Why Are Africa’s Militaries So Disappointingly Bad?

How history, greed, and nepotism are preventing the continent from securing itself against al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and other threats.

Victor Ulasi/AFP/Getty Images
Victor Ulasi/AFP/Getty Images
Victor Ulasi/AFP/Getty Images

The optimistic "Africa Rising" slogan has been looking a little tired of late, as its critics point out that higher growth rates do not necessarily deliver either jobs or poverty alleviation. There's been less focus on another area where the "Africa Rising" narrative also seems to be failing to deliver: improved security for the continent's 1.1 billion inhabitants.

The optimistic "Africa Rising" slogan has been looking a little tired of late, as its critics point out that higher growth rates do not necessarily deliver either jobs or poverty alleviation. There’s been less focus on another area where the "Africa Rising" narrative also seems to be failing to deliver: improved security for the continent’s 1.1 billion inhabitants.

The last year has seen a spate of high-profile, hugely embarrassing domestic-security lapses in two of sub-Saharan Africa’s key economies, each regarded in the West as trusted partners and regional anchor states. The notion that the continent was growing increasingly capable of policing itself took a knock during the Westgate siege in Kenya last September, in which 67 people died. More recently, Nigeria’s armed forces have been publicly humiliated by the failure to free more than 200 schoolgirls taken hostage by Boko Haram militants and a series of escalating attacks in that seizure’s wake.

What’s striking about both episodes, on opposite sides of the continent, is that they have involved national armies ordinarily regarded as amongst the continent’s best. In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Africans were determined to take responsibility for their own security by gradually phasing out reliance on armed interventions paid for and mounted by the West. Nigeria and Kenya are seen as crucial in that effort.

Nigeria, which recently supplanted South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy, has long provided the muscle for regional interventions blessed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), serving in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Its Joint Task Force (JTF) has contributed to international peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia and East Timor, and dispatched soldiers to Somalia, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali. Meanwhile, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), widely attributed with having held the country together after elections in 2007 exploded into ethnic factionalism, are viewed in Washington as a vital East African bulwark against al-Shabab infiltration from the north. The KDF currently has more than 3,000 men deployed in southern Somalia.

Yet both armies have botched key domestic interventions when crises hit, exposing weaknesses that raise fundamental question marks about operational reliability.

When Islamic terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in central Nairobi last September, KDF troops actually shot members of the elite counter-intelligence paramilitary unit that had already secured the area; a row over jurisdiction suddenly took precedence over securing the area. The KDF then devoted much of the four-day siege that followed to shooting open shop owners’ safes, emptying fridges of beer and looting designer outlets — removing men’s suits, jewelry, mobile phones, and frilly underwear as survivors cowered in toilets, waiting to be freed.

All this was done in the heart of Nairobi, just meters from where the world’s media stood watching and waiting. If the KDF behaved like this at home, what, wondered many Kenyans, did it get up to when no prying eyes were around? A simultaneously draconian and sloppily executed roundup of thousands of Somalis suspected of living illicitly in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, ordered at the beginning of April by the government, has since probably done more to radicalize Kenya’s Muslim community, human rights groups say, than al-Shabab ever achieved.

In Nigeria, a fortnight later, scores of parents of the kidnapped girls became so exasperated by army assurances that the situation was in hand, they resorted themselves to exploring the Sambisa forest where Boko Haram were believed to be hiding the children. Anti-government demonstrations in Abuja are getting angrier, Twitter campaigns and denunciations of the government and military elite ever more vocal — but reports continue to stream in of soldiers either fleeing when Boko Haram fighters attack or failing to deploy in the first place.  

Experts say too that the JTF played a part in creating the current crisis. Back in 2009, when Boko Haram took far less radical a form, the army handed over its captured spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf to police, who summarily executed him. The JTF has since alienated the Muslim community of northeastern Nigeria with the indiscriminate detention of hundreds of locals.

Why are two key African forces proving so disappointing? And what do their failings signal for the African Union’s long-touted ambition of using regional troops to stop genocide, hunt down jihadists, and neutralize pirates, among other things, while reducing Africa’s reliance on the U.N. and the militaries of friendly former colonial powers?

The answers, unfortunately, offer little cause for optimism. 


