Why are African armies so bad?
General Carter Ham head of Africom – the U.S. military command for Africa – did not mince his words, when he briefed the Homeland Security Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, about the situation in the two countries on December 3.
He expressed skepticism on the ability of a joint African force to successfully lead a military operation in northern Mali.
Ham said the few operational armies on the continent had only been trained and equipped for peacekeeping operations and not war.
A mad mass of weak soldiers walked the long road out of the town, arms filled with booty snatched under the influence of alcohol and…
In other words, if the West does not intervene – which, as it stands, is neither feasible nor desirable – nothing will happen. It was a cruel but factual analysis.
The defeat of the Malian army that fled Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in less than three months after the arrival of Islamist insurgents, leaving their arms and baggage, is a case in point.
After 50 years of independence, Francophone Africa’s armies have failed to defend their own national territories. The most shocking image of military bankruptcy that springs to mind is that of DR Congo.
A horror movie
The fall of Goma on November 20, saw a herd of haphazard uniformed Congolese army officers, sucked into the confused war, at the head of their soldiers on the road to Bukavu.
A mad mass of weak soldiers walked the long road out of the town, arms filled with booty snatched under the influence of alcohol and hemp, devoid of discipline.
These scruffy faced castaways dazed with fatigue, scraping the ground with their boots, their sneakers or flip-flops, and some sporting headphones, present a latent threat to the civilian refugees they mingle with.
It is an image that tells of the predicament of an entire nation.
From Bamako to Kinshasa, after fallen – but predatory – armies have aroused anger, bitterness, sarcasm and sometimes terror, it is the turn of the whole country to undergo some kind of symbolic castration.
The case involving this continuous 15 year old horror movie, depicting soldiers on rampage, destroying what they are supposed to protect, in the two Kivus is not isolated.
In 1996 and 1997, every single town the former Forces Armées Zaïroises (under the late President Mobutu Seseko) marched through during their desperate retreat was subject to pillaging.
In Central Africa, the slightest onslaught of rebellion sees rebels pushing back elite soldiers from the country to the gates of the capital.
In Uganda, a handful of rebel killers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and their leader Joseph Kony have played hide and seek with battalions of the regular army who have been in their pursuit for years in the sub-region.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo’s security forces never managed to regain control of the northern half of the country and the country’s new army, under President Alassane Ouattara, is only republican by name. On the ground, the army is anything but united.
In Congo – Brazzaville, after five months of civil war in 1997 loyalist army forces failed to seize the northern districts of the capital, before being swept off by the militia.
These remarkably incompetent armies – under fire as they are during their lavish ceremonies – often lack the knowhow and subcontract their frontlines to uncontrolled auxiliaries: Mayi-Mayi (Maï-Maï) in DR Congo, Ganda-Koy and Ganda-Izo in Mali, Liberians and Dozos in Côte d’Ivoire, Janjaweed in Sudan…
The reason for this collective failure is obviously not as a result of the intrinsic quality of the troops, or of the training of their officers, most of who are often graduates of some of the best military schools.
Besides logistics and adequate means, what most of these armed forces lack are motivation and allegiance to the mission they are entrusted with.
Fighting without knowing why, coupled with the lack of respect and support from the political leadership are crippling handicaps.
In Mali, as in the DRC, the military were convinced of having been stabbed in the back, and as a result it encouraged their obsession with splinter groups as a compensation for their humiliation.
These armies are wary of the State and the State is suspicious of them, to such an extent that even some chiefs of staff and heads of state distribute weapons with extreme niggardliness, lest they turn against them.
But governance is what matters, and in this area, Africa still has a long road ahead.