Citizens of Mali protest during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meeting
in Abidjan, where the Mali crisis and Guinea-Bissau coupare discussed (26 April 2012). The banner reads, “No more coups in Africa”. (GALLO IMAGES/REUTERS/ LUC GNAGO)
Civil-military relations have received extensive scholarly attention, especially during the 1960s–1980s period when coups d’état were very common in West Africa, in particular, and Africa, in general. Since the beginning of what Samuel Huntington described as the “Third Wave of Democratization”1 in the 1990s, there has been a relative decline in militarism in politics in the region. West African countries are currently at different stages of their democratic processes. It was envisaged that coups d’état would have become a thing of the past in the region, due to the acceptance of global and regional normative frameworks of democracy and good governance. However, democratic dividends in the region have been mixed, and some countries have witnessed a reversal to the coup phenomenon. By way of example, the most recent coups in the region occurred in Guinea (2008), Niger (2010), Mali (2012), Guinea-Bissau (2012) and Burkina Faso (2014 and 2015).
Even countries that have been touted as being on the path to democratic consolidation arguably remain a coup risk, as they are yet to effectively transform their post-colonial and authoritarian armed forces and defence sectors generally. The military, as an important state institution with a monopoly over legitimate force, remains a very strong political actor in the region. Apart from politicisation of the defence apparatus, other challenges facing the defence sector include a lack of military professionalism, high incidence of mutinies, human rights violations, obsolete missions and doctrines, diminishing capabilities, inadequate oversight, corruption and a lack of transparency.2 Most West African states have received international support to reform their defence and security sectors. However, the results have been mixed, as historically rooted pathologies from colonialism continue to hamper the development of stable civil-military relations across the region.
Before the advent of colonialism, militarism was prevalent in African affairs, especially in the historical and political evolutionary processes.3 However, modern militaries in the region mostly emerged from the colonial armies that were created for the purposes of political expediencies to quell indigenous resistance and serve the geo-strategic interests of colonial powers in terms of a manpower reserve for easy mobilisation in times of war.4 Naison Ngoma argues that post-independence civil-military relations of African states have been generally inﬂuenced by their colonial history, which caused fear and even dislike of the colonial military.5 Indeed, some analysts rightly acknowledge the effects of colonial legacy on the emerging post-independence civil-military relations in Africa.6 This article looks at how the colonial legacy of the two major language blocs – French and English – have contributed to the post-independence experience in civil-military relations, and the overall effects on democratic stability in West Africa. The article argues that colonialism had a telling influence on post-independence civil-military relations in West Africa. The different colonial policies of the British and French contributed to the post-independence civil-military relations experience in West Africa.
The Effects of Colonial Rule on the Military in West Africa
Colonialism altered the existing social and cultural patterns in Africa by creating arbitrary boundaries that sought to put together ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse people in somewhat artificial states.7 Colonial policies further created a stratified society with structural and regional inequalities. For example, according to the divide-and-rule policy, ethnic groups that were deemed loyal to, and cooperative with, the colonial powers were treated better, and their regions received more resources, education and representation in the armed forces. For example, in Anglophone West Africa, the British colonial policy of indirect rule contributed to the class variation between the upper class (civilian politicians) and the lower class (military and common people).8 Colonial policies also provided an unfavourable environment for political stability and peace in the former colonies after independence. In particular, the political culture that emerged out of colonial rule has been one of the general causes for frequent authoritarian rule and military interventions in Africa. This is attributed to several factors, such as the nature of the independence struggle in different African countries. For instance, in countries where armed groups played a decisive role in the independence struggle, there emerged a strong identification of the military and the nation – often referred to as the “‘birth right principle” – by which the armed forces considered themselves as guardians of the core principles and basic values of a nation, and often used this justification to intervene in politics.9
In addition, the colonial patterns of military recruitment were mainly based on fictitious martial races or ethnic bias in which people from certain parts of the colonies, especially minority ethnic groups, were drafted into the colonial armies for the sole purpose of counterbalancing historically powerful ethnicities and suppressing local dissent against colonialism.10 The colonial powers preferred recruiting soldiers from remote northern areas , who were seen to possess martial traits and thus were more effective in suppressing the anti-colonial uprisings in southern areas, where colonialism then evolved and flourished.11 This ethnic bias was carried into the formation of several post-independence militaries. Many African leaders did not seek the opportunity to rebuild national militaries by reforming the structure, operations, doctrines and recruitment practices inherited from colonialism. Rather, most maintained the status quo and even exploited these shortcomings inherited from the colonial era to sustain their authoritarian political systems. For instance, some leaders employed a variety of mechanisms, such as recruitment and promotion policies that favoured particular clans or ethnic groups, to consolidate their power and to keep security institutions loyal. Others employed mechanisms such as political patronage within security institutions and the establishment of parallel security structures, including elite presidential guards. Subsequently, in the immediate post-independence era, Africa’s new states were confronted with challenges of political militaries for a variety of reasons, including a growing consciousness on the part of the military of their powers.12 These developments continue to produce mixed results in terms of civil-military relations and political stability. It is noteworthy that countries like Senegal, which were able to reorganise their military and institutionalise their civil-military relations, were able to sustain civil rule. Other countries, such as Ghana, were unable to do so and became enmeshed in a cycle of coups and countercoups in the first three decades of independence.13