Africa’s relationship to its military could be defined as one of long-standing, uneasy intimacy. First-time Western visitors are often struck by two things: how much camouflage they see around them, and local inhabitants’ knee-jerk response to men in uniform, who are viewed not as reassuring symbols of law and order but as potential predators.

Such attitudes stem from the post-independence era, when the military coup became a standard method for alternating executive power. The new nation states were weak, inexperienced political parties squabbling, and institutions embryonic. The African armies established by France, Britain, and Portugal, which the colonial powers had used as fodder during the two World Wars, easily came to dominate their societies, representing both possible threats and vested interests clamoring for attention.

"The West has this model of a disciplined, neutral army that stands on the sidelines,  independent of domestic politics," explains Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS). "But the African model is of a military that is used internally and is part and parcel of domestic politics and resource allocation."

Presidents like Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who himself staged two successful coups, warded off likely repeats by deliberately keeping national armies divided and faction-ridden. Mobutu was a great believer in building up and then running down competing elite forces, relying in a real crisis on Western paratroopers and white mercenaries to do his fighting for him.

Elsewhere on the continent, fragile, twitchy civilian governments often encouraged the generals they feared to become de facto businessmen, with foreign sorties seen as particularly lucrative forms of distraction. None of this encouraged discipline, nor was it healthy for rank-and-file morale.

During its intervention in Liberia in the 1990s, for instance, Nigeria’s army became firmly associated with diamond smuggling and drug trafficking. After coming to the rescue of Laurent Kabila in 1998, Zimbabwe’s generals became deeply embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s diamond and gold mining.

These scenarios are dated now. Today, the AU does not look kindly on putschists, regional powers have turned concerted cold shoulders on juntas, and coup leaders swiftly learn to embrace the rhetoric of multiparty democracy. But many scars remain, explaining what can seem like baffling levels of confusion and incompetence in the continent’s security forces.

 "One of
the legacies of the 1960s and 1970s in many African countries is: to what extent can you trust your military not to threaten the government?"
says Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa program.


Nigeria’s history of military coups stretches back to 1966, two years after independence from Britain. It only ended in 1999 with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo. One of Obasanjo’s first moves was to try and render the army coup-proof by retiring 400 senior officers deemed more interested in politics than military campaigns, bringing the armed forces back under civilian command.

That history renders the civilian government’s reluctance to meet generals’ demands for new kit — the reason, many officers now claim, for its inability to bring Boko Haram to heel — thoroughly comprehensible. "The army has been a massive factor in Nigeria," says Cilliers, "and if it’s too well run and effective, there’s the danger it becomes a big problem at home."

Some military experts argue that it’s easy to underestimate the logistical challenges facing troops trying to locate the kidnapped girls. "The three states that Boko Haram has attacked most frequently cover a geographical area more than five times bigger than Switzerland," says Max Siollun, a Nigerian military historian. "The Sambisa forest is also vast. It would be difficult for any army to track schoolgirls in a forest twice the size of Belgium."

Unnerved by the ruthlessness of the radicalism they are encountering, soldiers feel under siege. "It is likely that Boko Haram has been more adept at infiltrating the security forces than the other way around. There is frustration in some units that soldiers are being picked off by seemingly invisible Boko Haram fighters who have a suspiciously good knowledge of the military’s movements," Siollun says.

Others dismiss these as excuses, placing the emphasis for the army’s failures on decades of budgetary "leakage" in a country routinely ranked as one of the world’s most venal. Even before the kidnapping placed Boko Haram on Michelle Obama’s radar, the Nigerian media were recounting how unpaid allowances, miserly rations, and Spartan living conditions were undermining morale among soldiers — who complained militants went into battle far better equipped than they.

At one barracks in Maiduguri, a flashpoint for Boko Haram attacks, soldiers mutinied twice in May alone, with recruits on one occasion opening fire on a major general’s car.

Observers say soldiers manning road blocks often lack radios that would allow them to communicate with colleagues, and the JTF lack the capacity to air lift forces to conflict zones, dooming troops to days of travel to even reach Nigeria’s northeast.

"We spend billions of pounds a year on the Nigerian army, but you have to bribe the armory to get a round for your AK47," Nigerian blogger Kayode Ogundamisi told an audience at London’s Frontline club this week. "Corruption, let’s be frank, is at the core of this issue."

