African Armies are better than you think

By Patrick Smith in Addis Ababa and Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 4 April 2013 13:42

The official’s fist crashed down on the conference table as he exclaimed: “What are we doing 50 years after independence calling on former colonial powers to resolve our security disputes?”

No one at the committee meeting in the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa in early March needed to ask to what the irate official was referring.

France’s intervention in Mali, albeit alongside 5,000 or so troops from West Africa, has prompted much soul searching among Africa’s military officers and diplomats.

To find that African armies can’t defend their own territory, that’s a big shame

This particular AU committee meeting was meant to be discussing progress on the African Standby Force, a proposed continent-wide military outfit capable of intervening to protect civilians and fight insurgent or terrorist forces.

Initially due to go into action in 2010 with five peacekeeping brigades drawn from each of the continent’s regions, the standby force is held back by political differences and lack of finance.

Plans for a pan-African army date back decades to the heady independence era under Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah.

The continental force is as much a political and diplomatic tool as a military one, says Colonel Jacques Deman of the European Union delegation to the African Union.

“That could be very positive because sharing resources and cooperation in the field can strengthen regional alliances,” he explains.

Some governments say they have to consolidate their national military forces before contributing to a grand continental army.

Under a compromise plan, according to Deman, AU member states would initially establish a less ambitious “rapid deployment capability” force.

This would include about 1,000 soldiers from each of the five main regional organisations and be ready to deploy within 40 days.

“The African Union has the strongest interventionist provisions – to protect civilians – in its constitution,” says Deman.


Director of the AU’s Peace and Security Commission (PSC) El-Ghassim Wane says the organisation is on track to launch the African Standby Force by 2015, as most of the institutions such as the Continental Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise and the PSC itself have been established.

Alongside the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, construction work is nearing completion on a new state-of-the-art building to house the PSC and an operations room processing real-time intelligence similar to that used by the United Nations Security Council in New York.

Meanwhile, the present realities remain unpalatable.

Uganda’s President Museveni echoed the official’s frustration in Addis Ababa when he told his own army at a parade in Kampala in March: “I don’t normally thank European countries for offering military support.

“But this time I thank the French president for supporting Mali because the terrorists were going to take over the country.”

Museveni went further: “To find that African armies can’t defend their own territory, that’s a big shame. Mali has been independent for 50 years and it has been run by military fellows who put on uniforms.

“What are those armies for? Why can they not defend their country?” According to Museveni, it is all about the nature of the regime.

Uganda, where the National Resistance Movement came to power in 1986 after a protracted guerrilla struggle, would never have to rely on a European state to help it defend its territory, he told the soldiers.

Faced with the Lord’s Resistance Army and allied militias backed by Khartoum’s Islamist regime, Museveni said, Uganda’s army had dealt with the threat with its own resources.

Back in the 1970s, Tanzania had backed local opposition fighters to overthrow the oppressive Idi Amin regime in Uganda.

This cooperation was a forerunner of the regional effort in Somalia, in which Uganda has played a leading role.

And, against the odds, the armies of Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia have stabilised the main cities in Somalia over the past three years.

“In 2010, the Ugandan commander of AMISOM [AU Mission in Somalia], Major General Nathan Mugisha, decided to take on Al-Shabaab,” recalls Colonel Sandy Wade, a political counsellor at the European Union delegation to Ethiopia.

“Mugisha was helped by Shabaab making a serious tactical error as a guerrilla army – they attacked at a point of strength and got pushed back like a conventional force. They probably won’t make that mistake again.”

There was also, said Wade, a moment of revelation in the Somali crisis which gave everyone a sense of the road travelled in the region: “A Somali general looked up from the table and told us: ‘The last time we soldiers stood around a regional map like this, we were planning to invade Ethiopia – now we are five different countries working out how to consolidate peace in Somalia and beyond.'”


Although Somalia can be regarded as a qualified success for a coalition of regional forces trying to stabilise one of its neighbours, the prospects…

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