If states continue to neglect their armed forces they risk giving room to jihadists

Saturday January 21 2023
Security officers uniform

Cases have been reported in a few African countries where soldiers and police scour mitumba (second-hand clothes) markets for dress that "resembles" their official uniforms.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The government of Burkina Faso military dictator Captain Ibrahim Traore is in trouble. It is fighting a losing war against an Islamist insurgency and ruling over a country in a deep humanitarian crisis.

Karma truly is a bitch. Traore seized power in September last year, ousting interim leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba over his alleged inability to deal with the same Islamist insurgency that has flummoxed him.

Damiba had come to power in a coup d'état just eight months earlier, arguing that former president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré's government had failed to provide security in Burkina Faso.

Today, at least 10 percent of Burkina Faso's 22 million population has been displaced by the insurgency, unable to go out and farm, and going hungry. The government's attempts to deliver food have often been foiled by the jihadists. Today, it can't even afford to deliver essential supplies and has appealed to the public to offer free transport.

A silver lining

It is all taking a toll on the people, but there might be a silver lining — the failure of the military, who have been bouncing back to power in coups in the Sahel and West Africa, might slow down, as the latest saviours in camouflage fail.


Yet, the struggles of the Burkina Faso — and Mali, and Guinea — junta are part of a more significant trend on the continent, where governments, even in stable countries without conflict, are failing to provide security or supply the police and military with basics.

Until last year, Kenya, East Africa's largest economy, was also the third-largest in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in an instruction that has only just been reversed by newish President William Ruto, when it changed the police uniform in 2020, many police officers were told to go and buy it from civilian tailors.

Some officers were reported to have stayed home following the new directive, because they lacked the money to buy the uniforms.

Most sophisticated economy

South Africa is the continent's second-largest, but most sophisticated and industrialised economy. Both its military and police are in near shambles, according to critics.

At the end of 2021, its fleet of frontline fighters had been grounded for months because of a "lack of funds." South African soldiers, who were sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo a few years ago, became a laughing stock. Someone said of several of their commanders: "Their potbellies filled half the tents they slept in, and they couldn't wake up before 10am."

With mismanaged and corrupt police, the private security industry, which is big in many parts of Africa — especially if you count the many guards with sticks and bows and arrows — is particularly massive in South Africa.

Soldiers pay for essentials

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and largest economy, is possibly in a worse situation. Amidst a dismal performance against Boko Haram militants and dozens of criminal and kidnapping gangs, in 2016, an investigation revealed that Nigerian soldiers had to pay for essential kits like boots and uniforms using their own money.

Many such cases have been reported in a few other African countries, with soldiers and police scouring mitumba (second-hand clothes) markets for dress that "resembles" their official uniforms.

Parades, with soldiers and police wearing different "uniforms" and boots look like a queue of actors waiting to join a clown show rather than one for the guardians of the nation.

Even peaceful, unthreatening countries like Malawi fall prey. At the swearing-in of Peter Mutharika as president in May 2019, following a stolen election that the Supreme Court eventually overturned, one of his bodyguards made a strange appearance — leading to international headlines — where he was described as the "world's scariest bodyguard." He was wearing an outlandish spiked jacket, helmet and gas mask. He had two pairs of sunglasses, spiked shoulder pads, and four torches strapped to his thorny headgear.

Crumbling quarters

In many countries, prisons, police and the army live in crumbling quarters. In the past, in Uganda, there were reported incidents of latrines that had been repurposed into accommodation. Two families are crowded in a unipot, and many soldiers and police officers make do with manyattas.

The benign result has been the explosion of the private security industry in Africa. Just before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, some estimates put the number of private security companies in South Africa, big and small, at nearly 9,000, employing about two million security guards! That was several times larger than the army and police combined.

Kenya is estimated to have 2,000 private security companies, employing 700,000 guards.

Rise of security gangs

The worst outcome has been the rise of gangs to provide security to communities, at a very high financial and social cost.

From a purely selfish and power-preservation point of view, the police and military should be the entities most pampered and well-fed by politicians in power. That they can't even act out of self-interest indicates the level of political dysfunction some countries are enduring and how incompetent their political elite are.

Many of the present generations of leaders lack the grand nation-building purpose that the independence and late 1990s second-generation democracy wave of politicians had. It's hard to see where the energy and imagination to build successful states will come from in these troubled places.

Perhaps that creative energy might just come from pain, from the new forces that will be born after Burkina Faso or Mali collapse and fall into the hands of deranged jihadists who go around chopping off hands and burning all they consider modern and infidel.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3