Emile Ouédraogo at the African Center for Strategic Studies provides a must-read for African policy makers, and military leaders in his timely and well-researched work entitled ‘Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa.’

Vivid examples of weak military professionalism in Africa are regularly evident in news accounts of instability on the continent. Militaries collapsing in the face of attacks by irregular forces, coups, mutinies, looting, human rights abuses against civilian populations, corruption, and engagement in illicit trafficking activities are widespread. This pattern persists decades after the end of colonialism, despite billions of dollars of security sector assistance and longstanding rhetoric on the need to strengthen civil-military relations on the continent. The costs for not having established strong professional militaries are high: persistent instability, chronic poverty, deterred investment, and stunted democratization.

The reasons for the ongoing inability to establish effective, respected militaries in so many African countries are complex but largely stem from political incentives. African militaries created in the colonial era were intended to protect the government rather than the citizens. To do this, ethnic minorities were often disproportionately recruited into the militaries as a check on majority groups. These patterns persisted in the post-colonial period as military leaders from minority groups had strong incentives to resist a transition to democracy and majority rule. Lacking systematic checks and balances, the interweaving of political, military, and economic interests has endured and, in some cases, intensified in the decades since the end of colonialism. Control of the military has been seen as the vehicle to power and wealth in Africa. Corruption has flourished. This has fostered a politicization of the military and ongoing competition and collusion among politicians and security leaders seeking to gain the upper hand. In addition to systematically weakening the capacity of the military, these patterns have bred deep fear and distrust of the security sector by the general population, further fueling instability and limiting popular support in combating insurgencies.

Breaking this spiral of vested interests that undermines efforts to build military professionalism in Africa will require more than capacity building. Rather, sustained initiatives are needed to address the fundamental political disincentives to reform and establish constructive civil-military relations. Business as usual will not suffice. National security reviews that include the general public are required to redefine the mandate of Africa’s militaries in an era when many threats are internally based. Reorganizing security force structures to better match identified threats and integrating missions into a comprehensive and coherent defense policy will enhance the relevance, operational capacity, and prestige of Africa’s militaries.

As part of this process, the responsibilities of the nation’s armed forces to its citizens must be specified. A clear code of conduct, supported by a sustained effort to assimilate ethical values across the force, is needed to establish and reinforce norms of constitutionalism, integrity, service, and respect for human rights. To reinforce this, military ombudsmen, outside the chain of command, should be established and strengthened to ensure there is accountability for violations of military conduct. Likewise, stronger sanctions are needed for military and political leaders engaged in the politicization of the security forces. In other words, efforts to strengthen military professionalism must address political as well as military leaders.

More robust internal and external oversight mechanisms of the military are also needed to ensure funding is being appropriately expended in the interests of national security. Of particular priority is the need for more hands-on strategic oversight of the security sector by responsible legislative bodies. African legislators must actively debate the purpose, goals, policies, budget, spending, promotion practices, and performance of the military. Non-state actors, primarily civil society and the media, also have an important oversight function by raising awareness of the role of the military among the general public and drawing attention to areas of reform. Military professionalism is consistent with African values. This is clearly visible in select African countries where the ties between politics and the security sector have been broken and the military is a respected institution and welcomed as a defender of the people. It is the aspiration of nearly all African citizens that these attributes become the norm throughout the continent. Breaking the spiral of instability, poverty, and misgovernance depends on it.

A Litany of Challenges for African Militaries

The 2012 military coup d’.tat in Mali plunged the country and the West African region into a political and military crisis. It took just a handful of noncommissioned officers and other enlisted men to topple Mali’s elected president and derail 21 years of democratization and efforts to build professional military institutions. In addition to triggering a constitutional crisis, the seizure of the government by the military put at risk the territorial integrity of the Malian state, provided an inroad for radical Islamists across the region, and required the military intervention of French and West African forces to stabilize the situation. The economic costs and loss of private investment to Mali will be felt for years to come.

Unfortunately, a persistent lack of military professionalism has been a recurring theme across the continent. In some cases, the military directly interrupts the democratic process. Since independence, for example, no democratically elected leader of the former Portuguese colony, Guinea-Bissau, has ever completed a term in office. The People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Guinea-Bissau, which is widely viewed as corrupt and heavily involved in the illicit drug trade,1 has a history of installing and ousting governments that threaten the military leadership’s interests, including a coup in 2012 on the eve of the second round of presidential elections. Revealingly, the militaries of both Mali and Guinea-Bissau asserted political power just prior to presidential elections when legitimately elected leaders would be empowered.

