The Elliott School of International Affairs
Impact of Transnational Issues on Stability and the Evolution of African Militaries
Many of the major transnational issues confronting African militaries today either did not exist or were relatively unimportant when most African countries became independent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. International terrorism, HIV/AIDS, climate change, massive refugee movements, conflict over oil, drug smuggling, pressure for economic policy reform and the brain drain, among others, just did not register as important problems. Urbanization, high population growth rates, lack of access to clean water, famine, easy availability of small arms and local arms production presented challenges but less so than today. Other concerns were important more than a half century ago and continue to be troubling. They include cross border ethnic conflict, deteriorating economic conditions, domestic terrorism, criminal activity and human rights abuses. External intervention and arms supply have long had an impact on African armies although the role of some of the outside players has changed over the years.
Terrorism, Criminal Activity and Drug Smuggling
Domestic terrorism, i.e. terrorist acts usually conducted by local groups within the state for the purpose of overthrowing a government or achieving local political advantage, is far more common and harmful to African non-combatants. In some cases, African states and their militaries respond in kind. Domestic terrorism has a long history. Early examples occurred during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya from 1952 to 1959 and the Algerian independence struggle from 1954 to 1962. It was not uncommon for African independence movements and their colonial opponents to resort to tactics that today could only be described as terrorist in nature. African groups that currently use terrorist tactics to achieve their goals include the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, southern Sudan and the eastern Congo and al-Shabaab in Somalia. While some of these groups received considerable support from the local people, the fact is that their tactics sometimes constituted terrorism and posed a special challenge for African militaries, especially whether to respond in kind.
It is important to understand what terrorism is and is not. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband commented in January 2009 that “terrorism is a deadly tactic, not an institution or an ideology.” He is correct. In the same way, criminal activity and drug smuggling are harmful tactics aimed at achieving nefarious goals. Africa is increasingly subject to both scourges, usually with involvement by outside parties. Criminal activity tends to follow the money and, as a result, is found more frequently in wealthier countries such as South Africa and Nigeria. Money laundering has been a particular problem in southern Africa. Criminal elements have also engaged in the illegal exploitation of diamonds, tanzanite and coltan. But even states with almost no valuable resources can find a way to engage in criminal activity. For example, enterprising Somalis have discovered there is a lot of money to be made in piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Historically, the major drug smuggling problem involved the movement of heroin from South Asia to East and West Africa and then on to Europe and North America. Local drug usage has become a growing problem in wealthy pockets of Africa.
Demographic and Social Factors
High population growth rates, a younger population, urbanization, high levels of unemployment and the brain drain all affect political stability and make more difficult, even if indirectly, the ability of the military to maintain security.
Nearly all threats to African regimes occur in urban areas and usually in the capital city. I don’t think rural Africans have ever overthrown a government, although rebellion occasionally began in rural areas and eventually reached the capital as in the case of Ethiopia in 1991. The average annual urbanization growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa since 1990 is over 4 percent, the highest for any region of the world. Between 1990 and 2005, sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled the number of people living in an urban environment. In 1990, 28 percent of the population lived in urban areas. By 2005, the figure increased to 35 percent. While the percentage of urban dwellers is still low by global standards, seething urban centres put additional pressure on security forces.
The attraction of more lucrative employment outside Africa has led to a serious brain drain that has had negative implications for Africa. An estimated 300,000 African professionals live and work outside the continent. Since 1990, Africa has lost some 20,000 professionals annually. About one-fifth of all African-born physicians and one-tenth of African-born professional nurses now work in a country outside Africa. To fill the gap caused by this brain drain, Africa employs up to 150,000 expatriate professionals at a cost of $4 billion annually. There is one silver lining as a result of the African brain drain and the migration of non-professionals to other parts of the world. The World Bank estimated that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa in 2007 reached $20 billion, more than the total foreign direct investment flow and nearly equal to foreign aid. Remittances to North Africa totalled an impressive $35 billion. In addition, these professionals may eventually transfer skills and information back to Africa.
HIV/AIDS and the Military
Cross Border Ethnic Conflicts
Ethnic groups that straddle artificial boundaries have long been a source of conflict in Africa. Somalis living in Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya have agitated for political and/or border realignment since independence. Afars in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea occasionally manifest their unhappiness with the borders that divide them. Zaghawa living in Sudan and Chad have contributed to ongoing conflict in both countries. Hutu in the eastern Congo are part of the conflict in that region and account for Rwandan military retaliations. Some organized groups use neighbouring countries as a base from which to attack their country of origin. Ethiopia’s Oromo Liberation Front has its headquarters in neighbouring Eritrea. The Lord’s Resistance Army, consisting of Acholi from northern Uganda, also operates out of southern Sudan and the eastern Congo. Historically, there have been numerous other cross border ethnic conflicts on the continent.
