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Why Africa’s Militaries Are So Bad

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Why Africa's Militaries Are So Bad
The Kenyan military is widely respected, but like all other African armies a lack of equipment and proper training hampers its effectiveness

Unnerved by the ruthlessness of the radicalism they are encountering, soldiers feel under siege. “It is likely that Boko Haram has been more adept at infiltrating the security forces than the other way around. There is frustration in some units that soldiers are being picked off by seemingly invisible Boko Haram fighters who have a suspiciously good knowledge of the military’s movements,” Siollun says.

Others dismiss these as excuses, placing the emphasis for the army’s failures on decades of budgetary “leakage” in a country routinely ranked as one of the world’s most venal. Even before the kidnapping placed Boko Haram on Michelle Obama’s radar, the Nigerian media were recounting how unpaid allowances, miserly rations, and Spartan living conditions were undermining morale among soldiers — who complained militants went into battle far better equipped than they.

At one barracks in Maiduguri, a flashpoint for Boko Haram attacks, soldiers mutinied twice in May alone, with recruits on one occasion opening fire on a major general’s car.

Observers say soldiers manning road blocks often lack radios that would allow them to communicate with colleagues, and the JTF lack the capacity to air lift forces to conflict zones, dooming troops to days of travel to even reach Nigeria’s northeast.

“We spend billions of pounds a year on the Nigerian army, but you have to bribe the armory to get a round for your AK47,” Nigerian blogger Kayode Ogundamisi told an audience at London’s Frontline club this week. “Corruption, let’s be frank, is at the core of this issue.”

In Kenya, by contrast, the armed forces have long been respected for their apolitical stance and operational efficiency. But analysts say that professionalism was slowly eaten away by a pattern of ethnic appointments under President Daniel arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin, and then his successor, President Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu. “After 2007, Kibaki made sure that every strategic post, all the top jobs, rested in Kikuyu hands,” says a Nairobi-based security analyst who prefers to remain anonymous.

Giant procurement scandals such as the recent $1 billion Anglo Leasing scam, which involved 18 bloated military and security contracts signed off on by Kibaki’s ministers, also bled the state treasury of funds while doing nothing to provide armed forces with the equipment required for modern warfare. “If you’re going into action with junk equipment, and you know that your fat general is sitting at his desk having made a nice profit from buying that junk, well, that’s not very motivating, now, is it?” says the security analyst. (Two of the firms involved in Anglo Leasing were recently paid off by the government after going to court, a bitter irony for Kenyans who feel security in key cities has never been worse.)

In an echo of previous African conflicts, the KDF today also stands accused by a U.N. monitoring group of becoming invested in charcoal trading in Somalia — a business which, ironically, benefits the very al-Shabab militants the KDF is fighting.

Another issue that has surfaced is the state of Kenya’s domestic police, corroded by decades of systemic sleaze and ethnic favoritism. A good police force is the interface between a state’s security apparatus and the public, providing it with the data that allows effective grass roots monitoring of communities. But in Kenya, roadblocks are used primarily to extract bribes, not information.

One of the characteristics of the Westgate siege, some security experts say, was the absence of any prior intelligence indicating imminent attack. This was a sign not only that intelligence systems had failed, but that the country’s network of immigration posts and police stations were functionally useless.

“You could make the case that Africa doesn’t need militaries, it needs gendarmeries,” says Cilliers. “But we’ve got into this pattern in which the army is called in automatically, because no one trusts the police.”

For his part, Chatham House’s Knox Chitiyo believes a more fundamental problem has recently been exposed: The changing nature of today’s security challenges are catching off guard what, at heart, are old-fashioned former colonial armies, set up and trained on traditional lines. “These armies are good at handling either conventional warfare or counterinsurgency,” Chitiyo says. “But now, you have a new dynamic, a nexus of domestic terrorism — rural and urban — coming together with counterinsurgency, and they are not equipped to deal with that new type of warfare.”

Both Westgate and the school kidnapping, he argues, highlight the growing need for African special forces, boasting sophisticated skills in hostage negotiations and extraction. At the moment, these skills often come from abroad: Nigeria, for instance, accepted them after an international meeting hosted in Paris by President Francois Hollande. Anti-terror experts and specialists in hostage negotiation from France, Britain, and the United States are reported to be in Nigeria now, using aerial and other surveillance to try and locate the girls.

But such cooperation raises the risk of prolonging the continent’s continuing dependency. “Are African governments going to have to rely on the West again, and for how long?” asks Chitiyo, warning of “delicate sovereignty issues.”

The AU has plans for a 25,000-person African Standby Force, meant to fill the role of, variously, U.N. and American, French, and British forces. It will be based on existing national forces, and despite recent debacles at home, incompetence abroad by African troops is by no means assured. When airlifted to an African crisis zone by the U.N. and provided with Western salaries, decent kit, sophisticated intelligence backup, and clear lines of command, blue-helmeted African forces can dramatically raise their games. Uganda’s generals, for example, have been accused of needlessly prolonging the war on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of their own country, the better to pocket ghost salaries, run hotels, and engage in the timber trade. But the army’s performance in Somalia as part of the AU mission in Somalia has been exemplary.

Still, the Nigerian and Kenyan episodes clearly do not bode well for AU strategists. (The launch of the standby force has been delayed to 2015 after repeated reschedulings.) “If you have problems associated with underfunding, low morale, and corruption in a national force, it washes across everything else,” Cilliers says. “Anyone thinking of pulling together a peacekeeping operation in Africa should be seriously concerned about what’s happened in these two countries.”

 

By: Michela Wrong

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