View Full Version : African militaries

07-09-2014, 09:24 PM
Somewhere on SWC we have briefly debated the state of the current African military institutions, probably in the context of the Nigerian Army and the comments by our two regular African members: JMA and KingJaja.

Tonight this 50 page paper by a retired Burkina Faso army colonel landed via Twitter; published by the US-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies and entitled 'Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa'.

On a quick read some interesting information, but for a non-African observer over-optimstic.


07-10-2014, 01:00 PM
This was the post on the Kenya thread (Post 41):http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?p=158159#post158159

This FP article is germaine to this discussion:

VOICE : Why Are Africa's Militaries So Disappointingly Bad? (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/06/06/why_are_africa_s_militaries_so_disappointingly_bad _kenya_nigeria_boko_haram_al_shabab)

... both armies have botched key domestic interventions when crises hit, exposing weaknesses that raise fundamental question marks about operational reliability.and this:

"The West has this model of a disciplined, neutral army that stands on the sidelines, independent of domestic politics," explains Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS). "But the African model is of a military that is used internally and is part and parcel of domestic politics and resource allocation."The question really revolves arround what military operations are possible within the capabilities of the respective armies.

07-10-2014, 05:55 PM
An African "lurker" has responded:
The author makes some valid points. However, I suspect that the influence by the US institution has somewhat coloured his views.

Additionally, I am sick of Africna governments and armies always pointing a finger at colonialism - I know I am not being politically correct in this statement but it happens to be true. But, I suspect the dig at the "colonialists" was also encouraged by "you know who".

Until Africa takes control of its own destiny, it will forever remain in a state of conflict and war (my opinion). It can only take control of itself when it recognises what has passed, has passed and cannot be undone. Then of course, there is seldom a national strategy, let alone a national security strategy. Intelligence is shoddy to non-existent and governments govern for themselves and not the people.

He is correct that professionalism is lacking but its root cause I believe lies in nepotistic appointments within the armed forces. Then of course, the "foreign military partnerships" that (again my belief) train African armies to fail.

07-10-2014, 07:33 PM
To understand the African military, you need to understand the "African state".

The "African state" is a little more than an ex-colonial administrative unit. It means very little to citizens outside of the prosperous coastal regions or former colonial (gosh, I hate to use that word) capitals.

An example, for people in Nigeria's Northeast, the state barely exists and the Nigerian Army is being used for the same purpose as it was under colonialism (sorry for using that word again) - to enforce sometimes unpopular rule.

Before you start talking about an army or military professionalism, you need to talk about a "national identity" and nation building. Many (if not most) African armies will continue to be ethnic militias (like Maliki's Iraq Army, the World's most expensive ethnic militia) - until real nation building takes place.

As we all are learning from Iraq, the US with 150,000 troops cannot impose a national consensus or form a national identity in a state riven with sectarian tensions. If that can't be accomplished in Iraq, any hope for something similar in Africa is a bit worse than wishful thinking.

Why do Africans keeping referring to "colonialism" even when it irritates all knowing Westerners? Because the slave trade and colonialism are the most important events that shaped the history of Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 1,000 years.

If you can think up another event equal in impact to these two, please provide details.

Asking Africans not to discuss colonialism is similar to telling Europeans not to discuss both World Wars - nobody does that because it would be considered deeply insulting.

Back to colonialism. Colonialism created the artificial states now known as "African nations" & until proper nations are formed (through a bloody process), African states & their institutions (including their armies) will be weak. Does not matter how many special operators the US sends yearly.

Africa is in its "Dark Ages" - a hastily cobbled together colonial empire suddenly collapsed & left artificial states in its wake. As in Europe, truly cohesive states will take time to form - hopefully not the 500 - 1000 years it took in Europe.

But my point is this - you can't build anything of value on the current post-colonial foundation in Africa - and the West is wasting its time trying to impose a post-colonial order. Africa's political map is not final & it might have to change first for there to be progress.

Finally, colonialism matters, not because we want to blame anyone, but because it shaped our institutions, institutions that are not fit for purpose.

07-11-2014, 03:47 PM
To understand the African military, you need to understand the "African state".

The "African state" is a little more than an ex-colonial administrative unit. It means very little to citizens outside of the prosperous coastal regions or former colonial (gosh, I hate to use that word) capitals.

I asked you once before what borders existed prior to the 'colonial' scramble for Africa... no reply.

Yes I accept that there were kingdoms and nations/tribes - hundreds of them - living in areas without fixed borders before they found themselves grouped with former enemies in these colonial creations of African states.

