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Politics and the Military in Africa


Mr. S.J. Baynham, der er udgået fra London School of Economics og som også har studeret international politik ved University of London, beskæftiger sig i denne artikel med karakteristiske træk ved officerskorpsene i de nye afrikanske stater. Artiklen bringes i sin originale version.


Early predictions about the African armies tended to minimise their potential role in the political sphere, but the rash of military interventions in politics from about the mid-1960s has focused attention on the armed forces as major actors in the political environment. The rapid Africanisation of these armies following the departure of the metropolitan powers at independence; the weakness of the embryonic civilian institutions relative to the military establishments; the fact that army ’professionalism’ has (paradoxically) promoted rather than inhibited military involvment in politics; and the susceptibility of the soldiers to the wider sources of factional conflict pervading African society, in particular to primordial cleavages; help to explain the penetration of politics into the barracks, and the emergence of modern-day praetorian states where the military exercises independent political power.


In 1962 Evelyn Waugh wrote in the preface to ‘Black Mischief: “Thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course.” Similarly, in the early 1960s, many writers who were observing the emergence of new African states from colonial crysalis considered that the armed forces were unlikely to play a significant role in the political affairs of Black Africa. However the postcolonial rash of coups “has belatedly focused attention on the military as consequential and hiherto largely overlooked actors in the unfolding political drama ... by mid-1970 there had been more than thirty coups or abrupt changes of government in which the army played a major role.”1) Since 1970 there have been further military takeovers in Uganda (January 1971), Ghana (January 1972), Dahomey and Malagasy Republic (October 1972), Rwanda (July 1973), Ethiopia (February 1974), and Niger (April 1974); as well as a rash of abortive coups and plots in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Togo, Mali, Chad, Burundi, Kenya, Congo-Brazzaville, and the Sudan. In retrospect it seems surprising that the potential political signifiance of the military was not more fully anticipated. The small size of Africa’s armies led scholars to minimise the threat from the military, but military coups have usually involved only a few hundred troops. In Ghana the National Liberation Council came to power in February 1966 when 500 soldiers, from an army of 10,000, toppled the regime of Dr Kwame Nkrumah; in the Congo (now the Republic of Zaire) Mobutu ‘neutralised’ the conflict between Lumumba and Kasavubu by taking Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) with 200 men in September 1960; and General Soglo of Dahomey was removed from power by 60 paratroopers in December 1967. At the time of Black African independence, when there was a precipitous shift of sovereignty from governments in London, Paris, and Brussels to inexperienced African regimes, the embryonic armies inherited a spirit and tradition of political impartiality. They were essentially non-political and non-conspiratorial. Today the opposite holds true: military intervention in politics, direct and indirect, overt and covert, has became endemic. The soldiers are a political force because of what they have done, and because of what everyone now realises they might do. How can we explain this dramatic metamorphosis?

Africanization of the military

Prior to the departure of the colonial powers at independence many European and African officers expected to serve the new regimes as they had the old; and after independence most of the African armies continued to be heavily dependent upon European officers for some years. Western doctrines of civilian supremacy and a non-political army, learned by example and precept, were accepted by the African officers; and it was generally considered, as we noted earlier, that the soldiers would not launch themselves into the political arena. However the progressive and often rapid indigenisation of the officer corps, the result of political as opposed to military imperitives, had a disasterous effect on the internal stability of these armies. At independence in Ghana, for example, the army consisted of three battalions under a British officer corps, with some 30 Ghanaians in the lower ranks. Ghanaianisation of the officer corps was completed five years later in 1962. The Nigerian army was fully africanised by 1965 - only seven years earlier there were 45 African commissioned officers and six times as many British officers. When the officers of the former metropolitan powers departed there was an immediate erosion of professional skill, and serious deficiencies in military experience and organisational cohesion.2) Promotions took place at practically all levels of the officer corps, and although the majority of African officers were competent many of them lacked the experience and training for their new positions. In addition the rapid elevation of inexperienced officers to higher posts generated unrealistic career aspirations, and expectations of such promotions remaining a permanent feature of the military career pattern were not borne out after the initial wave of promotions. A situation was created in which a few years of seniority represented a wide gap in rank; this caused resentment and frustration on the part of second and subsequent generation officers who later faced promotional bottlenecks. The rapid Africanisation of the officer corps was a primary and potent source of institutional instability in the new African armies, although, as we shall see below, a variety of other factors have also contributed to the induction of the armed forces into positions of paramount importance in the political process.

