Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: E-Letter To BBC And Kwaku Sakyi-Addo Re: "Time up for Africa's military?"

Your article, "Time up for Africa's military?" though well-written and concise follows a tradition in the Western media of analyzing events in Africa out of historical context. It also continues a worrisome trend of writers pursuing red herring issues that justify some desired government policy or celebrated reform agenda coming from non-profit think-tanks or foundations claiming expertise on Africa, supposedly in an environment of intellectual freedom and independence. I would estimate that 90% of the intellectuals specializing on Africa, that I have encountered, deliberately slant their analysis or recommendations for Africa in order to fit the interests of a benefactor or some government office which is open to using such studies to further a policy objective. Your article now sits on a pile of a continuous flow of literature that takes advantage of the ignorance of the world, where the subject of Africa is concerned.

You might think this is harsh to consider your article in such manner but I feel I have no other reasonable option when weighing your presentation against historical evidence, as well as the growing movement to use demilitarization of African societies as a litmus test for Western aid and approval of leadership. The lack of historical context where Africa's militaries are concerned in articles like yours and in studies coming out of influential think-tanks in Europe and America serves the agenda of those in the West who have long wanted certain former military leaders in Africa removed from power, more than it serves public, academic and political debate.

You really cannot, with any credibility, in my view, consider the last 40 years of military rule throughout Africa, without studying and including the centuries of history of militarization on the continent - which would of course bring you face-to-face with the colonial and pre-colonial eras. The findings of the best scholars that I have read on African history generally agree that the character of African armies is fundamentally different across the three major eras: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. It is difficult, for example, to argue that the African armies since independence are the same in character as those of the pre-colonial era. What would explain the difference? Why of course, the colonial era. Certainly a prolonged focus on the colonial area can make Blacks (more than just those currently living on the African continent) bitter and Whites (more than just those currently living in Africa or Europe) uncomfortable; but those feelings don't change the historical fact that colonialism aggravated and further enabled the worst aspects of militant tribalism that already existed in Africa. Colonialism also fundamentally increased the scope and capacity to kill, of African armies across the continent (consider the effect of the French use of the Senegalese in World War I and II or the way the British in East Africa used an army of Sudanese, Swahili and Masai against the Kikuyu. Similarly, economists, fail to take into account the manner in which colonialism very negatively engaged customs and aggravated tribalism in establishing fiscal policy in parts of Africa - the legacy of which remains today. I wrote another e-letter earlier this year to the BBC about this as it relates to Uganda).

One of the best treatments on the subject of military power in Africa that I have read is the book, Africa's Armies by Robert B. Edgerton. In that book, in convincing fashion, a clear distinction is made between the three great eras.

But there is a further flaw in your thinking and writing on militaries in Africa. One which allows you to become enamored by the increasing empirical evidence of the decreasing frequency of military coups in Africa. Your emphasis, and that of a host of others, on the increase of democratic transitions of power in Africa sounds good at first but it says nothing about whether or not the quality of life of Africans under less militarized regimes is really any better. In an earlier e-letter written to the BBC, I wrote the following, "The electorate is seeking to extract rights from an entrenched establishment that is disrupting a truly free market through its monopoly on capital, taxation, and the de facto or de jure right to make markets. In earlier decades it was overtly White colonists from Europe who were this entrenched establishment. Today it is more closely identified, in the minds of the people as authoritarian Black male dictators - whether generals (and the military or "police" who accompany them) who rule as a result of coups or duly elected individuals (and the cronies and partisans that accompany them)."