Where there was resistance to colonial rule it was possible for the various indigenous nations/tribes to cooperate to achieve independence. They learned to play the game and pay lip service to a commitment to democracy and human rights in the lead up to independence and in so doing being applauded by the US, Scandinavian countries and the world’s leftists. They knew what they intended to do once independent.

Funny thing that it turned out that the people who had the guns quickly realised that they had the power. Surprise, surprise and with the coups that followed blame was always laid at the door of the colonial power that we are told were to blame for not preparing the state for independence. The Scandinavians were (and still are) at the forefront of the hand ringing and condemnation of anything and everything related to the colonialism of the past.

Interesting that the prime bone of contention - being the arbitrary colonial borders - was the first thing the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) decided to up hold the integrity of. Why did they do that? Did they anticipate a wholesale return to the days of internecine tribal/ethnic/religious violence and war of the pre-colonial times?

In the case of Nigeria there are reportedly 500 ethnic groups half Christian, half Muslim. A wealthy oil rich country - the reserves of which were hardly touched during the colonial period - the proceeds of which have not benefitted the people of Nigeria... only the thieving corrupt political/military (often the same thing). Nigeria has made no progress in the 50 years of independence despite the massive windfall from oil reserves. Should break itself up and be done with it.

Even in Botswana, where the Twana people comprise 80% of the population, the persecution of minorities continue. The San people (previously known as Bushmen) are being persecuted (http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/bushmen).

Africa can't help itself...

07-11-2014, 08:52 PM
Africa can't help itself...

I agree.

So there's no point continuing this discussion with you.

07-11-2014, 10:31 PM
Then there's things like this:


07-11-2014, 11:49 PM
Then there's things like this:


Trust me, this isn't the worst that has happened.

Fela's mother (heard about him?), was killed by soldiers in 1978 - they threw her down a roof. Soldiers have fought with police on the streets of Lagos (an army colonel was killed in the late 80s/early 90s, can't remember).

Soldiers have raped women in broad day light, killed, maimed, drunkenly destroyed lives and property.

We who live in Nigeria know the Nigerian state and its institutions are a joke. The US can waste time and money sending "special operators to train them". This is a state in terminal decline.

08-07-2014, 02:39 PM
Bill Moore,

South Africa isn't a relevant military player in Africa (apart from its mercenaries).

Interesting comment... (I wonder if you realise that?)

The 'new' South African army is a joke. Its main role is a place where ex-fredom fighters can hang out with a salary and do next to nothing. In addition there is around a 40% HIV positive rate (http://www.hst.org.za/news/sandf-unveils-shock-aids-data). Then there is the infamous Arms Deal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_Arms_Deal)which haunts the government. So, yea, just another African army.

The mercenaries? Now there's a thought.

Ever wondered why and how a small group of under equiped (in terms the US would understand) men could wrap up situations in Africa which no one else could? Like the Russians and Cubans in Angola for instance? Also Sierra Leone.

Have any of the 'smart guys' analysed what these guys did and what worked as opposed to how the US, Russians, Brits and French would approach it?

Doubt it...

Bill Moore
08-08-2014, 02:05 AM
Bill, with due respect you started this post attempting to provide your view and then when you realised you were failing you resported to the age old tactic of shooting the messenger.

Years ago I (and a number of others outside SWC) warned the the war in Afghanistan in general and in Helmand in particular with the Brits was going terribly wrong and was met by the same sort of mindset you now display - go read the thread for yourself - The UK in Afghanistan (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=7644&highlight=Afghanistan). I was 95% correct without even having been to Afghanistan. Now as I sit in Kabul I see the US packing up and selling out (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/01/downsizing-the-war-layoffs-and-yard-sales-in-afghanistan.html) and ready to leave and desperately trying to put a positive spin on another war loss (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/10/afghanistan-us-army-general-good-news-senate-election). ISAF came here saying "this is what we do" did just that and got it wrong. In this case I am deeply sorry I got it right (and Lind is bang on the nail).

The final question is whether the yanks are going to be as dumb as the Bits were in 1842 and the Russians in 1989 and try to negotiate safe passage out of Afghanistan. My guess is that they will - on the basis that the Brits and the Russians are dumb and we are smart, right - and expect the Afghans to stand by the deal.

But back to Africa.

From TED here is a story by an Italian who arrived in Africa - like all the yanks, Canadians, Europeans and (yes) even the Chinese before him - believing he had all the answers and got it wrong (surprise, surprise). Now instead of hanging his head in shame he turns his cock-up in to a virtue.

Watch this and weep:

Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! (http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_l isten)

At least he learned something but despite a long string of cock-ups have the yanks?


