Home > Initiatives and Programs > Security > Democracy, The Military and Security in Africa  


Abidjan, 3-4 December 1999
Summary Report

The colloquium, which brought together military and civilian defense officials, experts in security and civil military relations, and parliamentarians, introduced by Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, Executive Secretary of the GCA and opened by H.E. Bandama NGatta Minister of Defense of Côte dIvoire. Among the issues discussed were the promotion of democratic oversight and military accountability, security sector reform and military professionalism, military restructuring, demobilization and reintegration, and private military forces and security in Africa. This summary report does not fully reflect the wide-ranging discussions, but highlights the main points made and conclusions reached.

In his opening remarks, Ambassador Ould-Abdallah stressed the centrality of security to democratization in Africa, and emphasized the need for institutional reform and renewal to enable military and security forces to effectively meet the challenges that face them. He indicated that these challenges are affected by a range of factors, including the growth of the illicit arms trade and, in some cases the evolution of civil conflict into conflict around the exploitation of natural resources. Ambassador Ould-Abdallah suggested that the current trend toward the privatization of security is a response to the lack of capacity of public security institutions to adequately protect citizens. He noted that while in some instances their use had led to increased security in the short-term, the proliferation of groups operating at the lower end of the market is not a positive development. In his opening statement, Minister NGatta, emphasized the importance of peace and security for democracy and sustainable development in Africa. He indicated the necessity for policy measures to be based on a broad understanding of security, encompassing defense of borders as well as the threats posed by organized crime and the illegal arms trade. Highlighting the need for efficiency and effectiveness, Minister NGatta stressed the importance of a professional and well-trained military, and for security and military establishments to be subject to reform. He also underscored the need for the military to be part of the process of democratization, particularly given the political role played by the military in many African countries.

Democratic Oversight and Military Accountability

Participants agreed that strengthening democratic oversight and promoting military accountability are essential elements of the process of democratization that many African countries are now engaged in. It was also agreed that several countries still face the legacies of militarized politics and military rule. In some instances, this was the consequence of over-reliance on the military -- or on parts of the military -- by political leaders. In others, the military filled a vacuum created by the lack of a vibrant and organized political opposition. Even in those countries that did not experience direct military involvement in politics, perceptions of political power and how it is exercised, together with institutional weaknesses tended to result in limited oversight of the military.

There was agreement that the institutional decline evidenced in many military establishments was a reflection of more general governance problems. In the majority of countries, therefore, attempts to strengthen democratic oversight and promote military accountability have to be embedded in broader political changes. It was noted that the military cannot be held accountable unless accountability is also demanded of other public institutions, and democratic oversight of the military cannot be achieved in the absence of democratic and representative institutions. Accountable politics, a political culture based on respect for constitutionalism and the rule of law, and effective and representative democratic institutions are all needed.

Participants agreed that lessons should be learned from past experiences. Military and security establishments have to be part of the process of democratization, if they are to accept it and adhere to democratic principles. They suggested that past attempts at democratization failed in part because neither the military nor civil society had a role in the process or a stake in the outcome. While inclusion of the military does not ensure democracy, excluding it creates conditions that can lead to political instability and military coups. In this regard, participants also stressed that the role of the military in politics in African countries has to be understood. Although military establishments resemble their western counterparts in terms of formal structures, their social and political role is often different, given the nature of the state and prevailing power structures. Furthermore, informal relationships within military establishments can be as important as the formal hierarchical structure, and can either support or undermine it.

It was agreed that effective democratic oversight requires a degree of knowledge and information that many legislatures -- and certainly the public at large -- lacks in most of Africas fledgling democracies. In the absence of accurate information and understanding of security issues, reasonable oversight cannot be exercised. In some countries, non-governmental policy institutions and think-tanks are starting to provide this, but it was stressed that much more needs to be done to develop the capacity of oversight institutions. While there is need for independent assessment and analysis of security issues, it was also agreed that there is need for outreach and information sharing on the part of the military. Although democratization has generally promoted greater openness, an excessive degree of secrecy still tends to surround defense and security issues in most countries. Even where military establishments have undergone significant reform, information is often not to be in the public domain. Participants agreed that greater outreach on the part of military establishments would help to demystify the military and improve public perceptions of it. In many countries, and particular those that have experienced military rule, civil-military relations are still characterized by misconceptions and distrust.