Military professionalism

In ‘The Soldier and the State’3) Huntington suggests that civilian supremacy over the military may be assured either by ‘subjective control’, the permeation of the military by civilian values and interests; or by ‘objective control’, in which the officer corps is disciplined by its own professionalism and corporate commitment to the military organisation. ‘Professionalism’ comprises, for Huntington, three ingredients. They are expertness, social responsibility, and corporate commitment to fellowpractitioners. Armies are expert technicians in the management and organisation of violence, they have a responsibility to the state, and they have a powerful corporate tradition and organisation. Huntington further argues that as the officer becomes more immersed in his technical tasks the more he will leave politics to the politicians. As the military becames more professional it will become more “politically sterile ... A highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”4) However the argument that an adequate professionalism secures civilian supremacy is based on shaky empirical foundations. Professor Finer5) has pointed to several areas of civil-military relations where professionalism makes the military less rather than more responsive to civilian control. Although we shall be confining the application of these factors to the armies of Africa, their relevance to the military establishments of the West might also be of interest to the reader. Firstly the military may see itself as a servant of the state rather than of the particular government of the day. The military may have its own vision of the national interest, and the officer corps, or a section of it, might regard it as their professional duty to protect the national interest (as it sees it) from an ineffective and corrupt administration. The postcoup speeches made by military coupistes invariably dwell on this factor. Following the 1966 army-police intervention in Ghana, Major-General Ankrah claimed that the putsch had been motivated by the officers’ patriotic duty to put an end to “maladministration, mismanagement, the loss of individual freedom, and economic chaos” inflicted upon Ghana by Dr Nkrumah and his party apparatus. Ironically Nkrumah proved to be the spokesman of his own doom when, in a speech at the Ghana Military Academy in 1962, he said to the officers: “Loyality demands of you that you place the interests of the State above all others.” This is exactly what the soldiers claimed they did! Secondly ‘military syndicalism’ might cause clashes of interest between the civil and military powers. As specialists in their field the military hierarchy feel that they alone are competent to run the internal administration of the army. Harmonious civil-military relations require mutual respect for the limits of autonomy - of civilian authorities not to interfere in the professional concerns of the armed forces (command structures, systems of promotion, training methods, etc.) and of the armed forces not to interfere with the policy-making role of the civilian government. Political interference with the internal affairs of the army by Dr Busia’s administration was a major factor contributing to military reintervention in Ghana by Colonel Acheampong in January 1972. In addition attempts by civilian governments to neutralise the army’s technical monopoly of violence by building up counter-forces like the popular militia in Mali, for example, have been construed by the officers as ‘interference’, and the military have reacted by reciprocal ‘interference’ with the politicians. The third facet of civil-military relations where military professionalism may lead to less response to civilian control concerns the military’s conception of its social function. Armies throughout the World, including the African armies, are quite clearly reluctant to be used to coerce the government’s domestic opponents. This is because the training of army officers usually predisposes them to regard external defence as their legitimate function and not internal security, despite the fact that there is likely to be a greater need for internal security duties than for external ones in many new African states. This outlook is tied up with the military’s tendency to see itself as a servant of the state rather than of a particular government. This is especially the case where the government begins to become more authoritorian and repressive. In Nigeria the army’s antagonism to the political class was increased by the use made of the army to provide a show of force for governmental authority, as in Tiv Division in 1960 and 1964, and the Western Region in 1965-6. General Christophe Soglo of Dahomey was deposed as Head of State in December 1967 after he tried to use army units to break workers’ strikes. Major Kovandeté, who disliked the army being used to control industrial unrest, decided that instead of breaking the strikes he would use his units to depose Soglo. In Uganda a large section of the officer corps resented Dr Obote’s decision to use the armed forces to intimidate and subdue the Kabaka and his palace guard in May 1966. In condusion it can be seen that mutually acceptable divisions of responsibility between the unclear domains of the civil and the military have not materialised, and the politicisation of the officer corps has generally led to competition and conflict between the army and the politicians. The praetorian state has emerged in Africa partly because professionalism, rather than inhibiting military intervention in politics, has often promoted it.

Primordialism and other sources of intra-military factionalism

Inter-tribal and inter-regional hostility abounds in Africa. Civil wars and abortive attempts at secession in Nigeria, Zaire, and the Sudan; as well as bloody conflict and ethnocide in Burundi; provide us with a few of the most memorable examples. The rule of the European metropolitan powers had ensured political cohesion, but when independence came the forces of tribe and region were reasserted, political violence and conflict followed, and in many countries the armed forces stepped in to ‘restore political order’. How have primordial identities affected the political behaviour of African soldiers? Despite the fact that military norms emphasise a national as opposed to a regional or tribal outlook, parochial attachments are not severed by military institutionalisation but they are considerably loosened. These ties begin to contract, however, when political events from the outside begin to permeate the military. Thus in Nigeria, during the period of civilian rule immediately prior to 1966, the political conflict, with its accusations and counter-accusations of ‘tribalism’, aroused the interest of the army. Luckham has described in detail how this led to a situation where “army officers were casting apprehensive eyes at their colleagues”,0) and the political situation acted as a catalyst to re-charge the primordialism of group identity within the army. The Nigerian army eventually became the military counterpart of the competing regional groups in the country’s politics, and finally went to war with itself. Congo-Brazzaville has also witnessed tribal conflict within the army between officers from the North, like the Kouyou, and those from the South, especially the Lari, which eventually led to military intervention in 1965. In Uganda politics under the Obote regime polarised along tribal and communal lines (as well as ideological ones). This polarisation was reflected in the army, leading, eventually, to Amin’s coup d’etat on 24th January 1971.