Generally, colonialism has a telling influence on post-independence civil-military relations in West Africa. This is because colonial authorities did not seek to build resilient military institutions with national characters. Notably, improving civil-military relations and good governance were not part of the colonial agenda. As mentioned earlier, the nucleus armies that metamorphosed into post-independence military institutions were created for specific colonial political and economic imperatives. It is argued elsewhere that both French and British colonial rule indirectly institutionalised military power, to the detriment of democratic civil-military relations. Illustratively, while Europe was institutionalising democracy, European militaries were ruling colonies in Africa with an iron fist.14 For example, in both the French and British colonies, the governor-general was also the commander-in-chief of the colonial military, with enormous powers.15 Therefore, colonial administrations arguably set the undertone for the current cycle of African authoritarian regimes and military interventions in politics. The subsequent effects on the political culture that emerged from several decades of colonialism cannot be ignored, as the immediate post-independence African leaders and their military counterparts were influenced by their respective colonial experiences.16 Following independence, the policies and programmes pursued by the two former colonial powers also had both positive and negative impacts on the current developments in the region.
Anglophone West Africa
All Anglophone countries in West Africa have experienced military coups for various reasons. Generally, Britain has maintained a continuous presence in a number of countries around the world, as a result of its imperial past. However, a continuous British presence does not necessarily mean consistent engagement, as compared to the French presence in its former colonies. In particular, the interests of Britain have fluctuated between wanting to retain a foothold in certain regions of the world, maintaining client states, and developing partners in the delivery of security.17 Successive British governments adopted a somewhat passive position in terms of external commitments to defence and security issues in post-colonial Africa.18 Upon their withdrawal, the British did not insist on defence agreements, but hoped that the defence forces in former colonies would continue to enjoy British aid.19 For example, the British maintained some minimal engagement in the defence and security sector of its former colonies in West Africa – Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Gambia – before the disbandment of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in 1959.20 In countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, British officers were also involved in the rebuilding of post-independence military forces in the early 1960s. Britain also had “diluted” versions of defence agreements with former colonies, such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone, which involved the deployment of seconded foreign soldiers in training and monitoring roles within the local military.21 In Nigeria, the defence agreement was abrogated immediately after independence in 1961, due to students’ demonstrations against the pact and growing political hostility.22
Despite the apparent British retreat in the 1960s, Britain maintained post-independence military relationships with its former West African colonies. For example, West African soldiers continued to train in British military institutions such as the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) and the Defence Academy of United Kingdom (UK).23 Moreover, under the Defence Diplomacy initiative, now referred to as security cooperation, the British government continues to promote conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery in transitional democracies, including its former West African colonies, through a series of educational programmes. Other means included the deployment of defence attachés (DA), military and civilian defence advisors and the establishment of British military advisory and training teams (BMATT). These programmes, whose objectives were revised often under various strategic defence reviews, generally aimed to promote good governance and the management of defence to ensure both national and global security.24 This was in line with the Britain’s long-term foreign, defence and wider security policy objectives.
Some of abovementioned initiatives contributed to enhancing professionalism and building the capacities of military personnel in various countries. For example, after the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991–2002), Britain played a key role in rebuilding the defence institutions of the country. The UK’s International Military Advisory and Assistance Team helped reform the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Defence and rebuild the armed forces.25 In Ghana, institutions such as the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) were supported in the provision of different training and capacity-building courses for military personnel from Ghana and other African countries. These initiatives had an overall impact on force structures, the evolution of doctrine, combat and staff training, and the conduct of operations. It is, however, difficult to measure the overall impact of these initiatives on the development of politically neutral and democratically accountable armed forces. Nonetheless, British Defence Diplomacy programmes were not sustainable due to numerous factors, including the effects of the global economic crisis and the lack of an overarching strategy document within the British Ministry of Defence that defined the specific purpose and intended outcome of the Defence Diplomacy programmes. As a result, West Africa and southern Africa saw the budget for Defence Diplomacy education programmes slashed within the first quarter of 2009. Among other reasons, this led to the hasty exit of BMATT from Ghana, as it was deemed by the British authorities to have fulfilled its mission after 33 years in operation.26 Other longstanding sponsorships for African officers at RMAS and Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) were initially withdrawn. West African officers now train at some of the institutions mentioned, while the British government has recently recommenced with short-term training courses for relevant defence and security actors in Ghana and other African countries.