It was recognized that in a number of countries public institutions, including the military, are in flux due to the process of democratization. The old order may have broken down, but a new one has not been fully institutionalized. African militaries are therefore in the process of identifying a role and function in a changing domestic and international environment. It was agreed that fundamental principles of accountability, transparency and comprehensiveness need to inform the role of the military, but that this involves complex processes of institution building. It was also agreed that the nature of security -- and threats to it are affected by the weakness of the African state and the process of political transition itself. At the same time, security is threatened by various forces including the proliferation of small arms, the militarization of society, the spillover of conflict, and international crime.

Participants emphasized the need for the military to be part of the state apparatus, subject to the same management standards and oversight as other institutions. Greater accountability and transparency is required in all state institutions. Sound management principles, including recruitment and promotion on merit, and adherence to regulatory frameworks is as essential in the military as in the judiciary or civil service. It was also agreed that technical tools, such as audits, could do much to promote accountability. As African countries seek to define the parameters of democratic oversight, they need to maintain a balance between oversight and access to information, and the autonomy of the military to exercise management and technical expertise.

Participants agreed that countries that are most able to enforce the rule of law are also most able to ensure oversight of the military. They indicated that military accountability is in part a function of where military loyalty lies, and noted that in most countries loyalty of the security forces to the constitution will take time to develop, and has to be actively promoted. It was also agreed that the process of political change at the country level, and the dynamics that affect it, have to be understood. How transitions are crafted, and what political and social forces affect them, will have an impact on security. Lessons could perhaps be learned from successful attempts to promote democratic oversight and military accountability in Africa. In Mali for example, the military establishment was an integral part of the political transition, and of the constitutional and legislative reform that has been instigated. In South Africa, an extraordinarily open and consultative process has been undertaken to determine defense policy and define the role and function of the armed forces in post-apartheid South Africa. Rather than focusing on control, the emphasis was on inclusion of the military and on openness and sharing of information in both cases.

Security Sector Reform and Military Professionalism

Participants agreed that before countries can embark on a process of security sector reform in support of democratization, they need to assess the nature and source of threats to security. They also need to determine the role of security forces in creating conditions in which national security can be maintained and individual protection assured. Only once this is done, can they consider what sort of security apparatus is required, and determine how it will interact with other public agencies and civil society. This will require a long-term perspective, rather than a response to crisis. It was agreed that over the long term, broad-based security will be ensured by political inclusion and economic development, rather than by military strength. In the interim however, the ability of states to ensure security will affect both the legitimacy of governments and the degree of public confidence in the military.

In many ways, democratization and efforts to improve governance mandate security sector reform. In the past, military professionalism was eroded in many countries because of the type of political regimes that existed. In extreme instances, political rulers preferred to rely on presidential guards or special troops drawn from a particular ethnic or regional group, doubting the loyalty of national military forces and regarding them as potential threats to their own security. In so doing, they weakened the whole security apparatus. In other cases, involvement in politics undercut military professionalism. Participants agreed that in many instances existing security arrangements are inadequate to cope with the range of threats that they now face, and that most African militaries cannot adequately deter or compel two basic requirements of security forces. Enhancing military capacity is thus essential.

It was agreed that security sector reform has to consider defense expenditure and determine how available resources can best be utilized. African countries need to define what constitutes legitimate defense expenditures, and what levels of expenditure they can bear. They also need to review the composition of military and security spending to ascertain the proportions allocated to military hardware and personnel costs and determine where cost savings can be made. Security sector reform does not necessarily result in reduced expenditure. In fact, the opposite may be true, at least in the short term. Participants emphasized that building military professionalism is costly. They also stressed that a disaffected, underpaid and marginalized military is in and of itself a security threat. At the same time, attention needs to be given to what sort of security apparatus is feasible given the resources available. It was suggested that some African countries could look at creative ways of providing security through, for example, the use of civilian defense forces in conjunction with small standing armies. Development of civilian police forces would also help to provide civil security.

Participants agreed that conflict, and particularly the regionalization of conflict as evidenced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a threat to security on the continent. They also emphasized the costs and consequences of conflict, and noted that civilians have become both victims and objects of conflict in Africa as elsewhere. In some instances, refugee flows and troop movements have fuelled the spread of HIV/AIDS. Conflict has also contributed to the easy availability of small arms in many countries, which in turn threatens security, particularly when combined with unemployment and lack of economic opportunities.

