Has South Sudan war wrought an African 'rapid reaction' force?

The Ugandan Army quickly crossed into South Sudan on behalf of the government when fighting broke out in December. That may have started something.

Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
A United Nations peacekeeper holds position during a patrol in the town of Malakal, Upper Nile State, which is currently held by antigovernment forces, March 4, 2014.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Since 2003, The African Union Peace and Security Council has sought to establish an African Standby Force, whose purpose would be to rapidly respond to conflicts and emergency situations in Africa. Since then the Council has proposed several structural versions of a standby force to fill this rapid reaction role, none of which have yet yielded results.

In the meantime it appears that the Ugandan government is using its own military to fill this role. 

The inability of the AU to deploy a rapid reaction force has impaired its ability to implement policy in East Africa. And after years of fighting rebel threats throughout the region, Uganda’s well trained military seems to have the strength to fill this vacuum.

In December of 2013, fighting broke out in South Sudan between government and rebel forces. While the AU and UN were debating intervention the Ugandan government sent soldiers into South Sudan in support of the sitting government. Uganda then threatened the rebels with further military intervention if they refused to negotiate a peace with the South Sudanese government.

The Ugandan military unilaterally acted as a “peace enforcing” force, doing so without UN or AU approval.

The two South Sudanese parties reached a ceasefire agreement in January. It is clear that the rebel forces and the AU want Ugandan forces out of South Sudan.

The AU now plans to deploy a stabilization force to South Sudan in order to “phase out” the Ugandan military and begin “peacekeeping operations.” It appears that Uganda’s military intervention has given impetus to building the new stabilization force.

On March 13, East African nations announced that this stabilization force will be deployed to South Sudan by mid-April. The member countries will include Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, and possibly Djibouti.

This force, however, still needs to be approved by both the AU and the UN. It seems that the Ugandan military will not be included in this stabilization force. This is noteworthy as it may be seen as a biased actor by the rebel parties, which could be counterproductive to stabilizing the situation. However, the AU must tread carefully; if it seems that the peace has not improved in South Sudan it may be dangerous to send a coalition of troops that has not previously trained together into such a complex operating environment.

However, if the peace in South Sudan is at least somewhat stabilized, this could be a good opportunity for AU nations to begin building the operating relationship necessary to produce an effective African Standby Force.

By working together African nations can increasingly develop the capacity for international interventions among their neighbors, and it will be crucial that the AU and regional bodies maintain and expand their roles as the legitimate leader in these interventions.

Uganda’s unilateral action, though rapid and effective in the short term, is not as constructive to long term stability as the intervention of forces, such as the African Standby Force, led by international organizations.

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