Concerns over readiness of new African strike force

Liesl Louw-Vaudran

A new African rapid intervention force is expected to be launched by October - but concerns remain about funding.

The idea behind Acirc came in reaction to French military intervention in Mali last year. African leaders were shocked at the lack of readiness of the regional West African force  when al-Qaeda-linked groups threatened to take over the capital. (AFP)

President Jacob Zuma returned from the biannual summit of the African Union (AU) in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, last week with new enthusiasm for the rapid intervention force that he initiated at the AU over a year ago.

The handful of countries contributing to the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (Acirc), as it has been named, have been visited by the AU Commission and are ready to go, according to a statement released at the summit by the department of international relations and co-operation. These include South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Uganda, Tanzania, Niger, Chad, Liberia, Senegal and Sudan.

“It is expected that the Acirc will be launched by October 2014. We have, therefore, implemented an important decision of the AU,” Zuma said, according to the statement.

But military experts are concerned that South Africa lacks the capacity to carry out these plans. Preparations for the country’s contribution to the Acirc have not been budgeted for and there is a concern that other missions to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Darfur in Sudan might suffer as a consequence.

According to André Roux, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, R1.2-billion has been set aside for external missions of the South African National Defence Force. Nothing has been earmarked for the Acirc.

“Unless President Zuma asks the treasury for additional funds, the preparations for the Acirc will put pressure on existing operations,” he said.

Quick intervention
Countries contributing troops to the Acirc are expected to pay for a battalion of about 1 000 troops. If these are deployed for six months, it costs South Africa about R300-million, Roux said.

But deploying a battalion would actually involve many more soldiers, because of the need to rotate troops, he said.

The idea behind the Acirc came in reaction to the French military intervention in Mali in January last year. African leaders were shocked at the lack of readiness of the regional West African force, which had been preparing for that kind of intervention for a long time. But it could not be deployed when al-Qaeda-linked extremists groups threatened to take over the capital Bamako in January last year.

Zuma then flighted the idea of a rapid intervention force that could intervene within days of the outbreak of a crisis.

According to Roux, the planned force could cost the AU up to $100-million for deploying a brigade (three battalions) for up to a year.

Although other participating countries such as Chad and Algeria do have well-trained troops, they do not all have the airlifting capacity and sophisticated weaponry needed for that kind of operation.

Direct control
The AU has no funds of its own, so if the organisation were to ask for funding from international donors it would defeat the aim of “finding African solutions for African problems”, Roux said.

One of the main differences between this force and the planned African Standby Force (ASF), which the AU is hoping will be ready by 2015, is that the Acirc will be controlled directly by the AU Commission, led by its chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The AU Peace and Security Council, based in Addis Ababa, will take charge of the operational aspects of the Acirc.

The ASF, on the other hand, will be based on regional battalions and controlled by the AU’s five regional economic communities.

Some African countries, such as Nigeria, reportedly fear the Acirc will take decision-making from the regions and, because it is a South African initiative, is likely to entrench South Africa’s leadership on peacekeeping issues on the continent. Nigeria is not yet a contributor to the Acirc.

But Zuma’s plan was bolstered at the end of last year by the role of South Africa in the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, which successfully drove out the M23 rebel group from the eastern DRC.

It is not known where the Acirc will be stationed.

At present AU peacekeepers are deployed in Somalia, the Central African Republic, Mali and Darfur. The Sahel region and the Horn of Africa in particular are plagued by instability.

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