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The African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) – a Design without Builders

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Speaking honestly and forthrightly is often frowned upon in regional politics. Being too explicit or realistic, for example, is often seen as ‘unhelpful’ or, even worse, as sabotaging the ‘art of the possible’. Being an Idealist, in contrast, is synonymous with being progressive and enlightened. A common symptom of political idealism, especially over the last twenty-five years, has been to create an organization or initiative and then worry about defining its everyday purpose, form and function at a later point in time. “Build or create it and they will come” isn’t an unfair way to describe this approach. Take the African Union’s African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), for example. In theory, it is a regional mechanism designed to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts in Africa. In truth, it remains nothing more than a construction site. The fifty-four member-states of the AU, whose headquarters continues to be largely financed by the European Union, have not really taken ownership of the ‘site’. Nor have they fleshed out one of the APSA’s main elements – the African Standby Force (ASF). Yes, the truth may be ugly and in ‘bad taste,’ but the reality today is that the APSA is only being taken seriously by those who make their living from it.

The bald assertion I just made doesn’t appear often, or at least not without caveats. No important publication on the APSA/ASF, or an assessment of them, fails to begin with some version of the following: “There has been tremendous progress with the APSA [or ASF] in the last few years.” In fairness to the authors of these publications and assessments, they tend to follow this empty bromide with an honest ‘but’ – i.e., they quickly launch into shared laments about the missing political, operational and financial ‘ownership’ of the APSA/ASF project by African states. Yes, the laments are widely held, as a soon-to-be-published survey by Malte Brosig demonstrates[1] .

Brosig queried 198 academics, technical assistants and on-the-ground functionaries who are intimately involved with the APSA initiative, which includes not only the ASF but also the African Union Peace and Security Council, a sclerotic Peace Fund, a stagnant Panel of the Wise, and a dwindling Continental Early Warning System (which to its credit puts out an excellent daily press review). The central findings of Brosig’s survey are as follows:

§ One hundred twenty-four respondents consider the unwillingness of African states to support the APSA properly as one of the initiative’s most important
stumbling blocks.

§ One hundred and thirteen respondents believe the APSA’s reliance on external financial and political support compromises its potential effectiveness.

§ Eighty-eight respondents believe the ASPA lacks the necessary capabilities that are needed to tackle Africa’s security problems.

§ And finally, about one in four believe that the institutional set-up of the APSA project remains ‘fundamentally flawed’.

Given these sour assessments, one obviously has to ask why. Why is the APSA more architecture than fact? Or to put it another way, why was the first stone laid and the building site subsequently deserted? The reason is both a regrettable and familiar one – AU members, with obvious exceptions such as Rwanda, have no interest in APSA to succeed. They simulate the desire for regional security-making, but they’re actually interested in forestalling it. The AU/APSA complex, in short, continues to be exposed to the destructive national policies of its member states, as the history of the yet-to-be-finished ASF illustrates.

As originally conceived, the African Standby Force was to be the AU’s multinational and multidisciplinary peacekeeping force. In times of crisis, it would deploy military, police and civilian contingents in order to maintain stability and security where required. Although the project initially enjoyed a progressive pedigree and popular support, national-level efforts to both stall and undermine the ASF soon robbed it of its momentum. Incumbent regimes did the stalling and undermining and they did so by abusing the post-colonial principle of state sovereignty. By hiding behind this sacrosanct principle, those in power have labored to ensure their own survival and authority, particularly against the ‘threat’ posed by a collective security force made up of five brigades (for a total of up to 25,000 personnel). The planned force, because of the pushback it has received, has required three ‘Roadmaps for Implementation’ and will not reach full operational capability (FOC) by the already-deferred date of 2015. That’s because 1) there is disagreement over what FOC actually means; 2) the five geographically-based brigades are at different stages of development, with the northern element not even out of the starting blocks yet; 3) there are political and operational coordination problems that have yet to be resolved; and most importantly, 4) African heads of state have no appetite for delegating power to the AU, even if on paper it’s the APSA’s Peace and Security Council that would decide when to use the Standby Force or not.

The practical consequence of all the above problems can be condensed into one word – regression – for both the African Peace and Security Architecture and the African Standby Force. In the case of the ASF, the recent and pragmatic decision to develop the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) illustrates the retreat now taking place. What is being proclaimed as a ‘conceptual breakthrough’ and a ‘bridge’ until the ASF finally becomes operational will most likely yield a thinned-out force made up of a handful of companies without a significant civilian component. Indeed, only time will tell whether this more manageable force is a bridge to or a substitute for what remains in many eyes a politically-thwarted APSA/ASF dream.

[1] Brosig’s survey, which is entitled “The African Security Architecture and its Partners: A Survey,” will soon appear in the African Security Review 23:3.

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Olaf Bachmann holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, where he is a visiting fellow and educator within the Department of War Studies’ Conflict, Security and Development Group. He is also an experienced field researcher in the Central African region who specializes in the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), past and current African militaries, and the evolving role conflict plays on the continent.

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