The African Union Operation in Mali and Questions on the Necessity of a Standby Force

The African Union Operation in Mali and Questions on the Necessity of a Standby Force

The conflict that engulfed Mali in 2012, prompting the intervention of the African Union (AU), was brought about by a complex, multidimensional mixture of long-term, fundamental grievances by diverse groups within the Malian state.1 Three distinct but related factors coalesced to produce this crisis:

• The secessionist tendencies of the Tuaregs in northern Mali for an independent state of Azawad2
• The political crisis, aggravated by the military coup d’état of 2012, that further weakened the Malian state and heightened Tuareg rebel hopes and activities toward secession3
• The hijacking of the Tuareg nationalist uprising by Islamist jihadists who attempted to overrun Mali and establish a state based on Sharia law4

The jihadists’ actions prompted international intervention in the Malian crisis, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), France, the United States, and the European Union (EU) playing pivotal roles to stem the country’s slide into civil war and anarchy.

The AU began playing an active role in June 2012, later upgrading the mission from a regional to a continental one and leading to the creation by the United Nations of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). AFISMA was originally supposed to be drawn from the Western African Standby Brigade (WASB), which is the African Standby Force (ASF) brigade in West Africa.5

The ASF, established in 2002, is meant to comprise a 25,000-man contingency force, organized in 5,000-men contingents roughly aligned to each of Africa’s five regions—north, south, central, east, and west.6 Its purpose is to facilitate the rapid deployment of troops to conflict areas on the continent, avoiding the delays often experienced when waiting for countries to volunteer troops and deploy them. The AU has spent the past thirteen years trying to get the ASF up and running. Yet it exists more as a concept—a “paper tiger”—than a fully operational facility. Had it been operational during the crisis in Mali, it would have been deployed there. Currently, however, there is little hope that the third revised date of 2015 for its takeoff will be met.7

While the concept behind the ASF is laudable, the inability to deploy it in Mali prompted the AU to tinker with a new concept: an interim, smaller, more manageable, more affordable, and more flexible force to fill the operational gap.8 In May 2013, the AU established the African Capacity for Immediate Response Crises (ACIRC), designed for faster mobilization in conflict zones before ASF contingents are ready to deploy.

The formation of the ACIRC means the AU now has two continent-wide peacekeeping forces, and herein lies a problem. Some experts have noted that “plans for the two forces have caused some delays and confusion...and ‘that the ACIRC may draw attention away from, and undermine the investment put into the ASF so far.’ ”9 Also called into question is the ability of the AU to finance both forces, in view of its heavy dependence on external funding. The argument here is that, rather than create another force and new bureaucracy, the establishment of the ASF should have been accelerated.

In the AU’s most recent conflict intervention in support of Nigeria and its neighboring countries in their battle against the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, neither the ACIRC nor the ASF is being put into operation.10 The AU’s authorization for the operation is directed instead at reinforcing the ad hoc regional force put together by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LBC) countries (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria) and joined by Benin Republic.11

It is rather surprising that the WASB, which has been touted as being the most battle ready alongside East Africa’s eastern brigade (EASTBrig),12 still cannot be activated two years after it could not be deployed in Mali. Now, the ACIRC seems to have gone the same way as the ASF. In the two operations—in the Central African Republic (CAR) and now Nigeria—authorized by the AU since the inception of the ACIRC, the organization employed its ad hoc approach of assembling and deploying intervention and peace support forces.13

The drive toward actualizing the ACIRC despite criticism that amounts to charges of reinventing the wheel exposes two flaws in AU policymaking. From a critical perspective, the ASF brings out in bold relief the tendency of the AU to make grand plans that are seldom feasible vis-à-vis its capacity and resources, the condition of its member states, and the complex relationships among them.14 The second issue is that of sustainability. Activated to address the situation of rapid deployment in Mali, the ACIRC machinery already seems moribund, as the force could not be mobilized to intervene in the CAR and is not being called upon to serve the mission the AU is about to undertake in Northern East Nigeria.

Experts generally agree the answer to violent crisis does not lie in the force of numbers deployed to keep the peace.15 This being the case, it is debatable whether all the effort, time, and resources invested in the establishment of the ASF (and the ACIRC) have resulted in any real impact on Africa’s capacity to “own” its own peacekeeping and peace support forces and processes. While an African standby force may improve the AU’s capacity to quell violent conflict, it is by no means a major determinant for the success of its peace operations. After all, successes were recorded in Burundi, the Comoros, Mali, and Somalia where, it can be argued, a standby force would not have made much of a difference. Also relevant is that the limited success (some will say failure) in Darfur has so far not been due to the absence of such a force.