Refugee Movements and Internally Displaced Persons
Some argue that there is a strong correlation between stability and environmental sustainability. Changes in rainfall patterns have existed in Africa since the beginning of written records and caused periodic famines. Some parts of the continent, however, are experiencing increasingly more frequent famines due to a combination of changing weather conditions, high population growth rates and poor environmental practices. Desertification continues inexorably and is being exacerbated by global climate change. Most experts believe tropical regions will experience the worst effects of climate change, and Africa occupies much of the world’s tropical zone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the effect on Africa will be especially harsh because of low adaptive capacity caused by weak governments with limited capacity, high rates of poverty, unequal access to resources, continuing conflicts and the widespread existence of endemic disease such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Climate change will probably increase instability and result in more conflict and challenges for African security forces.
Much of Africa is short of water for human consumption and/or agricultural purposes. Although clean water is available to most urban residents in sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of rural residents have access to clean water. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest access to an improved water source of any region of the world. In North Africa, about 90 percent of residents can rely on clean water. High population growth and the need for additional irrigated agricultural is leading in some parts of the continent to increased competition for fresh water. For example, the ten riparian states of the Nile Basin constitute a potential conflict zone if ways are not found to allocate amicably a relatively constant amount of water among ever increasing populations that demand greater quantities of water. Ten years of negotiations on a new protocol governing shared use of Nile water recently stalled following objections from Egypt and Sudan.
Rising Consumer Costs, Falling Commodity Prices and Inflation
Although it is impossible to generalize about the effect of rising consumer costs, falling commodity prices and inflation in fifty-three different African economies, these have been troubling issues for many countries. Major African producers of oil and minerals benefit from high prices of those products while non-producing countries suffer. Most African countries do not have significant quantities of oil or minerals. Economies that earn foreign exchange based largely on one crop such as coffee, cocoa or cotton are constantly subject to the vicissitudes of the commodity price. When prices fall, this tends to put enormous pressure on their economies and increases instability.
Inflation is periodically a threat to stability in parts of Africa. A few African economies operate so close to the margins that sharp rises in the price of a staple such as bread can bring the government down. A historically wealthy country, Zimbabwe, today faces the highest inflation in the world. Early in 2008, the IMF calculated the inflation rate at 150,000 percent. It subsequently rose much higher. Zimbabwe recently issued a $1 billion note that is worth little more than the equivalent of US$1. This situation is not sustainable and the government will probably hold on to power only if it continues to have support of the military.
Enlightened leadership, good governance, basic democratic principles, transparency and observance of sound human rights practices are generally believed to contribute to long-term stability. At the same time, studies have shown that the transition between dictatorial or ineffective governance and the achievement of democratic rule can be a highly unstable period. The rise of democracy has led to a decline in conflict in parts of Africa, especially southern Africa. In resource rich countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon and Nigeria the mishandling of democratization increased the prospect for conflict. In Rwanda, Burundi, Gabon and Chad democratization and the realignment of power were sufficiently traumatic that they led to fear and insecurity.
The West needs to exercise patience when pressing for good governance and democratization. In most cases, it will not happen quickly. Elections are a necessary part of the democratic process, but they are not a panacea. If rushed and held without adequate preparation, they can result in political conflict and aggravate rather than heal divisions in a society. Strong civil society also takes years to develop, especially in states with an unusually weak tradition of democratic principles. The encouragement of transparency, underscoring the evils of corruption and rewarding regimes for better human rights practices can help move the process forward. It is particularly important to teach these principles as part of African security force training programs.
The most publicized resource disputes centre, however, on valuable commodities like oil, diamonds and coltan. Control over oil was one of the factors contributing to Sudan’s long-standing civil war. The way in which Nigeria uses its oil revenue has led to protests from the people living in one of the oil producing areas. Some of them have created a group to oppose the government and sabotage the oil facilities. Attempts to develop oil and gas in Ethiopia’s Ogaden by China and Malaysia resulted in attacks on their camp by a group that opposes control of the oil by the government in Addis Ababa. A similar problem recently occurred in Sudan’s South Kordofan region. Conflict diamonds were major factors in the now resolved wars in Angola and Sierra Leone. Coltan and other precious resources in the eastern part of the DRC have been exploited by parties from Rwanda and Uganda.
Availability of Small Arms and Local Weapons Production
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to demonstrate a direct link between all of these structural issues and stability generally or their impact on the challenges for security forces. Some, such as ethnic groups divided by arbitrary borders, clearly result in occasional outbreaks of conflict. Disappearing pasturage and water sources can also be shown to lead to local conflict. It is probably not possible to prove a direct link between high unemployment, population and urbanization growth rates and conflict. The goal of this paper, however, was simply to identify for analysts working on Africa those issues that should also be considered as they look at stability on the continent and the challenges facing African security forces in the years ahead.