France agrees to help African nations set up military force
PARIS (Reuters) - France agreed on Friday to help African nations create a joint military force to tackle coups, wars and rebellions on the continent, after the former colonial power was forced into its second military operation in Africa this year.
Paris deployed troops to Central African Republic on Friday after it secured U.N. backing for a mission to quell sectarian violence in the nation of 4.6 million people. That followed a French operation to dislodge al Qaeda-linked fighters from the deserts of northern Mali this year.
President Francois Hollande told about 40 African leaders at a two-day summit in Paris that the crisis in Central African Republic showed the urgent need to press ahead with the African Standby Force (ASF), and pledged French help.
"Africa must be the master of its own destiny and that means mastering its own security," Hollande told the summit, after a moment of silence for Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday.
Mooted for more than a decade, the ASF is due to enter service in 2015 but its creation has been dogged by lack of materials and money, and rows over its command structure.
In a joint statement agreed at the meeting, France committed to train 20,000 African soldiers in five years and provide military advisors to the West and Central African regional blocs - where most member states are its former colonies.
With France keen to shed its reputation as 'Africa's policeman', it also agreed to provide support on the creation of a command structure for the rapid reaction force as well as technical advice on sharing air force capacity.
"It is less about providing equipment than support in expertise, planning, logistics and joint use of transportation so that the rapid reaction force ... can become operational," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. "France's role will be to accompany it as it comes into force."
About 400,000 people have been displaced in Central African Republic since Muslim rebels seized power in the largely Christian nation in March. With a small regional African force powerless to halt the escalating violence, more than 280 people have been killed in the last two days in the capital Bangui, the Red Cross said.
"We are grateful to France but it's not normal that it's forced to intervene to save us, like a fireman, 50 years after independence," Guinean President Alpha Conde said.
Conde voiced hope that large African nations, like South Africa, Algeria or Angola, were now ready to provide a logistics backbone for a rapid reaction force. Much of the money to fund the mission would have to come from Europe, he said.
EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso told the summit his bloc would provide 50 million euros to help finance an African Union peacekeeping mission in Bangui.
Hopes for an effective African military force have been fuelled by the success of a U.N. Intervention Brigade - made up of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian forces - in crushing the M23 rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
But some African leaders voiced skepticism, saying the scant financial resources available to the continent made talk of 'African solutions to African problems' premature.
"France will continue to play the role it has played in the past," Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou told reporters. "France is essential. She has shown it in Mali and she has shown it once again in Central African Republic."
Issoufou, whose Sahel state is battling Islamist militants in its desert north, said African nations needed years to invest in their military capabilities: "This is a result of international institutions asking us to end spending on security."
France is keen to distance itself from the system of 'Francafrique' when, for decades after independence, it propped up authoritarian regimes in return for business contracts.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said France had no choice but to intervene in his country after corruption crippled its armed forces, allowing Islamists to seize the north.
"France is not Africa's policeman," he said. "But we have to ask ourselves what have we done with our independence?"
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Janet Lawrence)