Africa Center Seminar Looks at ‘Credibility Gap’ Between Security Sector and Civilian Overseers

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 11/19/2012

Colonel Elias Paulo MatarucaBy J.R. Warner, staff writer, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Despite significant democratic progress in Africa over the past two decades, ensuring democratic control over the security sector remains a serious challenge across much of the continent, according to subject matter experts who gathered for an Africa Center seminar in November.

Yet, strengthening civilian oversight of the military and other security organizations remains a prerequisite for consolidating democracy, said the experts, who attended an Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) seminar on Managing Security Resources in Africa. The November 5-9, 2012, seminar took place in Washington, D.C., and was attended by 40 professionals from 13 nations in Africa.

Mutual mistrust and suspicion are key drivers of the problem, experts and practitioners said.

“There is a huge credibility gap between security sector officials and civilian leaders with oversight responsibilities,” said Dr. Assis Malaqiuas, Academic Chair in Defense Economics at the Africa Center, during the week-long seminar.

“Civilian authorities and civil society groups generally hold the view that military budgets are excessive, particularly within the context of scarce resources and acute developmental needs,” said Dr. Malaquias. “For their part, security sector officials believe that the civilian oversight mechanism is poorly informed, inefficient, and corrupt.”

Military-backed coups d’état earlier this year in Mali and Guinea-Bissau underscore fragile state of civil-military relations in many parts of the continent. But, according Dr. Mathurin C. Houngnikpo, Academic Chair in Civil-Military Relations at the Africa Center, the blight of military overreach is not limited to autocracies and fragile states.

“Military acceptance of civilian authority remains a missing piece of Africa’s democratic transition puzzle,” wrote Dr. Houngnikpo in a January 2012 Africa Security Brief published by ACSS. “Even where legitimate civilian rule predominates, civil-military relations remain strained in much of Africa.”

Embracing the doctrine of democratic civilian control of the military, according to Dr. Houngnikpo, will enhance the legitimacy, capacity, and performance of the armed forces.

“The practical realization of this doctrine requires Africa’s parliaments to assert and exercise more robust control and oversight of the security sector,” he insists. “As the ears and eyes of citizens, parliamentarians must ensure that principles of good governance and the rule of law apply to the defense and security forces. … A state without parliamentary oversight of its security sector should at best be deemed an unfinished democracy.”

Within parliament, Public Accounts Committees are a particularly useful tool for civilian oversight of the security sector. Normally chaired by a member of an opposition party in order to safeguard integrity, these committees provide a useful venue for holding hearings on issues of public interest, examining audits, scrutinizing public expenditure, identifying concerns, and articulating policy responses and corrective measures when necessary.

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While parliament remains an indispensible mechanism for civilian oversight, Colonel Elias Paulo Mataruca, National Director of Logistics and Asset Management for the Mozambican Armed Forces, said that a wide range of institutions can and should play a role.

Civil society and the media, for example, must be empowered to act as watchdogs that articulate and amplify public concerns about the management and performance of the security sector, he said. The executive branch must develop internal control mechanisms, such as independent auditors, he said, and an independent judiciary is essential as well. If adequately empowered, individuals and civil society organizations can use the courts as a venue to ensure that the security sector operates within the law.

According to Colonel Mataruca, public scrutiny over the defense and security sectors yields tangible benefits for governments and militaries alike.

“Enhanced democratic oversight of security sector spending brings about an atmosphere which is conducive for anti-corruption efforts by making security office-holders accountable for their activities and expenditure of resources,” Colonel Mataruca said during a presentation at the ACSS Seminar.

“Increased transparency,” he added, “has also led to a higher level of public trust in the defense and security sector.”

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies is one of five Department of Defense regional centers for research and academic outreach and supports U.S. policy by bringing civilian and military leaders together for informed debate on current security challenges facing Africa and the international community.

Since 1999, more than 6,000 African and international leaders have participated in ACSS programs.