Africa’s security services continue to hold outsized influence over political developments on the continent. This lags other shifting trends in Africa, where political changes and democratic transitions are occurring with greater frequency – often catching the security sector off guard and forcing it into compromising dilemmas, warns Dr. Matt Houngnikpo, ACSS academic chair for civil-military relations, in the latest Africa Security Brief, “Africa’s Militaries: A Missing Link in Democratic Transitions.”
African militaries are often involved in a variety of political and economic matters far beyond the realm of national security. Regularly this is due to the direct intervention of the security sector, whose leaders may hold political offices or appointments or run large businesses. Military coups still occur, and “creeping coup” strategies that seek to steadily erode the authorities and influence of Africa’s parliaments, election management bodies, and civil society organizations are increasingly common. The politicization of the armed forces is also frequently driven by civilian leaders who co-opt the security sector so as to suppress political opposition and maintain power.
Regardless of how it occurs, the consequences of the military’s intervention in politics are never positive – neither for the armed forces nor society as a whole. Perpetuating illegitimate governance practices tends to exacerbate instability and tempt crises. By acting to protect or uphold an incumbent regime, the security sector discredits itself and undermines its role and reputation when transitions do occur. Politicization also complicates the security sector’s ability to modernize and serve effectively. Without clear accountability and checks and balances, security sector leaders are more likely find themselves beholden to outdated governance modes amid Africa’s shifting political landscape.
The remedy is that African security services, governments, and other international partners must all work to institutionalize proper democratic civilian oversight of the armed forces. While some security leaders might interpret this as an infringement on the purview of the security sector, strengthening oversight frees the military from unwanted manipulation and can improve its ability to plan, prepare, and deploy when needed. Democratic oversight of the security services can be difficult to realize, but the benefits to regional, national, and human security that accrue from it are substantial and long lasting.
Dr. Mathurin C. Houngnikpo is the Academic Chair of Civil-Military Relations in the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and the author of Guarding the Guardians: Civil-Military Relations and Democratic Governance in Africa (Ashgate, 2010).