Military Involvement in African Politics: An Overview


Military Involvement  in African Politics: An Overview

The military has become an important factor in African politics.

Prior to 1966 any discussion on African politics could have scarcely mentioned the military. But after wards, it became difficult to fully discuss or analyze African politics without a prominent place being accorded to the military. Almost every country, in the continent has witnessed either a military coup or has been threatened by one. Despite the current spate of democratization in the continent the role of the military either as the guarantor of state’s security or the custodian of constitutional order is still pivotal.

This site seek examines the origins of military institution in Africa, the erosion of its professionalism as a result of its involvement in politics, and the role of the military as a modernization agent in Africa.


Origins and the Changing Role of Military Institution in

The military in Africa, as it exists today, was created by colonial rule to enhance its imperial interests. It was conceived as a vital wing of the colonial apparatus to pacify the various groups, and defend various territories against external aggression. The nature of the military which African states inherited at independence reflected the different colonial policies of the Imperial powers. While the military in the British were trained at, mainly, Sadhurst military school, those from French territories were brought together under the Federation of French West Africa. But despite the differences, from one country to another, the common pattern is that the military in independent Africa did not severe links with the former colonial authorities.

In most African states, they also shared the pattern of recruitment, largely drawing the rank and file from one ethnic group, a relatively small size at independence, but which was enlarged as situation demanded. For example, in 1966 the size of the Nigerian army was 10,506 men, the officers corps was only 51 of whom 330 were of combat status (Luckham 1975:90). But the small size does not stop the military from intervention in politics. When the Togolese military staged a coup in 1966, it has a total of 250 soldiers.

The phenomenon of coup in Africa which first began in Egypt in 1952 is a reflection of the changing perception of the military about its role in the political system. What S.P. Huntington (1964) in the “Soldier and the State” referred to as “the general politicization of social forces and institutions” occurred when the military felt, it had values that extended beyond defense, but also included a sense of how society should be organized. But the military cannot do this without subverting its tradition of professionalism, political neutrality and subordination to political leadership. Every military regime, no matter how benevolent, is usually described as an aberration. It is considered as a violation of the military’s guardian role in the body polity, and a prescription for recurring instability. By its training and disposition, the military is ill-suited for the civil society, and by its nature, it is inherently unstable because it does not provide established mechanisms for orderly succession. As Odetola (1978) argues, because the military is commandist in structure and paternalistic in orientation, its basic norms and values run counter to the objectives of a democratic and developing society. The military’s projection of its custodian role to include overt political role, has consequently damaged its professionalism, and created what Howe (2001) described as “the tension between military capabilities and political responsibility.”


African Military and Professionalism

Military professionalism is a two-way traffic. Civilian and military officials agree not to cross the divide into each other’s affairs. A professional military enjoys considerable jurisdiction in military matters: selection and promotion of personnel based on merit, command, control, communication, intelligence and logistics done under military hierarchy. It also accepts state control and subsumes sub regional loyalties. Where professionalism is the rule unpopular military incursions into “foreign” terrain are resisted. But in most African states the civil-military divide has been breached by civilians attempting to manipulate military affairs, and by the military officers who pursue political control of the state. The consequence of this is that since 1963, Africa has witnessed about ninety military coups. In both Chad and Uganda former insurgents have assumed power. In the 1990s, the armies in Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone collapsed entirely. Botswana has enjoyed relative stability from insurgency, while the militaries in

Senegal and Zambia have not staged coups (Howe 2001: 2-5).

We can now identity factors that have contributed to lack of professionalism in African military institution.

i. Personal Rule: In Africa personal rulers are more concerned for political loyalty rather than that military efficiency. Since the interests of the new regimes and rulers, rather than those of the state are more paramount to African leaders, they prefer to sacrifice long-term institutionalization for short-term political expediency. According to Michael Schatzbeg, “One of the things Mobutu fears most is an effective military establishment”. To assure him of loyalty of the military, Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone made the military an extension of his party - All Peoples Congress (APC).

ii. Ethnic Recruitment: In Africa personal rule is closely linked with the ethnicization of the military. Crawford young (1994) has observed that “the very nature of personal autocracy led rulers to build armies according to ethnic map”. In Liberia Samuel Doe appointed fellow Krahn, a group that comprised 4 percent of the country’s population to top military posts. Siad Barre also transformed the Somali armed forces into a faction of the Maraheen ethnic group. In Kenya, Jomo removed soldiers of kamba extraction and replaced them with his Kikuyi tribesman.

iii. Lop Sided Promotion: Rapid promotion which led to early retirements of competent officers robbed African military of expertise at the top echelons, and promoted patron-client syndrome. In Uganda, Idi Amin, within ten years, rose from effendi rank (between non-commissioned to a commissioned) to general. Coups de tat also depleted the military of seasoned officers, fractured existing command structure, and sowed the seeds of counter coups in many African states.

iv. Domestic Deployment: Militaries have been traditionally trained for external combat. But in Africa they have been repeatedly engaged to suppress domestic uprising. Its notable effect is to narrow the division between civilian and military autonomy, weakens the force’s unity, diminish its acceptance by the society as a neutral force, and reduces its external capabilities.

