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Armies and Democracy in the New Africa: Lessons from Nigeria and South Africa

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz, Dr. Kent Hughes Butts. | January 1996

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Summary

Introduction. To the surprise of many observers, Africa has experienced a recent wave of democratic transitions and popular movements in support of open government. But this trend is far from irreversible. In particular, African civil-military relations must be reformed. The United States should play a major role in this. To do so, American planners and policymakers must have a clear, historically-grounded understanding of the dominant patterns of African civil-military relations.

Nigeria. Few African nations have more potential than Nigeria, but few have experienced greater trauma in attempts to build democracy. Nigeria's strategic and symbolic importance make it a bellwether for democratization in the rest of Africa.

The Nigerian military has ruled the country for most of its independence. Beginning in 1985, the government of Major General Babangida began a controlled transition to civilian democracy. Although elections in June 1994 were considered the freest in Nigerian history, Babangida annulled the results and prevented M.K.O. Abiola, the apparent victor, from assuming office. In November 1994, General Sani Abacha abolished an interim government and built what is often considered the most repressive and corrupt regime in Nigeria's history. Despite opposition from a democracy movement and international pressure, Abacha appears entrenched while Nigeria experiences economic collapse and teeters on the brink of ethnic war.

During the decades of military rule, the Nigerian armed forces have lost nearly all semblance of professionalism and become thoroughly corrupted. Senior officers all become immensely rich through theft, while junior officers and enlisted men live in poverty. Today, there are no civil-military relations in the normal sense of the phrase. The military is incapable of self-reform and cannot lead democratization. Only a radical transformation of the military and the wholesale replacement of the officer corps could open the way to democracy. Unfortunately, there is no force capable of doing this, and the Nigerian political economy, in which political office is seen primarily as a gateway to wealth, mitigate against sustainable democracy.

South Africa. South Africa shows that African armed forces can serve as the midwife of political change rather than its opponent. During the transition from an apartheid to majority-rule system, the South African Defence Force (SADF) supported the government and promoted internal stability. It was thus one of the keys to the success of the transition.The current South African military enjoys a good relationship with society and accepts civilian control. Five interrelated problems could erode or challenge the health of civil-military relations:

  • Escalating internal violence;
  • Difficulties integrating the armed forces;
  • The military's budget crunch;
  • The possibility of a radical successor to Mandela;
  • Prosecution of former military officials for apartheid-era activities.

With firm leadership and careful attention to civil-military relations, South Africa can avoid or work through these problems and thus consolidate democracy.

Recommendations. Sustaining democracy in Africa is possible, but will be extraordinarily difficult. U.S. actions may not be decisive, but can be important. Nigeria and South Africa suggest three tenets that should guide U.S. efforts:

First, approach democracy support in a strategic fashion. Because the political, military, and economic resources the United States is willing to devote to Africa will remain very limited, American polices and programs must be synchronized into a coherent strategy. To do this, the United States should:

  • Develop a strategy of democracy support for each African state. This should be led by the State Department, but the Department of Defense and the U.S. military can provide vital links to African militaries and should spearhead efforts to reform African civil-military relations. To do this, the military must provide high-quality personnel for Africa assignments. Rejuvenation of the Army's foreign area officer (FAO) program would be an important contribution.
  • Take a long-term perspective focusing on consolidating democracy rather than simply instigating it. Special support should be provided at the end of the "honeymoon" period for a new democratic government and during the follow-on election.
  • Help create an African Democracy Council composed of senior government and nongovernment supporters of African democracy to coordinate actions. This would serve as a forum for communication on democratization, and as a mechanism to support democracy movements in other states. Its liaison in the United States should be the National Endowment for Democracy.
  • Adopt a policy of zero tolerance for coups against elected governments and actively support international efforts to politically and economically quarantine coup-makers. Because of Nigeria's symbolic importance, U.S. pressure should escalate and include an oil boycott.

Second, concentrate on perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. Because the United States will not smother Africa in aid, U.S. efforts should concentrate on cultivating the appropriate perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes for sustaining democracy. One of the most important of these is civilian control of the military. To encourage this, the United States should:

  • Seek the greatest possible expansion in the International Military Education and Training program.
  • Lead an effort to form a Pan-African Staff College. This should be located in a democratic African state and be staffed with a faculty from democracies in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region.

Third, emphasize military reorganization and the development of regional security mechanisms. To facilitate healthy civil-military relations and improve military-society ties, the United States should:

  • Encourage African states to move toward a system that combines a small standing army with a somewhat larger reserve force.
  • Encourage the formation of a NATO-like mutual security pact composed of African democracies. By facilitating military downsizing, aiding officer professionalization, and serving as a mechanism for quarantining coup-makers, this organization could play an important political and symbolic role in building a community of African democracies.