First off I don't believe I have disagreed with you regarding Afghanistan. Our nation building effort will be easily destroyed by the Taliban if we pull out in mass. On the other hand, what you call a military failure I call a political failure, and I don't think I'm being defensive. The military performed quite well in the early phases of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is after projecting force halfway around the world. In Iraq our politicians had a vision that was disconnected from reality, and our politicians stopped the military from pursuing Al-Qaeda into Pakistan (for bad or good reasons depending on your point of view). Turning Iraq and Afghanistan into stable democracies was a pipe dream that military couldn't accomplish, and I don't think it reflects poorly on the military for being unable to create a world full of rainbows and unicorns.

For the countries in Africa, we haven't committed our forces to defeat an adversary decisively there. We have conducted some disruption operations against different terrorist groups, and engaged in a number of capacity building efforts, which probably will fail over time for a lot reasons. However, that isn't losing a war. I'm sure I'm not the only one that would be interested in your views on what we should do in Africa, and throwing up our hands and saying we don't care won't fly.

As to your comment on mercenaries being successful, I wasn't aware the mercenaries were successful in Angola, but I haven't read up on that conflict in years so I'll take a look. Executive Action was extremely successful in Sierra Leone with a small and lightly armed force, and they were punished by international opinion, which to this day amazes me. They turned the tide against a group of murderous thugs and they get criticized, much like Israel gets punished for their operations against Hamas. Want to know why we're not winning? Apparently there is no appetite for winning in the liberal West at this time, so we'll have to wait until more Westerners die before people wake up and depend decisive action. This is political, not a military issue. Since the military in the West is subordinate to the political we're simply stuck in a do loop where we're either given an impossible mission or denied the authorities and permissions to win what is winnable.

08-08-2014, 05:47 AM
Ever wondered why and how a small group of under equiped (in terms the US would understand) men could wrap up situations in Africa which no one else could? Like the Russians and Cubans in Angola for instance? Also Sierra Leone.

Have any of the 'smart guys' analysed what these guys did and what worked as opposed to how the US, Russians, Brits and French would approach it?

Doubt it...

They operated without the constraint of domestic politics. That is not replicable by the forces of a Western democracy, because in a Western democracy domestic politics are ever-present and inescapable.

That constraint has to be factored into decision making from the start, and if you know that it will pose untenable limits on an intervention, it's better not to go there in the first place.

Echo Bravo
08-08-2014, 08:16 AM
Dayuhan, I don’t comment on this site for numerous reasons.
However, I need to point out that as “mercenaries” we operated – and still operate -under the domestic laws of the governments that contracted us. That places us in a very different position to other PMCs that operate under their own country’s domestic laws and are therefore not accountable to the host government’s laws. Although we were (and still are) usually called when all other options have failed and the contracting government is close to collapse, we apply and enforce a very strict code of conduct.
I can also add that many of the African troops we have recently encountered and that have been trained by foreign military advisors and PMCs need to be retrained as their “training” has been shocking at best. Similarly, advice given to some African governments by “foreign Africa specialists” has been very poor and in many cases, has done more harm than good.
A lack of credible intelligence, unrealistic strategies, poor operational designs and ill-prepared troops can never result in success. Add to that a lack of political and military will and a misunderstanding of the enemy and his support base and, at best, you have a disaster in the making.
Considering the above, it will most certainly pose “untenable limits on an intervention, it's better not to go there in the first place”.

08-08-2014, 12:15 PM
Operating under local law makes sense, assuming that the government behind local law has some degree of legitimacy. Local law is to some extent linked to the conflict environment and will to some extent be understood by the people in that environment. A force operating under an utterly remote rule set will certainly be handicapped.

Law, though, is just the beginning of the problem. My own observation of US interventions, particularly those in places not considered strategically critical, is that they are usually designed not for their impact on the target country, but for their impact on the domestic political audience, a circumstance that is not conducive to success.

The US (again in my observation) typically ignores places that are not immediate concerns: there's little effort to develop serious understanding or expertise on environments that are not on today's problem list. When something does break out they are caught flat-footed and there's a mad rush to find some "expert" that will tell the political powers of the day whatever they have already decided they want to hear. At this point the "intelligence" community is tasked with providing a justification for whatever course of action is deemed most salable to the domestic political audience. At the end of it, whatever poor schmuck ends up out in the field is burdened with unachievable goals, unrealistic expectations, inappropriate strategies, and a whole host of other problems.

Unless that changes, and I don't think it will, I'd rather see the US keep it's collective putz in its pants with the zipper well up, and resist the temptation to meddle in places they don't understand. If you can't play by local rules and you aren't there with a clear and realistic objective, better not to be there at all.

IMO, obviously.