Reforming Africa’s security forces

For armies and police that protect citizens, not abuse them
From Africa Renewal: 
page 6
Soldiers walking near two mothers with young childrenIn Africa’s new democracies, reformers are seeking to create armies that protect civilians and uphold human rights.
Photograph: Reuters / James Akena

“Liberia is building a new army and we are very strict regarding its standards,” says Lieutenant Eric Dennis, who teaches international humanitarian law to recruits. In a country where previous armies — government and rebel alike — committed widespread atrocities, he hopes to help build a new institution that “will never tarnish the image of our army and our country. We want an army of professional soldiers.”

Recruitment for the new army began only in 2006, and its 2,000 troops — some 100 of whom are women — are still being trained. Liberians are cautiously optimistic. A February 2008 opinion survey found that 55 per cent of Liberians polled expressed confidence in the army. That was less than the level of confidence in the national government and election system, but more than for the country’s banks or courts.

A few thousand kilometres away, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), creating a new military is proving to be a more troubled process. Although UN peacekeepers and European advisers have sought to professionalize the force, there still have been incidents, especially in the troubled eastern provinces, of looting, rape and other abuses by troops.

“We soldiers are a reflection of the people, and therefore we must conduct ourselves so that the people see themselves in their army,” Lieutenant Colonel Georges Mukole told a group of Congolese officers. But that image, he admitted, is still “being fashioned.”

From South Africa to Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, a number of other countries in Africa are also seeking to restructure and professionalize their armies, police and intelligence services. The process is fraught with difficulties, but is increasingly seen as vital for the continent’s long-term peace and stability.

The momentum for such reform is growing as more countries seek to consolidate democracies or rebuild after debilitating wars, notes Major General Carl Coleman, a former commandant in Ghana’s armed forces. Previously, political elites used their armies and police primarily to maintain power, “without any regard for the people that they governed,” he told Africa Renewal in an interview at the Accra, Ghana, offices of the African Security Dialogue and Research (ASDR), a pan-African non-governmental think tank, where he is now a senior analyst. But in Africa’s new democracies, “security” is now being redefined to place “people at the centre.”

From problem to solution

For too long, General Coleman and others have pointed out, Africa’s militaries, police and intelligence agencies were a major source of conflict and insecurity for ordinary Africans. Sometimes poorly paid, their ranks robbed and extorted civilians simply to get by. Presidents and other politicians used their armies to put down popular protests or eliminate rivals. And frequently, military commanders staged coups to take the reins of power themselves.

Female Liberian police officersIn In a January 2009 ceremony, more than 100 new female police officers take their oaths in Liberia.
Photograph: UN / Christopher Herwig

In Africa, as elsewhere, says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Security forces that are untrained, ill equipped, mismanaged and irregularly paid are often part of the problem, and perpetrate serious violations of human rights.”

With little civilian oversight or public accountability, soldiers and police routinely were able to get away with the worst abuses. In some countries, notes retired Major General Ishola Williams, secretary-general of the Nigerian chapter of the anti-corruption advocacy group Transparency International, security institutions became part of a “culture of impunity and violence.”

In a number of countries that have emerged from civil wars or long periods of dictatorship, reformers are seeking to break with the past. Usually as part of broader moves to democratize political systems, they have taken steps to restructure their security forces and subject them to the control of elected civilian governments.

“Security sector reform” (SSR) is the term most commonly used to describe such initiatives, although there are others. Whatever the variant, the concept of “security” extends beyond just “hard-core” institutions, such as the army and police, explains General Coleman. Preferably, the courts, prison systems and civilian oversight bodies, such as government ministries and parliament, should also be part of the reform process. “All of it is intertwined. You can’t do one to the neglect of the other.” The ultimate aim, he says, is to ensure the creation of security forces that guarantee “the protection of the ordinary person.”

Emerging from war

Most African countries could use some degree of security reform, argues Kwesi Aning, head of the conflict prevention department of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra, which instructs military and police personnel from across the continent. Even in Ghana, he told Africa Renewal during an interview at his KAIPTC offices, the army and police do not coordinate very well in handling local disputes, as in Ghana’s strife-ridden Bawku region in the north. “Even in non-conflict societies, there is a need for much more effective oversight of security institutions, and for coordinating and consultative mechanisms.”

However, the impetus for fundamental reform has usually been greatest in countries just coming out of war. In Sierra Leone, efforts to restructure the national army began in 2000, even before that country’s decade-long civil war came to an end the following year. With significant funding from the UK and under the command of British officers and technical experts, the programme sought to restructure the armed forces from top to bottom.

