Posted on Thursday, 11 June 2015 16:21

Springtime for soldiers

Patrick Smith

Photo©ReutersThe armed forces are back at the centre of politics. Be they serving professionals, retired generals, jihadists trained in the Sahel or crew-cut wearing South African mercenaries, the men – and a smattering of women – in khaki are calling the shots again.

In Nigeria, General (retired) Muhammadu Buhari captured the imagination in the country's most credible elections for 50 years. And six months ago in Burkina Faso, the military took its cue from mass protests against long-standing President Blaise Compaoré's bid to change the constitution and get another term; he was driven into exile within a week.

The military remains the strongest institution, with a range of ethnicities and classes in its ranks

Activists' hopes were raised again in mid-May in Burundi when a group of generals around former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare tried to stop President Pierre Nkurunziza's campaign to secure a third term. That time, Nkurunziza's presidential guard defeated the putsch.

But events in Ouagadougou and Bujumbura raise the question of a 'good coup'. That was the argument of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt after he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013.

The military campaign by Libya's General Khalifa Hifter against a band of Tripoli-based Islamists who also claim an electoral mandate follows the same lines. Both Sisi and Hifter get tacit backing from the West but a nuanced ticking-off from the African Union.

Soldiers will be getting stuck into more of such battles in the next few years. After two decades of high-octane growth in Africa, the World Bank has announced that this century's first commodity supercycle has ended as China cuts copper, iron and gold imports. It also cites a report from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project tracking riots, violence against civilians and military battles since 2000.

Although the number of fatalities from such clashes dipped to about 1,000 per year in 2006 when economic growth levels were hitting new peaks, it was more than 12,000 by the beginning of this year.

That number does not include those chased from their homes who might die of starvation or disease. The United Nations reckons that there are more than 12 million people displaced by conflict in Africa. This is a challenge as much to Africa's armies as to its politicians.

Though the military's record is at best uneven, in many countries it remains the strongest and most representative national institution, including a range of ethnicities and classes in its ranks.

Part of the aura that surrounds Nigeria's that he is regarded as an ascetic soldier who fought in Nigeria's civil war and then made a genuine attempt to fight corruption as a military leader in the 1980s.

Comments such as 'this country needs some military discipline' emanate from some of the unlikeliest quarters in Abuja.

Politics holds the answers to the governance crises that plague Africa. But solutions must include the capacity to reform Africa's militaries so they can defend constitutionalism and democratic rights. The image of a general standing up for democracy need no longer be an optical illusion. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


Subscriptions Digital EditionSubscriptions PrintEdition









Music & Film



Keep up to date with the latest from our network :


Connect with us