Other times, weak military professionalism is evidenced by repeated mutinies. The largest and most serious mutiny on the African continent over the last decade occurred in Burkina Faso. Turmoil caused by noncommissioned officers and other enlisted men lasted throughout the first half of 2011. The resulting pillaging, rapes, and other serious human rights violations created unprecedented fear and insecurity among the civilian population whom the armed forces were supposed to defend and protect. Madagascar was shaken by numerous military mutinies when Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of the capital Antananarivo, took power from a democratically elected government in 2009 with strong military support. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, numerous military defections and mutinies put considerable strain on the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

Other examples of breakdowns in military professionalism in Africa abound. Allegations of human rights abuses against civilians by the Nigerian military in the course of their deadly battle with the Islamist fundamentalist group Boko Haram suggest weak command and control capabilities.2 They also undermine the broader objective of stabilizing Nigeria’s northern region. The alleged complicity of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces in wildlife trafficking reflects a lack of discipline in the face of economic opportunism.3 Allegations that the Kenyan Defence Forces engaged in massive looting of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi following the shocking terrorist attack by al Shabaab that left more than 60 dead in 2013 provide further cause for reflection about the state of military professionalism in Africa.4

To be sure, certain African countries have made laudable efforts to improve the professionalism of their militaries. However, half a century after most African states gained independence, African societies need to reassess how they can establish professional armed forces, not only to face their security challenges but also to help build and consolidate their nascent democracies and foster development. By examining the gap between aspiration and reality, this paper aims to delve into the obstacles of enhancing professionalism in African militaries.

Principles of Military Professionalism

Military professionalism is commonly grounded in several overriding Principles; these principles are enshrined in values that distinguish the actions of a professional soldier such as discipline, integrity,honor, commitment, service, sacrifice, and duty. Such values thrive in an organization with a purposeful mission, clear lines of authority, accountability, and protocol. Despite the disappointing track record, these same principles and values of professionalism resonate deeply with African military leaders and ordinary citizens alike. The problem has been that in too many African countries the adaptation and implementation of these concepts have been disrupted.

Democratic Sovereign Authority

A democratic political culture is typically the foundation of professional militaries. In Samuel E. Finer’s classic The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, the level of democratic political culture in a country is determined by the extent to which there exists broad approval within society for the procedures of succession of political power and a recognition that citizens represent the ultimate sovereign authority.5 Democratic processes also need to be protected by state institutions, such as the armed forces.

The notion of military professionalism in democratic states, therefore, must embody basic values such as acceptance of the legitimacy of democratic institutions, nonpartisanship in the political process, and respect for and defense of individuals’ human rights. In a strong democratic political culture, legitimately elected civilian authorities are fully responsible for managing public and political affairs. The armed forces implement the defense and security policy developed by civilian authorities.

A majority of African states have duly adopted these democratic values and basic principles of military professionalism in their various constitutions and military doctrines. They are shared and accepted by the majority of African countries that have transitioned or are in the process of transitioning to a democracy. Moreover, many military leaders have been exposed to these values and principles through trainings in Western military academies and staff colleges. It is important, too, to note that these values are rooted in African culture. Protection of the kingdom, submission to the king, loyalty, and integrity vis-a-vis the community were core values of African ancestral warriors. It was only during the colonial and neo-colonial eras that this civil-military relationship floundered and these values eroded. The newly created African states set up armies to symbolize their nations’ independence, but these militaries essentially provided security just to the new regimes. Since then, we have witnessed an ongoing struggle to recapture the historical values of military professionalism.


Building professional militaries is dependent upon establishing a clear and balanced allegiance to the state and respect for civil society and not interfering in the oftentimes robust political discussion between the two. Democratization is a turbulent process, one that can be exploited by certain actors to create temporary domestic instability. Without a military’s steadfast support for neutrality and democratic sovereign authority, the process of democratic self-correction and consolidation will be difficult.6

One African military that has adhered to this principle is the Senegalese Armed Forces. Since independence, Senegal has never experienced a coup d’.tat. The Senegalese democratic culture has been periodically tested by political tensions, but the military has not challenged the constitutional order. Having passed these tests, Senegal’s democratic culture has grown stronger over the years. In addition to Senegal, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, and a few others are part of a small group of African countries whose governments have never been toppled by a military coup.7 Countries that have experienced a coup d’.tat pay a steep and longterm price for their militaries’ misplaced and sometimes cyclical interference in political discourse. Once the precedent of a coup has been established, the probability of subsequent coups rises dramatically. In fact, while 65 percent of Sub-Saharan countries have experienced a coup, 42 percent have experienced multiple coups.8 Most African coups were directed against an existing military regime that itself had come to power through a coup. Between 1960 and 2012, nine of the attempted coups in Sudan were against military regimes as were seven of the ten in Ghana during the same period. Once in place, such precedents become a burden that is difficult to throw off and have contributed to the collapse or destabilization of some states. Reflecting a degree of progress, while the threat of coups remains a real concern in Africa, the frequency of successful coups has diminished considerably (and has been concentrated in West and Central Africa).

