The 2012 military coup d’état in Mali plunged the country and the West African region into a political and military crisis. It took just a handful of noncommissioned officers and other enlisted men to topple Mali’s elected president and derail 21 years of democratization and efforts to build professional military institutions. In addition to triggering a constitutional crisis, the seizure of the government by the military put at risk the territorial integrity of the Malian state, provided an inroad for radical Islamists across the region, and required the military intervention of French and West African forces to stabilize the situation. The economic costs and loss of private investment to Mali will be felt for years to come.
Unfortunately, a persistent lack of military professionalism has been a recurring theme across the continent. In some cases, the military directly interrupts the democratic process. Since independence, for example, no democratically elected leader of the former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau has ever completed a term in office. The People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Guinea-Bissau, which is widely viewed as corrupt and heavily involved in the illicit drug trade,1 has a history of installing and ousting governments that threaten the military leadership’s interests, including a coup in 2012 on the eve of the second round of presidential elections. Revealingly, the militaries of both Mali and Guinea-Bissau asserted political power just prior to presidential elections when legitimately elected leaders would be empowered vis-à-vis the military.
Other times, weak military professionalism is evidenced by repeated mutinies. The largest and most serious mutiny on the African continent over the last decade occurred in Burkina Faso. Turmoil caused by noncommissioned officers and other enlisted men lasted throughout the first half of 2011. The resulting pillaging, rapes, and other serious human rights violations created unprecedented fear and insecurity among the civilian population whom the armed forces were supposed to defend and protect. Madagascar was shaken by numerous military mutinies when Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of the capital Antananarivo, took power from a democratically elected government in 2009 with strong military support. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, numerous military defections and mutinies put considerable strain on the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
Other examples of breakdowns in military professionalism in Africa abound. Allegations of human rights abuses against civilians by the Nigerian military in the course of their deadly battle with the Islamist fundamentalist group Boko Haram suggest weak command and control capabilities.2 They also undermine the broader objective of stabilizing Nigeria’s northern region. The alleged complicity of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces in wildlife trafficking reflects a lack of discipline in the face of economic opportunism.3 Allegations that the Kenyan Defence Forces engaged in massive looting of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi following the shocking terrorist attack by al Shabaab that left more than 60 dead in 2013 provide further cause for reflection about the state of military professionalism in Africa.4
To be sure, certain African countries have made laudable efforts to improve the professionalism of their militaries. However, half a century after most African states gained independence, African societies need to reassess how they can establish professional armed forces, not only to face their security challenges but also to help build and consolidate their nascent democracies and foster development. By examining the gap between aspiration and reality, this paper aims to delve into the obstacles of enhancing professionalism in African militaries.