The critical questions arising out of the initial British retreat in providing defence assistance programmes were whether Anglophone West African states were ready to take on their destiny and transform their defence sectors through nationally owned processes, and to what extent could civil-military stability be sustained through effective post-conflict reconstruction and post-authoritarian defence sector transformation. For example, in Ghana, since their inception, the armed forces have represented an external projection of the British defence apparatus. The post-independence military has focused extensively on territorial defence and has remained largely unchanged, while the country – and the threats that the armed forces are supposed to deal with – have changed tremendously.27 In recent times, there have been some ad hoc processes aimed at restructuring the defence sector. However, Ghanaian processes have not followed a formal procedure, such as those adopted by others like South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, to transform its defence sector.
Francophone West Africa
The civil-military relations of most Francophone West African states have been very precarious since independence. All countries in this bloc, with the exception of Senegal, have seen coups in their political dispensation. Most of the recent cases of coups in the region have occurred in Mauritania, Guinea, Niger and Mali. Historically, many Africans were recruited from French colonies into the French army as French soldiers, and served in places such as Indo-China and North Africa. This situation arguably influenced the role of the military in the politics of Francophone states. The direct influence of soldiers and veterans in local politics came from the preferential franchise African soldiers enjoyed under French rule. In French West Africa, for example in Togo, all persons who completed military service were rewarded with voting rights in 1939. Veterans and servicemen therefore dominated the electoral process in French colonies such as Togo.28 After Togo’s independence, demobilised ex-servicemen from the French army who were not absorbed into local armies became a source of instability.29 Togo experienced the destabilising effect of this in 1963 when ex-servicemen and non-commissioned officers, led by Sergeant Gnassingbé Eyadéma, toppled the first post-independence government and assassinated President Sylvanus Olympio. This was West Africa’s first coup, and it had a contagious effect on other countries. The military remains a strong political actor in present-day Togo – exemplified by events following the death of President Eyadéma in 2005. Dominated by Eyadéma’s Kabye ethnic group, the military supported the installation of his son, Faure Gnassingbé, as president, contrary to the constitutional provisions.30
France’s Africa policy was different to other former colonial powers in terms of its post-independence engagement. It is argued that the French assimilation policy led to an incomplete decolonisation, and hence France’s post-colonial influence in Africa continued.31 In the area of defence and security, this manifested in the neo-colonial networks of defence pacts with the majority of former African colonies.32 These defence agreements provided the basis for the training and equipping of African militaries and security services, and the deployment of French (military and civilian) technical advisors. The defence agreements also made it possible for African states to call for French intervention to ensure external and internal security, including the prevention of coups.33 While the defence pacts and interventions were the most visible signs of France’s post-independence involvement, the influence of the French military on the national defence policies and armies of Francophone African states appeared less obvious but very important.34
French military interventions in West Africa and elsewhere were ostensibly to protect French nationals and to subdue uprisings against legitimate governments. The French army has also intervened in former West African colonies to either prop up or replace clientelist regimes to safeguard French strategic interests.35 Countries such as Senegal have arguably escaped coups partly due to the luxury of the neo-colonial protection it enjoys from France and the presence of a French military base. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, similar clientelist arrangements worked under its first post-independence leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. The country remained economically and politically stable until the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993. However, dwindling economic fortunes and political crises, partly caused by the politicisation of ethnicity in the military and society, led to the first coup in 1999.36 It is argued that the government of Henri Konan Bédié fell because it was not propped up by France, despite the existence of a defence pact and French military base.37 Another failed coup attempt in 2002 resulted in a bloody civil war, splitting the country into rebel-controlled northern regions and the government-controlled south. The first international intervention in the Ivorian civil war was a unilateral French deployment of about 3 000 troops, known as Operation Licorne, in February 2003. Operation Licorne was France’s largest and most controversial operation in Africa.38 This was due to the role of France as an interested party in different stages of the conflict and the post-election crisis of 2010–2011. Operation Licorne has since been mandated by the United Nations (UN) to support the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) with a separate command structure. The “cohabitation” relationship between UNOCI and Licorne forces – and their role in enforcing a regime change following the disputed elections in 2010 – raises further questions about the impartiality of the peacekeeping mission.39
