The Eastern African Standby Force’s operations are hampered by red tape that has delayed its rapid response to crises in the region, despite having achieved full capability nine months ago.
Unlike the four other standby forces in Africa that are anchored in their respective regional economic communities and are able to react quickly to safeguard regional interests, the EASF is not linked to the East African Community, thus prolonging the time for consultations in times of crisis.
For the EASF to intervene, it needs a request from the African Union Peace and Security Council; the request is then discussed by the Council of Ministers on Defence and Security before approval by the Summit of Heads of State from troop-contributing countries.
Macharia Munene, a history lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi, faults the deployment procedures, arguing that waiting for approval from the AU, which has been previously accused of being slow to respond, could see the force overtaken by events in a crisis.
“There is concern that the EASF will be dependent on external forces that it was specifically designed to avoid. Policymakers must address the issue of jurisdiction, because it is still answerable to AU and UN in terms of operations,” said Mr Munene.
Major concerns were expressed at the EASF Open Day in Nairobi on September 21 on why the force, which achieved full operational capability in December 2014, did not intervene in Burundi at the height of the crisis in May.
Questions were also raised as to whether the force should intervene as a peacekeeper or a peace enforcer.
EASF director Issimail Chanfi said that the force did not receive an official request from the AU to deploy in Burundi.
“We had started working on contingency plans, but it is the request, which contains specifics such as numbers of the force and equipment, that enables us to prepare accordingly. We can only deploy after we forward the request to the Council of Ministers of Defence and it is approved at the Heads of States Summit,” said Mr Chanfi.
He said there are too many issues to be considered before deployment. There are now plans in place to create a crisis response mechanism, comprising the chair of the summit, the deputy and the rapporteur, who can consult rapidly with the AU for quicker action.
EASF has specific response times for security situations. These range from 14 days in cases of ongoing genocide, to 30 days when there is escalation of violence, destruction of property and displacement of the population.
The regional force currently has 5,200 troops from Burundi, the Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
It is an integrated unit comprising military, police and civilian components.
The number of troops contributed by each country depends on the capacity of the given country; the country with the biggest force gets the command. However, any force deployed in a crisis situation must have regional representation.
Benediste Hoareau, EASF head of political affairs, noted that the decision to fast-track the full operational capability to December 2014 — one year ahead of the AU target of 2015 — was because the region was facing numerous security challenges.
“Given the security situation in Africa, we could have waited indefinitely to be fully ready. It was better to put something on the ground and improve it as we went along, because Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan had already set aside a specially trained force ready for EASF intervention,” said Mr Hoareau.
The force is designed to sustain itself in terms of financial resources and equipment for a period of 90 days, after which the African Union and eventually the United Nations are expected to take over.
Besides actual outbreaks of violence such as happened in Burundi, security experts say that the EASF must be ready for a busy calendar because each of the 10 member states has the potential for crisis, either from internal ethnic tension or external border and resource disputes.
Bethuel Kiplagat, who is the chairman of the Comesa Council of Elders currently engaged in Burundi, said the region faces numerous threats from unresolved border disputes such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Djibouti, on the yet to be demarcated border between Sudan and Southern Sudan, the marine border dispute between Kenya and Somalia, and the issue of the Elemi Triangle between Kenya and South Sudan.
EASF is part of the AU Peace and Security Architecture that seeks to deploy about 30,000 troops from all five regions of the continent by 2015, ready to be called upon from contributing countries at short notice to intervene in cases of conflict in the continent.
Its headquarters are in Karen, Nairobi.