v. Creation of Parallel Forces: In Africa, due to rulers’ fears and suspicions of the regular force, they have promoted the idea of parallel security forces, as counter-weights. In the 1960s, Nkrumah had his President’s Own Guard Regiment (POGR), Siaka Stevens’s Special Security Division, Mobutu sese seko’s Division specials Presidentielle and Sanni Abacha’s Special Body Guard service. It is common for these parallel forces to prosper at the expense of the army, thus eroding on professionalism. Indeed, Kenya Services Unit, created by Daniel Arap Moi, was reputed to be capable of defeating the entire army by itself (Howe 2001.44)

vi. Corruption: By focusing officer’s attention on private gains, corruption continues to undermine professionalism in African military. In Nigeria, for example the settlement device was extended by Babangida to the military establishment. In Uganda, President Museveni could not act against General Salim Saleh, half-brother and hero of the guerrilla struggle, even after he was indicted for corruption. The list is longer. Biya of Cameroon has his Beti, Eyadema of Togo had his Kabre and Moi of Kenya, his Kalenjin. Commenting on this unholy union, Decalo (1989) wrote “the glue binding military elites to civilian authority is pecuniary self-interest”.

Pye (1965) sees the military as any obvious alternative to a democratic government, as “possible saviours” where there is a “sense of failure” by the political class in the country.


Explaining Military Interventions

i. Forms of Intervention

Before explaining reasons for military interventions in Africa, it is important to first distinguish military involvement in politics from military intervention in politics. The former relates to the performance by the military of its constitutional role of defense against external aggression, while the latter is when the military assumes formal political power, formulates and executes polices; In describing forms of intervention, Smith (2003:176) noted that the type of intervention, of the different forms that is of more academic interest is what he called “supplantment”. This is the act of taking political control by force and replacing civilian institutions with military leadership forming “a self-appointed junta, with absolute power unconstrained by any civilian political institutions.” Government is run by decree, constitutional and parliamentary procedure, popular consent is outlawed, elected assemblies dissolved and political parties are abolished. Another form of intervention is when the military displaces one civilian regime and replaces it with another. S.P. Huntington (1964) also classified military coups into four categories:

a. Guardian Coup: A new military regime leaves the prevailing economic system intact, bring about minor change and install an interim administration to provide stability before handing power back to civilians.

b. Veto Coup: This occurs when the military supplants a civilian government that is committed to radical social and economic reforms that will be to the detriment of the wealthier classes in society.

c. Anticipatory Coup: This occurs when the military intervenes to pre-empt power passing to a revolutionary or radical government.

The 1991 coup in Algeria when the military prevented the Islamic Salvation Front from taking over after winning the general elections in the country is often cited (Smith 2002). The annulment of the June 12 1993 presidential election in Nigeria also illustrates this form of intervention.

d. Reforming Coup: This is when the military itself carry out fundamental restructuring of the state and society, and introduces a new ideological foundation. The Gamel Nasser’s coup of 1952 in Egypt was a case in point. Whatever the forms of intervention carried out by the military, what is critical when a coup occurs is that the fundamental civil-military divide is blurred. Government no longer emerges through ballot but by bullet and coercion replaces consensus as a basis of administration.

ii. Reasons for Military Interventions

It is difficult to generalize on the reasons or theories behind military coups in Africa, because the motives for coups differ from one country to another. Yet we can identify some factors that can singly, or in combinations push the military to seize power. They include.

a. Inability of Civilian Government to Govern Effectively: Once civilian government fails to maintain law and order, and is unable to cope with the challenges of governance, that government is inviting a military coup. This was the case in Nigeria in the first Republic when the government could not maintain essential services, and had to rely on the military to restore order, after it practically broke down in the old Western region (Luckham 1991:17). This was also true of Sudan in 1958, Congo in 1965, and Malagasy Republic in 1972 (Jemibewon 1978:4). Jemibewon (1978) disclosed that Colonel Afrifa, a prime mover of 24th February 1966 coup hinted that the coup option would not have been considered if there was any other to remove Nkrumah from power.

b. Corruption among Political Leaders. This is either by diverting public funds to party coffers, or for the personal enrichment of office holders, to the detriment of public welfare. In January 1966, Nzeogwu claimed his coup was aimed at removing “ten per centers” from power. Abacha leveled similar charge against Nigerian politicians in his coup broadcast of December 1983.

c. Absence of Peaceful Means of Changing Governments.