The military was especially weak at the command level, with many of the most professional officers either dead or in exile, “so we had to grow this almost from scratch,” Major General Jonathon Riley, the UK commander, later recalled. Meanwhile, the UN’s peacekeeping mission helped to train the police.

The situation in Sierra Leone has remained relatively calm since then, including during the sharply contested election of September 2007. Not only did the security forces not interfere on behalf of the ruling party, as had happened frequently during the period from the 1960s through the 1980s, but they supported a smooth transition in power after the opposition won. Currently, the authorities are planning to reduce the army’s size from 10,000 to 8,500.

In Angola, after nearly a quarter-century of civil war, peace was finally established in 2002. Tens of thousands of fighters from both sides of the conflict were disarmed and demobilized. Significant forces from the former rebel group were incorporated into the national army, and one national police force was created.

Burundi’s national army and police were restructured in stages, after opposing armed factions in that country’s civil war signed an initial peace agreement in 2003. Numerous government and insurgent combatants were demobilized, but many former rebels were also incorporated into the regular security forces. Plans to reduce the combined strength of the army and police from 25,000 to 15,000 have stalled since April 2008, however, as another rebel faction awaits incorporation.

In Côte d’Ivoire, a peace agreement in 2007 established a new coalition government and outlined plans for reintegrating the country, creating a unified army and holding national elections. But the disarmament and demobilization of combatants has proceeded slowly, and differences have arisen over how to forge a unified national army and police force.

Plans for security reform have also been discussed in a number of other countries, including the Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. But continuing political instability, reflected most dramatically by the killings of Guinea-Bissau’s president and army commander in early March, has forestalled serious restructuring.

And in countries where some security reform measures have been initiated, they usually have not been well coordinated with other post-conflict steps, such as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes for ex-combatants seeking to return to civilian life (see Africa Renewal, October 2005 and October 2007). At a June 2007 international conference on DDR organized by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, an entire session was devoted to promoting better coordination between DDR and SSR operations.

South African transformation

One of the most far-reaching and successful military restructurings in the continent took place in South Africa. It was so fundamental and sweeping that South Africans prefer to call it a “transformation,” not just a reform. Previously the South African army, supported by several pro-government ethnic “homeland” military forces, concentrated on defending the country’s white supremacist political system against movements for liberation among the African majority. But with the end of apartheid and the first democratic election in 1994, virtually all government institutions were slated for overhaul.

South African peacekeeping troops in the CongoSouth African peacekeeping troops in the Congo: After a thorough restructuring, South Africa’s armed forces are now oriented towards defending democracy at home and peace abroad.
Photograph: UN / Marie Frechon

The guiding principle of South Africa’s new approach, according to a 1995 defence strategy, was to ensure that the military, police and other security institutions took as their “paramount concern” the “security of people,” to protect their freedom, peace and safety. Not only was that orientation radically different from that of the previous security system, it could only be realized through changes to these institutions’ “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender composition,” notes Major General Roland de Vries, a key figure in the early defence transformation process.

Accordingly, a new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was created, starting in 1994, through the integration of seven different armed forces: the guerrilla wing of the victorious African National Congress (ANC), a smaller liberation group, the regular army of the previous regime and four “homeland” armies. That process was accompanied by steps to strengthen civilian control, including the establishment of parliamentary oversight and the “demilitarization” of the Ministry of Defence. The country’s various police forces were similarly unified, as was the court system.

With further restructuring and training in subsequent years, the SANDF and the national police have been crafted into highly professional forces dedicated to combating crime and other forms of insecurity at home and contributing to African and international peacekeeping operations abroad. According to the late Colonel Rocky Williams, a former commander in the ANC’s military wing, a number of factors contributed to the relative success of this transformation: a strong state, a robust economy and “the fact that South Africans themselves managed the transition.”

Congolese minefield

As in South Africa, the conflict in the DRC ended with an agreement among the belligerents to bring their forces together into a new national army. But the results so far have fallen short. As Congolese Minister of Defence Charles Mwando Nsimba acknowledged in January, the army remains riddled with “widespread indiscipline at all levels, links with criminals, violence against women and the diversion of soldiers’ pay.”

The war in the DRC had been especially destructive, and it was also complex, involving numerous domestic factions and the armies of a half-dozen neighbouring states. In 2002 the main contenders signed a peace agreement. It established a power-sharing transitional government and included a commitment by the factions to demobilize some troops and merge the rest into a single army. After some delays, the country’s first democratic elections were held in 2006.