Factors such as political and economic weakness, corruption, and a lack of institutionalized democratic structures create openings for military forces to justify overthrowing political leaders. Unsurprisingly, Sub-Saharan countries with low per capita gross domestic product (GDP) growth since independence have experienced more military coups than countries with higher per capita GDP growth rates.10 Yet, with very few exceptions, military coup leaders fail to restore stability and hand power back to civilians. Unfortunately, military-led governance is likely to be ruinous for a country’s economy. Thus, the vicious cycle is perpetuated. Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Nigeria have all seen their real GDP shrink more than 4.5 percent following military coups.11

Repeated coups have thrownsome African countries, such as Burundi, the Central African Republic,Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Guinea-Bissau, into prolonged periods of economic contraction. Apparent exceptions likeEquatorial Guinea, in fact, reflect natural resource-driven growth that has not translated into improved living conditions for the general population. Instability deters investment and development. In contrast, non-resourcerich states that have realized the highest levels of sustained growth are almost uniformly those with few or no coups.

Samuel Huntington argued that military interference in governmental affairs was more a political than a military problem, an observation that remains particularly relevant for most African countries.13 In the absence of well-established rules and strong institutions regulating political processes, labor unions, students, clergy, lobbies, and the military all engage in political competition for the control of state power. This characterized the post-independence political environment in many African countries. Given their size and inherent influence, militaries in Africa thus became major players on the political scene—and held onto this privilege.

With the emergence of alliances between top military, political, and economic leaders (including, at times, foreign partners) around shared financial interests, militaries’ intrusion into the economic sphere also became more diffuse and complex. In Angola, for example, members of the military participate in contract negotiations with foreign companies, sit on corporate boards, and are majority shareholders of telecom companies. The various military administrations that governed Nigeria also entangled themselves in the economic sphere. Appointments of military officers to company boards of directors and to top political posts, such as state governors, made these individuals immensely rich and politically powerful. Even in retirement, many of these officers remain powerful actors in Nigerian politics.

In 1999, when the Nigerian people elected the democratic government of Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general, they ended 16 years of military rule. The new government understood what years of military involvement in commercial enterprise had done to its reputation and effectiveness. The government quickly swept many officers into retirement, revoked oil licenses, and reclaimed plots of land suspected to have been illegitimately allocated to senior military officers. Such efforts to improve security sector governance in Nigeria are ongoing.

The subversion of the profession of arms for financial enrichment distorts the incentives for public service required of an effective, professional military. It simultaneously undermines a military’s commitment to protect the country and its citizens. Plato noted some 2,400 years ago that the meddling of soldiers into other professions will “bring the city to ruin.”16.



1 Camille Dubruelh and Mathieu Olivier, “L’Afrique n’est plus seulement un acteur passif dans le trafic de drogue. La consommation augmente.” Jeune Afrique, April 24, 2012.

Adam Nossiter, “U.S. Sting That Snared African Ex-Admiral Shines Light on Drug Trade,” The New York Times, April 15, 2013.

2 “Nigeria: Massive Destruction, Deaths from Military Raid,” Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2013.

3 Jeffrey Gettleman, “Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits,” The New York Times, September 3, 2012.

4 Daniel Howden, “Terror in Nairobi: The Full Story Behind al-Shabaab’s Attack,” The Guardian, October 4, 2013.

5 Samuel E. Finer, The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002).

6 Zoltan Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1.

7 Habiba Ben Barka and Mthuli Ncube, “Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon?” African Development Bank (September 2012), 3.

8 Stefan Lindemann, “The Ethnic Politics of Coup Avoidance: Evidence from Zambia and Uganda,” Africa Spectrum 46, No. 2 (2011), 4. For background on datasets used by Lindemann and other authors to identify the number of coups, see Jonathan Powell & Clayton L. Thyne, “Global instances of coups from 1950 to 2010: A new dataset,” Journal of Peace Research 48, No. 2 (2011), 249-259. Powell and Thyne identify the varying definitions of “coup d’.tat” to explain for the variances in reported instances of attempted and successful coups.

9 Barka and Ncube, “Political Fragility in Africa,” 4.

10 Ibid., 9.

11 Mathurin Houngnikpo, Africa’s Militaries: A Missing Link in Democratic Transitions, Africa Security Brief No. 17 (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, January 2012).

12 Barka and Ncube, “Political Fragility in Africa,” 9.

13 Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

14 Rafael Marques de Morais, “The Angolan Presidency: The Epicentre of Corruption,” Pambazuka News No. 493, August 5, 2010, available at <http://www.makaangola.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/PresidencyCorruption.pdf>.

15 Emmanuel O. Ojo, “Taming the Monster: Demilitarization and Democratization in Nigeria,” Armed Forces & Society 32, No. 2 (January 2006), 254-272.

16 Plato, The Republic, tr. G.M.A. Grube (Hacket, 1992), 417b and 434a-b.