Constraints on an “African Solution:” How Regional Interests Interplay with the African Standby Force

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Winter Issue 2019

Written By: Connor Akiyama, Tufts University


In recent years, the African Union (AU) has made great strides to improve political and economic cooperation internally amongst its fifty-five member states and externally with outside partners. One major emphasis of the AU is a new security architecture that envisions a more assertive role for the organization in upholding human rights and ending war crimes on the continent, even against sovereign actors. These commitments stand as a stark contrast to the long-standing norm of non-interference in African affairs as well as a reinvigorated commitment to finding “African Solutions to African Problems.”[i] Soon after its formation, the AU implemented the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Within the APSA, the African Standby Force (ASF), a rapid-reaction peacekeeping force designed to intervene in dire situations, was created.

During the Cold War, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was created to promote Pan-African ideals. It supported independence movements across the continent but remained strictly within a framework of complete respect for national sovereignty. Thus, the current shift in African supranational governance is relatively new, emerging only a few years after the end of the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union fell, Communist insurgencies lost their largest donor and subsequently ceased posing threats to U.S. interests on the continent. This meant both sides largely withdrew from the continent. Throughout the 1990’s, the failure of the OAU to sustain economic growth or to prevent atrocities like the Rwandan Genocide led to the organization’s replacement by the AU. This new organization was given a broader mandate to secure economic growth and maintain peace. There exists broad support from international and domestic elites for a rapid-deployment standby force and the said force has many successes on paper. However, the ASF remains underdeveloped and ineffective at acting as a coercive element of APSA when applied against sitting governments.

This paper argues that the primary shortcoming of the ASF’s ability to intervene against sitting governments, and only sitting governments, is the limited buy-in of regional powers within Africa. These countries, namely Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, continue to pursue self-interest at the cost of the ideals and goals of the AU. The first part of the paper will be a theoretical debate regarding multilateral security architecture implementation and how it might apply to the African Union. Then, the paper will describe the status quo of both the AU and the aforementioned regional powers. The third part will look at examples where the ASF and similar African peacekeeping interventions were deployed. Finally, the paper will conclude with an analysis regarding the roadblocks to the future of the ASF’s interventionist capability.

The Theory of an ASF

The literature about the debate pertaining to the African Union focuses on how the organization deals broadly with institution-building. However, instead of institutions like the ASF, more analysis has been written on the competing visions of AU economic cooperation,[ii] rule of law,[iii] and the overall structure of the APSA.[iv] But, very few sources address the national interests of the sovereign states that make up the AU. Much of the literature surrounding the AU’s security architecture is premised on the belief that these nations will eventually go along with AU projects, and thus analyze the AU from the top-down. This top-down perspective leads most of the literature on the topic to only give passing reference to the divergent foreign policy interests of the member states. Many papers fault the lack of political will for the shortcomings of the ASF. These papers interpret the lack as a result of low prioritization of the member states as opposed to national policymakers determining that a strong ASF would be detrimental to their own interests.[v]

In additional to national interests of specific African states, there are a few general structural problems that must also be overcome for multilateral security infrastructure to succeed. Literature surrounding such organizations shows contrasting views that can explain both the successes and the shortcomings of the ASF.

A broadly realist approach to the AU would likely contend that states will continue to act in their own self-interest even if it means undermining the capabilities of the ASF. In the words of realist Hans Morgenthau, “A foreign policy based upon a moral principle, which by definition relegates the national interest into the background is of necessity a policy of national suicide, actual or potential.”[vi] While realism can be far more complex than this, ultimately, realism pits self-help, material competition, and protection of national security as the core of foreign policy.[vii] Admittedly, what defines a national interest is murky and the debate regarding what national interests are and how they ought to be interpreted is likely not going to end soon. For the purpose of this paper, national interests in the eyes of most realists pertain to security, competition, and the distribution of power in an anarchic international system. 

Under this conception of core national interests as a nation’s primary concern, the integration of a fully-functioning interventionist force run by the AU is unlikely to appear. It is even less likely to act if these regional powers decide to fight for their own interests instead of the AU’s. Some realists believe that hyper globalization has forced restrictions on governments and is generating agitation to return to sovereign control, both from governments and people.[viii] Seen through this angle, national foreign policies will thus emphasize securing the gains they can get for themselves while also keeping control rather than submitting themselves to globalized institutions. Within the realm of defense, these nations are also then unlikely to surrender their relative military strength in exchange for an interventionist peacekeeping force outside of their direct control. Especially if this force risks lives and wastes money in conflicts possibly deemed unimportant to the government. In this regard, it makes sense that regional powers have not been fully committed to building up the ASF’s credibility and have pursued foreign policy objectives that not only stall the ASF, but actively counteract its development. 

The neoliberal and neo-functionalist approaches would argue that the ASF is an institution and can be built up as the rest of the AU is developed. Institutions, in the minds of both approaches, build “enduring patterns of shared expectations of behavior” which reduce uncertainty by limiting unexpected actions and standardizing state behavior to be more predictable.[ix] These institutions can thus help reduce security dilemmas, limit distrust in an anarchic system, and provide greater rewards from cooperation. For example, it is argued that the power of institutions has allowed the EU to build a common expectation of behavior amongst its member states in fighting climate change and exerting pressure in defense of human rights.[x] Neoliberals and neo-functionalists would therefore hope that the ASF can emerge as a security institution to uphold the values of the AU and provide security to the most marginalized populations in Africa.

