case the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), were not equipped, battle-ready or able to intervene in such situations.
“By the time ECOWAS’ African-led International Support Mission for Mali (AFISMA) actually got to Bamako, most of the fighting was over and the French managed to get Islamist groups to relinquish control of the north of the country.
“A well-trained force with strong mandate ready around the clock can help save lives and prevent genocide like the one in Rwanda in 1994, say some military analysts. Others disagree strongly.
“Military intervention is extremely expensive, politically loaded and technically very complicated – especially on a continent with 54 countries and severe financial constraints” Louw-Vaudran points out.
“That is why it is impossible for a small group of countries to start an intervention force and to deploy successfully without buy-in, especially without military heavyweights such as Nigeria and Ethiopia, say those opposed to ACIRC.
“Clearly, the AU holds dear the principles of consensus and of subsidiarity. Nigeria, for example, could be opposed to the ACIRC because it doesn’t want a brigade led by South Africa, Uganda or any other ACIRC nation to be parachuted into its backyard to come and fight against Boko Haram.
“ACIRC might still get buy-in over time. Leaders change and Zuma’s successor might be more successful in getting Nigeria and others on board. But this is not the case for now.
“Secondly, any direct military intervention envisaged by the AU usually first needs approval from the United Nations Security Council, the body ultimately responsible for peace in the world. This can take time – ACIRC or no ACIRC.
“Thirdly, and this is the elephant in the room: who is going to pay for ACIRC? Zuma said in an interview following the Addis Ababa ACIRC meeting the force would be an independent one not reliant on outside funding. So who is going to finance it? At the moment, the European Union (EU) funds the AU Peace and Security Operations Department, which for now includes the ACIRC staff.
“As for combat capabilities, ACIRC volunteering nations don’t currently have enough capacity to go around. South Africa, for example, is pretty much tied up because of its participation in the UN Intervention Brigade in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Algeria can only pledge training and airlift.
ACIRC – A Stop-Gap Measure
“The three years since the inception of ACIRC have shown that even if ACIRC were designed as a ‘stop-gap’ measure to ensure rapid deployment while the ASF gets off the ground, it remains plagued by the same constraints – regional and continental buy-in, UN approval and money – that have prevented the ASF from successfully deploying up to now.
“Many in AU structures and member states believe it is better to return to the original plan of the ASF – to create five regional standby brigades, commanded by the RECs, in order to get buy-in from everyone. The original plan includes a Rapid Deployment Capability.
“Restructuring of ASF has already begun to provide for changing realities on the ground and within the AU. Annette Leijenaar, Head of the ISS Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Division, points out part of the restructuring is to verify planning elements of each REC. This forms part of the ASF 2016-2020 Maputo Work Plan, which reflects the RECs’ current realities and structures.
“She said: ‘The best way forward is for ACIRC to be merged into the ASF to enhance it’.
“A plan is now on the table to finance the ASF through a regional mechanism requiring each of Africa’s five regions to contribute US$65 million per year via a 0.2% levy on imports. This would theoretically give regions the upper hand in peace operations.
“Leijenaar also points out those who complain the ASF can’t get its act together forget that over the last few years, Africa has deployed thousands of peacekeepers and intervention brigades in a number of difficult conflicts. These include the African Union Mission in Somalia, the Economic Commission for Central African States’ initial intervention in the Central African Republic, AFISMA and the MNJTF – all with varying degrees of success.
“With a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and grandstanding by big powers, it looks as if ‘African solutions to African problems’ will have to become a reality. With an isolationist Donald Trump in the White House and an EU with less and less money to spend, this will be more important than ever before,” according to the consultant for the Pretoria-headquartered strategic think-tank.