Most African nations suffer from a vicious cycle of poverty and violence and until this cycle is ended, there is no prospect of bringing an end to insurgency, banditry and crime on the continent, according to defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman.
Heitman, speaking at the Land Forces Africa 2013 conference in Pretoria last week, said that as most African states are poor, they cannot afford effective security forces and because of this, poverty remains and there is little investment. This then results in violence and further poverty.
Until that cycle is broken, there is no prospect of bringing an end to insurgency, warlords, banditry, piracy, illegal logging and mining, smuggling and other issues, Heitman said. Economic and rural development and effective security are needed to break the cycle.
Heitman noted that Africa is suffering from a wide variety of security problems. Over the last twenty years there have been sixteen insurgencies on the continent, while insurgency still plagues fourteen of those states today. There have been 13 coups in the last 20 years and nine African states have suffered terrorist attacks independent of any local insurgency.
Today guerrillas are increasingly using heavy weapons; other groups use terrorism and others see cyberspace as their battlefield of choice. National borders are no hindrance, Heitman said, adding that many bandit groups are looking like small armies, some with long experience of bush operations.
Other security challenges exist, such as drug smuggling, illegal mining and logging, the poaching of wildlife, oil theft and piracy. Heitman noted that although piracy is suppressed in Somalia, it is flaring up in West Africa, with oil theft becoming rife there. As most African oil platforms will be foreign owned, they become a large target for terrorists.
Heitman was not overly optimistic about the future peace and stability of Africa, and predicted that there will be more conventional wars in Africa. There are still more than 26 border disputes to be settled and some secessionist struggles, Heitman cautioned, citing the ongoing dispute between Sudan and South Sudan as an example.
Central Africa is a particular conflict hotspot, as guerrillas from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are still active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This, and other disputes, are being driven by conflict over natural resources.
External powers contribute significantly to insecurity in Africa, Heitman said. “Countries have interests, not friends… African governments must give serious thought to which major powers actually would like to see Africa stable and prosperous and which might prefer it the way it is.”
He said the competition between foreign powers impacted on Africa in that the pursuit of influence, resources, markets and farmland meant foreign powers will support governments, insurgents, terrorists and bandits when that will further their interests. “Foreign powers will support some of those irregulars…Their interests will not always coincide with ours,” the analyst said. “As a continent we are dirt poor. No-one cares about us except as a source of raw materials.”
“There will be insecurity, instability and conflict in Africa over the next two decades or more,” Heitman cautioned. “Irregular and paramilitary forces will be increasingly well armed, equipped, trained and led.” International terrorism will not spare Africa and criminal organisations will become more like guerrillas, e.g. drug smugglers using submarines etc.
“The cold war was simple – we knew who the enemy was, could assess his aims, intentions, strengths and weaknesses and plan and prepare accordingly. Those days are over and defence staffs must plan in a vacuum with no clear idea of what threats might arise.”
Major General Luvuyo Nabanda, Chief Director: Force Preparation, said that over the last twenty to thirty years the nature of war has changed from conventional to asymmetric, especially in Africa. The security landscape in Africa has evolved, with a more complex defence environment.
Economic and population growth and natural resources are a recipe for conflict and African countries need to review their readiness capabilities, Nabanda said. He was of the opinion that a purely military approach to security issues is obsolete as a collective approach is needed. “The battlespace incorporates society as a whole.”
These views were echoed by Major General Barney Hlatshwayo, SANDF Chief Director of Operations Development, Joint Operations Division. He said that when resources are scarce – such as at present in the South African National Defence Force – an integrated whole of government approach is needed to address South Africa’s security issues. “The sooner we work together the problem will be better tackled.”
“The whole of government approach should be the way, especially when resources are scarce,” Hlatshwayo said. For instance Home Affairs, SARS, the Defence Force and others need to work together to ensure South Africa’s security.
Heitman said it was hard for governments to persuade taxpayers and treasuries to fund the defence force when there is no visible threat. Governments do not understand how long it takes to build a force. He estimated it takes 30 years plus to rebuild an army; buying equipment, training senior officers; and getting experience. “The only solution is imaginative thinking and planning at the national level and cooperation at the regional level.”
“We need to work together,” he urged delegates at Land Forces Africa, and cited an early 1990s proposal by regional chiefs of navy to collectively run a long-range maritime patrol aircraft unit, with NATO’s E-3 airborne early warning squadron as an example of how this could be done. However, nothing ever came of it. “We are not cooperating,” Heitman said. Working together and having common equipment would result in cost effective operation and maintenance. A common anti-piracy fleet has been proposed for Southern African Development (SADC) countries, for example.
“Political leadership has to know exactly what the military can do. It is vital that senior commanders are honest about what the forces of their country can and cannot do.” Heitman warned of dire consequences if politicians are not honestly and thoroughly briefed. Heitman has in the past said that the SANDF is being asked to do more than it is able to, as South Africa aims to play a bigger role in ensuring peace and security across Africa.