According to a study by the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), out of a total of 49 states in sub-Saharan Africa, at least 20 were involved in armed conflict in 2020. This places African armies at the center of events. – and under surveillance to an extent unknown in other parts of the world.
Many African armies suffer from a bad reputation. They are often poorly trained and ineffective. The reasons are manifold, including underfunding, revealed when they have to fight insurgents, as seen in Nigeria and Mozambique. Moreover, armies are responsible for military coups backed by political actors, as has happened in Mali, Guinea and Sudan. Some are accused of corruption and misappropriation of resources, says Nan Tian, senior researcher at SIPRI. “This however is a misrepresentation. In general, African militaries are not like that,” Tian told DW. One example is the Rwandan army, which has won international respect for its discipline and efficiency.
There is also a misperception that African armies are oversized and consume too much of state budgets. “The relative number of personnel per capita and the relative size of military budgets are low in Africa in general,” said Matthias Basedau, director of the GIGA Institute for African Affairs in Hamburg.
Fight against corruption in the army
Nigeria, for example, has the second largest sub-Saharan army after South Africa. But with more than 150 million inhabitants, it has a relatively modest number of 200,000 troops. Russia, a country of 140 million people, has over a million soldiers.
African armies are also associated with a lack of transparency and corruption. “It is largely a structural problem. The lack of financial resources in the country means that the military and other state actors are all vying for a very small piece of the pie,” Tian said. emphasizing that real progress has been made.
In Angola, several high-ranking army officers were arrested and prosecuted for embezzlement last year as part of an anti-corruption campaign launched by President Joao Lourenco. The president is also trying to dismantle a patronage system established by his longtime predecessor, Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
Rwandan troops have been praised for helping to suppress an Islamic uprising in northern Mozambique
The army as a political actor
Due to the continent’s colonial history, the militaries of many African countries assumed a political role from the outset. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back,” Basedau said.
In Angola, some high-level fighters were compensated for the struggle for independence from Portugal and their participation in the decades of civil war that followed. Such an arrangement offered the opportunity to those in a good position to get rich quick. General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias Jr, nicknamed “Kopelipa”, for example, was estimated in 2014 at 3 billion dollars (2.64 billion euros). While Lourenço’s government has since removed him from office following the departure of former President dos Santos, he has been able to keep his fortune.
Although Angola is rich in oil and diamonds, most of its 32 million people live in poverty.
As in Angola, the governments of many countries have included the military “in corrupt practices to satisfy them and keep them in line”, explains the researcher Basedau. It is often a tactic to gain the support of the army.
Military coups on the rise again
Since the mid-1950s, Africa has recorded an average of four coups per year. The number of attempted or successful coups declined between 2010 and 2019, according to a recent study titled “Global Coup Instances from 1950 to 2010: A New Dataset”. But in 2021, their number suddenly jumped to six, a worrying trend for many analysts.
The threat of a military coup is never far away, especially in West and Central Africa. “When we come across weak states that have more irresponsible and weaker political institutions, we can also bet that their armies are going to be irresponsible and probably fragmented,” Benjamin Petrini of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) told DW.
Experts like Petrini believe that the erosion of democratic norms, including in the United States and the European Union, is a major factor contributing “to the feeling that a military coup no longer has the same consequences as ‘before”.
The German Bundeswehr has been involved in training the Malian army for nearly a decade
Crimes against humanity
It has also increased the feeling of impunity within certain armies known to have committed crimes against humanity. Sexual violence against women and girls and other human rights violations “are not just incidents, but are, in fact, tactics of warfare,” Petrini said. This is far from being a problem specific to Africa. “Disregard for human rights in war is a universal characteristic,” says researcher Basedau.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed many institutional deficits, has heightened the threat of coups. “In several countries, the army had to intervene”, fueling the perception of a failure of the democratic state, says Petrini. He called for increased pressure on the coup plotters and praised the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for imposing tough sanctions on the Malian junta.
Analysts warn that interference in Africa from outside could be a double-edged sword. China and Russia, increasingly at odds with the West, are becoming important players on the continent. “If you have these international rivalries and they get mixed up with internal conflicts in African countries, of course there is a great risk that these conflicts will become more intense and longer,” explains the researcher Basedau.