African armies can’t fight when the other side has guns

Saturday January 19 2013


By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

The latest round of wars on the continent raise interesting questions about African armies.

Three wars in particular — in Mali, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the national armies have demonstrated monumental incompetence in the face of far smaller but highly motivated insurgent forces.

If you study the history of African armies, you will realise that the way colonial governments managed their militaries had lasting consequences.

One of the ways colonial administrations failed post-colonial Africa was through not leaving behind sufficient numbers of well-trained African officers.

Such officers would have passed on to future recruits the professional values picked up while serving under European superiors steeped in the great tradition of military acceptance of civilian authority.

You may be left thinking this is why there has been a pandemic of military coups on the continent in the past 50 years.

However, the problems afflicting African armies are not necessarily legacies of colonialism. They are the more the product of the manner in which post-colonial rulers have gone about the business of running their countries.

The wars in Mali, DR Congo and CAR point to two particularly acute problems bedevilling a large number of African armies: Political irresponsibility and lack of military capability, which have left us saddled with weak and unprofessional armies that, on their own, have no capacity to fight off insurgents.

Armies on the continent tend to be sectarian. Political interference in militaries stripped of institutional autonomy leads to recruitment from specific groups and the exclusion of others.

In extreme cases this may be accompanied by the turning of armies into mere sources of employment for the relatives and friends of those in power, not for those seeking professional careers.

Armies built on large numbers of jobseekers with family ties to those in power are simply not cut out for war.

While the military should be configured for defending countries against external threats, too often in Africa they serve the function of internal coercion, playing roles that ought to be reserved for the police.

For some reason this domestic deployment seems to degrade skills and undermine courage. Faced with armed opponents, militaries used to “battling” unarmed political troublemakers swiftly lose their nerve.

Also, regimes that use the military to quell internal dissent are notorious for deliberately undermining its effectiveness to prevent it from developing the capacity to seize political power.

Effectiveness is usually undermined by the creation of parallel security forces to serve as counterweights. This is never good for cohesion and morale. Demo