ARP No. 6: Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa

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Priorities for Building Professional African Militaries

By Émile Ouédraogo

December 26, 2019

In light of the many and seemingly insurmountable challenges, the professionalization of African militaries may seem like a pipe dream. But there is hope. Realizing progress will require advancing reforms in three overarching areas: repurposing the military’s mandate and role in the security sector; depoliticizing the environment in which the military operates; and institutionalizing ethics and accountability into military culture.

Repurpose the Military’s Mandate

Militaries are expensive. A professional military needs to be educated, trained, equipped, and maintained. It is best to know, then, what is expected of the military so that resources are not wasted. The majority of African militaries are designed and organized mainly to confront foreign aggression and cannot respond appropriately to nontraditional security threats such as internal conflicts, transnational crime, maritime piracy, terrorism, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. This mismatch is a key factor in African militaries’ ineffectiveness. Increasingly, militaries are deployed for policing activities—a function far different than military combat. This, in turn, contributes to poor human rights records and a lack of professionalism. To better respond to countries’ actual threats as well as enhance the professionalism of their militaries, African governments must change their view of the security sector. Reorganizing security force structures to better match the identified threat and integrating those missions into a comprehensive and coherent defense policy will enhance the relevance, operational capacity, and prestige of Africa’s militaries.

Redefine the mission.

The goal of a country’s defense policy should include a military that is apolitical, accountable, capable, and affordable.63 A military, in turn, should be modeled to meet its mission. If there is no clear need for a large externally facing military, government should streamline its armed forces to make them more efficient and responsive to the actual security needs of the country.64 A key element of this process is developing national security strategies that bridge the gap between foreign and domestic threats.

One of the problems faced by many African governments is what to do with their militaries when they are not engaged in combat. The Ghana Armed Forces (GAF), as most African militaries, has not had to defend its country against an external aggressor for a long time. To make use of and maintain its skills, the GAF has supported domestic security agencies when needed as well as participated in various international peacekeeping operations. The GAF is well organized and equipped to provide assistance—from transport and communications to maintenance of law and order—during certain types of national disasters. Its medical personnel and military hospitals provide care to Ghanaians in need and assist the government with disease eradication and health education programs. The GAF assists the police to restore law and order in cases of intercommunal violence that threaten stability and contributes to joint military-police patrols in urban areas to respond to armed robbery and other violent crimes.65 The GAF has also supported the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources to protect forest reserves and parks from illegal poaching and lumbering.66

Senegal, too, has involved its military in some public works projects through a popular civil-military collaboration known as Armée-Nation. Through Armée-Nation, the Senegalese Armed Forces supports infrastructure development, national service, and environmental protection. Working with civilians to improve their lives while remaining apolitical and professional has created a self-reinforcing cycle of goodwill, respect, trust, and pride between the Senegalese people and the military.67

While the goal of building ties with local communities is desirable, the military must focus on its areas of comparative expertise. Development projects executed by the military, for example, are often more costly, and they inhibit economic development in the private sector. More importantly, most African countries face serious security threats, including those that are transnational in nature. Given the limited availability of resources, the security sector’s focus should be on addressing these threats.

Recognizing the many competing priorities, precision of policy is important. Search and rescue, fighting narcotics trafficking, and maritime piracy are areas where the military can apply its expertise. Addressing such threats, however, should be carefully coordinated with and led by other security sector actors and government agencies.68 Likewise, in most circumstances military leaders should refrain from playing anything more than a supporting role in countering domestic terrorism. Police, intelligence, and paramilitary organizations are better trained for the focused responses such threats require.69

Meanwhile, the majority of African militaries have seen the benefits of participating in international peacekeeping operations. Such operations respond to general security challenges on the continent, thereby preventing cross-border spillover and the resulting national security threats. They also build the expertise, purpose, and pride of the troops involved.

Support soldier development.

The current disrepair of rolling stock, the lack of appropriate equipment, and the shrinking capabilities of air forces and navies can present an opportunity for many African militaries. The goal of any security force is to prevent security threats from arising at all, and then to respond effectively to threats that do materialize.70 Achieving that goal does not necessarily require more tanks, jets, and ships. As most contemporary operations will be constabulary or counterinsurgency in nature, the military’s mission must focus on defending and protecting citizens. To do this, priority must be given to strengthening the manpower of the military—developing individuals and units that are competent, compassionate, and respected. Having constabulary operations will require a continued presence in communities, hence the need to include members of the military who represent the communities they protect. There is no better way to fully understand the local context and build respect and trust between the military and the community. And in the face of decreasing budgets, modern and leaner security deployments are going to have to rely more on smarter fighting strategies—balancing capabilities with deep knowledge of communities to preempt or deter security threats.

