Home Introduction to Political Science THE NATURE OF AFRICAN ARMIES


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In looking at the Nature of African Armies, what we are really examining is the ‘failure of the military in Government’. According to Robin Luckham in ‘The Nigerian Military’, African armies were at first ‘mercenary’ armies. Luckham means that sub-Saharan African armies were created, organised and trained under colonial tutelage. Further, armies which were created by the colonial powers were used to establish the rule of the colonial powers. The army also existed as a visible demonstration to the populace of the coercion which was the ultimate basis of colonial rule. Initially therefore, one can say, that African armies had very little concern with the defence of the state, this was left to the metropolitan powers. Finally, upholding the status quo was the prime concern of armies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bretton in his ‘Power and Class in Africa’ makes the important point that the armies of sub-Saharan Africa have not yet completed the transition from colonial auxiliary to principal instrument of power and control. In looking at the structure of the armed forces, Bretton found that the officer corps’ are still in the process its formation; officers are still subject to sudden, or occasional substantial and dramatical, promotional changes. Military traditions as they bear on modern military service are typically foreign to the armies of Africa.

Further, Bretton suggests that due to the relative under-development of the African armies, the primary expectation of the officer corps, the ranks and officer candidates are concerned with prompt promotion into positions to be vacated by Europeans. Moreover, because such things as houses and pensions had to be bargained for, African armies became highly politicized prior to and after independence. Consequently, in pursuit of these goals few of the armed forces, says Bretton, could fall back on the time-hounoured rationale of national defense.

Ruth First in her book “The Barrel of A Gun” makes a number of interesting comments as to why the military began to interfere in the political process. The early army coups according to First, concerned with pay strikes, to secure better condition for the army. Later, coups however, embodies larger political objectives and initiated through military take-over of governments, or extracted something from the old one. Regardless as to whether a distinction is drawn between the earlier coups and the later ones, the conclusion which one will arrive at is that their objectives constituted what could be loosely termed sectional, as the whole of society would not benefit materially or otherwise from their action. This is also one of the reasons why when the military plays the role of government it performs no better than the civilians it replaced.

Ruth First also puts forward the theory which is given a more detailed consideration by Luckham; that the internal characteristics of the army account for the inability of the army to rule as a united body.
Accordingly, “Once in power, the army divides”. There are a number of plausible reasons as to why this is the case. The general agreement, however, is that once the military does not possess an ideology through which it can define its policy and make decisions in terms of military procedures, they soak up social conflict. Armies throughout the continent have shown that they are no less prone to divisive loyalties as are politicians and parties. Once the political system divides on communal lines, the division will take the army in power with it. What is very important here is that the seizure of power itself destroys the strongest unifying feature of the army.
In addition, there exist acute societal and military factionalism which inevitably binds the hands of the leaders in the armed forces for they have to remain vigilant in order to prevent plots against their continued rule. By allowing a mixture of civilian and military actors in the political sphere, it had not come as a great surprise to find that demands within society and the government ultimately militates against any meaningful societal programmed economic development or the creation of a stable political system.


Explain the nature of African armies.

Another dimension which has been developed by S. Decalo in his book “Coup and Army Rule in Africa” is the idea known as the Managerial brokerage system. According to Decalo in this type of system, “the military comes to power in order to arbitrate disputes among various sectors of society, such as the politicians, the civil servants and the labour unions. What the word “arbitrate” means is that the concern is not with the social or political mobilisation or development of the masses, but with how much of the ‘national cake’ each section of the ruling group will get. Once in power, the military continues to see its primary function as moderating and managing conflict. The stress in the type of system is mainly on the economic, for the stability and development of a meaningful type to take place; equal stress must be given to political and social factors as well as the economic ones.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. explain the nature of African armies 
  2. explain the causes of military intervention in most African States  describe the achievements of the military while in power. 


3.1 Causes of Military Intervention (Coup D’etat)

No military coups are ever the same, nor are the situations in which they take place identical. Each coup has its own characteristics, motivations, objectives and class or tribal characters as well as its own specific relationship to external factors. According to Jack Woddis in his book “Armies and Politics”, the actions of military officers in recent years have taken place at a stage of world history in which the forces progress, of socialism, and national liberation are becoming stronger, while the forces of reaction, fuedalism and imperialism are becoming weaker.
The causes of military coups in Third World countries, and especially Africa, have to do with the weakness of the political structures and processes in all post-colonial states, and institutional role of the military in these societies. Since the military are the traditional guards of the state, they intervene in the political process as a means of arresting political instability and ensuring the integrity of the country any time this is threatened as a result of political and social tensions.
Secondly, the military are the only institution which can force themselves into power as an organised unit without much opposition since they possess the monopoly of the instruments of violence and can confront any threat of resistance to their intervention.
Thirdly, the military often justify their intervention as being based on the national interest baptizing themselves as “corrective regimes” which have come to put an end to political mis-rule and social crises. However, some military regimes soon prove to be as corrupt as the regime they overthrew and their reforms gave way to intolerance and totalitarianism or dictatorship.

Fourthly, military intervention is the outcome of the politicization of the military institution itself. This is brought about by the civilians involving the military in their (civilians) struggle for power and control. As a result, the military tasted power, know its implications and get out of their traditional role of protection of the state, to become “politicians in uniforms”, gaining and wielding power; and seeking to retain it.

Fifthly, it could be the result of the military elite under the leadership of ambitious and power-hungry individuals who seek control of government in order to pursue their personal interest or those of the dominant (exploiter) class, ethnic group, religious group or international imperialist interests. It must be pointed out that not all coups aim at reform or political office, some of them do signal the beginning of a revolution, and a new socio-political order. A few examples in Africa Muammer Ghaddafi’s coup in Libya in 1969 against the monarchy led by King Idris and transforming Libya into a People’s Jamahiriyya; Nasser’s Coup in Egypt, and Mengistu Haile Mariams coup in Ethiopia on the road to socialism. The objective of socialism has since failed in Ethiopia.

