Foreign Policy Essay

To Promote Stability and Democracy in Africa, Focus on Its Militaries

By Kristen A. Harkness
Sunday, October 9, 2016, 10:35 AM

Editor's Note: The United States is more engaged in Africa than ever before. This increasing role is occurring as Africa struggles with political liberalization: although we’ve seen impressive successes, much of the continent is mired in authoritarianism. Kristen Harkness of the University of St. Andrews explains the different ways that militaries can interfere with successful democratization. She argues that the West should focus on reforming militaries as part of a broader effort to democratize and stabilize Africa.


African democracy is in trouble. Despite earnest attempts at liberalization, recent slides back into deepening authoritarianism have left few countries with meaningful political freedoms or competitive elections. This democracy deficit has profound security implications. Democratic institutions remove many of the underlying sources of state weakness by creating peaceful channels for resolving social conflict, fostering the rule of law, expanding the political inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities, and encouraging economic development. Absent stable democracy, Africa will remain prone to weak and failed states that provide fertile breeding grounds for terrorist organizations, drug cartels, weapons traffickers, and other criminal networks. Supporting democracy has thus become a key priority of the Obama administration’s Africa policy.

To better promote democracy, we need to focus on cultivating and supporting professional, apolitical, and adequately funded African militaries. African soldiers have been critical actors in either blocking or furthering liberalization. When dissatisfied with democratic politics, militaries have engaged in ballot tampering and voter intimidation or annulled elections. They have also supported would-be dictators in defying constitutions and even deposed civilian leaders themselves. Military coups are common in Africa and they pose a persistent threat to democratic stability.

African militaries turn against elected governments in three key circumstances: political tampering ethnically based security institutions, and wartime neglect. First, political tampering with recruitment and promotion breeds resentment. Most African countries lack well-developed ministries of defense that provide impersonal civilian control over the military. Nor do they possess fully independent legislatures and judiciaries that can check executive power. Presidents thus often appoint and dismiss military officers based on political loyalty or personal whim. This was a critical factor in the recent military coup in Burundi, which has left the country on the brink of ethnic war. The coup leader, Major General Niyombare, had recently been dismissed from his post as the national intelligence director for privately advising President Nkurunziza to obey the constitution and not seek a third term in office.

Second, many African countries are burdened by an especially insidious form of political tampering: ethnically-based security institutions that foster loyalty through shared identity. Democracy threatens these ethnic armies when elections bring to power leaders who no longer share their identity and want to restructure the military, either diversifying it or creating an ethnic army of their own. Either type of restructuring threatens the existing officer corps who may act violently to protect their dominant position. Guinea Bissau, for example, has struggled with a Balanta-dominated army since independence. Multiple democratization efforts have been overturned by coups and no elected president has either managed to serve out his full term or reform the army. The constant instability and violence has deepened poverty and transformed the country into a hub of drug trafficking.

To better promote democracy, we need to focus on cultivating and supporting professional, apolitical, and adequately funded African militaries.

Many stubbornly authoritarian regimes are also backed by the loyalty of ethnic armies, prolonging their rule and preventing liberalization. Paul Biya of Cameroon, Idriss Déby of Chad, Ismaïl Guellh of Djibouti, Denis Sassou-Nguessou of Congo (Brazzaville), Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, among others, all stabilize their autocratic governments with ethnic armies that actively repress dissent.

Finally, wartime neglect has also motivated coups. In 2012, soldiers in Mali toppled one of the region’s few solidly democratic regimes while in the midst of fighting the Taureg rebellion. The soldiers claimed that poor government leadership had led to inadequate combat supplies, including food and armaments, resulting in battlefield defeats. The coup inspired a powerful rebel offensive and the influx of foreign jihadists. Mali lost half of its territory before France militarily intervened, and it continues to face terrorist attacks.

These particular threats to democratic governance in Africa suggest important ways in which policy makers can bolster democracy by supporting military reform. Merit-based recruitment, promotion, and retention practices are necessary to decrease political tampering and end reliance on ethnic loyalty. Adequate funding, especially of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency partners, is necessary to prevent beleaguered front line troops from mutinying.

Given AFRICOM’s focus on short support missions and the African Union’s emphasis on finding African solutions to African problems, U.S. policymakers can best encourage such reform through training and financial assistance. Creating and maintaining systems of merit-based recruitment and promotion is neither intuitive nor easy. Reformers must overhaul military academies and advanced staff colleges as well as develop standards, performance indicators, promotion criteria, and entrance and advancement tests—tying each to pay scales, rank structure, and career tracks. And both civilian and military personnel must be trained to administer these systems. Well versed in such procedures, the U.S. military can offer critical assistance by incorporating merit training into existing programs such as peacekeeper training, international military education exchanges, and security sector reform programs.

These particular threats to democratic governance in Africa suggest important ways in which policy makers can bolster democracy by supporting military reform.

Financial aid can also help. We can ensure that the soldiers of pro-democracy partner nations actively engaged in combat receive adequate supplies. Financial incentives can reward leaders who engage in military reform and establish strong merit-based institutions free from political tampering.

To be sure, reliance on financial incentives has its limitations. Strategically important countries know that the United States will not cut their aid over military reform or democratization in general. China and Russia can also replace lost aid with less conditionality. Some regimes may also simply value politically or ethnically loyal militaries more than the cost of any rewards sacrificed to keep them. Nonetheless, so far the United States has provided little military financial support in sub-Saharan Africa, barely scratching the surface of defense expenditures elsewhere. Increasing such aid could shift incentives enough to help stabilize fledgling democracies with leaders willing to reform.

Assisting democracy through supporting merit-based military reforms is not a policy tool that has been seriously tried. Military educational exchanges may include a class on professionalization, civil-military relations, or human rights, but their focus largely lies elsewhere. Security sector reform programs, such as those implemented in Liberia and Sierra Leone, do often include the types of assistance and training advocated for in this article, but usually as part of a post-conflict peace agreement and broader effort to restructure state institutions. Fixing countries after war is a more difficult and all-encompassing task than preventing their collapse in the first place through more limited and strategic interventions.

The military plays a crucial role in the success or failure of African liberalization, which is vital for establishing stability and security on the continent. We thus need to focus on African military institutions and the contexts in which they turn against elected governments. To better promote democracy, we should nurture and help fund merit-based armies, free from political tampering and ethnic loyalty.