While recognizing the utility of collective and regional security arrangements, participants cautioned that they are dependent on the quality and professionalism of the national security forces that comprise them. Therefore, it was agreed that there is need to strengthen the security structures of individual countries if effective regional security mechanisms are to be created. Focusing on regional and collective security arrangements can divert attention from the problems that exist at the national level. At the same time, it was recognized that adherence to standards set by regional groupings could promote greater accountability and efficiency in national forces.

Given the relative newness of regional security arrangements in Africa, organizations are only now working out the modalities of how to operate. After functioning as an ad hoc response to crises, ECOMOG is now becoming institutionalized, and SADC is defining the parameters of its security operations. For cost effectiveness and efficiency, regional security arrangements could utilize designated components of national forces, with interoperability ensured through joint training and exercises, and logistics and equipment provided by regional structures. The west African arms moratorium and development of code of conduct are interesting dimensions of regional arrangements that could perhaps be considered by others.

It was recognized that regional security arrangements require consideration of a number of issues, including force composition, sovereignty, command and control, and the eligibility of countries for inclusion. At some point, collective security arrangements require forces to be under the authority of regional, rather than national, command. This either has to be accepted by all members, or specifically addressed. Participants also questioned the feasibility of forces from countries in conflict participating in regional security arrangements. It was agreed that if regional groupings are to engage in peacekeeping, the mechanisms and means of intervention need to be considered, and funding and logistical support put in place. Participants stressed that building the capacity for a military response does not rule out the use of diplomacy, and that regional security forces should be used in conjunction with other conflict management efforts, not as the only -- or even the primary -- response to a problem. Furthermore, the international community has to live up to its conflict management and security obligations in Africa, as in the rest of the world, and not use the existence of regional security arrangements as an excuse for disengagement.

Participants considered various donor programs and support measures for military training. It was agreed that while these are generally useful, a number of questions remain. A significant area of concern was that some of the programs appear to be donor driven, rather than designed in response to the articulated needs of African countries. Some participants felt that donor support in the form of equipment and logistical support would be more useful than the training currently provided. The need for complementarity of programs and donor coordination was also discussed. Participants expressed concerns about the sustainability of programs, given donor funding cycles and a tendency to move to new issues. Some participants expressed doubts as to the motivation of donor countries. Issues concerning the selection of participating countries were also raised, and it was felt that greater transparency in the selection process was required. There were suggestions that donor programs should be directed toward regional organizations, rather than selected groups of countries, although it was acknowledged that regional organizations were only now beginning to develop security arrangements. Participants agreed that African countries have to assume responsibility for security on the continent, and should define their needs and ask for assistance from their partners.

Military Restructuring, Demobilization and Reintegration

Participants, while agreeing that military restructuring is necessary in a number of countries, urged that it be approached realistically, with an understanding of the complexities. Too often, the implications of restructuring are not fully understood, particularly by donors, who tend to approach the issue only from the perspective of reducing military expenditures. In some countries, economic difficulties and reductions in military budgets have resulted in the de-professionalization and de-institutionalization of military establishments, rather than planned military restructuring. At times, this has not only reduced the capacity of militaries, but has also contributed to insecurity.

It was agreed that effective military restructuring requires a long term perspective, and that it has to be undertaken in the context of improving governance and enhancing security. In the absence of a predictable political environment and stable institutions, military establishments will probably be reluctant to undertake reforms. Moreover, military establishments have to understand and accept their roles before they will assume responsibility for them. Restructuring should be a strategic exercise, informed by a vision of the sort of security sector that is required, the role and function of the military within it, and the relations between the military and other institutions.

Participants also agreed that the security sector needs to be effectively managed. In some instances military establishments have been created or expanded without careful or strategic planning. Although the size and structure of the each countrys military will depend on specific needs and circumstances, most African countries face challenges of meeting perceived security threats and maintaining a requisite level of preparedness, while at the same time achieving cost efficiency. In some countries, military establishments are unnecessarily large as a result of build-up during conflict. The structure and skill mix is also often ill-suited to present day needs. While restructuring is clearly needed to create effective, inclusive national establishments, countries face the difficulty of doing so without contributing to instability. Often soldiers are unskilled and unaccustomed to civilian life, while few opportunities for productive employment exist.

