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Volume 11 Number 2
1 June 2002

Of all the problems that Africa has confronted during the past decade — development, economic growth, democratisation and good governance — none has been more persistent and enduring than the challenge of consolidating stable and, ideally, democratic civil–military relations. The armed forces have until very recently continued to enjoy an influence within African political society that has been disproportionate to both their legitimate claim on national sovereignty and their professed political constituencies.

The various reasons for this influence are too numerable and diverse to mention in their entirety here or even within this edition of the Review. Notwithstanding Africa`s stable history of civil–military relations during its pre-colonial period (a product largely of the citizen–soldier tradition so strongly enshrined in traditional African armed forces and the intermingling of political, economic, judicial and military systems within the pre-colonial African state), post-independence Africa has witnessed some of the most extreme forms of military government experienced during the 20th century.

Three major trends occasioned the emergence of African armed forces as influential, and often the primary, roleplayers on the terrain of African political society in the post-independence period. The first was undoubtedly the nature of the state, crafted by colonial powers during the pre-independence period, and inherited, with very little alterations, by the first generation of post-independence political leaders.

Owing to its historical orientation, the independent African states and their various instruments were ill-equipped in both character and ideology to respond to, and internalise, the complex requirements of post-colonial development and democratisation. The armed forces — fashioned along Western military institutional lines—remained distant and in many cases contemptuous of the emerging challenges of Pan-African unity. It was therefore a sad irony that one of the first victims of military intervention was Kwame Nkrumah himself the father of modern Pan-African thinking.

The second reason for the rise of African armed forces to institutional prominence is traceable to the complex interplay between regional, class and ethnic interests within the intense political contests that emerged in Africa`s post-independence polities. The armed forces — more so than any state instrument, political grouping or civic organisation—provided powerful political factions and political alliances as a vehicle with which to realise their objectives.

The third factor that enabled African armed forces to march into the corridors of political power and consolidate their presence within African political life related to the Cold War. Powerful states on both sides of the Cold War ideological divide managed to generate immense political and material support for successive African military governments and militarised regimes.

American support for military governments was extensive, and ranged from the unabashed aid provided to Mobutu Sese Seko`s Zairian kleptocracy, to its refusal to condemn successive military governments in Nigeria. France willingly supported a range of military governments within its former colonies, ranging from Gabon and the Central African Republic in Central Africa to Guinea, Togo and Mali in West Africa. Such support was neither clandestine nor unexpected given the innumerable defence and security agreements that France had signed with its former colonies prior to its formal disengagement from the continent.

The United Kingdom, most notably under its various Tory administrations, chose not to comment on or take undue action against unrepresentative governments that showed high levels of militarisation (South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, for example) or governments that had been constituted as a result of coup d`etats (Ghana during the 1960s and Uganda during the 1970s are two examples).

The support provided by the USSR to its perceived ideological allies on the continent is by now well chronicled. The rise of the Dergue in Ethiopia, and the military administration that was fashioned from the country`s semi-feudal traditions, owed its existence, to no small extent, to the pervasive presence of Soviet advisors in that country. Similar levels of material and financial support from the former USSR allowed military regimes to hold power in countries as diverse as Egypt, Burkina Faso, and the People`s Republic of the Congo.

Of course, Africa`s sub-regional hegemons also played a role in installing military administrations in those countries perceived to be antithetical to their regional interests; as was the case with South Africa`s installation of a military government in Lesotho in 1986. The culture of military intervention and government—so well established in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria during the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s—provided fertile terrain within which similar military interventions could occur in other contiguous countries (Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Togo and others) with little opposition from those big powers which could have ensured a reversal of these trends.

Civil–military relations on the African continent are, however, undergoing a process of transformation, the evidence of which is the democratisation of civil–military relations. African military governments are today the exception rather than the rule, although undue military influence over the constitutional and political process remains pronounced in many countries; the absence of formal coup d`etats notwithstanding. For the first time in many decades the prospect of a continent largely liberated from the spectre of military intervention in the political process, remains a possibility.

There are definite reasons for this development and, while a cautious degree of optimism constitutes a healthy palliative to much of the cynicism that pervades many foreign analyses of Africa`s future, there are nevertheless real challenges that will need to be confronted if the stabilisation of African civil–military relations is to continue to be an enduring feature of this continent`s recovery.

The first factor that has impelled those African armed forces of a praetorian mien to reconsider their interventionist strategies has been the emergence of a democratic polity and civil society. The forces of democracy and civilian actors have proved immensely resilient to those intrusions occasioned by either authoritarian civilian governments or, more likely, civilian roleplayers acting in concert with factions within the armed forces.

The power of democratic political and civil society, its international linkages and the immense domestic and international pressure being generated for constitutional reform and good governance has rendered the legitimacy of military intervention (so necessary for its long-term sustainability) a remote possibility.

