According to Human Right Watch, the death toll linked to the terrorism that has plagued Mali since the political crisis of March-April 2012, which led to the country's split, is now over 800 in the Malian armed forces and over 2,500 among the civilian population (HRW report, 2019). This inability of African armies in general to face up to modern challenges, in particular the fight against terrorism, has its source in the weaknesses that have persisted since their creation. Worse, these armies are often dependent on the political instability that reigns in these countries (notably Mali, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo) and many African states have not been able to evolve with the times.
In this paper, organised into two parts, we first recall the context in which most African armies were created and which opened the gaps that exist today. In the second part, we propose avenues for reforms that are essential for African armies to meet the challenges they face today.
The genesis of African armies: congenital gaps
To understand the causes of the weaknesses of African armies, we must go back to their creation. Indeed, African armies are the legacies of colonial armies. Following independence, these little seasoned armies were reconverted into national armies. It is important to specify here that most African states, in particular the former French and British colonies, obtained their independence through the process of decolonisation and not through wars of liberation.
These young independent states therefore found themselves in the aftermath of independence (1960) with weak armies, insufficently trained in combat and inadequate in numbers (Warner, Thaler, 2016). Even today, the strength of African armies represents on average only 0.2% of the population against 0.4% in Europe and nearly 0.5% in the United States. Consequently, these young armies had been created without any real historical mission. All the more so since wars of conquest are not part of the history of these states. This apparently harmless peculiarity still has serious consequences, because the borders of these states were decided by the colonial power and are still imprecise and subject to recurring disputes today.
African armies therefore suffer from numerous shortcomings dating back to their creation (Ayoob, 1995). These shortcomings explain their inability to face the challenges of our time both within and outside their geographic boundaries. Hence the urgent need for deep reforms that can enable them to better respond to the challenges of modern life. What types of reforms could allow African armies to be better seasoned in the face of current challenges?
African armies: the urgent need to reform
The latest events in Mali, dominated by the brutality of the security forces against the civilian populations, have revived the old debate about the exact attributions of the security forces in African countries. These, in particular in countries in conflict or in a situation of instability, have too often had strained relations with the civilian populations. The latest assessment of recent clashes in Mali estimated around thirty deaths all attributed to FORSAT (anti-terrorist forces,) a special unit of the armed forces initially created to stand up against the jihadist movements raging in the north of the country. Why and how is a special forces unit involved in a massacre of civilian populations?
This example of bloody repression of civilian populations by armed forces is unfortunately not an isolated case in Africa.
The armed forces in Africa whose missions remain unclear most of the time are often in the pay of the strong man at the head of the country, something that goes against the ideals of military professionalisation (Warner, Thaler, 2016). The role of the armies therefore comes down to defending the leader as a priority as well as his interests and those of his clan (Howe, 2005).
According to several studies based on empirical observations, the brutality of the armed forces is proportional to the degree of authoritarianism of the leader (Howe, 2005).
Several reforms have been initiated for several years in several countries of the continent (notably DRC, Ivory Coast and Mali). These reforms propose a redefinition as well as several innovations of the role assigned to each army corps.
One of the projects of these reforms is the reconciliation of the armed forces with civilian populations. For this, it is important that the armed forces become more involved in local development initiatives (construction of community infrastructure such as clinics, schools, etc.). An army corps of military engineers is essential and must participate indefinetly in this type of initiative. For the other army corps, the ideal would be for a contingent to be assigned to this kind of initiative on a rotation basis. It is important that these forces involved in the daily life of civilian populations follow a language training allowing them to speak several local languages. Indeed, winning the trust of the people is a big step in the fight against terrorism. Numerous testimonies reveal that populations often find themselves victims of atrocities committed by both jihadists and the armed forces.
Regarding border areas, demilitarised zones should be defined on the borders of each country in order to prevent conflicts arising from border disputes. The forces assigned to border security, equipped with advanced material means and benefiting from regular training will be periodically invited to participate in military exercises, preferably in coordination with those of the neighbouring country. Such cooperation would be very effective, especially in countries engaged in the fight against terrorism.
The participation of African countries in peacekeeping operations is generally highly appreciated. Returning soldiers should be assigned to a variety of missions ranging from defence against terrorism to the fight against organised crime.
Finally, the defense agreements should be revised and partners diversified with the training of the troops being an essential component. The diversification of partners, including African ones, is essential in particular in controlling the combat environment (such as forest areas, savannas, deserts, etc.).
The army reform policies that have been in place for several years are struggling to bear fruit. This is due to a lack of political will. Indeed, several leaders having little confidence in the national army still prefer to concentrate the resources of the State on the republican guard, or even militias, thus abandoning the national army. This type of practice is often a source of frustration in the ranks of the regular armed forces. Such struggles are the origin of the coups d'état observed on the continent in recent decades.
In part two we will look in depth at the case of the Ivory Coast.
*photo shows Malian soldiers