French President Francois Hollande urged African leaders on Friday to take a grip on their continent's security by creating a long-delayed regional force, after Paris was forced into its second military operation this year.
Paris deployed troops to Central African Republic on Friday after it won UN backing for a mission to quell mounting religious violence in the nation of 4.6 million people. That followed a massive French operation to dislodge al Qaeda-linked fighters from the deserts of northern Mali this year.
Hollande told some 40 African leaders, gathered at a two-day summit in Paris to discuss security, that the crisis in Central African Republic showed the urgent need to press ahead with the African Standby Force (ASF). "Africa must be the master of its own destiny and that means mastering its own security," he said, after a moment of silence for anti-Apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday.
Some 400,000 people have been displaced in Central African Republic since Muslim rebels seized power in the largely Christian nation in March. With the violence escalating, more than 100 people were killed in the capital Bangui on Thursday. With France keen to shed its reputation as 'Africa's policeman', Hollande said Paris was ready to train 20,000 African soldiers a year and provide staff for the force's command structure. France could also provide logistical aid.
More than a decade after it was first mooted, the African Standby Force (ASF) has not got off the ground. In May, the African Union approved a temporary mechanism, the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), after France's intervention in Mali made plain Africa's own inability to resolve the crisis. The creation of the body has been hobbled by a lack of financing and logistical capacities - particularly transport planes - as well as the lack of a command structure.
"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, urging the creation of an African 'NATO'.
"What's happening in Bangui, coming so soon after Mali, should make us all reflect and I hope that here we will ... give ourselves the means to resolve conflicts in Africa."
Conde voiced hope that large African nations - like South Africa, Algeria or Angola - were now ready to provide logistics backbone for the force. Much of the money to fund the mission, would still have to come from Europe, he said.
EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said the 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 UN 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 scepticism, 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 and is playing now," 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 Islamists in its desert north, said African countries would need years to invest their military capabilities.
"This is a result of international institutions asking us to end spending on security. That's weakened our nations," he said. 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.
"France does not now wish to intervene in African affairs without a UN mandate. That's a step in the right direction," said Congo Republic President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the opening ceremony of the summit that he was working on plans for a possible UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic.
UN peacekeeping missions in Congo and in Sudan's Darfur, which involve African troops, cost global taxpayers well over $1 billion a year. The United Nations is also deploying a 12,600-strong peacekeeping mission to Mali.
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 Ralph Boulton)