The aspirations of an all-African military force ready and capable of intervening in crisis situations on the continent can be traced back to 1963, with the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), predecessor of the African Union. It may finally come true.
In 1963, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana called for "a common defence system with an African high command to ensure the stability and security of Africa."
The dream was reignited when Libya’s eccentric leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, proposed the establishment of an African Army and offered to fund, equip and house the army in purpose-built barracks in his hometown of Sirte. His generous offer was refused by the AU – in hindsight a very wise decision.
When the AU replaced the OAU, the idea of a continental defence force “to support and keep peace for Africa’s prosperity” was given new life. The idea of an African Standby Force (ASF) was proposed and adopted with much enthusiasm.
As a 5 000-strong force, comprising five regional brigades from across Africa, the ASF would, when called upon, respond and within 14 to 30 days take responsibility and contribute to bringing “African solutions to African problems”.
This all happened 10 years ago, and the ASF remains mostly confined to the drawing board.
Recent embarrassing developments in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Mali, when Africa had to stand on the sideline watching helplessly while foreigners and a former colonial force intervened to restore law and order (in the case of Libya, causing perhaps more chaos), convinced African leaders that the time had come to finally bring to an end to this humiliation.
Against this backdrop, with South Africa championing the idea, the dream moved one step closer to realisation when African leaders at the special AU summit meeting in Addis Ababa in May this year – to commemorate 50 years of African unity – approved the creation of the African Immediate Crisis Response Capacity (AICRC) to deal with security emergencies across the continent, until the long-awaited ASF became operational.
As a transitional stop-gap measure, the AICRC will deal with security emergencies until the ASF is ready to take over responsibility. When called to duty, the AICRC will come into action, made up of voluntary contributions of troops, equipment and funds by AU member states in a position to assist.
To date only South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia have pledged to implement the decision on the establishment of the AICRC capacity. President Jacob Zuma promised in Addis Ababa that South Africa “will lead the cause” as is expected of it in contributing meaningfully to future AICRC activities.
This could be quite a challenge, considering the political fallout after the recent debacle in the Central African Republic and South Africa’s already stretched commitment to other peacekeeping efforts in Africa.
In the wake of a recent decision by Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states to downsize their defence forces, their future ability to contribute meaningfully to prospective AU peacekeeping operations will also increase pressure on South Africa.
The extent to which an AICRC will be able to operate independently remains open to debate.
The AU remains overwhelmingly dependent on foreign funding to carry out its peace and security efforts. At present, more than 90% of expenditure is externally funded – with the European Union and the United States the main contributors.
Peacekeeping does not come cheap. Currently, the United Nations is involved in seven peacekeeping missions in Africa. Two of these – the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the east of that country, and the AU/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur – each costs the UN well over US$1 billion a year, while the African Union Mission in Somalia gobbles up US$500 million annually.
By its own admission, the AU is by no means able to provide that kind of money.
The announcement by Ramtane Lamamra, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, that all future operational expenses under the AICRC banner would be carried by the countries supplying troops and equipment, immediately excluded most of the members of the AU.
The commissioner’s subsequent announcement, that “partners” (the current donors) would not be asked to fund AICRC operations, is brave but unconvincing when he concludes that it is not Africa’s responsibility to bankroll its own peacekeeping efforts, but the responsibility of the UN Security Council.
The perception created by this admission is that, regardless of the new wave of enthusiasm, the AU will keep the back door open and fall back on the assistance and support of the traditional donors if necessary, despite the commitment to the slogan: 'African solutions to African problems'.
To his credit, President Zuma did remind his African peers in Addis Ababa that, "A free and self-sustaining Africa will be a pipe dream if we remain beholden to external sources." It is, however, much easier said than done.
The idea of Africa's own military capacity to intervene and make the continent a better and safer place is not in doubt nor questioned – as a matter of fact, it is a noble idea.
A continent capable of taking care of its own trouble spots without relying on others will go a long way toward improving political stability and advancing economic prosperity.
It will also help Africa shake off its tag as the world's least developed region and offer some hope to the continent's almost one-billion inhabitants living in poverty.
But, despite all the newfound enthusiasm and good intentions, a nagging feeling persists that the dream of African solutions to African problems will linger on.