Cooperating with African Armed Forces: Political and Technical Challenges

Written by | Monday, February 4th, 2019

Given the threats now faced by sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from terrorism, through insurgencies and piracy, to organized crime, African armed forces can no longer simply act as instruments of prestige to be used for parades on national holidays or for destabilizing democratically elected governments through coups d’état. They need to be able to fulfill specific missions, and they are called upon to intervene in wars more and more frequently through the hardening of peacekeeping operations, such as in Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic (CAR). Africa’s armed forces do not stand alone, however, in confronting these challenges. They can count on a vast panoply of military cooperation, in multiple forms and provided by a range of organizations, both public and private.


Cooperation with African armed forces requires knowledge and understanding, as well as the ability to effect change. Many countries and organizations, including in the private sector, are now involved in this process in a competitive, rather than cooperative, spirit. Not all the actors involved have the means to fundamentally reform what are often heterogeneous and non-professional armed forces. And those international or state partners that do have the means to put the required reforms in place, whether through operational cooperation or security sector reforms, will come up against major challenges, even if they believe they have come to know the African armed forces concerned.


Indeed, no change is possible without strong political will on the part of African rulers, together with solid determination from their military chiefs. If such willingness is lacking, it can appear preferable to avoid becoming involved – to “know when to leave”. The alternative involves winning their confidence and support for the reforms to be carried out. This means convincing them that their foreign partners are themselves making substantial and sustainable efforts to guarantee the effectiveness of their contributions to reforming the armed forces of countries south of the Sahara.


One particular problem needs to be addressed and that is that most of the existing cooperation policies seek to enhance compatibility between the armed forces of the sub-Saharan countries and Western forces. In doing this, such policies create dependencies, especially when it comes to certain sophisticated capabilities that the African armed forces concerned were not generally used to operating with, such as drones, electronic intelligence, and air-to-ground fire support, which themselves generate fresh requirements. This can impose a model of development on African armed forces that does not necessarily correspond to their needs or resources.


With this in mind, we need to ask if it is really necessary to keep exporting “our” models? Alternatively, should we be further developing those endogenous models that are more suited to the needs and resources of African armed forces, but without necessarily imposing limits or constraints that might not apply to their situations? Ideally, the cooperation policy should form part of wider national or regional policy, thus facilitating a holistic approach, and this requires a deeper knowledge of African armed forces and the political, social, anthropological, and sociological contexts in which they exist. This can be achieved by funding fundamental research in social sciences and action research, and also by maintaining a listening approach with the range of local actors. Furthermore, these various cooperation policies should seek to improve the coordination of actions by different parties.


‘Cooperating with African Armed Forces’ – Analysis by Aline Leboeuf – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

(The Analysis can be downloaded here)

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