If there is any person who must be having sleepless nights at the moment, it must be the Addis Ababa-based commander of the East African Standby Force, EASF.
Operational since 2009, the EASF is one of five regional components of the African Standby Force (ASF) conceived by the African Union way back in 2003. By proximity and capability, the EASF is in the best positioned to stand between the protagonists in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. There is little evidence of the African Union flexing its muscle.
The idea of the ASF was revolutionary and forward-looking because, on paper, it addressed one of the key constraints to intervention by African governments in the affairs of sovereign African states under certain circumstances. The idea gained credence because of the events of 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, in which more than a million people died, as Organisation of African Unity member states sat on the fence, citing the parochial principle of non-interference in a member state’s affairs.
In an ideal world, much of the violent conflict Africa witnesses today should be short-lived because any of the five regional standby forces should be able to stop it.
The relevance of the ASF and EASF comes into focus this week, because of the events that have been going on in Ethiopia’s Tigray region; and the announcement by the United States this week, that it would be sanctioning individuals cited in gross human-rights violations in that region.
It is a contradiction in terms that such a rebuke should be coming all the way from across the Atlantic, while the African Union sits impotent as Tigray and other regions of Africa burn in armed conflict. It is testimony to the gap between intention and practice, which is not all too uncommon in Africa.
The ASF is supposed to give teeth to the Africa Union’s Peace and Security Commission to perform its responsibilities. The ASF is supposed to be proactive, engaging in observation and monitoring missions to detect and prevent conflict early.
Through any of its regional components, the ASF has the mandate to intervene in any AU member state in the event of “grave circumstances or at the request of a member state in order to restore peace and security, in accordance with Article 4(h) and (j) of the Constitutive Act.” It can mount preventive deployment if that will prevent a dispute or a conflict from escalating or an ongoing violent conflict from spreading to neighbouring areas or States.
So, what is holding the AU and ASF back? One reason is mistrust and divided loyalties. Because the ASF is not fully funded by African money, there is always a lingering fear by governments in conflict-torn countries that ASF deployment could provide a backhaul for regime change.
Regimes, don’t want to feel incompetent to deal with internal threats, as can be seen in the case of Mozambique and its Cabo Delgado region. Member states are also torn over who has the mandate to order an intervention.
This lack of initiative only undermines the otherwise great idea of the ASF and the AU Peace and Security Commission needs to test its mandate by activating the mission scenarios envisaged in the protocols establishing the regional standby forces.