It is also believed that as the responsibilities of institutions and interdependence amongst states becomes normalized, it will be a beneficial thing that more responsibility will be ceded from nation states, including security policy. According to some, the paradigm shifts and institutional embrace of intervention have been ongoing since the end of the OAU and the beginning of the AU.[xi] Looking towards a similar political body, the European Union, can provide some possible futures for Africa’s supranational organization. So far, security integration remains elusive in the EU, but neo-functionalism believes in “automatic-politicization”, a process that links economic cooperation and political integration.[xii] Similar to the EU, it is believed that the AU can continue to build institutions to bolster democracy, ensure economic prosperity, and reduce security concerns. This will eventually create a politically powerful AU, weaker national interests, and a more prosperous continent.[xiii] While it is broadly accepted that state interests currently drive AU integration, over time, new identities and loyalties will be formed to the new supranational community.[xiv] If this is fully achieved, and the institutions are stable and accepted, there would be a paradigm shift to bolster the ASF to solve collective action problems across Africa even when individual nations object.

Realists have criticized neo-liberal and neo-functionalist theories of integration of NATO and the EU by pointing to the United States’ security guarantees to the continent against the existential threat of the Soviet Union. These guarantees, they argue, allowed for deeper integration without the emergence of security dilemmas or arms races within the pact.[xv] Such a security guarantee does not exist for the AU, nor is there an existential threat to all of Africa. Thus, the possibility of deep integration in the AU’s institutions is heavily limited from the perspective of the realists.

The last approach to the new African security architecture comes from constructivists and their theories about identity. This approach is largely focused on understanding the nuance of identities that are “defined by the institutionalized norms and values of their social contexts.”[xvi] When placed in an African security context, the different historical development of African nations has led to a confluence of non-state actors, weak states, and a variegated idea of what African security is in every nation.[xvii] These separate characteristics within different states create unique issues such that the idea of intervention has been accepted to varying degrees by different AU members.[xviii]

The AU is still a young organization, and like the OAU before it, it faces a long debate regarding the nature of Pan-Africanism and the identity of African society. In the way of congruence are the conflicting elite identities as well as the national and ethnic identities which are still largely hostile to pan-Africanism.[xix] Taken into consideration, constructivists are likely to label the failure of the ASF not as one of material, institutional, or even national interest incongruencies, but as one of differences in acceptance and identity. Thus, if norm entrepreneurs, states willing to accept new norms of identity, succeed in institutionalizing its norms over the opposition of national identities and the concerns of some African elites, the establishment and operationalization of the ASF will follow.

Theoretical analyses of the future of the AU can be endless. However, the academic conversation regarding the merits of a common security architecture is highlighted here to help frame the understanding of the ASF’s shortcomings. Existing beliefs of the source of the ASF’s weakness largely regard the setbacks as the faults of policy mistakes and financial shortcomings. However, further analysis will suggest the possibility that the ASF shortcomings are the result of deliberate decisions made by regional powers opposed to the ASF.

The African Standby Force and Where is it Now?

In 2000, representatives from 53 African nations gathered at Lomé, Togo to sign the Constitutive Act which would transform the OAU into the new African Union. The new organization was “inspired by the noble ideals…of Pan-Africanists in their determination to promote unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation among the peoples of Africa and African States.”[xx] The evolution of the OAU to the AU came after decades of criticism that the OAU was too constrained by “…respect for national sovereignty, [and] non-interference….”[xxi] In 2001, the Constitutive Act entered into force, and, in 2002, the official launch of the AU was declared in Durban, South Africa. The new framework of the AU retained many of the previous focuses on maintaining the peace and mutual respect of borders, but it also assumed a more active role in promoting peace and security through peacekeeping and democracy promotion.[xxii] Since its creation, the AU has established regional mechanisms (RM) to uphold the United Nations framework of human rights and implement such protections and enforcement on a local level.

This transition to the AU was significant, because it indicated a shift from a non-interference style of regional organization, like the Association of South East Asian Nations, to a more integrated and involved one like the European Union. In 2004, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) was established as one of the five elements of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). This also included the Continent Early Warning System, the Panel of the Wise, the Peace Fund, and the African Standby Force.

The African Standby Force is a unique interventionist component of the APSA and PSC, especially when Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union is invoked. This article permits the AU to send in military forces to intervene in “grave circumstances”, such as genocide and war crimes, even if the host countries dissents.[xxiii] The ASF can also be called in for humanitarian relief, conflict disarmament, or in defense of the security of a member. The design of the ASF focuses around five regional organizations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the South African Development Community (SADC), the Eastern African Standby Force (EASF), and the North African Regional Capability (NARC). Each organization would individually raise “brigade level forces” to be supported by civilian police and appropriate bureaucracy.[xxiv] Many of these groupings reflect pre-existing regional economic communities (RECs) and work within the same bureaucracies. These brigades would be available for deployment anywhere in their respective regions but are geographically constrained to that region and require approval from the regional economic community to be deployed. If necessary, an AU-wide operation would follow up to maintain a long-term presence. 

The ASF also includes a rapid deployment capability (RDC) that is tasked with immediately deploying one thousand personnel anywhere in Africa within fourteen days, followed by an additional one thousand five hundred personnel within the next fourteen days.[xxv] This capability is intended to provide immediate humanitarian assistance and armed intervention before a broader ASF mandate can deploy. To meet the RDC’s short timeline, the brigades must be centralized, assembled, fully trained, and fully equipped to meet the necessary deployment timeframe.[xxvi] In 2013, in response to the immediate needs for a rapid-deployment force and the slow progress of the yet-operational ASF, the AU created the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACRIC) to serve as a stopgap until the RDC of the ASF is operational.

In 2015, the Amani Africa II exercise was successfully conducted in South Africa, leading to the official AU declaration in 2016 that the ASF had “attained Full Operational Capability.”[xxvii] The exercise entailed multinational troop transportation missions, centralized military coordination from Addis Ababa, and civil-military cooperation. It tested participating militaries from 19 African countries in a mock military intervention. In 2018, the ASF’s first continental logistics base was inaugurated in Cameroon to help provide logistical support for future operations.