African militaries should focus more on the kind of soldier they want than on the quantity. This leads back to the ethos of the soldier. The military is no ordinary profession. It requires great integrity, skill, dedication, loyalty, and sacrifice. Part of professionalizing Africa’s armed forces will require smaller but better trained and equipped forces. This will contribute to building pride and greater professionalism, while raising the caliber of recruits.

Reform Presidential Guards

Protection of high-ranking officials and political institutions is essential to the continuity and survival of the state. However, most presidential guards in Africa tend to be sizeable military units with comparatively advanced equipment and capable of prolonged operations. Presidents and other senior officials require a more discrete force capable of deterring and repelling immediate threats. Any lengthier or enduring threat should fall under the purview of the police, gendarmerie, military, or other relevant security agency.

A presidential guard must retain a republican mission and not be limited to an ethnically biased armed unit protecting a particular regime. Ideally, to ensure a national allegiance, the presidential guard should be composed of military officers, police officers, and gendarmes, and should demographically represent all of society. These small, integrated units would receive specialized training, building their capacity and professional pride in the process. Once this approach is instituted, it will create a buffer from the abuses of praetorian guards. The reduction in the grossly overstaffed and overpaid presidential guard will also save resources by refocusing a country’s security resources on the security priorities of the state.

This is not to say that there is not a role for elite security forces, something that South Africa failed to fully appreciate with respect to its commandos in the post-apartheid transition. Upon creating the newly integrated SANDF, South Africa disbanded the country’s commando system. These paramilitary units had protected urban or rural communities from organized threats with the use of community participation. They were disbanded because of their apartheid origination. Unfortunately, however, the vacuum left by their departure has contributed to the skyrocketing criminality.71

Focus on education and training.

One of the challenges many African militaries face is that academic qualifications and combat training have not been considered necessary for advancement or promotion. This needs to change. Professional military education and training is crucial. South Africa’s SANDF institutionalized a basic training program for all its soldiers and incorporated three levels of training for its officers. Lieutenant training included socialization (to become militarily minded), armed combat training, and military education (understanding the military’s proper role in a modern democratic society). To attain the level of colonel, officers then had to tackle military management curricula. Finally, to attain the level of general, officers’ curricula focused on the politico-military environment in which generals find themselves.72

Education and training also plays a crucial role in bringing belligerent forces together in contexts undergoing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. The experience in post-conflict Burundi has shown that integrating forces and exposing them to the same training and living quarters led to shared experiences and enhanced unity.73

The role of the military as educator can also improve a military’s reputation with the general population. By providing equal access to education to its members, a military can model equity in the allocation of public resources while building a sense of ownership across communities. A more educated security sector in turn is likely to be better able to demonstrate the restraint, judgment, and adaptability so critical in facing the societally based threats that typify many African security challenges.

In 2010, a snapshot survey was taken in Liberia to gauge how citizens, both inside and outside the Armed Forces of Liberia, perceived the professionalism of the military 6 years into a comprehensive security sector reform program.74 On the whole, the results were very positive about the ethos of the soldiers and the respect they received in return from the civilian population. Both soldiers and civilians alike saw the role of the soldier as a protector of the people and duty-bound to respect the rule of law. A common theme was that the education provided to the troops, especially on matters of rule of law and human rights, had contributed to more dignified and respected soldiers.

Depoliticize the Environment in which Militaries Operate

A provision found in nearly all African constitutions is that the civilian-elected president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. To inculcate civilian control of the military, politicians must be more transparent and involved in security sector reform, including formalizing the framework in which the military operates so that civil society can learn to contribute and collaborate as well.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance is a good point of reference. It provides principles of democratic development and respect for popular participation as well as the prohibition of unconstitutional changes of regimes. Toward this end, while security sector reform assistance has generally been applied only to the security establishment, attention also needs to be directed at political actors who can also undermine military professionalism.

Define the roles of military and political actors.

The dynamic of politicians seeking military support suggests that weak democratic institutions provide an opening for opportunistic politicians to engage in the manipulation of the military. Stronger strictures on political behavior can reduce this negative factor on military professionalism.