When the subject is one of rights, as is usually the case where politics and economics is concerned, it is probably better to not consider the matter in terms of the categories of traditional systems of power or governance like "military," "economics" or "politics" in a theoretical sense. Greater clarity can be achieved when the paradigm of "institutions" and the level of trust that people have in them is considered. What one finds is that in Africa, it was the institutions of militancy (for a modern non-tribal example one could consider, internationally, to varying degrees "institutions of militancy" like the IRA, the ANC, the Black Panthers, or Hamas as such - these civil society organizations are certainly not State-sponsored armies nore could they comfortably be classified as simply political parties), as I like to refer to them that were naturally elevated during the African independence movement. These institutions and leaders were given the authority or latitude by the people to assume power or to lead the effort to establish centralized authorities, where they did not exist in the vacuum of the end of colonial rule. It should come as no surprise that these institutions, which assumed freedom from colonialism partially by the gun, would not easily transition toward the creation or broadening of markets and trade (domestically first, then internationally), legal institutions, political reform, and advancing literacy for example. Liberation and governance are not the same process.

In frustration over the slow process of ending the repression, corruption and monopoly powers of the former colonial powers as well as the new Black central authority (that assumed freedom by military means) members of African civil societies did not wait for elections or foreign aid, rather they turned toward alternative "institutions" through whom they could extract rights from the entrenched establishment. In many cases in Africa this meant opposition military parties - whether mutinous generals; coup contemplating colonels, or rival tribes and military support from neighboring countries. So, you are correct, the overt military coup may be diminishing in frequency in Africa, but it is not necessarily being replaced by less bloodshed and a higher quality of life. Sometimes the state coup is actually being replaced by lower-level tribal and ethnic combat and civil war. Remember, don't think in terms of "military," but in terms of institutions that have cornered rights; and alternative institutions that "the people" suspect might have the power to extract said rights. In some countries the alternative institution will be a political party; in many countries it will be a tribe; in others it will be a foreign oil company; in many others it will be a religious institution (look at the history of Nigeria, for example). It can work out for better or worse.

It might help to consider this from a perspective that is broader than just Africa. Reflect over the point I am making about the inefficiencies of viewing Africa through the lens of "militarization" rather than that of "institutions" in terms of what Reuven Brenner writes about Venezuela and Turkey in his book, The Force Of Finance, published in 2001 (I have added bold for emphasis):

Observers are worried about how Venezuela's new president, Hugo Chavez, is concentrating power and changing the constitution. Yet Venezuela has been like Mexico. Behind the fašade of democracy, the country has been riddled with special entitlements. There has been no strong institutions to provide checks and balances, two ruling parties have controlled power for the past forty years, and the middle class (and those aspiring to it) has fallen farther and farther behind.

Seventy percent of the population voted for Chavez in February 1999. But this does not mean that Venezuelans want big democracy, It simply means that when the judiciary is corrupt, when contracts are not enforced, when members of the elite collude to keep financial markets closed, people will turn to another source of power to extract rights. In most of these places, the only alternative organized institution happens to be the army.

True, people hope for enlightened despots. At times, as in the Chavez case, these despots come to power through the political process; at other times, they come through the military directly. In the 1970s, for example, when the extreme right and left clashed in Turkey, the military ruled for two years. But eventually power was given back to the civilians. In fact, the Turkish military has followed each of its three coups (the last was in 1980) with a rapid return a civilian rule. Today, Turks rate the military as their most trusted institution. It's not clear whether Venezuela will move in the same direction. Chavez may turn out to be the wrong choice, but the fact that he's an outsider is understandable.

I hope you can recognize that there may not be anything inherently wrong with a "military" as the central authority in an African society or nation. As the military are respected in Turkey today, they may be one day respected in Nigeria, Ghana, Congo or Liberia. Of course, for this to take place the military would have to be an agent of empowerment rather than an agent of murderous elitism. This is possible. The goal in Africa (or the litmus test for foreign aid) should not just be the demilitarization of her governments so to speak, or even an all-out fight against HIV and AIDS. Rather, the destination should be an end to corruption, repression and a monopoly control of "rights" by an entrenched establishment, as it manifests in trade, politics, law, and academics.

Getting there will require intellectual honesty among those in academia and politics in the West and greater self-examination among Africans (and the Diaspora) in general if the more serious problem that gives rise to excessive militancy is to be uprooted.

Hopefully you will make your contribution.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, June 17, 2003