Ready to Fight for Africa's Future

The African Union's decision to create a Rapid Reaction Force to deal with conflicts on the continent signals a commitment to finding African solutions to African problems.
By: /
June 5, 2013
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Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The commitment to establish an African Union Rapid Reaction Force on May 28, 2013 at the Annual AU Leaders Summit is a significant moment for the continent when one considers the context and ramifications of this action. It’s a big moment not because the idea is a new one, indeed, this matter has been a consistent issue at AU Summits for almost a decade now, but because it signifies a real step forward in giving the 2004 Common African Defence and Security Policy teeth. It also signals that African leaders realize that if they wish to bring peace and stability (and consequently economic prosperity) to the continent, they are going to have to be able to effect African solutions to African problems.  Finally this step is also significant as it was proposed by the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who also offered to fund a large portion of it.

The motivation for finally taking some concrete action is clearly a result of a number of persistent conflicts that the AU and other regional African institutions have shown themselves to be incapable or ineffective at resolving.  The conflict in Libya, post-election violence in Cote D’Ivoire, the rebel conflicts in Mali and the Central Africa Republic, not to mention the never ending issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – all have seen the AU come up short when seeking resolutions via negotiation and mediation.  Even in moments where there has been agreement on the need for military intervention, African states have been slow to commit and mobilize troops. Indeed, most of these issues have seen multinational UN-legitimized forces – comprised mainly of non-African players or former colonial powers – get involved. 

As such, the decision to create a Rapid Reaction Force that is organized and funded via the AU suggests that African leaders have reached a proverbial tipping point when it comes to letting others solve African problems, and that their views on what sort of role the AU should play in reinforcing regime security and peaceful transitions of power across the continent are shifting. The Common African Peace and Security Policy has typically been interpreted by member states to privilege non-military intervention in moments of civil unrest.  Presumably, this is because there exists a real sensitivity across the continent to interfering in the internal affairs of states due to colonialism. But it also relates to challenges faced by many African nations over cost and capacity to intervene militarily.  Such a situation has really inhibited the ability of the AU to achieve its core mission of promoting cooperation and stability on the continent to date.  But with the establishment of a Rapid Reaction Force supported by some of the ‘stronger’ African states, the AU gets more muscle and therefore control over how conflict is handled.

The fact that President Jacob Zuma of South Africa proposed the force is also noteworthy as it suggests a new era for South Africa on the continent.  In the past, South Africa has been a reluctant military intervener in African conflict, preferring negotiation and mediation. Canada tried desperately to get South Africa to commit troops in the DRC in 1996 but officials demurred and instead offered relief assistance to refugees displaced to Rwanda.  Even as recently as the Mali conflict, South Africa has preferred not to get involved, instead committing humanitarian assistance.  But signals of change in South Africa’s position towards military intervention have been emerging recently.  South Africa’s (unsuccessful) role in trying to bolster the Bozize government in Central African Republic against the Seleka rebels is a case in point.  Over 200 South African troops engaged in combat against approximately 2000 Seleka rebels but were unable to prevent them from unseating Bozize.  As well, South Africa’s commitment, alongside Mozambique and Tanzania, to play a central role in the UN peace enforcement brigade that is being deployed in the DRC and whose mission is to search out and neutralize rebel threats, is another example where South Africa appears to be changing its position on military intervention.

Of course, South Africa has an interest in taking a leadership role in advancing the Rapid Reaction Force as it now leads the African Union Commission, the functional end of the AU, and it is keen to demonstrate that the AU is an organization that can implement its policies.  This is particularly timely given the fact that South Africa’s continental leadership position is perceived to be in question given its slower rate of economic growth in comparison to other African economies. The fact that the AU force is being advanced (and in large part funded) by South Africa is considered an opportunity to assert leadership at a moment when others believe that country’s role is diminishing.  South Africa’s involvement can be viewed as a signal that it is not willing to fade into the background when it comes to continental affairs and is trying to find other ways to be relevant.

The establishment of a Rapid Reaction Force is more than just the creation of an elite group of African soldiers at the ready to fight.  It signals a new era for the AU and its ability to back up the policies that have been created and agreed upon by member states; where African actors have the capacity and resources to respond to African problems. It also signals a shift in the willingness of South Africa and other AU members to back up quiet diplomacy with action.