Sixthly, intervention could be in the corporate interest of the military. To remove a government that is hurting the military through reduced defense spending and embarrassment of the military as an institution.

Intervention also becomes inevitable when existing governance shows utter disregard for the popular will, flagrantly abuses power and engages in electoral fraud causing mass discontent and oppression both of which generates violent reactions from the masses.
Lastly, military intervention has unfortunately become a permanent feature of Third World politics. With their weak states and economics, these neo-colonial regimes are often destabilized by competing local elites struggling to assert control over the state, in collaboration with imperialist powers which seek to control the resources of the state. So, more often than not the military arise in a neo-colonial arrangement with imperialism to dominate and exploit their people by the force of institutionalized and organized monopoly of the weapons of violence, against which most opposition fall, are silenced or driven underground into exile.

In order to analyse why coups take place, we must differentiate three basic premises.

  1.  There are coups of a progressive character – e.g. Egypt, 1952; Iraq 1958; Libya 1957; Somalia, 1969; Ethiopia, 1974; etc
  2. There are reactionary coups which preempt a possible progressive civilian government coming into power. Such redemptive coup included Ayub Khan and Yayha Khan Coups in Pakistan, Mobutu in Zaire, the Abacha’s coup in Nigeria, etc. 
  3.  There are also coups of a clearly reactionary character which aim at removing a progressive government. Examples include the Ghanaian military overthrow of Kwame Nkruma, Surhato coup in Indonesia, and the military junta coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, Campore overthrow of Sankara in Burkina Fasso, etc. 


Why do the Military intervene in African Politics?

3.2 External Factors Influencing Military Take Over

The present position of all African states is one of dependence on the Western world economically and militarily. Most top military officers throughout Africa have been trained by Europeans/Americans. Most of the arms which we use for combat are either bought or given as aids to African states. They have initially trained our military and other intelligence services.
Consequently, it is quite easy for the British/Americans and other imperialist states to seek and establish governments in Africa and the Third World in general which will collaborate with them in exploiting the African masses.

An equally important aim is to support or create allies, so as to nourish the social forces on which governments friendly to the imperialist can be based. Practically in the most reactionary military coups, the imperialist have made use of existing situations, of current crisis, internal conflicts, personal and social ambitions of groups and individuals to ensure its own interests. In fact, today, “local allies, not agents, are the key” to the continuous foreign influence throughout Africa. And this is more so in both the political parties and the military.

Thus, imperialism seeks out those social forces, institutions, and individuals whose short-term or long-term interest will place them on its side (in fact providing traitors – with ‘a second loyalty’); it seeks out and promotes those who may be committed to supporting imperialism directly but who have not taken up a consistent and clear anti-imperialist

position; and who, it is therefore hoped, will stand in the way of the most firm anti-Western, anti-Imperialist forces in a country.

It is with all these considerations in mind that the West/European/America strives to influence the leading personnel in the military establishment in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, the devil does not have its way all the time – the ability to succeed in a particular coup now depends on the internal power balance. But nevertheless, no group planning to stage a coup can afford to ignore the external factors. Coup plotters must ask themselves one major question: Whose interest (Economic, Strategic, Ideological) is Dominant in our Country? Subsequently, efforts must be made to contact and if necessary placate that dominant interest until the coup had been successful and the new regime has the masses’ confidence.

3.3 Impact of Military Rule: Has it solved the Problems?

Although there are some controversies as to the impact of military rule, it is generally agreed that military rule is an aberration, and should be a temporary measure paving the way for a return to normal civil democracy.

However, the record of military rule generally shows with a few rare exceptions that it has not resolved the contradictions and socio-political and economic problems facing post-colonial states. Apart from institutional discipline and hierarchical command structure, the military have proved to be slightly better than the civilian politicians. In some other cases, they have been more corrupt and linked to the business class and imperialism. Thus, military regimes have not solved the economic problems neither have they carried out an industrial revolution that would form the basis for socio-political change.
Secondly, most military regimes are dictatorial and do not alleviate the exploitation or oppression under which the mass of the people suffer. They are well known for the abuse of Human Rights, lack of press freedom, forceful elimination of any opposition and the brutal suppression of strikes, demonstrations and all forms of protests. A notorious example is that of Uganda under Idi Amin, Sudan under El Nimiery and the current regimes in Zaire and Nigeria to mention a few.

In some cases, the military have enriched themselves having become part of the ruling elite and the oligarchy. In such cases, they have relied on the use of state office to amass wealth; which often means that the masses of the people are hardly taken care of.


In conclusion, neither the military nor the civilians have fared much in the transformation of post-colonial societies in Africa. This is because the problems that confront these societies are fundamental in nature; and go beyond forms of window dressing or the type of regime. In these neo-colonial countries, (save for a few exceptions where military intervention has been revolutionary leading to social transformation), military intervention has become a game of musical chairs in which one coup succeeds the other or displaces a corrupt civilian regime with promise of reform which hardly ever lasts or indeed leads to socio-political change in a fundamental sense.


In thus Unit, you have learnt about the nature of African armies from their colonial (Mercenary) origins to modern armies. You have also learnt of the reasons for their intervention in politics. We can therefore conclude that military intervention made little impact to the development in Africa.


i. Explain the nature and origins of African armies?
ii. What are the causes of military intervention in Africa?
iii. Has military intervention modernize Africa States?


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