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African Militaries Adjust to Civilian Rule

Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies helps train soldiers to protect civilians and democracy

The relationship between African militaries and civil society has often been rocky. Many consider the military a tool of repression of the government in power.

But observers say in many countries that dynamic is changing. They point to efforts to professionalize armies, with the understanding that they serve societies and not leaders. It’s the responsibility of both military and civilian institutions to understand their roles in the political development of a nation, says Mathurin Houngnikpo, the academic chair of civil-military relations at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The center is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and provides strategic security studies, research, and outreach in Africa. Houngnikpo is in charge of program development in the area of civil-military relations, with a focus on Africa’s militaries and their control by civilians. He compared their relationship to different instruments in an orchestra.

“If you want a symphony, everyone needs to play their part, their role. If not…you end up with a cacophony….”
He said both types of institutions need to understand their roles and partnership in nation building, he said. Without that they will clash.

“We need to make sure,” he said, “[that] the military and civilians understand that they are in the same boat, and they all need to play by the rules that they agreed to set up.”
High-ranking officers from around Africa came to the Africa Center recently for a one-month course on military leadership called “A Next Generation of African Security Sector Leaders.”

“We brought in 40 mid-level African military officers and security sector officers,” said Houngnikpo. They included gendarmes, the police and the army. Discussions covered professionalism, ethics, leadership, defense, economy, civilian-military relations, security studies and transnational issues, including terrorism.”


Analysts say most post-independence African governments have come to power through “the barrel of the gun,” he said, so in many countries members of the military have felt more loyalty to their own military leaders than to civilian leaders. This dynamic has gradually changed, Houngnikpo said, with more governments coming to power through the polls.

The center’s course on professionalism, he said, teaches that “loyalty is not to an individual but rather to the state through the constitution. A professional military [man] does not have to take orders because so-and-so said so. You really need to think of what you are taking as orders.” He urged the participants to make sure the orders they follow are legal.

African military and peacekeeping

Part of the duties of a professional army is to carry out peacekeeping missions in conflict areas. Critics say Africa’s armies need to play a more active role in peacekeeping on the continent instead of relying on foreign forces.

Increasingly, African countries like Rwanda are committing peacekeeping forces in areas like Sudan [Darfur] and Somalia.

In West Africa, the Economic Commission of West African States [ECOWAS] threatened to use force to remove former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo when he refused to step down after an election that most observers, including the international community, said he had lost.

Houngnikpo said he wants to see situations in which conflicts are prevented and there’s no need for peacekeeping. “How do we make sure we have peace?” he asks. “At the center, we focus on resolving issues before they become a problem that would require people to come and keep the peace.”

He is encouraged, he said, because, the continent has less conflict today than it did a decade ago.