Briefing on Civil Military Relations: A Factor for Peace and Security in Africa

Date | 18 May 2022

Tomorrow (18 May), the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) will receive a briefing on civil-military relation as a factor for peace and security in Africa, as one of the agenda items of its 1085th session. The briefing takes place ahead of the Extraordinary Summit on Unconstitutional Changes of Government (UCG) scheduled to take place on 28 May, presenting the opportunity for Council to contribute to policy proposals to be presented at the Summit.

Following opening remarks by Churchill Ewumbue-Monono, Permanent Representative of Cameroon to the AU and the Chairperson of the PSC for the month of May, Bankole Adeoye, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS), is expected to make a statement. Representatives from respective Regional Economic Communities and Regional Mechanisms (RECs/RMs) may also take part in the discussions.

While the PSC is convening a session dedicated to the specific issue of civil-military relations for the first time, many of its previous sessions addressing UCG in concerned member States have been instrumental in highlighting the importance of clear separation of powers, roles and functions between the military and civilian leadership. For instance, at its 996th session addressing the situation in Chad which ensued following the death of President Idriss Deby Itno and subsequent power grab by the military, Council emphasised the imperative of clear separation of roles between the State’s military body and the transitional government, with the former focusing on ensuring the country’s defence and security, while the later concentrates on political and other public policy issues.

Moreover, at its other sessions on UCG such as the 1000th session convened following the 24 May 2021 coup in Mali and the 1030th session addressing the 5 September 2021 coup in Guinea, Council has urged the militaries of each of these concerned member States to refrain from interfering in political processes, clarifying that political affairs fall outside of the scope of military powers. Council’s request at its 1041st session for the Sudanese military to respect their constitutional mandate following the military takeover of power on 25 October 2021, as well as the requests at its 1016th session on the situation in Chad and 1064th session on the situation in Guinea for the members of the militaries of these member States to abstain from taking part in elections at the end of the transition periods have also been essential in defining the nature of and limits to military power.

Despite these important remarks which have been critical in highlighting the limits and boundaries to the powers exercised by the military and in underlining the separate roles and responsibilities of civilian and military organs of government, the nature of civil-military relations in African member States, which is at the core of problems leading to UCG and other political instabilities, hasn’t received the needed attention from the PSC or concerned RECs/RMs. Tomorrow’s session therefore presents the opportunity for Council to discuss this crucial issue and reflect on how it has contributed to the spike in UCG witnessed in the continent throughout 2021 and well into 2022, as well as its implication to broader governance challenges in the continent.

One of the features of civil-military relations in Africa which may draw the Council’s interest is the prevalent politicisation of the military. Such politicization entrenches the army deep into politics, thereby depriving it of its independence from and impartiality to political power struggles. This also creates the interests of members of the army in being involved in politics as a means of advancing particular political ambitions. Similarly, the engagement of the army in economic activities also leads to its embeddedness in pursuing economic gains.

The first source of challenge to civil-military relationship is the heavy reliance of the civilian political leaders on coercion and the use of security institutions including the army for purposes of deepening their grip on power. Not only do such practices blur the lines of military mandates and lay a fertile ground for oppression of citizens and violation of basic human rights and freedoms, they also can lead to the fragmentation of the army by giving rise to different factions. To ensure therefore that civil-military relations are not guided by political interests, it is imperative that civilian oversight on the military is subject to and is conducted in strict compliance with constitutionally established rules that ensure full guarantee both the constitutionality of the orders that the army is expected to follow from civilian leadership and maintain its integrity and impartiality. As important is the adoption of minimum legal standards properly outlining the type and scope of law enforcement activities which fall within the mandates of the military and identifying the circumstances upon which armies may be deployed for managing internal security challenges.

Another key issue for properly functioning civil-military relations in the continent include the weakness of civilian institutions and the lack of democratic governance and constitutional rule, which result in the absence of efficient mechanisms for transparency and accountability, making it impossible to create a functional structure for civilian oversight.

In some cases, as demonstrated in the recent coups in Mali and Chad, there is also the issue of the loss of confidence of their militaries in civilian leaders when they fail to provide them with the necessary material and morale support, which in the context of heavy casualties suffered by members of the army due to terrorist attacks leads to deepening frustrations and resentment against the civilian leadership. This can easily boil over when the civilian leadership is also perceived to be engaging in or tolerating corruption that divert resources away from supporting the work of the army. For example, in the case of Burkina Faso, the lack of effective leadership by the democratically elected leaders in addressing terrorism, insurgency and instability that has gripped the country and reports of corruption were presented as justification for the military’s intervention through overthrowing the elected civilian leaders.

Management of security sector reform (SSR) processes in member States undergoing transitions in a manner that permits genuine and effective reflection on security governance and challenges is also an essential part of averting potential relapse as experienced in member States such as Mali and Sudan. While the speedy restoration of constitutional order in member States undergoing transitions is well within the spirit of AU norms banning UCG, restoration of constitutional order without the necessary SSR that tackles the security sector governance issues that precipitated the coup would lead to a repeat of the coup, as the experience in Mali after the 2012 coup aptly illustrates. The importance therefore of implementing and making use of the AU SSR Policy as critical instrument for achieving constitutionally sound civil-military relationship cannot be overemphasised.

The management of civil-military relations is of importance not only in the context of UCG and to member States in transition, but also with respect to broader governance issues. The implementation of codes of conduct that are in line with the constitutional obligations and the international human rights and international humanitarian law standards is key. Also of significance is the need for regularly updating the professional standards, the provision of the requisite supplies and benefits and the technical competence of the military is critical. It is therefore critical to consider crisis in civil-military relations as part of AU’s framework for early warning and conflict prevention.

The outcome of tomorrow’s session is expected to be a Communiqué. Drawing from the deliberations on civil-military relation as a core factor contributing to the occurrence of coups in the continent, Council may emphasise the intricate link between democratic deficit, State fragility and instability. Council may also call for the updating by member States of existing military codes of conducts to make them up to date and compliant with standards of impartiality and independence from politics, and basic human rights and international humanitarian law standards. It may also highlight the importance of reviewing existing AU norms banning UCG with a view to address conditions that provide the pretext for military intervention in politics, including the politicisation of militaries and security forces. The PSC may call for the use of the AU SSR Policy formwork in countries that experienced military coups as a basis for ensuring successful SSR to prevent recurrence of coups. Council may also seek advice from the Military Staff Committee (MSC) on how AU norms and policy instruments can be utilised to provide guidance in addressing issues relating to civil-military relations in the continent.