Participants stressed that military restructuring does not necessarily result in cost savings, at least in the short term. In fact it often requires investment as efficient and professional forces need training and equipment to maintain an appropriate level of preparedness. Furthermore, the demobilization that usually accompanies military restructuring is costly. Participants indicated that while donors often urge demobilization, they do not always provide resources for it. But effective demobilization and reintegration have costs that many countries cannot afford without assistance. Demobilization and reintegration also need to be carefully planned and implemented, and seen in their wider social and economic contexts. Demobilization is an exercise that involves families, not just military personnel. Also the economic situation has to be taken into account. Although demobilization may over time reduce expenditures in the security sector, in many instances economies are not sufficiently robust to absorb demobilized soldiers. The ensuing unemployment can contribute to instability, as well as impose social costs.

Experience has indicated that although demobilization can be accomplished relatively easily, reintegration is more complex, particularly in post-conflict situations. It also takes time and careful planning. Skills training has to be geared to potential employment opportunities, and military personnel also often need assistance to return to civilian life. This is especially the case following conflict. Post conflict demobilization and reintegration are frequently complicated by peace agreements that may have short time horizons or targets for disarmament and demobilization that are difficult to meet. Disarmament is a fundamental, but difficult, component of post-conflict restructuring. Post-conflict demobilization and reintegration also require that attention is paid to special problems such as child soldiers, war widows, physically disabled or traumatized former combatants, victims of rape and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Even in post-conflict situations, donors are not always willing to commit funds over the long-term for demobilization and reintegration. A significant problem is that disaffected, unemployed former soldiers can join rebel forces or private security groups, further contributing to insecurity and an upsurge in crime.

The primary objective of military restructuring should be ensuring that security needs can be met. In some instances, increased military capacity may be required. Part of the restructuring exercise that most African militaries are engaged in is developing the capacity to engage in peacekeeping operations. Lessons can be learned from countries that have had considerable experience in international and regional peacekeeping operations. This is not only a military issue, as legislation is often also required. There is a need for specific training to prepare militaries for peacekeeping, but it has also become apparent that assistance is often also needed on their return. Some countries, such as Ghana, have developed mechanisms to help returning peacekeepers deal with trauma.

It was agreed that provision of security is essentially a political and social issue, and not only a military one. Country-level discourse is needed to determine how security can be obtained and maintained, what sort of security sector reform is required, what is meant by a professional military, and how this can be achieved. Avenues for the input of civil society need to be found in the debate, not only as a confidence building measure, but also to engender popular support for the security strategy that is developed. A major aspect of security sector reform is to permit governments to use available resources to maximum effect. Subsequent military restructuring should then be an open and transparent process.

Some participants suggested that military restructuring provides an opportunity to create military structures which are better suited to the needs and realities of African countries. It was agreed that while the international community could usefully assist African countries to determine and meet their security needs, the approach to restructuring adopted in donor countries may not be the most appropriate for African militaries. Particularly following conflict, it can be difficult to quickly integrate disparate forces into a classical military structure. This suggests that more innovative approaches may be required. Participants agreed that lessons can be learned from the experience of countries such as South Africa and Mali. In both instances, the debate on security sector reform was public and military restructuring was a major confidence building exercise.

Private Security Forces

Participants agreed that current debates on the nature of security in Africa have to consider the rise of private military and security forces, both because they are indicative of the inability of states to provide security, and because of their potential longer-term impact. In all cases, the rise of private security companies reflects a crisis of governance, while in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, private military and security companies have come to prominence because state structures have collapsed or are under severe strain. Private security forces are not a new phenomenon, but they have come to the fore in recent years because of conflict in a number of countries, the decline of traditional sources of assistance to African governments, and the increasing unwillingness of the international community to intervene militarily. Some participants also commented that the presidential guards or special militias that existed in for many years in several African countries essentially functioned like private companies.

It was recognized that there is need for clarity when discussing private security companies. They span a wide spectrum, with varying degrees of legitimacy. Private security forces range from companies providing security to individuals or companies, to those engaged in military operations in conflict zones. It was also agreed that it is necessary to distinguish between highly professional companies that assist with security sector reform and provide military training, often funded by donors, and those of more questionable origin that operate at the lower end of the market. These latter companies come closer to traditional mercenary activity. The opinion of private companies is affected by who they work for, and how they are paid. In general, those companies working for governments have tended to be afforded a higher degree of acceptance than those working for rebel movements, although the legitimacy of the government itself is a factor. Public perceptions have also tended to be negatively affected when natural resources have been used to fund the operations of private military companies.

