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. Demoralised armies do not fight wars to defend regimes they hold responsible for their misery.
Experts argue that external security threats are key in prompting states to build effective, professional armies.
Remarkably, since Independence, few African countries have faced such threats. Those that have, such as post-war Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Eritrea, boast some of Africa’s most formidable militaries.
Such was also the case with apartheid South Africa. Meanwhile, the absence of external threats has obviated the need for effective and efficient militaries in countries such as those currently struggling to put down small but well-armed, determined insurgent groups.
Curiously, much of francophone Africa seems to have been lulled into complacency by France’s enthusiasm for military adventures in its former colonies.
The belief that France will always be at hand to intervene and rescue regimes besieged by armed opponents seems to have encouraged many governments to build politically loyal but militarily incompetent armies.
It is debatable whether Africa is the most corrupt place in the world. However, many African countries rank pretty high in corruption indexes. African militaries have not been spared the rot.
The recent case of the DR Congo’s former chief of staff being relieved of his duties for selling weapons to the same insurgents his soldiers were meant to be fighting is instructive.
Such profiteering at the expense of national security undermines capacity. As bullets fly in Mali, DR Congo and the CAR, we should remember: Wars do not only kill and maim. They tell stories.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail:[email protected]