The East Africa Standby Force (EASF) says it's ready to deploy troops to the region to help end ongoing conflicts.
But officials say it will for now prioritise diplomatic efforts, which have traditionally taken precedence in similar crises in the past, as it refines its tools.
In its current form, the regional force is usually made up of troops from 10 member countries – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Comoros, Sudan and Burundi – and includes combined military, police and civilian components.
The East African Standby Force is ready to carry out any mission within its mandate, including in troubled member countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as help calm tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia should the troops be needed, according to the EASF Director, Brigadier (Rtd) Paul Kahuria Njema, in his remarks at the opening session of the 32nd Ordinary Policy Organs Meeting in Nairobi this week.
The instability caused by Al Shabaab's spate of attacks on innocent civilians in the Horn of Africa, as well as the effects of climate change, also form a wider area of focus for the force, he argued at a session attended by experts from member states, chiefs of defence and ministers.
Although the EASF was set up to deal with crises, over the past decade it has faced questions about potential violations of sovereignty as countries have refused to host it.
For example, both South Sudan and Sudan have refused to host the EASF in the past. South Sudan later agreed to a bilateral arrangement with Uganda instead when faced with the security situation in Juba following the civil war.
However, to better address these threats, EASF experts say they are discussing changing certain processes, such as the establishment of the EASF, its operational policy framework and other key working documents, to enable it to respond faster and better to crises and be seen as a solution.
“Over the years, the challenges facing our region have evolved, requiring us to adapt and innovate in our strategies in defence and security. Today we find ourselves in the midst of complex geopolitical dynamics, transnational threats and emerging challenges that demand a unified and collaborative response,” said Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla.
He said the meeting’s agenda will touch on a range of issues that demand the region’s attention, including counter-terrorism, cyber security challenges and humanitarian challenges caused by the effects of climate change.
“Our discussions are expected to shape the direction for our joint efforts in addressing these challenges. In this interconnected world, the security of one nation is inseparable from the security of its neighbours,” said Gen Ogolla.
“It is therefore important that we strengthen our partnerships, forge new alliances and enhance interoperability amongst our armed forces. Together we can build a resilient defence architecture that not only safeguards our nations but also promotes prosperity and development for our people.”
The meeting themed “A capability of choice for peace and integration in the East African region”, seeks to strengthen cooperation against common threats to the security and stability of the region.
Experts from the EASF member states were briefed on the security situation in the region and the progress made in implementing the decisions taken by the Council of Defence Ministers at the 31st Ordinary Policy Organs Meeting held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
While the force maintains that there’s a diplomatic line that must be followed to ensure that issues are resolved diplomatically before a force is deployed, the region will be watching to see if it is deployed in any of the conflict zones.
On July 10 last year, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) asked the EASF Summit to convene to consider the possible deployment of troops to Sudan following months of violence between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
However, Sudan’s military junta led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had initially rejected any external military intervention, warning that it would amount to aggression.
While the Force reached full operational capability to carry out rapid peace and security support operations including prevention and mediation in 2014, it has yet to deploy in conflict-affected member states.
It has, however, deployed election observation missions in the EASF member states such as Morocco, Kenya and Somalia.