ACSS Senior Leaders Seminar: “Security Sector Reform”

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 07/06/2012

(Editor’s Note: Militaries in many African countries have long had a difficult relationship with their civilian governments, and often civilians themselves. Increasingly, however, efforts are being made toward repairing those relationships. Thus “Security Sector Reform” was the featured topic of a June 22, 2012, plenary session for the 14th annual Senior Leaders Seminar sponsored June 18-29 by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. The seminar took place in Arlington, Virginia, and was attended by 70 security sector professionals and other government leaders from 40 Africa nations.  Academic discussions at the Africa Center are conducted under a strict policy of non-attribution to allow free and open sharing of ideas. However, several presenters agreed to allow portions of their presentations to appear on the record in order to promote broader understanding of the issues.)

In the seventh plenary session of the Senior Leaders Seminar, Thomas Dempsey, ACSS Chair for Security Studies, presented on security sector reform in Africa. He opened his presentation with remarks on the ability of the security sector reform (SSR) community of practice (both within African security sectors and among external partners) to promote reform among various elements of the security sector. Dempsey observed that the SSR community of practice was very good at reforms focused on military combat forces. Reforms of civilian oversight mechanisms were more problematic. Reform efforts targeting police, law enforcement, and justice systems had been least successful, and required major improvement.

Dempsey also suggested that the military component of SSR in Africa had focused too much on combat forces, at the expense of the administrative and support structures necessary to sustain those forces in the field. He suggested that shortcomings in these support and sustainment structures may have played a major role in the collapse of Malian Armed Forces units that were deployed to Northern Mali in response to the Tuareg rebellion in that region.

Dempsey also offered a number of insights about implementing successful security sector reform. First, it must be comprehensive — including the army, police, government, and civil society. The police must also be under civilian control and equally as professional as the military. A defense ministry staffed largely by military or ex-military will distort the relationship between the army and the government. Even when non-state actors, such as local militia or private security firms, are effective at maintaining security, their use undermines the monopoly of the state on violence and should be discouraged. Police, not military, are needed to train police. When UN troops are present, the hierarchy between them and the military must be clearly established.

Dempsey congratulated participants on being among those who are shifting current systems away from its entrenched military security perspective to a human security perspective. He remarked that Africa is on the cutting edge of security sector reform and hoped the participants would be able to share their experiences with the United States. He also emphasized the influence of the participants on the youth of their country and their power to set an example, e.g. fortifying the civil-military relationship by showing respect for civil authority in front of younger officers.

During the Q&A that followed, participants asked questions about the practical implementation of security sector reform. One participant described a problem within a country where the legislature was trying to increase its military oversight, but every time the military was called into the assembly, it would block discussion by saying the matter was classified. The participant asked how to increase oversight under these conditions. Dempsey answered using the example of the United States, where Congress can hold special smaller sessions to review classified information, and where it also holds power of the purse and can block program funding if the military refuses to divulge the requested information.

Summary prepared by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

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