To start, the training legislators receive on defense policy and military spending should include participation in ethics courses and the establishment of a common understanding of corruption so that the consequences for abuses can be discussed openly.75 A focus on creating transparency across all institutions will enhance integrity and will enable better monitoring of political behavior throughout government.

The legacy of the intermingling of the armed forces and politics in Africa underscores the need for the adoption of a clear framework within which African militaries can operate. The constitution and national defense laws should clearly spell out the chain of command in war, peace, and national emergencies. There should be no ambiguity as to the role of the military in decision-making—from the level of acceptable political involvement by military brass to the method for which civil-military relationships may be conducted. This framework should also contain a review and revision of national security sector legislation in order to identify and clarify roles and mandates of the different institutions involved in security. This should include a defined mediating mechanism for disagreements between institutions as well as specific sanctions for politicians who attempt to subvert these authorities.

In the process of assisting the post-transition government in Tunisia to identify priorities for its security sector, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces succinctly enumerated the benefits of an effective, efficient, and accountable security sector framework:

  • It defines the role and mission of each security organization
  • It defines the prerogatives and limits the power of each security organization and their members
  • It defines the role and powers of institutions, which control and oversee security organizations
  • It provides a basis for accountability, as it draws a clear line between legal and illegal behavior
  • It enhances public trust and strengthens legitimacy of government and its security forces.76

Civil-military collaboration.

Once the framework is in place, the military needs a transparent and collaborative political environment to effectively follow its mandate. For example, civilian leaders must be able to explain to military leaders political, social, and economic justifications for the defense budget. By the same token, political leaders should seek the expertise and advice of military leaders in determining and prioritizing various aspects of the security strategy. A robust legislative involvement in defense issues is a valuable indicator of democratic civil-military relations.77 A gradualist approach built on compromise and regular dialogue can enhance prospects for successful democratic consolidation and civilian control over the military.

Lesotho and South Africa provide examples of how to set the framework for an effective security institution and, consequently, democratic civil-military relations. The Defence Force Act, enacted by the Lesotho Parliament in 1996, provides for the structure, organization, and administration as well as discipline of the armed forces and matters related thereto. Establishment of the Ministry of Defence in 1995 institutionalized civilian control of the forces by an elected civil authority as well as the enhancement of accountability of the forces to the executive and legislative branches. The removal of the armed forces from partisan politics made the military more professional in its execution of national duties. Such separation made the government more democratic as well.78

The South African constitution encouraged a dialogue between the armed services, the judiciary, and the legislature by mandating that the security services teach their members to act in accordance with the nation’s laws and constitution as well as with relevant international conventions. In addition, SANDF was asked to design and implement a civic education program on “defence in a democracy” for military and the members of the Department of Defence.79 This encouraged both civilian and military leadership to seriously consider the military’s mandate and role in society. It also initiated an independent defense review process that solicited input from the public, ultimately leading to a new defense policy more aligned with South Africa’s national security priorities.

Partnerships with the international community and civil society.

For many African countries, international assistance in security sector reform is crucial. The international community can provide much needed technical, legal, and political assistance in depoliticizing the military and building its professional acumen. Unequivocal condemnation of coups d’état followed by sanctions from the regional economic communities (RECs), the AU, and the global community is important to quelling the interference of a military in the political affairs of an African country. It is also important for African democracies to become directly involved in supporting the consolidation of the principles of democratic security sector accountability. Security sector reform assistance from partners, such as Botswana, India, and South Africa, helped entrench Lesotho’s democratization process and discipline within the Lesotho Defence Force.80

An active and informed civil society, similarly, enhances the entrenchment of democratic values and deters military adventurism. Coups are likely to fail where civil societies are active and involved beyond elections. By increasing societal capacity, a country increases accountability and transparency. A free media is essential for facilitating a broader public dialogue on security issues and military affairs. Such a process also builds confidence between society, the state, and the armed forces.