Several participants suggested that the nature of private security firms may be changing, and that companies such as Executive Outcomes and Sandline, whose activities received considerable publicity and attention, may have reached their peak. But concerns were expressed that what may be left are those companies operating at the lower end of the range. This would appear to be the case in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the number of actors and complexity of the situation lend themselves to the use of less reputable companies.

It was generally considered that domestic security companies providing peacetime security to individuals and firms, primarily in urban areas, did not represent a significant problem. Indeed, such firms exist throughout the world. However, it was agreed that such firms should be in addition to, not a substitute for, civil security provided by the state. This is not always the case in African countries, where the ability of governments to provide security against crime has declined precipitously, and where the breakdown of law and order is a reflection of the broader crisis of the state. Private security companies can also exacerbate existing societal inequalities, as they only provide security to those with the means to purchase it.

It was recognized that the weakness of the state, the declining capacity of security forces, and an increasingly armed population all contribute to insecurity. It was also recognized that African governments are not equipped cope with new threats to security that have their basis in international crime, drug trafficking and arms dealing. In many instances, those engaged in such activities have access to far greater resources than the security forces that are expected to combat them. But insecurity is also due to poor governance and inadequate management of the security sector. However useful private companies may be in providing security in the short-term, they are not a long-term solution to Africas problems. Populations lose confidence in states if they cannot adequately provide security, and will turn to traditional or individual measures. This in turn undermines the authority and legitimacy of the state.

Participants indicated that a pragmatic response to the privatization of security is required. They recognized that governments will seek private security to survive, and that at present military companies fill a vacuum in the security structures of states. They also recognized that while strong states can absorb a degree of private involvement in the provision of civil security, weak states can be threatened by it and the majority of African countries cannot effectively manage the complexities of private security. It was agreed that existing international legal instruments designed to address mercenary activity are inadequate, and that efforts to ban private security companies are unlikely to be effective. Private security firms will continue to exist as long as there is a demand for the services they offer, and the ability to pay for them. Regulation of companies through licensing and disclosure requirements would therefore appear to be a more useful approach, and the international criminal tribunal provides a possible mechanism for dealing with abuses. However, participants recognized that companies operating at the lower end of the market will always be difficult to regulate, and that not all countries will be able to adequately enforce regulations.

It was accepted that although the privatization of security has come to the fore in countries in conflict in Africa, it is not only an African problem. The end of the cold war and military restructuring in Eastern Europe and countries of the former soviet union have led to an increase in arms sales to the region, as well as to the availability of personnel for private security companies. It was recognized, however, that demobilization in African countries, together with limited employment opportunities, have also contributed to the growth of private security companies. Some participants also commented that the use of arms has become consonant with manhood, particularly among adolescent males, in some countries. Given the easy availability of weapons, this presents a significant problem that will be difficult to overcome, and requires action by civil society as well as governments. It was suggested that transnational companies that employ private companies to guard expensive installations should adopt codes of conduct with regard to their use, and the fact that some are starting to do so was recognized.

Participants agreed that while measures such as regulation should be pursued, the lasting response to the problem of private security companies lies in the enhanced ability of the state to provide security. They agreed that there may be a role for professional private security companies in assisting with this, but stressed that the state must be able to regulate them and exercise due oversight.


Provision of security is one of the most fundamental issues facing African countries as they enter the 21st century. As participants agreed, democratization and development are the means by which security will be ultimately obtained and maintained, both in individual countries and in Africa as a whole. The discussions highlighted the importance of respect for constitutions and adherence to the rule of law on the part of both political actors and security forces if military coups are to be avoided. Subsequent events in Côte dIvoire (where the colloquium was convened a few day before the political change) underscored this, and drew attention to the need for on-going efforts to improve governance and institutionalize democracy on the continent. Continued dialogue on security and the military will contribute to this process.

2004 Policy Forum - Migration and Development in Africa
TICAD Asia-Africa Trade and Investment Conference (AATIC) - Tokyo, Japan - November 1 and 2, 2004
Annual Reports
  © Global Coalition for Africa (GCA) - All Rights Reserved.