The second factor has been the regionalisation (some would even say globalisation) of civil–military relations in both Africa and the wider international arena. Changes of government via unconstitutional means are prohibited by a variety of protocols ranging from the founding principles of the African Union, OAU policy, Commonwealth policies and positions adopted by such disparate sub-regional groupings as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Sub-regional groupings have also proved willing and highly capable at ensuring that military governments or the threat of military government is dealt with in an expeditious and effective manner. SADC`s preparedness to intervene in Lesotho under the leadership of South Africa almost certainly prevented a coup d`etat by disgruntled junior officers of the Royal Lesotho Defence Force. The seizing of power by junior officers, or the attempt to do so, is a phenomenon of worrying proportions also experienced, with brutal consequences, in other countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and The Gambia.

The third factor affecting civil–military relations is the resurgence within the officer cadre of African armed forces of those officers of a more constitutional and democratic disposition who would ultimately prefer to respect the constitution and concentrate on their primary professional purpose: to prepare for and, if required, execute operations in support of the sovereign government they serve.

The sidelining of the praetorian elements within African armed forces is vividly evident in those countries that have emerged from sustained periods of military rule. The danger in Nigeria is less the prospect of military intervention than the fragmentation of sections of the lower echelons of the armed forces. Demoralised by decades of corruption and the undermining of professional capability (particularly evident in the erosion of regimental duties, esprit de corps and discipline), sectors of the rank and file will undoubtedly continue to prove amenable to political manipulation from below.

In South Africa, Sierra Leone, Lesotho and Mali, a generation of praetorian officers, either weaned on the political content of counter-insurgency campaigns or spoiled by the trappings of political office, have been marginalised and, in most cases, removed from the very institutions within which they served. All this bodes well for the creation of armed forces that are accountable to the political authorities they serve, affordable to the national economy and appropriate for the military tasks they are required to execute. What, then, are the key challenges that confront the consolidation of African civil–military relations in the forthcoming decade?

The first challenge is to expand the definition of African civil–military relations to include in its orbit such actors as regional organisations, sub-regional organisations and civil society. The traditional bifurcation evident in traditional civil–military relations has focused on the relationship between the armed forces and the state, as if they were homogeneous and corporate institutions. This relationship has been bedevilled, practically, by the fact that the state to which the armed forces have often related has, in many instances, been weak, corrupt and incapable of providing sufficient strategic or political direction to the armed forces themselves.

For their part, African armed forces have not always demonstrated the unity of command or the institutional cohesion required for the maintenance, not only of professional armed forces, but also of viable and sustainable civil–military relations. Factionalisation of the officer corps, divisions between arms of service (often translating itself into coups and counter-coups) and often stark divisions between the professional officer corps and party-political militia forces, has been a recurring feature of African civil–military relations practice.

A range of new actors now demand inclusion into the orbit of civil–military relations. Legislatures, largely emasculated during the Cold War period of African civil–military relations history, have emerged as more decisive players on the terrain of national security policy and practice. Civil society groupings, often the more credible and legitimate actors in states with a weak political culture, have demanded a greater degree of inclusion in the political and policy processes of emerging African democracies.

Non-military actors who nevertheless constitute part of the broader security community—the gendarmerie, militia forces, the police, intelligence organisations, paramilitary forces and guerrilla armies—also need to be accommodated within the ambit of good governance and national policy management. In reality, it makes more conceptual and practical sense to broaden the scope of ‘civil–military relations` to include all civil/civilian–security relations.

This broadened definition would ensure that governments, legislatures and significant sectors of civil society, as well as regional and sub-regional groupings, could constitute the ‘civilian` axis of this relationship. Similarly, the security component of this relationship would consist of all those forces that, by dint of their coercive power or armed status, whether statutory or non-statutory, require political direction, executive and legislative oversight and sufficient levels of accountability to permit their continued existence.

The second major challenge facing African armed forces is the redefinition of their roles and tasks to reflect more fully the complex environment within which they operate. During the pre-independence period African armed forces were little more than glorified gendarmeries used, when so required, to further the interests of the colonial metropole. African armed forces in the current environment need to be configured for a wide variety of tasks in support of civil power, not least of which are peace missions, support for the police when required (however unpalatable this may seem to professional officers) and assistance with regional security arrangements. In short, Africa cannot afford to maintain armed forces solely for the task of protecting territorial integrity and the preservation of sovereignty from external attack. Africa simply does not face such threats in either the medium- or long-term

The renewal of Africa has long been a subject of intellectual and political debate, from the days of Marcus Garvey, WEB Du Bois, Leopold Senghor and Kwame Nkrumah to today`s Mandelas, Mbekis and Obasanjos. Any redefinition of the contours of African civil–military relations needs to be effected within the context of African requirements and African political culture and demands; in essence, an indigenisation of African civil–military relations traditions and not simply a rehashing of imported Eurocentric political traditions.

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