It is illustrative that some countries, such as Guinea and Mali, initially cut relations with France and began the reconstruction of their local defence forces in the 1960s. Nonetheless, they were dependent on Russia and the United States (US) respectively for support.40 In recent times, France has gradually moved away from dealing with Francophone countries as a bloc. Instead, it has become strategic in its dealings with former colonies. A key shift in French policy has been a multilateral approach to dealing with African security issues. As such, France has evolved many of its African missions into multinational operations. This move towards multinationalisation of Western interests is exemplified by Franco-British and American-led initiatives to create regional peacekeeping forces in Africa to deal with the continent’s security challenges.41 France has conducted joint exercise and peacekeeping trainings under the Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capacities (RECAMP) programme. Similarly, as part of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme, the US and its Western European allies have been providing professional military education to African officers. France and other international partners also support the École de Maintien de la Paix Alioune Blondin Beye (EMP) in Mali, and the KAIPTC provides tactical and operational-level peacekeeping training to African military, police and civilian personnel. These programmes have contributed to building capacities and resourcing militaries across the Francophone sphere. However, the critical concern is how these trainings, provided by France and other allies, have contributed to building professionalism in individual officers and ranks in particular, and democratic armed forces in general. For instance, a recipient of such training, Captain Amadou Sonogo, actually led a coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali in 2012.42 Up until the 2012 coup, Mali was seen as one of the most stable democracies in the region. The coup led to the fall of northern Mali to al-Qaeda-linked groups. The subsequent French-led military operation in 2013 involved about 2 500 French ground troops to complement the 3 000 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops on the ground.43 Despite its move toward multilateralism, France has not publicly abandoned its traditional, bilateral defence pacts with African states. The recent interventions in places such as Mali and Chad indicate that France continues to reserve the right to unilateral action in its former colonies.
As previously mentioned, colonialism had a telling influence on post-independence civil-military relations and its overall effects on democratic stability in West Africa. The frequency of military interventions and the direct circumstances that stimulated military coups in West African states are varied. The colonial powers have pursued diverse policies in the areas of defence and security cooperation with their former colonies, with mixed outcomes on post-independent defence institutions. Generally, West African countries tend to have weak democratic governance, socio-economic underdevelopment and insecurity. These countries are challenged in sustaining their defence sectors with adequate resources and capabilities to ensure that their forces remain accountable to and supportive of civilian institutions. Notwithstanding the challenges, the shifts in the global security environment provide opportunities for West African states to transform their post-colonial security and defence sectors to align with their current defence and security needs. In this regard, efforts at building effective defence institutions must be pursued. Professional, capable, accountable and transparent armed forces, which are subject to civilian oversight and the rule of law, will contribute to improved security, democratic governance and stability in the region.
Huntington, Samuel (1991) Democracy’s Third Wave. Journal of Democracy, 2 (2), pp. 12–34.
Ouedraogo, Emile (2014) Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa. Research Paper No. 6. Washington, DC: Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Assensoh, A.B. and Alex-Assensoh, Yvett (2002) African Military History and Policies: Ideological Coups and Incursions 1900–Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Van den Berghe, Pierre L. (1970) The Military and Political Change in Africa. In Welch, Claude (ed.) Soldier and State in Africa: a Comparative Analysis of Military Intervention and Political Change. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Ngoma, Naison (2006) Civil-military Relations in Africa: Navigating Uncharted Waters. African Security Review, 15 (4), pp. 98–111.
Bechir, Mahmoud Adam (1997) The Impact of the Colonial Legacy on Civil-military Relations in Africa: Chad and the Sudan as Comparative Case Studies. Master of Arts in International Security and Civil-Military Relations Dissertation, Naval Post-Graduate School, Monterey, CA.
Adebayo, Adekeye (2010) The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bechir, Mahmoud Adam (1997) op. cit.
Koonings, Kirk and Kruijt, Dirk (2002) Military Politics and the Mission of Nation Building. In Koonings, Kirk and Kruijt, Dirk (eds) Political Armies: the Military and Nation Building in the Age of Democracy. London: Zed Books, pp. 9–32.
Ouedraogo, Emile (2014) op. cit.
Ejiogu, E.C. (2007) Colonial Army Recruitment Patterns and Post-colonial Military Coup d’états in Africa: the Case of Nigeria, 1966–1993. Scientia Military, 35 (1), pp. 99–132.
