Africa Center Research Paper No. 7

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Assessing Motivations and Attitudes of the Next Generation of African Security Sector Professionals

By Kwesi Aning and Joseph Siegle

April 11, 2019


This study set out to assess differences in the attitudes, motivations, and values of the emerging generation of African security sector professionals. It found an array of perspectives on which younger service members diverge from their older counterparts. Many of these differences are likely linked to the fact that the youngest cohort of security sector professionals is markedly better educated and starts service at an older age than previous generations. Despite the educational gains made overall, it should be noted that the entry education levels of police appear to be lagging behind the other services, highlighting an important area of potential improvement.

In addition to the higher education levels and age, the youngest cohort of African security sector professionals surveyed distinguishes itself by having a very strong motivation to serve their country. At the same time, this cohort and female service members appear to be more skeptical that espoused institutional values such as “merit-based,” “service to the public,” “honesty,” and “professionalism” are reflected by their institutions in practice.

These sentiments suggest a willingness to set a higher standard of professional values for their services. They also imply a greater inclination toward institutional reform among younger security sector professionals so as to better match institutional ideals with reality. This openness for reform combined with the receptivity to international capacity building efforts suggests a potential focal point for further international partnerships.

These findings also offer a cautionary note, however. The divergence from older generations with regard to institutional values raises questions over whether the cohesive bond that institutional pride provides will be sustained within the younger generation. This has potential implications for professionalism and the appeal of a career in the security sector. This concern was highlighted in qualitative interviews. Young service members were praised for their ability to absorb new information and adapt to technology. Yet, at the same time, they were also seen as showing less camaraderie and cohesion as older cohorts, “preferring to withdraw by themselves with their hand-held devices” in the words of one of the interviewees.

The preponderance of support for international training opportunities was another strong finding of this study. International training opportunities were found to be invaluable as:

  • Formative experiences
  • A basis for institutional identity formation
  • Exposure to new approaches and technology
  • Broadening perspectives
  • Stimulating critical thinking
  • Strengthening affinity with regional partners

While this study did not explicitly set out to explore the relevance of professional military education, the feedback from the study would seem to provide a ringing endorsement for its effectiveness in the eyes of participants. Interviewees who had been part of longer term training postings were most enthusiastic about the benefits of the experience. Since the study did not attempt to distinguish between various types of international training, it is not possible to unpack the relative perceived benefits in this report. Delineating this and calibrating how future international training engagements are undertaken to optimize these benefits is a logical follow-on inquiry from these findings.

While not an intended focus of this study, the survey results revealed that a noteworthy 84 percent of participants have had the opportunity to upgrade their educational qualifications while in the service. Nearly two-thirds of these earned another educational degree, while the remainder obtained vocational or technical certificates. This finding suggests that African security services are a valuable source of human capital development for their societies, and their service personnel in particular. This observation is not necessarily widely recognized and raises another consideration for institutional development as well as recruitment and retention of younger service personnel.

The survey results also showed a high level of satisfaction among service personnel that their expectations were being met. Ninety-two percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed with this sentiment, including 89 percent of the youngest cohort. This is an encouraging sign that the vast majority of security sector professionals have found rewarding career paths through their service. Better understanding of the factors that contribute to this result holds insights for further staff development and institutional strengthening.

The survey also revealed high levels of perceived public support of the security sector from service members. On average, 87 percent of service members indicated that the public had a positive view of their service. This positive perception held for all services, though most strongly for the military and most weakly for the police. These findings contrast somewhat from public opinion polls in Africa showing more modest levels of support for the security sector. For example, Afrobarometer surveys of 36 countries show that just 51 percent of the public trusts the police “somewhat” or “a lot.” The military typically scores higher, earning comparable trust scores of 66 percent.

Nevertheless, the variance in citizen and service member perceptions presents a potential learning opportunity. Sensitizing service personnel of reasons for areas of divergence may raise awareness and create an impetus for reforming aspects of the citizen-security actor relationship. Such an initiative may also facilitate increased dialogue with citizens to narrow the gap in perceptions.