Thus, on paper, the ASF appears to be making significant progress towards a fully-integrated African intervention mechanism. An AU assessment of the ASF in 2017 revealed that, while the north and central standby brigades were lagging, west, southern, and eastern standby brigades were improving.[xxviii] However, military readiness metrics can be misleading, and mistakenly blends operational readiness with willingness to use force by the AU. A fully trained and well-equipped peacekeeping force with no political support poses a lesser threat than one with political will because they won’t be deployed. Without the political will to utilize the ASF, genuine efforts to establish it as a peacekeeping force will not succeed even if it is capable of integrated command and civil-military coordination. So far, the failure to build politically has been blamed on a host of issues, notably domestic priorities, weak funding mechanisms,[xxix] and a lack of unifying leadership.[xxx] These logistical challenges will likely continue to pose a significant hurdle to the deployment of the ASF, with divergent national interests only making it worse. Additionally, all states both large and small, likely fear the possibility of a 2/3 majority vote to implement a regional intervention against their own state sometime in the future.[xxxi]

An additional driving force behind disagreements within the AU is the wide array of political ideologies of its members. Whereas the EU is only composed of Western and Western-inspired democracies, the AU contains healthy democracies, hybrid democracies, military regimes, authoritarian states, and failed states. These cleavages in government structure concerning the basic ideas of what sovereignty is are not conducive to collaboration, let alone violations of others’ national sovereignty.

Even though the largest economies in Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa total roughly 48% of the AU’s nation contributions, these nations are constraining the ASF from reaching the capabilities the AU desires. [xxxii] Their justification for AU participation has been primarily to capitalize on economic integration and international funding. Security agreements often act as secondary concerns. The flagship projects for the AU’s Agenda 2063, which include a continent-wide high-speed rail, free trade agreements, and an integrated African financial system, hint at this. Only three of the fourteen goals relate to the security of the continent, and security has taken a backseat on the most public initiatives of the AU.[xxxiii]

This paper does not disregard the conflicting interests and distrust between other nations that impedes the ASF, for example, the distrust Kenya maintains regarding Ethiopia’s dominant role in the EASF.[xxxiv] Rather, this paper focuses on the issue from the perspective of the regional powers in Africa whose divergent interests play a larger role in hindering the ASF. It is because of their economic influence, military strength, and international attention that the regional powers possess a unique ability to stall the entire project. These nations also have dominant voices in their respective regional economic communities. This grants them sway over regional EC’s and influence over the AU’s regional standby groups, for example, Nigeria in ECOWAS and South Africa in the SADC.

Based on a combination of population, GDP per capita, urbanization, military expenditures, military professionalism, and international recognition, the most prominent regional powers that this paper identifies are Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. Egypt has the fourth largest population in Africa, Africa’s largest city (Cairo), Africa’s eight-highest GDP per capita (third amongst countries with more than 2.5 million people), and one of the strongest militaries in Africa and the Middle East.[xxxv] Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa,[xxxvi] is the twentieth largest economy in the world,[xxxvii] dwarfs the economic and military spending of its ECOWAS neighbors, [xxxviii] and has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city (Lagos).[xxxix] South Africa has the fifth largest population in Africa, has the seventh highest GDP per capita in Africa (second amongst countries with more than 2.5 million people), [xl] economically and politically dominates the SADC, has Africa’s fourth largest city (Johannesburg), is a member of the G20 and a BRICS nations, and maintains a professional military that is significantly stronger compared to its neighbors. In the words of Henry Kissinger, “No state, except Nigeria or South Africa, is in a position to play a major role outside its immediate region.”[xli]

There is a large debate over the use of the term “regional power” to describe these nations. However, each one maintains military and political dominance not only over their neighbors, but also over larger regions of Africa, a key point of this paper’s argument. A significant challenge of a unified AU security policy is finding a common interest between three vastly different states. Each of the nations has its own foreign policy goals and relationships that hinder any common vision of what African prosperity would look like.


Egypt is situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and, arguably, Europe as well. In 1954, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser identified the three focuses of Egyptian foreign policy as being “the Arab, the African, and the Islamic,” but not necessarily in that order.[xlii] Geography matters, and Egypt has largely pivoted its foreign policy towards the Middle East and Europe. During the Cold War, it became apparent that Africa was not the first, second, or even third priority. A more realistic understanding of Egyptian focuses, as pursued in the twentieth and twenty-first century, would be the “U.S., Europe, and the Arab Gulf States.”[xliii]

From an Egyptian perspective, these focuses make sense. Not only are the strategic advantages in Africa limited, but also the West and Gulf States offer more enticing economic opportunities than Africa does. Following the Camp David Accords of 1979, and especially after the American War on Terror, Egypt has desired to remain a strategic partner of the United States. This strategy has allowed Egypt access to billions of dollars in foreign military sales. The United States has provided Egypt with over one billion dollars annually in primarily military aid ($78 billion since 1946 if unadjusted for inflation), [xliv] as well as access to specialized American military hardware.[xlv] In recent years, Egyptian President al-Sisi turned to Russia to modernize Egypt’s aging jet fleet and to France purchase modern aircraft and naval vessels.[xlvi] When compared to the possible benefits from an African-focused foreign policy, Egyptian policy prefers a focus on counterterrorism and the Middle East that brings in money and domestic security against terrorism.

Regarding non-military economic incentives, there is little foreign direct investment from Sub-Saharan Africa when compared to the wealthy nations in the West. The largest sources of foreign direct investment into Egypt are the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States, the UAE, and France.[xlvii] In terms of trade, the largest export partners for Egypt are the UAE, Italy, and Turkey, with Africa only comprising 12% of exports. The largest import partners are China, Russia, and Germany, with Africa only comprising 3.5% of imports.[xlviii] From a purely economic perspective, the lack of prioritization for Sub-Saharan Africa is a sensible decision for Egyptian leadership.

