THE BIG READ: African peace force still a paper dragon
A website for Africa's proposed defence force proclaims a lofty mission "to support and keep peace for Africa's prosperity and a better life for all in the world".
But click on current operations on the African Standby Force site (www.africa-union.org/root/au/auc/departments/psc/AMISCE/AMISCE.htm) and the response is a dispiriting "page cannot be found".
The force dreamed of half a century ago by the founding fathers of independent Africa still exists only on paper, casting a shadow over the back-slapping at this weekend's African Union summit, which is marking 50 years since the foundation of its precursor, the Organisation of African Unity.
Instead of a muscular rapid-response force to halt genocide, protect civilians in coups or civil wars, and pursue jihadists, drug traffickers and pirates, African peacekeeping remains a hotch-potch, almost entirely externally funded and mixed into UN or foreign missions.
"If ever we needed an African stand-by force it is now," said Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, head of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, in Accra, Ghana.
He pointed to the recent coups or conflicts in Guinea Bissau, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, each a jarring plot line in the narrative of an economically emergent Africa attracting foreign trade and investment.
"If you looked at Mali, the African stand-by force was more of a bystander force," said defence analyst Helmoed Heitman of the slow preparations for a UN-backed African force slated to intervene later this year in Mali, where Islamist rebels had seized control of the northern half of the country.
Events overtook the plans. The AU largely watched from the sidelines in January as former colonial power France, at the request of Mali's government, rushed in troops to drive back an Islamist rebel offensive threatening the capital Bamako.
This was not what Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, had in mind when he called for "a common defence system with African high command" in a speech at the 1963 founding of the OAU.
Plans drawn up a decade ago, when the AU replaced the toothless OAU, foresaw a 5000-strong stand-by force of five regional brigades from across Africa. The force would respond within 14 or 30 days to a crisis.
AU officials say there is no certainty that the full force will be up and running by the target date of 2015.
"By that time, definitely some of the regional brigades will be fully operational, and if three out of five are fully operational that's a significant result," AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra said.
He said the AU Commission was consulting member states' ministers and military chiefs about setting up an interim African rapid-response unit that would go into action while the larger stand-by force was being put together.
This month President Jacob Zuma pleaded for the creation of the African Stand-by Force to be speeded up, citing instability in the Central African Republic, the eastern Congo and Mali, "where decisive intervention is needed".
Though the AU has backed the Mali intervention by France, which is due to hand over most of the security responsibility there to a UN-mandated African force, Paris's military presence still rankles with some.
"France is a nasty meddler in African politics," Aning, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre researcher, said.
But the question of who should fund a continental force is pivotal for Africa, the world's least developed region. Despite buoyant recent growth, half of the continent's nearly 1billion inhabitants live in poverty.
"Most African countries are so poor they can't afford effective security forces," Heitman said.
More than 90% of the AU's peace and security efforts are funded by the EU and the US, according to a 2012 report by South Africa's Centre for Conflict Resolution and Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
With UN peacekeeping missions in Congo and in Sudan's Darfur each costing global taxpayers well over $1-billion a year, Lamamra said Africa cannot be expected to bankroll its own peace enforcement.
"The UN Security Council is responsible for international peace and security."