It can be seen that tribalism does effect and influence the African armies (especially during periods of military rule as we shall note below), although we are faced with a dichotomy when we review and analyse the influence of primordialism on the armed forces. On the one hand the military, more than any other African institution, is a bastion of antitribalist sentiment; indeed many military coups have been partially justified as being an attempt to eradicate ethnic divisiveness in the country. On the other hand when tribal politics have penetrated the military it has often led to a more violent conflict than if the clash had been confined to the politicians, and may even lead to a temporary regression to earlier forms of tribal warfare. The susceptibility of the officer corps to ethnic influences, and the identification of the officers with the demands and aspirations of ethnic and local elites, should be regarded as a major aspect of the military’s involvement in politics. Apart from communal and regional rifts, other sources of factional cleavage exist within the African military establishments. Firstly, there are tensions based upon generational differences which have caused resentment between different strata of officers. We have already noted that the accelerated promotions resulting from the rapid Africanisation of the officer corps following independence caused jealousy among second and subsequent generations of officers who have faced promotional blockages. Many of these younger officers have had better formal education than their seniors (who have often come up through the ranks) and consider themselves to be better qualified to command. Tensions based upon level of training and time of recruitment have undermined the stability and cohesiveness of the armed forces. Another consequence of the Africanisation programme has been competition between the large clusters of officers at lower levels of the officer corps. Fierce rivalry at these levels is generated by the fact that only a few officers will fulfill their career aspirations and reach the senior ranks of the military hierarchy. Had recruitment of men into the officer corps been more carefully regulated, promotional bottlenecks, a breeding ground for discontent and conspiracy, would have been largely avoided. Intergenerational and intra-generational conflicts have been exacerbated when political postings - often resulting from ethnic considerations - interfere with normal promotion proceedures. In addition, generational tensions are often sharpened and compounded by ideological differences. Military supplantment of the civilian regime is the catalytic agent that accentuates the divisions in the army, further assailing its organisational discipline and cohesion. During periods of civilian rule political demands from the military establishment and other interest groups are directed towards the cvilian politicians. But once the army assumes power political pressures from these groups are focused on the military. The acquisition of a new political role by the army exposes it to unaccustomed political demands and pressures. Once the army shifts its centre of gravity from the barracks to the seat of government it soaks up social schisms, making it an unrealiable arbiter of political conflict. Personal rivalries develop into political rivalries, and the intra-military tensions and cleavages described above are given fresh scope for development. The further disintegration of the military establishment cohesion during periods of military rule is characterised and promoted by conspiracies and counter-coups. The military seizure of power destroys the strongest unifying feature of the army, but once the taboo of the non-political army is shattered “the officers and the soldiers ... begin to identify not with their seniors, who have defied the rules and thus broken the obligation of military discipline, but with their equivalents in civilian life, their army generation, their political associates or their kinsmen.”7) When this occurs the politicisation of the military establishment is complete, and the soldiers find that they have become primary actors in the political process.