Egypt’s economic ties to Europe and the Gulf States, its military partnerships with Europe and the United States, its history of conflict with Israel and Europe, and its prominent role in the Arab League have all worked against Egypt’s integration into the African Union. Egypt’s only significant African security interest is the control of the Nile’s upstream origin in Ethiopia. Egypt risks losing a critical source of power from its own Aswan Dam, as well as clean water, if Ethiopia proceeds with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

The interests of Egypt clearly do not lie in Africa. Even though President al-Sisi is finishing up his time as chairperson of the African Union, Egypt appears not to be fully committed to building a unified AU foreign policy. In addition to strategic mismatch, the AU’s suspension of Egypt after the 2013 coup of President Mohamed Morsi has left a tense relationship between the two sides. The AU was forced to allow Egypt back in under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after it could not maintain unity amongst its members and saw no point in isolating Egypt since el-Sisi’s coup had no foreseeable end.[xlix]

Regarding the ASF and the PSC, Egypt actively avoids commitments to the military integration of AU member states or taking a leading role in such efforts. The Northern African Regional Capability was established as the Northern African component of the ASF, and, with the collapse of Libya in 2011, it remains the least prepared of all five regional capabilities.[l] It is unlikely that the Egyptian military is willing to commit any of its soldiers or resources to humanitarian interventions in the region when it is concerned with fighting terrorism to its east and its own domestic legitimacy. Not only do peacekeeping operations put Egyptian lives at risk, they are regarded as wasteful since there are no pressing strategic interests for Egypt in Africa, aside from the Nile.

Lastly, the AU has attempted to build a collective African identity with the Pan-African ideals fundamental to the Constitutive Act, the AU’s founding document. This has been met with limited success in Egypt and North Africa as a whole. [li] At nearly all levels of society, Egyptians consider themselves part of the Arab world more than they consider themselves part of the Sub-Saharan world.[lii] Nations like the United States, United Kingdom, China, and Russia codify this by politically grouping Egypt within diplomatic bureaus that address North Africa within the context of the Middle East rather than Sub-Saharan Africa. When combining the identity, strategic, economic, and institutional mismatch of Egypt and the AU, the political will for Egypt to support the ASF is essentially nonexistent.


In Nigeria, numerous domestic problems, ranging from skyrocketing poverty rates to an active insurgency in the north, have limited its ability to look outwards. Boko Haram, which has ravaged the country and killed tens of thousands while putting millions of others in danger, continues to pose a significant risk to the stability of Nigeria’s democracy.[liii] Nigeria also stands out in West Africa, and ECOWAS, as a massive Anglophone nation in the middle of Francophone Africa. Despite this difference, it still dominates the decision making of ECOWAS and has a population that is expected to explode in the coming decades with UN projections estimating upwards of 400 million by 2050.[liv]

In 1970, Nigerian Foreign Minister Bolaji Akinnyemi introduced the term Pax Nigeriana. Based on the idea of Nigerian hegemony in Western Africa, Nigeria would build a foreign policy and military strategy around maintaining its dominance in the region.[lv] According to Dr. Jason Warner of West Point, Nigerian foreign policy suffers from a sense of, “illusory hegemony.” This means Nigeria believes it ought to be a regional hegemon in West Africa and engages in actions it believes hegemons normally do. But its hegemony is illusory because Nigeria often cannot manage to successfully carry out these actions.[lvi] Nigeria played a leading role in decolonization and African unity during the Cold War. However, the internal insurrections in the country from Biafra to Boko Haram demonstrate its inability to maintain control of its own territory, let alone project influence externally. In 2015, when the idea of a pan-African force was raised to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram, “Nigeria, which would have had its hegemonic credentials deeply undermined with the entrance of a pan-African force into its borders… quickly restructured the approved force from being a functionally AU force to a regional force.”[lvii] By wrangling control from ECOWAS, the more obvious and well-resourced AU choice to lead an anti-Boko Haram campaign, Nigeria opted for the regional Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) to lead it. The LCBC, composed of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Benin, and Cameroon, was much easier for Nigeria to control and maintained its image of a regional power. In doing so, Nigeria hampered the deployment of combat-ready AU forces to maintain its image of stability and regional hegemony at the cost of internal security and of AU unity.

There are additional problems beyond just domestic security concerns for Nigeria, including languid economic growth and severe religious divides between its north and south. Nigeria was recently designated the Poverty Capital of the World by the World Poverty Clock and has more people in extreme poverty than India does, despite having a population one-seventh the size.[lviii] With a GDP growth of 0.8% in 2017, Nigeria has far more pressing matters to contend with at home before it can focus on establishing itself as a regional power in a Pan-African organization.[lix] Yet, despite these troubling economic projections and its inability to achieve internal stability, Nigeria continues to portray itself as a rising power to the rest of the world. For example, its presidents frequently visit P5 nations and rarely visit any African nations outside of the immediate Sahel region.[lx] Just like Egypt, Nigeria also maintains more economic ties with the West and Asia than in Sub-Saharan Africa and is pushing to promote itself as a stable regional foreign investment hub.[lxi]

The push for international recognition as a major player in Africa has had the unfortunate consequence of undermining Nigeria’s own reputation as a power. As Warner writes, “In the maintenance of its quest to be a West African and pan-African hegemon, Nigeria must portray itself in a capable, organized, and powerful fashion, even if this means being vague, exacerbating citizens’ insecurity, and, at times, being visibly duplicitous.”[lxii] Whether it is worth the cost to the perception of the ruling elite in Nigeria or not, its foreign policy directly harms AU unity efforts and masks deeper problems within the country.

