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

Framing the Literature

After an initial flurry of scholarly interest in African militaries in the 1960s to 1980s—largely focused on their colonial roots, transitions, and propensity for coups—there has been a dramatic reduction in literature on African security sector institutions beyond their domestic and international peacekeeping engagements. As a result, there is a dearth of up-to-date analysis about how these bodies function, how they have changed over time, and how they have been affected by both internal and external developments.

Africa’s armed forces are presently in transition from an independence-era model to one more suited to today‘s conflicts and security threats. Yet, few studies have discussed such transitions and the impact on the character and worldview of African militaries. African armed forces represent and embody, among all public sector institutions, the dreams and notions of what the modern state ought to and can be.

At the same time, African militaries in particular have too often engaged in politics in a close and intrusive manner. As a result, African politicians have often had a fraught relationship with their uniformed forces. In other contexts, the armed forces have been a central factor to regime survival and the consolidation of autocracy. In such cases, security forces are used by political leaders as a tool of repression—and are seen by their populations as part of the security problem. Public perceptions of the military are complex, however. When it comes to corruption, survey data consistently show higher levels of popular trust for African militaries (responsible for external security) compared to African police forces (responsible for internal security).

Since the end of the Cold War, African militaries are increasingly called upon to undertake preventive engagements, contribute to resolving security crises on the African continent and elsewhere around the globe, and protect and assist in bolstering progression toward more democratic forms of governance. African militaries are also at the forefront of international efforts to combat transnational threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and sometimes health pandemics. Given the multiple layers of transition underway, it can be expected that African security sector actors’ self-perceptions are also shifting. Deeper understanding of these evolving attitudes will better enable engaging these individuals and institutions so as to enhance their effectiveness.

This research builds on a number of noteworthy scholarly contributions that have been made since the end of the Cold War. Jeffrey Herbst’s “African Militaries and Rebellion: the Political Economy of Threat and Combat Effectiveness” (2004) analyzes the nexus between African militaries and their capabilities in responding to rebellions. A Eurasia Group study “A Day in the Life of an African Soldier” (2010)—drawing on experiences from Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa—provides a picture of life inside these armies. It also reviews the rationales for pursuing a career in the military, top frustrations and worries, supplemental income opportunities, the bureaucracy and culture of the military, social conditions, and civil-military relations. Habiba Ben Barka and Mthuli Ncube’s “Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon?”(2012) focuses on the nexus between state fragility and coups. Mathurin Houngnikpo’s “African Militaries: A Missing Link in Democratic Transitions (2012) discusses how African militaries are adapting to and at times resisting civilian control and oversight. Zoltan Barany’s The Soldier and the Changing State (2013) similarly underscores the importance of military leaders’ attitudes and values toward democratic principles as a barometer for military relations with civilian leaders and the public. David Chuter and Florence Gaub’s   “Understanding African Armies” (2016) recognizes the diversity and complexity of the contemporary African military, noting that African armies have often evolved by trial and error, and encompass a wide range of approaches and missions. These works (see Reference section for a more complete list of titles) have framed the approach to this research, the construction of the survey questions, and the report’s broader assessment of norms and values of African security sector professionals.