AJCR 2011/3

Guarding the guardians: Civil-military relations and democratic governance in Africa

Book Review

According to the author, the thrust of this book is to explore the question ‘whether African militaries can ever accept civilian control’ (p. vi). The fact that he phrases the essence of this publication in the form of a question – on the first page of the preface – reveals the probing way in which he approached his crucially important topic. His orientation towards searching for understanding is underlined by the first part of the title, which is based on a Roman satirical poet’s ever-relevant question of twenty centuries ago: ‘Who will guard the guardians?’

Throughout the book the reader, therefore, finds thought-provoking descriptions and discussions. The author does not merely elaborate on the core message that African democracy can only succeed if civil-military relations are transformed and if security forces operate under democratic governance. He explores perspectives and phenomena of the past (pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence) and of the present, and draws conclusions for the future.

With regard to the concept and the reality of democracy, for instance, he takes the reader through questions, discussions and definitions since the Greek democracy of twenty five centuries ago. Who are the people, and how should they rule? Have there been cases in pre-colonial Africa where the will of people was taken into account? Did ‘democratic’ colonialists import real or ‘pseudo-democracy’?

More than once in his discussions of concepts and issues, the author shows his ability to think himself into the mindsets of others. He writes, for instance, that ‘democracy’s appeal has yet to attract African leaders in general and military ones in particular’ (p. 16). In fact, many African leaders seem to fear democracy and therefore counteract it while perhaps appearing to support it. Referring to the track records of the military in African politics, he states the apparent reality that ‘it is difficult, indeed malapropos, to think of the military as a force that might subscribe to democratization, even for the sake of its own interests’ (p. 15). And with regard to the people, who are supposed to play a pivotal role in a democratic context, he emphasises: ‘Early coups d’état were welcomed – if not praised – by Africans … fed up with the deplorable political, economic and social conditions of their continent …’ (p. 59).

It is with such penetrating insight into situations, thought patterns and external influences that Houngnikpo writes about theoretical issues and actual happenings with regard to military intervention in politics in Africa. He reviews the literature on civil-military relations in Africa, in which various approaches and arguments are found, but which is mostly concerned with the issue of securing and maintaining civil supremacy over the military. There is the possibility of civilian power influencing the military, but there is also the propensity of the military to interfere in civilian affairs. He shows how patterns discernible in civil-military relations may be traced back to pre-colonial warfare and militarism which undoubtedly existed, to colonial conquests and military organisation, and to the post-independence continuation of colonial practices as well as the introduction of revolutionary changes.

Attempted explanations of military takeovers and military interference are discussed in a chapter with the heading ‘Explaining Army Intrusion in African Politics: An On-going Debate’. Possible motives for military intervention have been suggested: the disposition to intervene, the opportunity to intervene, the ability to intervene, and outside pressurising to intervene. Justification was sought, during the early post-independence phase, in the rationale that the army, with its technological and administrative expertise, could function as a ‘modernising’ force and play a role in political life. Other causative factors behind military intrusion in politics have been considered, ranging ‘from economic crisis, persistent poverty, regional or ethnic rivalries, government repression and corruption, mal-administration, to personal and corporate ambitions’ (p. 87). But in the last part of this chapter, the author calls military intervention ‘an enigma’ and admits that its causes and motives have eluded scholars. An obvious problem is that one cannot rely on the reasons adduced by the military themselves. A further problem is that it is often ‘practically impossible to distinguish bad from good reasons for intervention’ (p. 99). The debates in this regard are therefore to be continued.

About other aspects of military intervention, however, more clarity can be found. In his chapter on the African military and modernisation, the author unpacks the theories, expectations and disappointments around the phenomenon of ‘modernising’. Liberally minded social scientists were promoting development towards modernity in Africa. What was envisaged was that socio-economic development and political development would reinforce each other. Predominantly agricultural societies would become industrialised, and at the same time oligarchic authoritarianism would be replaced by pluralist democracy. With regard to realising this scenario, the trend, especially in the Western capitalist context, was to fix hopes on the military as an agent of change and a counter-agent of Communism. It became clear, however, that the military could not and did not fulfil such roles. Many military leaders reverted to retribalisation, and many military governments became as dictatorial and corrupt as the regimes they had overthrown – or even more.

In the next chapter, the author compares and assesses the performance of civilian and military governments and leaders – and finds ‘different methods same outcome’ (p. 119). He acknowledges the bad start with which independent states were compelled to begin, due to, for instance, the legacy of authoritarian colonial rule, the problems caused by boundaries splitting up and/or forcibly combining ethnic groups, and situations of small groups of Western-educated elite in huge populations who had grown up according to their traditions. Although deplorable, it is therefore understandable that leaders – civilian and military – could not resist the temptations of monopolising power and accumulating wealth. In light of the history of civilian dictatorships and failed states on the one hand, and military coups and unkept pledges on the other, it is then also understandable that civil-military relations deteriorated from indifference and some mistrust to increasing mistrust and antipathy.

In the second last chapter, the author shows how civil-military relations that can facilitate and promote democracy need to have both a structural and an attitudinal component. Mechanisms should be in place to restrict the military to its original role of defending the state (and not merely the regime) against external threats, and to prevent the military from intruding into the political sphere. But, although constitutions, laws and structures are important, ‘the crux is psychological’ (p. 140). Appropriate perceptions and attitudes have to be cultivated. Civilian officials and civil society should respect the military in its professional capacity, and the military should respect civilian leaders as elected representatives in the political domain.

The final chapter ‘calls not just for civilian control of the military but rather democratic oversight of the security forces in Africa with the assumption that the civilian leadership itself enjoys some legitimacy’ (p. 146). The issue of legitimacy is discussed with regard to both military and civilian leadership. In each case appropriate structures, mechanisms and procedures have to be in place and have to be effectively implemented or even firmly imposed where necessary. Once again, however, it is not merely a matter of restricting the two sets of leadership to their respective spheres of influence and performance. For an appearance of oversight to become a reality, an attitudinal shift should take place – from ‘mutual suspicion and competition’ to ‘mutual trust and collaboration’ (p. 155). It is in this way that a legal framework for subordinating the security sector to democratic oversight can indeed rest on the core values of accountability and transparency.

In his conclusion, the author emphasises that ‘not a single country managed to introduce and sustain democratic transition in Africa against the will of the military’ (p. 168), and therefore ‘the ideal democratic military-civil relationship is to have militaries unconditionally subordinate to civilian power’ (pp. 169–170). The common goal that both civilian and military leaders should be pursuing is the well-being of their populations, and towards achieving this goal the author gives a clear list of specific recommendations. Just before this list, however, he captured the general recommendations emerging from his discussions throughout the book in a few key words: dialogue, accommodation, shared values and objectives.

This well-planned and well-documented book (41 pages of bibliography) can be strongly recommended, not only to military and civilian leaders and civil society organisations, but also to researchers and students in the fields of political and military sciences and conflict studies. Here and there the reader stumbles on a missing word, but apart from these few exceptions, the lay-out is of a very high standard.