South Africa

Alongside Egypt and Nigeria, South Africa is also a significant actor in Africa. During its Apartheid years, South Africa constantly engaged in regional interventions in face of international sanctions. It was only after the end of Apartheid that South Africa was welcomed into the Organization of African Unity. The dominance of South Africa in the region has been described by some as at times hegemonic and at times unipolar. South Africa’s well-maintained and professional military, comparatively strong economy, and considerable influence in the SADC provide South Africa advantages over its neighbors.[lxiii] While South Africa was a dominant regional power during the Cold War with its military interventions against Communist uprisings across the region and its enormous economic advantage placed it leagues above its neighbors, it has lost much of this competitive edge.[lxiv]

The election of Mandela in 1994 promised to forever shift South African foreign policy. Previously, the role of Apartheid in South African foreign policy emphasized South African regional dominance to defend from anti-Apartheid states, but this was no longer necessary. The newly-elected Mandela stressed that South African foreign policy should be “…based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations.”[lxv] Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were eager to prove themselves as responsible stakeholders on the global stage, but the self-interests of South Africa did not align with his vision. This is evidenced by South Africa’s highly controversial multi-billion dollar purchase of weaponry in 1998.[lxvi] Deputy President, and eventual president, Thabo Mbeki further opposed the full implementation of Mandela’s idealistic platform for human rights and instead favored economic growth and a pragmatic foreign policy.[lxvii] South Africa continues to maintain this wobbly dichotomy by generally supporting peacekeeping operations and the AU, but also pushing for its own national interests over a broadly human rights-based agenda. On paper, South Africa’s foreign policy priorities include “Pursuing African Advancement and Enhanced Cooperation” and the country has rejected the realist idea of power maximization for the pursuit of national interest.[lxviii] However, Mandela’s vision of a strong human rights regime in Africa was tapered down and transformed into a more realistic model of foreign policy with moderate goals.[lxix]

Today, South Africa remains a significant player, because it represents a “product of international needs for African representation on the global stage, together with its own ambitions, rather than any regional consensus on South African leadership.”[lxx] This desire by the international community for South Africa to succeed can be seen through its position on the United Nations Security Council, inclusion in BRICS and the G20, and in the push for South Africa to host the FIFA World Cup and the Commonwealth Games. The international community has long wanted a single African power with which it could negotiate to gain access to the continent. South Africa fit the bill because of a coup-less government and Africa’s largest stock exchange in Johannesburg.[lxxi]

Despite its apparent success however, as South Africa deals more with domestic problems, it is less likely to focus on supporting the PSC. Today, South Africa’s regional power is atrophying as its economy continues to stagnate and political unrest swells. In 2018, South Africa was labelled the most unequal country by the World Bank, [lxxii] white South Africans earned nearly five times as much as their black countrymen, [lxxiii] South Africa ranks tenth in the world in intentional homicide rates, [lxxiv] and the popularity of a radical political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, exhibits lasting racial and socioeconomic divisions in South Africa.[lxxv] Furthermore, South Africa continues to be plagued by xenophobic riots against migrants who are blamed for taking away jobs from South Africans. These riots continue to isolate South Africa from its neighbors who have loudly criticized its policies towards African unity.[lxxvi]

In addition, South Africa’s perception of itself as a regional power has the same problems that Nigeria has with its own self-perception. Namely, South Africa attempts to appear dominant in the view of the international community while also struggling with immense domestic problems. Like Nigeria, South Africa continues to push for its own interests to be a global power player at the cost of a united AU diplomatic front. Because of South Africa’s desire to be recognized as a middle power by Asia and the West, it is unlikely to act primarily with the interests and support of the African continent in mind. Unfortunately, this means that South Africa must choose between losing “the support of the continent… or the international community’s own enthusiasm for it.”[lxxvii] Similar to Egypt and the North African states, the idea of pan-Africanism in South Africa has not won particular sway as seen through previous attacks against Nigerian business establishments and xenophobic attacks against migrants.[lxxviii] South Africa remains, similar to Egypt and Nigeria, stuck at a crossroads in which choosing to submit itself to the AU will limit foreign policy objectives that it values higher.

The APSA in Action


Two recent usages of the PSC, one international and one domestic, have demonstrated the incompatibility the ASF has with the national interests of the individual members states. The first case is the 2011 Libyan Civil War, an international event that pulled in participants from around the world. The second, conducted entirely by AU members states, was in response to the 2015 Burundian election.

On February 15th, 2011, the Arab Spring hit Libya as hundreds of anti-government protestors took to the streets of Benghazi in response to the arrest of Fethi Tarbel, a human rights lawyer. Protestors soon demanded the abdication of long-standing dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and were met with a military response. Defections and resignations amongst the Libyan government, as well as international condemnation, encouraged military units to side with the opposition to overthrow Qaddafi. These forces began to occupy cities across Libya prompting Qaddafi to rally his army in Tripoli and began to retake cities and overrun the rebels.

Amidst this outbreak of hostilities in Libya, the AU was given an opportunity to utilize its PSC mechanisms to broker a peaceful resolution before it was too late. The passage of UNSC Resolution 1973 on March 17th, which established a no-fly zone over Libya, ignited deep divides in the AU. An official AU communique was released that outlined a basic plan towards a peaceful resolution in Libya, but the AU’s hesitation sidelined its role in the crisis. The reason for the hesitation was the emergence of multiple blocs in the AU over Libya. One bloc was backed by South Africa and Uganda who supported the idea of the protection of civilians, but not the proposed implementation. A similar bloc backed by Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Nigeria rejected NATO intervention as a form of disguised regime change in Libya. One more bloc emerged, backed by Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Senegal, which fully supported NATO operations.[lxxix]

Many of the blocs were formed around the national interests and personal politics of many of the African states involved. South Africa, despite initially supporting UNSC 1973, then reversed on its position after NATO airstrikes on Libya were conducted in the name of the resolution.[lxxx] Forces within the dominant political party in South Africa, the African National Congress, railed on the imperialist intentions of regime-change amongst Western forces and advocated for a model of reconciliation similar to their own that utilized peace settlements, quiet diplomacy, and power-sharing agreements.[lxxxi] Allegations emerged in 2011 that Zimbabwean soldiers were on the ground in Libya supporting the Gaddafi government as a testament to the strong personal relationship between the two presidents at the time.[lxxxii] Nigeria and Ethiopia, both supportive of efforts to remove Gaddafi but in disagreement over the role of NATO, broke ranks with the South African power-sharing approach and recognized the rebel Libyan government.[lxxxiii] In the end, NATO airstrikes succeeded in assisting the rebel takeover of Tripoli and the fall of the Gaddafi government, forcing the AU to finally recognize the new Libyan government.