If the AU’s ad hoc, subregional intervention “arrangement” succeeds in Nigeria, as I believe it will, it will be an addition to its string of Peace Support Operations (PSO) successes and a pointer that such ad hoc arrangements work just fine. It is about time the AU seriously reassesses its strategies and effectively utilizes limited resources to evolve strategies that improve its capacity to restore order and security in troubled parts of the continent.

  1. David Keys,“Mali: The History Behind the World’s Newest Conflict,” Aspen Institute Italia, 2013, 2, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/system/files/inline/keys-ing_080413.pdf, accessed August 24, 2014.
  2. D. B. Devon, "The Crisis in Mali: A Historical Perspective on the Tuareg People," Global Research, February 1, 2013, http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-crisis-in-mali-a-historical-perspective-on-the-tuareg-people/5321407, accessed August 27, 2014.
  3. Simone Haysom, “Security and Humanitarian Crisis in Mali: The Role of Regional Organisations,” Humanitarian Policy Group working paper, 2014, 3; Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie and Chris Perry, “Mali and the Sahel-Sahara: From Crisis Management to Sustainable Strategy,” International Peace Institute, February 2013, 4.
  4. Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw, “Failure to Control Drug Trafficking Aggravates Mali Crisis,” Institute for Security Studies, May 31, 2013; Timothy Alexander Guzman, “As War Lingers in Mali, Western Powers Target Its Natural Resources,” Global Research, January 7, 2014, 1, http://www.globalresearch.ca/as-war-lingers-in-mali-western-powers-target-its-natural-resources/5364079, accessed August 24, 2014.
  5. David Mickler, “The Mali Intervention: Evolving Security Governance in Africa,” Global Policy, March 11, 2013, http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/11/03/2013/mali-intervention-evolving-security-governance-africa, accessed August 27, 2014; Haysom, “Security and Humanitarian Crisis in Mali,” 4.
  6. Jakkie Cilliers, “The African Standby Force: An Update on Progress,” Institute for Security Studies, ISS Paper 160, March 2008, 1, 3, http://www.issafrica.org/uploads/Paper160.pdf, accessed April 14, 2013.
  7. Interview with Tony Curtis, senior military advisor to the U.S. mission to the AU, at Paradise Garden, Adam’s Pavillion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 5, 2014, 10:35 a.m.
  8. International Peace Institute, “Security and Development in the Sahara,” October 2013, 5, http://www.operationspaix.net/DATA/DOCUMENT/8131~v~New_Meeting_Note__Security_and_Development_in_the_Sahel-Sahara.pdf, accessed September 11, 2014.
  9. Africa Report, “African Union: Building the Pax Africana,” January 30, 2014, http://www.theafricareport.com/North-Africa/african-union-building-the-pax-africana.html, accessed May 14, 2014.
  10. See Africland Post, “Confusion over Force to Fight Islamists,” February 10, 2015, http://www.africlandpost.com/confusion-force-fight-islamists/, accessed February 16, 2015.
  11. Reuters, “Chad Troops Enter Nigerian Town in Pursuit of Boko Haram,” February 3, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/02/03/uk-nigeria-violence-chad-idUKKBN0L71FM20150203, accessed February 16, 2015.
  12. The East African, “Deadline for African Standby Force Now 2015,” January 26, 2013, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Deadline-for-African-Standby-Force-now-2015/-/2558/1676156/-/3yiaih/-/index.html, accessed March 2, 2013.
  13. Africland Post, “Confusion over Force.”
  14. Paul D. Williams, “The African Union’s Conflict Management Capabilities,” Council on Foreign Relations, International Institutions and Global Governance Program working paper, October 2011, 11.
  15. Patricia L. Sullivan and Johannes Karreth, “The Conditional Impact of Military Intervention on Internal Armed Conflict Outcomes,” Conflict Management and Peace Science, 2014, 2; Thierry Vircoulon and Charlotte Arnaud, “Central African Republic: The Flawed Response,” International Crisis Group, May 19, 2014, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/central-african-republic/op-eds/2014/vircoulon-central-african-republic-the-flawed-international-response.aspx, accessed November 9, 2014.
About the Author

Jude Cocodia is a PhD Candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is also a lecturer with the Department of Politics, Niger Delta University, Nigeria. He was a recipient of the 2014 International Peace Research Association Foundation grant. His areas of interest are African Politics, Conflict, Peace and Security, Democracy and Citizenship.

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