Africa’s armed forces are in transition from an independence-era model to one more suited to today’s conflicts and threats. They are increasingly called upon to engage in preventive action, resolve domestic security crises, combat transnational threats, and protect the progression toward more democratic governance. Understanding how African security sector actors’ perceptions may be shifting in light of these changes can provide insights to improving their effectiveness.
The internal conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis embroiling South Sudan since December 2013 have exposed the country’s fragility. A weak national identity, ethnically based violence, a legacy of violent conflict resolution, personalized and patronage-based politics, weak institutional checks on the abuse of power, and the absence of encompassing leadership, among other factors, all pose obstacles to peacebuilding. As a result, envisaging a stable South Sudan has become increasingly difficult for many South Sudanese and external observers.
As the political crisis in Burundi continues, its army, whose post-war reform to depoliticize and professionalize it was long seen as a model for success, is now being torn apart by numerous defections, purges, and competing factions conducting tit-for-tat assassinations. The institution’s integrity and its ability to remain at the service of the people rather than become the President’s personal militia has been permanently damaged. The fact that a career in the Army could soon no longer guarantee a good and steady salary could also contribute to further instability. The degradation of Burundi’s military is a clear outcome of the political crisis. Reversing this trend will require resolving the crisis.
Since the independence era of the 1960s, there have been more than 215 coup attempts in 43 of the 54 countries of Africa. Though the numbers were mostly concentrated in the early years, coups attempts are still a feature on the continent. Where early leaders tended to form militaries based on ethnicity, coups attempts were four times as likely to happen. Likewise, because of the patronage system in place in many fragile states, when elections bring in a leader that is not of the same ethnicity as the army, coup risk spikes dramatically.
Despite a few outliers, Africa has actually witnessed a meaningful decline in coup activity since the 1950s. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that this overall decline is due to the increased respect for and leveraging power of regional organizations—such as the AU and RECs—by adopting and enforcing clearly articulated penalties for transgressions. While this may not have stopped all coup attempts, by raising the costs for would-be coup conspirators, the unifying position of regional organizations has possibly deterred many more.
African states rank among the weakest in terms of their control of corruption in the security sector, which diminishes public trust in government and threatens national and regional security. Most states in Africa lack basic provisions for legislative oversight of the defense sector, budgets are rarely made public, and engagement with civil society is rare. African states must improve oversight of the defense sector and reduce the secrecy of defense budgets and policymaking so as to better meet the complex security challenges they face.
The classic approach to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) is faltering in an environment that now includes violent extremism and transnational mercenaries. Countering violent extremism and de-radicalization must be integrated within DDR. As has been seen by the number of well-educated and middle-income recruits to violent extremist organizations, DDR must refocus its goal from socioeconomic reintegration to social cohesion as a precondition to sustainably reintegrate former fighters.
Security sector reform (SSR) is increasingly put forward as a solution for a broad spectrum of African states facing security challenges. Yet, for a variety of reasons, there are relatively few examples of successful SSR implementation. The case of Burundi’s Security Sector Development (SSD) program, while still a work in progress, is noteworthy for having advanced both security sector effectiveness and democratic accountability since its inception in 2009. The success of SSR programs depends heavily on the ability to address politically sensitive issues. For the most part, SSR programs have fared poorly in this regard. Burundi’s SSD program, however, proactively addresses the politics of reform at both the policy and operational levels on a daily basis. Insights from Burundi’s SSD program can inform other African SSR initiatives.
A crucial determinant of the viability and sustainability of any democratic transition is whether the armed forces learn to abide by democratic norms and governance structures. States that have managed to successfully build democratic armies have tended to prioritize strategic reforms and gradual progress. This is typically forged through compromise with military leaders, a clear and unambiguous governance framework that depoliticizes the military, legislative oversight, civilian participation in security policymaking, and robust training activities and missions to foster military professionalism.
Mali’s reputation as a relatively stable democracy was upended by a military coup launched by junior officers in March 2012, raising questions about the strength of Mali’s democratic system. In actuality, the previous regime had centralized authority and harassed some journalists while a culture of corruption and institutional sclerosis had flourished in the military, judiciary, and other key sectors. A vibrant press and popular expectations for legitimate and representative governance persist, but institutional fragmentation will complicate the revival of democratic governance.
Africa’s security landscape features a diverse array of unconventional threats, yet a source of continuing fragility and capacity shortcomings in many countries remains weak management of the security sector. This guide, developed and endorsed by the Economic Community of West African States, provides a detailed account of how African legislatures and legislators can strengthen the role they play in overseeing the development of national security policies, the procurement of arms, the management of personnel, and the modernization of their security forces.
A failure to adequately define and clarify security sector reform provisions in peace agreements has often allowed spoilers to undermine subsequent reforms and institutionalized dysfunctional and abusive security and justice systems. Along with a range of other adjustments to peace agreement approaches, Africa’s Regional Economic Communities should create security sector reform frameworks that can be integrated into their frequent conflict and crisis response efforts.
Positive security sector transformations realized in the 1990s and early 2000s in Southern Africa have recently been undermined by politicization of the security services, suspected coup plots, and other unconstitutional actions in several countries. Consolidating past improvements will require better knowledge of and access to the security services among civil society actors and resources for security sub-sectors such as policing, corrections, and post-conflict restructuring.
Security sector reform requires more than just training and equipping a professional and well-structured military. Management, monitoring, and other administrative mechanisms are also key to constructing an efficient and responsible security service. Priority features of this reform entail fiscal, long-term, and regular assessment strategies as well as better donor coordination.
Efforts to reform the security services in West Africa face civil-military mistrust, vaguely defined missions, and misaligned structures, among other obstacles. This compendium assesses the configuration, operational efficiency, and civil oversight of the security sector in 16 West African countries finding noteworthy reforms and priorities for improvement.
Reform processes often fall short when those undertaking them lack a sense of ownership and investment. Experiences from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and elsewhere reveal how donors can better assist security sector reformers to overcome political and organizational struggles and make SSR a national priority, enact necessary legislative provisions, and execute appropriate programs and projects.
Security Topics: Security Sector Governance