“Security forces that are untrained, ill equipped, mismanaged and irregularly paid are often part of the problem, and perpetrate serious violations of human rights.”

— UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

The new constitution specified that “the armed forces are republican. They are at the service of the entire nation.” According to Professor Mwayila Tshiyembe, a Congolese expert in international and military affairs, this notion of an army that does not only protect the government, but that also “defends democracy” and “guarantees the security of people and property,” was the most innovative idea to come out of the peace accords.

Unfortunately, during the transition period partisan infighting led each faction to exaggerate the numbers of its troops. Many of these numbers were actually fictitious. Surveys by South African and European advisers later eliminated 130,000 “ghost soldiers” from the initial rolls of 340,000. Some 75,000 real troops were also subsequently demobilized.

More seriously, there was very little screening of troops. They included commanders of factions suspected of war crimes, and their patterns of behaviour have carried over into the new army.

Unsteady ‘integration’

Creating unified structures for the new army proved especially troublesome. In theory there were to be 18 “integrated” brigades, in which troops from the different factions were merged, retrained and then posted to areas outside their home zones. This process, known by the French term brassage (“intermixing”), was intended to break down the old chains of command and forge loyalty to the new national institution.

A UN peacekeeper instructs Congolese troopsA UN peacekeeper instructs Congolese troops: Training has also sought to promote human rights awareness and counter sexual violence.
Photograph: UN / Marie Frechon

General Gabriel Amisi, head of the army’s ground forces, told assembled troops in August 2008 that they should not resist serving outside their home areas. “There are no soldiers of Katanga or soldiers of Kivu. You are all troops in a national army.”

But some did not see it that way, especially in the eastern DRC. General Laurent Nkunda, a civil war commander, initially brought his troops into the army, but resisted their full integration or deployment to other areas. He claimed they had to remain in North and South Kivu to defend his ethnic group. As tensions revived, troops loyal to General Nkunda’s Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) deserted their “integrated” brigade in 2006 and resumed armed actions, including against government forces.

With such incidents in mind, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, force commander of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), remarked to Africa Renewal in 2007 that the decision at the peace talks to amalgamate the different groups into a single army “was a really good idea” for ending the war. “But unfortunately, it didn’t produce a good military.”

In October 2008 fighting between the national army and General Nkunda’s CNDP escalated into major confrontations. Some army units rapidly crumbled, and only a prompt deployment of MONUC peacekeepers prevented General Nkunda’s fighters from taking Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

General Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda in late January, paving the way for a ceasefire. The government started talks with the remaining CNDP forces on their incorporation into the army. Father Apollinaire Malumalu, a leading Congolese mediator, welcomed the integration move as a possible step towards peace. But he also insisted that protecting civilians must come foremost and cautioned the authorities to not “fall into the errors of the past.”

UN Secretary-General Ban, during a visit to the eastern DRC at the beginning of March, also urged care. He cautioned that no one accused of sexual violence “be integrated into the national army or police.”

Meanwhile, MONUC instructors and other experts have stepped up the professionalization of the army’s integrated brigades, in addition to improving the discipline of the national police. Hundreds of army officers have been trained in civilian-military relations and combating sexual violence. Enhancing the military’s public image somewhat, hundreds of troops of the army engineer corps have been mobilized for reconstruction projects, to rebuild roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure.

The abuses by government troops during the Kivu fighting have also met with a prompt response. A number of soldiers and officers were tried and sentenced by military courts, some to life in prison. The army prosecutor in Goma reported in December 2008 that some 400 troops were under detention awaiting trial. There have been several cases elsewhere in the country, including of officers accused of embezzlement.

At a January seminar on reforming the army and police, Minister of Justice Luzolo Bambi Lessa emphasized the need to strengthen both the chain of command and the military courts in order to “quickly eradicate the flaws of corruption, embezzlement of state funds, sexual violence and violence against vulnerable civilians.” The Congolese national police force has adopted a guiding “vision” statement committing the police to protect human rights in the country and vowing to sanction any police personnel who engage in abuses.

Liberia: small and professional

Like the DRC, Liberia suffered through years of devastating war, with numerous armed factions vying against each other. And as in the Congo, multiparty negotiations in 2003 established a transitional government in which most of the main groups were represented.