The inability of the AU to reconcile these blocs quickly meant its response would inevitably become irrelevant by faster moving organizations. Various African leaders in the non-interventionist bloc declared that they would uphold Libya’s national sovereignty and oppose any military intervention, but opposition to UN Security Council (UNSC) and NATO bombing runs when they happened was muted and scattered.[lxxxiv] The world ignored the AU because to them, Libya was not an African state, but an Arab one. As Grovogui writes, “the UN had decided unilaterally and as a matter of sovereign right that Libya was an Arab state and not [an] African one, and that for the purpose of its own intervention, the AU had no authority over North Africa.”[lxxxv]

Although the Libya crisis was not an ASF operation, nor could it be because it was not yet operational, the divisions in the AU’s regional powers demonstrated the necessity of political unity in performing successful peacekeeping. The irrelevance of the AU and the failure of the APSA to find a conclusion was not due to the lack of a robust, multinational peacekeeping force, but the political clash of national interests. The disagreement between AU member states throughout the entire crisis paralyzed any attempts to solve the Libyan crisis, either diplomatically or militarily. This meant the West took initiative, and the AU ceded control of the situation to NATO.

The lasting terrorism, illicit arms networks, human trafficking, and political instability of Libya are a constant reminder of the consequences of the failure to unify in the face of crisis. In light of this outcome, if the AU member states are genuinely interested in establishing a functioning peacekeeping force, Libya should have been their wake-up call to streamline their decision processes regarding the possible use of such a peacekeeping force. Four years later, the AU attempted to respond to a power grab by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, and once more the AU failed.


Following a successful intervention of the AU Mission in Burundi (AMIB) during its 2003 civil war, the Burundian people voted in Pierre Nkurunziza, an anti-AU leader, in protest of the AU’s presence in their country. The newly-elected Nkurunziza then demanded foreign forces leave Burundi, which they promptly did. In the chaotic months leading up to the 2015 election, the AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security and the Panel of the Wise visited Burundi to conduct pre-emptive diplomacy in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

The reason for the concern was Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional presidential run for a third term. Nkurunziza’s decision to run again sparked protests across Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, in the months leading up to the election. Security forces responded by clamping down on human rights and shooting protestors. In May, the vice-president of the Constitutional Court fled Burundi claiming that pressure from Burundian officials and death threats to the court forced the Court to approve the Constitutionality of a third term.[lxxxvi] Later in the month, a coup was attempted by parts of the military with protestor-support to prevent a third-term, but was defeated by forces loyal to Nkurunziza. After Burundi delayed the deployment of AU election observers, the AU cancelled its election observation mission correctly believing that the election was going to be tampered with anyways. On July 21, Nkurunziza won the boycotted election with 69% of the vote, but the election was not accepted by the domestic opposition or international organizations.

In the weeks following the election, key Burundian officials were assassinated and fighting continued between state forces and scattered rebel forces. On October 17, the PSC imposed sanctions on individuals responsible for violence and ordered the completion of the final planning stages of the deployment of the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi, MAPROBU. The violence culminated on December 12th with the extrajudicial killings of dozens of men by security forces in response to an attack on army barracks. On December 15, 2015, the PSC issued an ultimatum to the government of Burundi demanding Burundi accept an African peacekeeping mission to protect civilians and facilitate political dialogue.[lxxxvii] In the case of a non-acceptance, the PSC would recommend the implementation of article 4(h) permitting a military intervention by the EASF which was declared operational in December 2015, during the crisis.[lxxxviii]

The Burundian government rejected MAPROBU on December 21st comparing it to an invasion force, and by January 29th, the PSC had already backed off its threat of military force. The escalation of the AU-Burundi standoff caught many off guard, especially those who likely expected Nkurunziza to step down. Nkurunziza was able to call the AU’s bluff because he exploited both the political fissures and the material limitations of the EASF. Diplomatically, Nkurunzia knew he was playing against a divided enemy with divergent national interests. One of the problems was that the EASF could not muster enough personnel to participate in an intervention, highlighting an important issue with the ASF’s regional constraints. Burundian troops were obviously out of the question for an intervention in their own country. Additionally, both Uganda and Kenya were stretched too thin with thousands of troops deployed with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The contingent of over 5000 Burundian soldiers deployed with AMISOM gave Nkurunzia another negotiating tool to temper any enthusiasm for MAPROBU by threatening to substantially hinder the AU’s efforts in Somalia by withdrawing.[lxxxix] Ultimately, the situation in Somalia was of much greater importance to troop-contributing countries than the constitutional crisis in the tiny country of Burundi and the PSC backed off.

As for the other members of the EASF and countries in the region, Burundi had additional advantages to leverage. Tanzania, a member of the East African Community but not the EASF, took a leading role in negotiations and soon became a stalwart opponent of MAPROBU. Tanzania’s foreign minister declared that Tanzania would prefer a political settlement to a military one and instead called for a unity government in Burundi.[xc] Tanzania, an early supporter of Nkurunziza during the Burundian Civil War, had also recently elected John Magufuli, a president whose own rule was growing more autocratic, and who likely tempered Tanzania’s intent to intervene. South African President Jacob Zuma, the head of the AU’s delegation to Burundi and another leader with close ties to the Nkurunziza’s ruling party, also pushed for a negotiated compromise and urged all to abide by the Courts decision to grant Nkurunziza his third term.[xci] In addition, other leaders in the Great Lakes region were attempting their own constitutional rule extensions, and a successful AU military action to remove an unconstitutional leader in East Africa would set a bad precedent for their own futures. President of neighboring Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was holding a nation-wide vote to change Rwanda’s own constitution to extend presidential term limits. Kagame, an early advocate of Nkurunziza stepping down, thus fell silent on the matter of Burundi as discussions became more militarized.[xcii] In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni was also facing his own 4th term the following year and likely held similar concerns to Kagame.[xciii] MAPROBU and the escalation of threats proved too much for several key states in the EASF whose leaders backed down once Burundi called the bluff.