Analysis of military coups

Lefever8) classifies military intrusion into the political sphere into four recurring demands reflecting the dominant motivation of the leaders of a particular coup. The ‘security coup’ is undertaken to replace a regime judged incapable of defending the state from internal or external challenges. In such a situation the main aim of the coup-makers is to check the further disintegration of the state by restoring order and security and keeping the administration going until the political processes can return to a situation approximating normality. The middle-ranking officers who led the January 1966 coup in Nigeria, and Mobutu’s intervention in the Congo in September 1960 and October 1965, were influenced by such considerations, and it was in these terms that the officers attempted to legitimise their action. Secondly, military intervention may be prompted by a dissatisfaction with the character or policies, as opposed to the competence, of the regime. Such a coup has as its primary object the reform of domestic or foreign policy and can be best categorised as the ‘reform coup’. In this category one of the best examples is provided by the 1966 coup in Ghana. The army and police officers were fundamentally affronted by the character and policies of Nkrumah’s regime, and when the NLC came to power it insisted on new domestic and foreign policies. The ‘new elite coup’, one third classification, is motivated primarly by ambitious men who use the army to gain political power and its rewards. Thus stating their cause in terms of modernisation and reform the coup provides the quick answer to the soldiers’ aspirations. This type of coup is usually motivated by tribal rivalries and hence invites a counter-coup. In Dahomey, for example, the spate of coups and counter-coups seems to have little relevance to security or policy matters, and Dahomey has earned the unenviable reputation of being the most flourishing centre of praetorianism in Black Africa today. There is a link between individual self-interest and the corporate self-interest of the military since it is noticeable that in most of the states which have been subjected to a coup “the military budget and rewards and conditions of the military are sharply increased. The military receive a kind of donative akin to that of the Roman Praetorian Guard.”9) This leads us to the fourth categorisation, the ‘punitive coup’, which is motivated by grievance in the military establishment against the regime which is accused of slighting the status and prestigue of the armed forces. In this sense both military coups in Ghana have had a punitive dimension to them. The distinction between different types of coup is not always apparent. When examining specific cases of army intervention we usually, if not always, find it is the result of multiple motivation, though in practice one or two of the elements we have noted tend to predominate. Lee10), who analyses the character and behaviour of eighteen tropical African armies against the backdrop of the British and French colonial legacy, considers that the characteristic coup d’état is an attempt by the soldiers to preserve a state apparatus from which they benefit so lavishly; and Ruth First has written that the army usually strikes at government “in defence of its immediate corporate interests ... The heat of the political crisis in new states is generated largely by the struggle over spoils between competing layers of the power elite; and the officer corps has a strong stake in the contest, since it is itself an elite group.”11) Other studies of military interventions have concentrated on probing for the role of the isolated common factor: stage of economic development; length of independence period; types of political organisation; size of army; proportion of the state’s military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product; origins and social background of army officers etc. However empirical results have proved to be mainly negative or unreliable, and quantitive studies of this nature have failed to shed much light on the role of the military in African politics. Studies of civil-military relations in Black Africa cover a great deal of similar ground because the experiences of these new states are similar. But to assume that ‘popular discontent’ or ‘economic stagnation’ or ‘political ineptitude and corruption’ brought about the coups d’etat does not do justice to the unique combinations of circumstances which exist. Examination of military coups will find similar causes, but the differences lie in the relative influence of interplaying causes. The key to the study of military interventions is to examine a series of factors the salience of whose components differs from one coup to another.


The new African states are seriously deficient in the disciplines, habits, and institutions essential to modem economic and political development, and one of the major reasons for this weakness is that the formal transfer of legal authority from the former metropolitan powers to the fledgling African regimes was not accompanied by a transfer of effective power. In addition the Western traditions of the former colonial powers have been of little relevance to the African states. Unquestioned subordination to civilian rule was replaced, and is still being replaced, by direct military intervention in politics. The most significant background to this new situation have been efforts to enhance military subordination to civilians following Africanisation of the officer corps; the perpetuation, if not the intensification, of tribal and regional rivalries; and precipitous declines in the legitimacy and effectiveness of civilian governments. The central political symbols and institutions are weak, and national cohesiveness is elusive. So long as this political immaturity continues to exist in Africa so too will the praetorian state be maintained. Praetorianism - a state of affairs identified where the military forces have become major determinants in the political environment, and characterised by an unstable cycle of civilian governments, military interventions, and counter-coups - cannot be wished away. In Welch’s12) view the end to military intervention can only be realised if a broad strategy for forestalling praetorianism is developed. He suggests that this must include three concurrent steps: awarencess of cleavages within the military, hopefully to reduce the likelihood of coups; the delineation of spheres of relative autonomy between the civil and military institutions; and steps towards the revitalisation of civilian-based political structures. Ultimately praetorianism will diminish only when civilian political institutions develop unquestioned legitimacy and effectiveness.


1) E .W . Lefevre, *Spear and Scepter*, Washington D.C., Brodrings Institution, 1970, p. 18.

2) A classic example is provided by the Belgian Congo, where, following independence in July 1960, most of the expatriate officers disappeared almost overnight, and discipline in the army disintegrated entirely.

3) S. P. Huntington, ’The Soldier and the State9, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1957.

4) Ibid., p. 84.

5) S. E. Finer, ’The Man on Horseback*, London, Pall Mall Press, 1962, Chapter Four.

6) A. R. Luckham, ’The Nigerian Military\ London, Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 193.

7) R. First, 9The Barrel of a Gun9, London, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1970, p. 437.

8) Lefever, op. cit., p. 28-9.

9) Finer, op. cit., p. 87.

10) I. M. Lee, ’African Armies and Civil Order9, New York, Praeger, 1969.

1:L) First, op. cit., p. 429.

12) C. E. Welch, 9Praetorianism in Commonwealth West Africa9, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 10, 2, August 1972, p. 219.