During the 1960s, most civilian governments in Africa turned their countries into authoritarian one party state and where there were more than one party, the ruling party rigged elections to remain in power. Once all opportunities for coming into power through peaceful means have been blocked, the opposition encourages and openly calls on the military to intervene. During the second Republic in Nigeria, the opposition popularized the axiom “those who make peaceful change impossible makes violent change inevitable”.

d. Personal and Corporate Interest of the military: Coups in Africa have been attributed to the personal ambition of individual whole. It is generally believed that the army does not move against a civilian government except its interest has been threatened. For example when President Ahomadegbe of Dahomey (now Republic of Benin) Republic humiliated his chief of Army staff, a coup was staged the next stage to remove him from power. In Nigeria, Ben Gbulie (1981:13) observed that Zak Maimalari’s meteoric rise from the rank of Captain to Brigadier in three years was a major cause of disaffection within the armed forces, which remotely spurred aggrieved officers to stage the 1966 January 15 coup to remedy what they considered “unmerited promotion… “ as scandalous as concentrating all the most important of Nigeria’s military installations and its best institutions in the North.”

e. Fragile and Weak Political Institutions. African states are yet to develop strong political institutions to manage and resolve political crises. This is unlike in advanced countries, where institutions have been tested, are matured and have developed self-regulating mechanisms to cope with political tensions. But in

Africa where the military is the only institution sufficiently organized, in addition to its monopoly of instrument of violence; there is added incentive for it to come in when there is conflict as a strategically placed arbiter. This view which was largely attributed to Huntington was corroborated by S.F. Finer (1962:21) thus: “where public attachment to civilian institutions is weak or non-existent military intervention in politics will find wide scope-both in manner and substance”.

f. Psychological/Contagious Effect. This is the tendency of military officers to emulate their colleagues who have successfully staged coups in neighboring countries. What is otherwise called “bush fire effect” or what Ali Mazrul once called pan “African empathy” was carefully chronicled by Jemibewon (1979). The army mutinies in East Africa started in Zanzibar on 12 January 1964 spread to Tanganyika on 20 January, to Uganda on 23rd Jan., and to Kenya on 26 Jan 1964. Also the first four coups in Franco phone countries began in Zaire on 20th Nov. 1965, Benin Republic on 22 December 1965, the Central African Republic on 1st January 1966 and Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso on 3rd Jan. 1966. In Anglophone West Africa, Nigerian and Ghanaian coups were staged on 15th January and 24th February, 1966 respectively.

g. International Conspiracy. This theory attributes military coups to foreign agents like the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and powerful multinational corporations. A de-classified CIA report later confirmed widespread rumour that the intelligence body was involved in the coup against Kwame Nkrumah (Odetola 1978: 32:33). In the final analysis, explaining military interventions in Africa is not markedly different from the analysis of military intervention in other societies, especially Latin American countries. Broadly, we can group these factors into two: environmental and organizational approaches. Much of our discussion so far have emphasized factors and issues specific

to Africa, which suggest that the environmental explanations are more relevant to Africa.

However, Luckham (1977:4) has laboured with some degree of success to advance the course of what he called “organizational strain”. As he explained: “unity in format makes it possible for the military to act swiftly and decisively: integral boundaries insulate it from external conflict and preserve unity in command. Yet these features also made the army more prone to revolt and rebellion; to fratricidal conflict in which brothers became Judases”.


The Military as a Modernizing Agent

Due to the recurring nature of coups, and consequently military regimes in Africa, some scholars have attempted to ascribe some measure of legitimacy, to this occurrence, thereby presenting the military as an agent of modernization. This is in spite of the conservative bias of political science, by which any deviation from democratic norms, or the introduction of elements of coercion in the process of government is considered as abnormal.

S.P. Huntington who is prominent in this school asserts that military officers are frequently indifferent or hostile to needs of political institution building…” Nordlinger also argues that the military is inept, or politically incapable, since they view politics as a regulated conflict in which competition and compromise is transformed into government by fiat. However, those who hold the view that the military could be transformed into agents of modernization argue that in a developing and modernizing society such as in Africa, government must contain elements of coercion to be effective and show authority. The western concept of a government and a “loyal” opposition along parliamentary system is said to be unsuitable for Africa as a basis of legitimate rule.

Given the ethnically diverse nature of post-colonial states in Africa, multi-party system failed because it reflected pluralism and distrust within the political system. To escape from this, the military, just like the idea of one party system, came to be viewed as more capable to cope with this political turbulence (Odetola, 1978).

The questions that readily come to mind are: what is it about the military that enables it to serve as alternative government? Can the mere presence of the military ensure political stability, or promote economic development? In finding answers to these questions we must recognize that in a few African counties, like Egypt and Libya, at least in the early years, the military was able to establish authority and legitimacy, and achieved effectiveness, not by simple physical threats but primarily by adapting its organizational characteristics to the needs of a developing political society. While the military retained its organizational characteristics of order discipline and hierarchy to remain cohesive, it appropriately responded to the requirements of compromise and persuasion. For this reason, the military is always regarded as a potential factor of stability in Africa.

But the military balance sheet in Africa neither recommends it as agent of political stability nor as an alternative government. From one African country to another, the military has performed poorly in governance and has repeatedly failed to hold nation together peacefully. In Nigeria, before its disengagement from power in 1999, the military which was not a party to the struggle for the country’s independence ruled for many more years than the politicians. Yet rather than succeed as corrective regimes or salvage the country, it subverted the civil society and almost dismembered the country.

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