In the weeks following the refusal, the Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region, Ibrahima Fall, said that a military intervention without Burundian consent was “unimaginable.”[xciv] While this failure was specific to the EASF, the influence of South Africa’s and Tanzania’s diplomatic push against intervention and the failure to deploy due to the reservations of Burundi’s neighbors highlights the lasting power of national interests. In addition to national interests being at fault for stalling MAPROBU, internal party politics as well as the personal relationships between the leaders of the region contributed to the operation’s failure. Political divisions and South Africa’s rejection of the AU plan due to its interests in Nkurunziza’s survival did far more for the failure of the ASF in Burundi than any logistic concerns of the operation itself. This supports the idea that the ASF needs more political buy in rather than more materials and force capability. This failure to coerce Burundi was the most striking failure of the ASF to achieve what it had set out to do… keeping the peace even if the host state refuses.

The failures in Libya and Burundi were significant because they demonstrated how the national interests of the regional powers conflict with the goals of the ASF. In both cases, the regional powers could have used their influence to back the AU in building a coalition, but their unwillingness to support the AU over their own national interests speaks greatly to the problems of the ASF. The fact that divisions plagued AU member states even after the diplomatic fiasco of the Libyan crisis indicates, to a certain extent, African states still do not have a significant commitment to the idea of a unified peacekeeping force. This seems especially true when one of the regional powers adopted a contrary position to the AU one in both occasions.


Of course, to only look at the failures in Libya and Burundi as the final judgment of the ASF would be a mistake, especially when there have been other APSA successes. Therefore, this paper will quickly highlight why the AU’s previous successful operations do not prove that national interest was surmounted, and why Libya and Burundi remain the best examples of the barriers of national interest to the ASF.

In 2003, a ceasefire in Burundi prompted the deployment of an AU peacekeeping force (AMIB) as the first test of the new African Union. This intervention was before the creation of the PSC and African Standby Force, and its significant shortcomings helped guide the creation of the APSA.[xcv] The primary shortcoming of the AMIB was that it had no mandate to protect the peace, only to oversee the implementation of the specifics of a ceasefire agreement that was already crafted.[xcvi] In 2004, the UN took over with the Opération des Nations Unies au Burundi. The lack of any kind of direct combat, lack of a mandate to use force against a sovereign government, and hand-over to international partners make it different from what the ASF is trying to achieve. In addition, the alignment of national interests over the signing of a ceasefire largely undercuts the argument that the ASF can proceed against divergent national interests.

In 2004, during the breakout of extreme violence in Darfur, Sudan, the AU established the African Union Mission in the Sudan (AMIS) to observe the situation, protect civilians, and uphold the implementation of a ceasefire brokered by the Sudanese government. Once more, the AMIS mandate did not allow the enforcement of the ceasefire and hindered the protection of civilians in imminent danger.[xcvii] As the security concerns increased, the scale of the operation did as well, such that, three years later, AMIS became a joint operation with the UN under the name UNAMID. This raised additional UN funding to end the violence in Darfur.[xcviii] The AU intervention was largely a failure. While it did protect some civilians, it did not achieve its primary objective of upholding the ceasefire owing to inadequate resources and a divided opinion on the actual solution between AU members.[xcix] The peacekeeping deployment, done with the support of the international community, revealed that AU members often deploy troops for better international support, prestige, and economic incentives rather than actually supporting AU unity.

In 2007, the Islamic Courts Union was fighting the internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government over the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. During these crises, the UN Security Council (UNSC) authorized an AU intervention, which was crafted by the PSC in 2007 and currently has five contributing countries. A key difference between the AU’s Somalian deployment (AMISOM) versus later proposed deployments, is that AMISOM was authorized with the explicit support of the international community and the government of Somalia. In addition, many of the troop-contributing countries deployed their soldiers for self-benefiting reasons, namely to enhance the ability of their militaries and to provide them pay through foreign sources.[c] The international incentives offered for AU nations to deploy troops with AMISOM played more into the decision to deploy than AU solidarity arguments.[ci] The request for deployment by the AU-recognized Somalian government and the common interests of avoiding a full Somalian collapse demonstrates why AMISOM is not the best example for judging the coercive power of the ASF. Nor does it adequately contest that the regional powers’ have little interest in creating an interventionist, as opposed to counter-insurgent, standby force.

In 2008, the AU backed the government of Comoros to eliminate the self-declared and unrecognized government in Anjouan. Once more, the AU acted alongside the recognized government with the support of the international community, to restore order in the country.

In 2012, Mali faced an insurrection in its north whose rapid advances southward towards the capital in Bamako brought consternation to the international community. In 2012, the UNSC authorized the deployment of a military intervention to prevent the fall of the Malian government.[cii] The delays in deployment of the local coalition force prompted France to launch Operation Serval in 2012 to protect Bamako and prevent the collapse of Mali.[ciii] In a similar vein, the AU has authorized AU peacekeeping mandates to combat terrorist groups throughout Central Africa, with the support of the larger world.[civ] None of these operations, however, have been against the national interests of the participating nations, nor have they not been fully backed by the international community and/or U.S. counterterrorism policy.