In Kenya, by contrast, the armed forces have long been respected for their apolitical stance and operational efficiency. But analysts say that professionalism was slowly eaten away by a pattern of ethnic appointments under President Daniel arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin, and then his successor, President Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu. "After 2007, Kibaki made sure that every strategic post, all the top jobs, rested in Kikuyu hands," says a Nairobi-based security analyst who prefers to remain anonymous.

Giant procurement scandals such as the recent $1 billion Anglo Leasing scam, which involved 18 bloated military and security contracts signed off on by Kibaki’s ministers, also bled the state treasury of funds while doing nothing to provide armed forces with the equipment required for modern warfare. "If you’re going into action with junk equipment, and you know that your fat general is sitting at his desk having made a nice profit from buying that junk, well, that’s not very motivating, now, is it?" says the security analyst. (Two of the firms involved in Anglo Leasing were recently paid off by the government after going to court, a bitter irony for Kenyans who feel security in key cities has never been worse.)

In an echo of previous African conflicts, the KDF today also stands accused by a U.N. monitoring group of becoming invested in charcoal trading in Somalia — a business which, ironically, benefits the very al-Shabab militants the KDF is fighting.

Another issue that has surfaced is the state of Kenya’s domestic police, corroded by decades of systemic sleaze and ethnic favoritism. A good police force is the interface between a state’s security apparatus and the public, providing it with the data that allows effective grass roots monitoring of communities. But in Kenya, roadblocks are used primarily to extract bribes, not information.

One of the characteristics of the Westgate siege, some security experts say, was the absence of any prior intelligence indicating imminent attack. This was a sign not only that intelligence systems had failed, but that the country’s network of immigration posts and police stations were functionally useless.

"You could make the case that Africa doesn’t need militaries, it needs gendarmeries," says Cilliers. "But we’ve got into this pattern in which the army is called in automatically, because no one trusts the police."


For his part, Chatham House’s Knox Chitiyo believes a more fundamental problem has recently been exposed: The changing nature of today’s security challenges are catching off guard what, at heart, are old-fashioned former colonial armies, set up and trained on traditional lines. "These armies are good at handling either conventional warfare or counterinsurgency," Chitiyo says. "But now, you have a new dynamic, a nexus of domestic terrorism — rural and urban — coming together with counterinsurgency, and they are not equipped to deal with that new type of warfare."

Both Westgate and the school kidnapping, he argues, highlight the growing need for African special forces, boasting sophisticated skills in hostage negotiations and extraction. At the moment, these skills often come from abroad: Nigeria, for instance, accepted them after an international meeting hosted in Paris by President Francois Hollande. Anti-terror experts and specialists in hostage negotiation from France, Britain, and the United States are reported to be in Nigeria now, using aerial and other surveillance to try and locate the girls.

But such cooperation raises the risk of prolonging the continent’s continuing dependency. "Are African governments going to have to rely on the West again, and for how long?" asks Chitiyo, warning of "delicate sovereignty issues."

The AU has plans for a 25,000-person African Standby Force, meant to fill the role of, variously, U.N. and American, French, and British forces. It will be based on existing national forces, and despite recent debacles at home, incompetence abroad by African troops is by no means assured. When airlifted to an African crisis zone by the U.N. and provided with Western salaries, decent kit, sophisticated intelligence backup, and clear lines of command, blue-helmeted African forces can dramatically raise their games. Uganda’s generals, for example, have been accused of needlessly prolonging th
e war on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of their own country, the better to pocket ghost salaries, run hotels, and engage in the timber trade. But the army’s performance in Somalia as part of the AU mission in Somalia has been exemplary.

Still, the Nigerian and Kenyan episodes clearly do not bode well for AU strategists. (The launch of the standby force has been delayed to 2015 after repeated reschedulings.) "If you have problems associated with underfunding, low morale, and corruption in a national force, it washes across everything else," Cilliers says. "Anyone thinking of pulling together a peacekeeping operation in Africa should be seriously concerned about what’s happened in these two countries."

Michela Wrong is the author of nonfiction books on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and Kenya. Her novel “Borderlines,” published by Fourth Estate in Britain, comes out in paperback in June 2016. Twitter: @michelawrong

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