Welch, Claude (1970) The Roots and Implication of Military Intervention. In Welch, Claude (ed.) op. cit., pp. 1–61; Baynham, Simon (1985) Divide et Impera: Civilian Control of the Military in Ghana’s Second and Third Republics. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 23 (4), pp. 623–642.
Hutchful, Eboe (1997) Military and Police Reforms in Ghana. Journal of Modern African Studies, 35 (2), pp. 251–278.
Bechir, Mahmoud Adam (1997) op. cit.
Wilson, Henry (1977) The Imperial Experience in Sub-Saharan Africa Since 1870, Vol. 3. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Bechir, Mahmoud Adam (1997) op. cit.
Cleary, Laura (2011) Triggering Critical Mass: Identifying the Factors for a Successful Defence Transformation. Defence Studies, 11 (1), pp. 43–65.
Whiteman, Kaye and Yates, Douglas (2004) France, Britain and the United States. In Adebajo, Adekeye and Rashid, Ismail (eds) West Africa’s Security Challenges: Building Peace in a Troubled Region. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Lee, Michael (1969) African Armies and Civil Order. London: Chatto & Windus for the Institute for Strategic Studies.
RWAFF was formed in 1900 as a multi-battalion force to garrison British West African colonies. The formation of this force rose out of British concerns over French territorial expansion in West Africa. The force comprised one battalion infantry and one battery mountain artillery from the Gold Coast Regiment; three battalion infantries from the Northern Nigeria Regiment; two battalion infantries from the Southern Nigeria Regiment; and one battalion and one company from Sierra Leone and The Gambia respectively. See Aboagye, Festus (1999) The Ghana Army: A Concise Contemporary Guide to its Centennial Regimental History 1897–1999. Accra: Sedco Publishing Limited.
Whiteman, Kaye and Yates, Douglas (2004) op. cit.; Cleary, Laura (2011) op. cit.
Cleary, Laura (2011) op. cit.
Ginifer, Jeremy (2006) The Challenges of the Security Sector and Security Reform Processes in Democratic Transitions: The Case of Sierra Leone. Democratization, 13 (5), pp. 800–801.
Coleman, Carl (2007) Defence Policy in Ghana: The Past, Present and the Way Forward. In Bluwey, Gilbert K. and Kumado, Kofi (eds) Ghana in Search of National Security Policy: Proceedings of a Conference on National Security. Accra: Legon Centre for International Affairs (LECIA), p. 57.
Gutteridge, William (1967) The Political Role of African Armed Forces: The Impact of Foreign Military Assistance. African Affairs, 66 (263), pp. 93–103.
Aning, Kwesi and Salihu, Naila (2013) Interrogating the Northern Problem: Postcolony, Identity and Political (In)Stability in Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. In Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J. and Mhlanga, B. (eds) Bondage of Boundaries and Identity Politics in Post-colonial Africa: The ‘Northern Problem’ and Ethno Futures. Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, pp. 110–116.
McNamara, Francis (1989) France in Black Africa. Washington, DC: National Defense University, p. 5.
Decalo, Samuel (1989) Modalities of Civil-military Stability in Africa. Journal of Modern African Studies, 27 (4), pp. 547–578.
N’Diaye, Boubacar (2005) Not a Miracle After All: Côte d’Ivoire’s Downfall: Flawed Civil-military Relations and Missed Opportunities. South African Journal of Military Studies, 33 (1), pp. 89–118.
Gregory, Shaun (2000) The French Military in Africa: Past and Present. African Affairs, 99 (396), pp. 435–448.
Luckham, Robin (1982) French Militarism in Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 24, pp. 55–84.
The coup led by General Robert Guei was triggered by grievances within the armed forces stemming out of the gradual decline in the economy, and the domination of southern ethnic groups in the political and administrative sectors, as well as the army. See Bah, Abu-Bakr (2010) Democracy and Civil War: Citizenship and Peacemaking in Côte d’Ivoire. African Affairs, 109 (437), pp. 597–615.
Aning, Kwesi and Salihu, Naila (2012) Protection of Civilians in Peace Support Operations: Lessons from Côte d’Ivoire. Conflict Trends, 12 (2), pp. 25–32.
Lee, Michael (1969) op. cit.
Ibid. p. 442.
Between 1998 and 2010, Sonogo had attended at least five Pentagon-sponsored training courses in the United States. See Bruce, Whitehouse (2012) The Force of Action: Legitimizing the Coup in Bamako, Mali. Africa Spectrum, 47 (2-3), pp. 93–110.