In Liberia, for example, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government made great strides to rebuild civil society in a country torn by conflict. In 2010, President Johnson Sirleaf enacted a freedom of information law to enhance transparency and accountability of the government to the public.81 Through the media, the general population learned of the security sector reform process. Education regarding rule of law and the role of the military as protectorate of the nation and human security reached the general population through radio programs. This helped not only to draw motivated recruits but also to inform the population about how to hold military personnel accountable.82

As noted by one Liberian soldier:

There’s nowhere in this world where a military man is not subject to civil laws. This is why when we get out there [in public] we are advised to behave ourselves. If you do anything stupid you can be arrested by the police and if the police find out that you are guilty, you will be sent to court and tried. This was lacking during the old army, but in this new army things are different.83

Many African countries have been slow to pass such freedom of information legislation. Moreover, even in places where such laws have been adopted, resistance remains strong. Mauritania passed a press freedom law in 2011 that eliminates imprisonment for journalists. However, journalists can be fined for publishing “wrong information that could spread chaos and disturb the discipline of the armed forces.”84 Likewise, despite having passed a freedom of information law in 2011 after a decade of consideration, the Nigerian government has faced criticism from the press for not actually complying with any requests under the law.85 In South Africa, which has the right to freedom of information in its constitution, Parliament passed a bill restricting the reporting of what it deemed “government secrets” in 2011, though this bill was rejected by President Zuma in 2013.86

With histories of secret operations, undisclosed budgets, and backroom power deals, many African militaries have a lot of work ahead of them to repair the strained relationships they have with civil society and the media. And as changing missions require the military to interact with civilians more frequently, the need for African militaries to learn how to communicate with the media is all the more important. Media training aimed at building constructive relationships would go a long way toward ameliorating levels of mistrust between African militaries and the general public.

Institutionalize Ethics and Accountability into Military Culture

Security is not just the purview of the military. It includes other ministries, the judicial branch, the legislature, and civil society. As such, a professional army must maintain relationships with all key security actors in order to perform its duties effectively. The military, thus, has an obligation to institutionalize an ethical and accountable culture in order to build the trust and respect of society.

Strengthen military discipline and duty.

African military courts have generally been inefficient and ineffective in prosecuting perpetrators of human rights abuses. A priority for military leadership then should be to strengthen the military judicial system in order to restore discipline inside African barracks.

To start, African militaries should revisit their Uniform Codes of Military Justice (UCMJ), the procedural and substantive laws that guide the military justice system. The UCMJ should provide clear guidance on offenses ranging from minor disobedience to the most serious offenses such as murder. Typically, the latter types of offenses are handled through a trial system. To limit perceptions of interference, leadership should also consider having some or all criminal prosecutions conducted independent of the military chain of command.

Making sure military justice systems are compatible with human rights standards is crucial. Most European military laws are informed by the European Convention on Human Rights.87 The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides a similar point of reference to ensure African military justice systems are compliant with domestic legislation and international laws. If legal expertise is unavailable to do this in-country, governments and militaries should look to partners from their RECs, the AU, and globally.

For less serious offenses, military disciplinary boards often serve well. In Liberia, where the military justice system was nonexistent amid an overwhelming number of cases, it was decided that all military criminal cases should be heard before civilian courts until a fully functional courts-martial system was reinstated.88 This practical approach could be useful for other post-conflict countries like Côte d’Ivoire where confronting urgent military offenses may be delayed due to competing pressures on a military judicial process undergoing reform.

The indiscipline and injustice observed within many barracks in SubSaharan countries is an indicator of the inadequacy of certain military disciplinary boards. Very often, the system is inconsistent and favorably prejudiced toward cases involving officers, particularly senior officers. The impossibility for a soldier to appeal unfair and prejudiced judgments discredits the board. Provisions must be made within UCMJs for appeals from military disciplinary boards to a military court or to the ministry of justice for purposes of due process.

Reward integrity and strengthen accountability.

Establishing an ethical military culture will entail changing incentives within the armed forces. Integrity should be a prominent criterion in personnel promotions, appointments, and rewards. This can be reinforced by strengthening human rights values and codes of conduct, training, and education.89

Similarly, opportunities for corruption must be minimized. Regardless of size, military supply offices require competent professionals and strict adherence to a sound procedural structure. Procurement is a professional skill. Thus, it is important that ministries build a strong team of procurement specialists. The experience of many countries is that it is better to have a centralized procurement office (one for the entire armed services) outside of the military as this establishes an additional layer of accountability for this frequently exploited functional area. Maintaining procurement decisions under the hierarchical system in the military creates powerful temptations for senior officers to influence the procurement process. Involving civil society (either in a monitoring role or as a participant in the protocol) in corruption-prone areas, such as procurement, would boost transparency and the integrity of the process.

Many internal dysfunctions found in African militaries could be remedied if the oversight role of militaries’ inspection services were strengthened and made more autonomous. Instead of being an office for former armed forces’ chiefs of staff or high-ranking military officers, the inspection services department should be populated with a mix of both military and civilian auditors, lawyers, and policy analysts who publish reports on the state of the armed forces with respect to their various mandates. These reports would be useful for policy and management purposes as well as for considerations of promotion, appointments, and awards among officers in management roles.