In 2017, ECOWAS decided to deploy troops to forcibly remove President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, who refused to step down after losing an election in 2017. Without an explicit AU mandate, and thus no article 4(h) intervention, ECOWAS implemented Operation Restore Democracy and deposed Jammeh. The success of the ECOWAS intervention demonstrates that “the ability of the ASF to deploy is dependent on the political buy-in of the RECs/RMs and their member states.”[cv] In one sense, Operation Restore Democracy was the epitome of the ideals of the ASF, a regional coalition deployed to force a government to abide by its constitution and maintain democracy. In another sense, however, Operation Restore Democracy had the participation of Nigeria and was successful only because Nigerian interests did not oppose the removal of President Jammeh. Not only that, but President Jammeh had already lost the election. Whether Article 4(h) would be necessary to remove someone refusing to accept the results of an election is disputed. If the target is no longer the head of government, it does not follow that any action taken is then against the state itself, just the individual.

While it may seem as if the APSA is working as intended, this is because every usage of force mentioned here has aligned with the national interests of the regional powers and was done with the consent of the host government. This paper challenges the notion that the ASF can be used against its own member states, and its entire operational history has supported this notion. The paper does not argue that the AU is incapable of humanitarian operations or peacekeeping mandates. In fact, because South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt have foreign policies geared towards currying favor with the West and fighting extremism and state collapse, their participation in Western-supported counterterrorism operations makes even more sense. Nearly every state in Africa either has a vested interest to suppress terrorist groups or fund its militaries by participating in foreign-funded peacekeeping missions. In fact, the history of AU deployments shows increasing ambition by the APSA, but the operations never pass the threshold of action against one of its members.

Thus, the problem that Libya and Burundi uniquely demonstrate is that, when countries are requested to deploy against the wishes of the host government under article 4(h) with no direct national interest incentives, there is unlikely to be agreement. This would undermine potential humanitarian interventions to prevent war crimes, a major aspect of the ASF. The AU wants to compel its more powerful members to support PSC decisions, but its failure to do so in Libya and Burundi are emblematic of a larger problem. Unfortunately, egregious violations of human rights are not enough of a justification for Africa’s regional powers to get militarily involved unless their direct interest are threatened. Admittedly, this problem is not unique to Africa’s regional powers and hints at deeper structural issues in the world order. If the interests involved are important enough, however, states will contribute to the intervention with or without the ASF as shown in the Gambia. In the case of Libya, there was a split between the regional powers and no clear decision was reached; and, in the case of Burundi, no regional power supported the coercive behavior, thus weakening the AU. Clearly, the bureaucrats in the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa are not who determine the participation of Africa’s regional powers. Rather, it is the self-interest of regional powers that determines their own decision to intervene. Thus, in the face of extreme war crimes, the AU will only garner support if it can find some way to justify why it harms the national interests of the regional powers.

However, previous failures do not imply that the ASF will never become the fully-fledged, rapid deployment force envisioned by the APSA. The ASF may become a very strong counterterrorism force which would still be a large success for the ASF. However, unless significant shifts occur to the foreign policies of these regional powers, the situation will remain unfavorable to further integration of the ASF in non-counterterrorism operations. It is possible that successive peacekeeping initiatives and deployments will slowly build a pan-African security strategy that is more comfortable with military intervention. On the other hand, it does not seem likely that a counterterrorism focus will naturally become a coercive, interventionist one because of the political difference between targeting states and extremist groups.



Unfortunately for the APSA, the coercive potential of the ASF against African states does not look good despite its overall progress. Although the ASF is still young, the foundations themselves seem shaky. Evidence currently points to the realist belief that regional powers are unlikely to sign away their military equipment and manpower to the control of regional organizations. If a serious enough threat emerges, realists would argue that states would then not use the ASF and a military response would be deployed either way, with or without the ASF. Therefore, for the time being, not only do the regional powers of Africa fail to take the lead on the ASF, but they follow foreign policies that actively harm the implementation of the ASF.

However, the problems of the ASF and its future can be justified through the realist, liberal, and constructivist schools of thought. Even though the realist explanation appears to be most correct currently, analysis of each can be applied to explain different aspects of the ASF’s shortcomings. The ASF reveals a clash of core security interests, imperfect institution-building that has yet to win the buy-in of nation states, and the failure of certain identity beliefs to take hold. Just as there is no one lens through which to view the ASF or the AU, there is no one theoretical lens through which to fully understand the problems of the APSA.

The implications of ASF shortcomings are two-fold, firstly to the AU and secondly to the rest of the world. As for Africa itself, the failures of the ASF to fully deploy as a coercive mechanism of the PSC demonstrate the shortcomings inherent in AU military intervention. Beyond the issues of fundraising, language, weapon standardization, and intelligence sharing, there is a deeper force acting against integration: national interest. If the AU wants a responsive and politically supported standby force, it should focus on the areas where the AU agrees: counterterrorism and avoiding state collapse. In the EU, economics came first since economic integration is more politically palatable than political integration. National interests are not a reason to disband the ASF, but rather a barrier that must be addressed by African policymakers if a 4(h) intervention is ever to become a reality. Over time, if the effectiveness of the AU is increased, political integration may follow, and the AU’s dreams of an effective ASF could be realized. As for the international community, if it genuinely wants, “African solutions to African problems,”[cvi] it must stop undermining the AU’s attempts to secure peace on its own terms. Sidelining the AU and treating it as a figurehead African organization, as was done in the case of Libya, undermines the AU’s future credibility to find internal solutions.

To the extent that Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa each wish to be viewed as a middle power with significant economic strength and military power in their respective regions, each nation will continue to act as a regional power instead of an AU leader. This behavior of dominance will occur whether they have the capabilities to do so or not. It would take a tremendous crisis to convince the regional powers to sign away their armed forces to the bureaucratic management of the regional standby brigades, let alone the AU. Demographic change, economic growth, and the personalities of specific leaders may one day change this conception of African security, but, until that happens, the regional powers will continue to undermine the ASF with the advancement of their own national agendas.


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