But there was one crucial difference: the peace agreement did not call for amalgamating the existing groups into a single army, but essentially for fashioning an entirely new armed forces. While the US was asked to “play a lead role” in training the new military, peacekeepers of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) took on the restructuring and reforming of the national police.

The building of a new army did not actually begin until 2006, after democratic elections replaced the coalition transitional administration with a new government headed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. By that point, more than 100,000 fighters from the old factions had gone through a disarmament and demobilization programme directed by UNMIL. More than 14,000 more were slated for demobilization from the old national army and the Ministry of Defence.

The peace accord had stipulated that the soldiers of the new Armed Forces of Liberia “may be drawn from” the previous armed groups, but as individuals and only if qualified. When recruitment began in January 2006, more than 12,000 Liberians applied — for a force of just 2,000 troops.

The selection criteria were very rigorous. To be accepted, applicants not only had to be physically fit, but needed to have had at least 12 years of schooling. “Vetting” panels assessed each candidate’s suitability. This included eliminating anyone involved in past human rights abuses. Recruiters travelled to the candidates’ home communities to verify their records and encouraged the public to come forth with information about them. Ultimately, three-quarters of all applicants were rejected. More failed the initial training courses.

The recruitment drive also sought some ethnic and geographic balance, contrary to previous military forces, which often favoured one ethnic group or another. The government hoped that 20 per cent of the recruits would be women, but could not find enough applicants — the proportion is currently around 5 per cent.

For transparency and ownership

While many Liberians applaud the goal of building a professional army that will not prey on civilians, certain aspects of the initiative have stirred controversy. A number of security analysts have questioned the decision to build an army of just 2,000 troops. That may be sufficient in the short term, while UNMIL continues to maintain basic security, but what happens when the peacekeepers leave? Will such a force be able to contain a new insurgency or guard Liberia’s borders, in a region that has known numerous wars and conflicts?

According to Thomas Jaye, a senior researcher at the KAIPTC who prepared an assessment for Liberia’s Governance Reform Commission, “the decision to train 2,000 soldiers for the army was influenced by the purse and not by any threat assessment.” General Coleman of the ASDR, referring to donor-directed security reform initiatives more generally, said: “They want to see it done, but they want to do it only cheap.”

The US government’s decision to subcontract the training of the new army to two private US security companies has also brought criticism, in part because the details of those contracts are secret. “A lot of money has been spent,” President Johnson-Sirleaf told researchers for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental think tank based in Brussels. “We do not know what on. There’s simply not enough transparency and accountability in the way this money is spent.”

Some also point to the absence of public consultations to help identify Liberians’ views about the types of security structures they would like. The Governance Reform Commission, which advises the government on broad reform initiatives, has expressed concern over “the lack of participation of civil society and the national legislature in the SSR process.”

Amos Sawyer, head of the commission and a former interim president, notes that technical training, however proficient, will not by itself create the kind of army Liberia needs. He recalls that “every armed group that plundered Liberia over the past 25 years” had troops that were trained by US experts. The real problem was political. To ensure that the new army and other institutions are under effective political control and serve the interests of the nation, his commission insists on more “local ownership” of security reform efforts.

Widening the debate

That is an issue that extends well beyond Liberia. Proponents of reform generally agree that broad national consultations should help shape SSR programmes and build public support for them. But in the difficult conditions that usually prevail after war, when new governments are struggling to get on their feet and address the many challenges of economic and social recovery, public discussions on military or police reform have been rare.

Security reform advocates argue that government officials and military commanders in Africa should no longer be suspicious of public scrutiny of security arrangements. Similarly, General Coleman of the ASDR urges African civil society groups to become more actively engaged. “Civil society has a critical role to play,” he says. But to avoid stirring resentment, he adds, they should proceed with some tact, “without being too hard on the government and without appearing to be the tool of an external [donor] agency.”

The UN, which is working to better coordinate its own support for security reform efforts in Africa and other parts of the world, seeks to promote wide consultations. “SSR models are too often imposed by external actors,” says Assistant Secretary-General Dmitry Titov, who heads the peacekeeping department’s Office of the Rule of Law and Security Institutions. “Should we not focus on the end recipients of SSR, that is, the population, the societies and governments living in insecurity? Shouldn’t it be their ambitions and vision driving SSR efforts?”

Africa itself must take greater initiative, insists Major General Martin Agwai, a Nigerian officer who served as deputy force commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. “African nations must stand up and accept the torch of responsibility for transforming their own security sectors,” he argued in 2003. “Africans must kick-start this process themselves, and the assistance of the broader international community will follow.”