These initiatives should be reinforced by a well-defined ethical framework that delineates the codes of conduct, values, and behavior expected of military personnel. Transparency International identified five key elements of such a framework:

  • A single, easily accessible code of conduct for all personnel, firmly rooted in ethics and values, with accessible (non-legalistic) text
  • Clear guidance on accountability, including who is responsible for the ethics program, how to report suspicions of corruption and where further advice can be found
  • Regulations on bribery, gratuities, gifts and hospitality, conflicts of interest, and post-separation activities (by an individual who has left the military), ideally with case studies
  • Regular ethics training and refresher courses to contextualize the regulations in real-life situations
  • Periodic updating of the code and its implementation program.90

The international community could also be of help providing training in military affairs management and oversight. African militaries could share with one another their lessons learned, something on par with the African Peer Review Mechanism, which shares best practices in governance among its nation-state members. To institutionalize the lessons, techniques, and procedures gained from these collaborations, African militaries should create a center for lessons learned in their military colleges.

Create a military ombudsman as an independent military oversight mechanism.

Attempts at military reform are often top-down, internally driven processes, leaving the concerns of many ordinary soldiers and citizens out of the equation. Having an integrated military oversight mechanism like the inspection services department also means that the military is responsible for its own oversight, which can create conflicts of interest quickly undermining its usefulness.

An alternative or even a complement to inspection services would be an independent military ombudsman helping the military to observe the principles and practices of good governance. It would have the advantage of focusing solely on military issues but would be staffed only by civilians, with the intent of making it independent and impartial. In Canada and Germany, military ombudsmen address complaints about improper and abusive behavior in the military as well as shortcomings in military procedures and recommend corrective action in reports not only for the attention of the military but also for the legislature and the public.91 Their effect is to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the military by making it accountable and responsive to its constituencies.

More than half of the countries on the continent already have an ombudsman office but they are mostly confined to civilian oversight. Like legislatures, many lack the necessary expertise for dealing with the defense sector. The key to making a military ombudsman office work would be to ensure its operational independence. It should be physically located apart from the military staff so that it can conduct its own investigations and publish reports independently of other government departments. It should also have substantial political authority—from a legal mandate to access information necessary to conduct investigations to the responsibility to issue recommendations for civil and military leadership that would require official and public responses. Most importantly, civilians who have legal, investigative, and research experience related to the defense sector as well as top security clearance should staff the office.

The findings and recommendations published by the military ombudsman office would help strengthen parliamentary oversight and build greater transparency and accountability of the military. A military ombudsman, similarly, could be a vehicle to empower citizen interests for everything from complaints regarding conduct to identifying particular gaps in military procedures.

Strengthen parliamentary control and institutionalize external audits.

As corruption and mismanagement in the military have far-reaching implications for national security and confidence in the entire government, external audits over the administration of public monies in the armed forces should be a national priority. Strengthening parliamentary controls over defense spending can improve the internal governance of militaries and may go a long way toward resolving the problem of accountability. Most African legislatures have a constitutional mandate to monitor the use of resources and to ensure that resources for defense are used efficiently. In South Africa, legislators are trained in the area of military spending. In addition, experts are included in parliamentary committees to help advance the debate and negotiation. Both South Africa and Uganda rely on public accounts committees to keep ministers accountable. This control by the legislature is an important line of defense against corruption and misappropriation of public monies when the inspection services or internal controls within the military and ministry of defense fail. No doubt this will take some work, especially in countries with little history of active civilian involvement in military matters, but building stronger civilian oversight is an essential component to instilling military professionalism.

Many military leaders are also involved in commercial enterprises, which not only conflict with their security mandates but also divert undeclared revenue from the public to the military. Senior military leaders should be required to declare their assets annually to ensure they do not represent a conflict of interest as well as to facilitate monitoring. A parliamentary inquiry or fact-finding mission can be another useful tool in identifying and tracking military income and expenditure. Anti-corruption programs that target defense expenditures tend to improve management of government spending overall. These measures introduce competition, transparency, and oversight in procurement and efforts to reduce patronage.92 Keeping the defense budget confidential for national security interests should not be the repeated pretext for hiding poor military governance. Defense is a public service and as such, the public deserves to know how and why its funds are spent by the military.

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