More than 100 people – including African academic researchers, US Embassy staff, and US Africa Command (Africom) personnel – gathered over the weekend at the alpine resort town of Garmisch, Germany, for a conference on “the Evolution of African Militaries.”
The conference, co-hosted by the US Department of State and Africom, discussed the roles of African militaries in their countries, to include their history and their current role in the African Union and in peacekeeping missions, Africom
The conference was not aimed at making any decisions but instead allowed a free exchange of ideas between leading academic researchers on African security issues, as well as staffs from US Embassies and Africom.
“African militaries are the most influential, important and powerful institutions across the African leadership” and are “one of the best organised and best resourced institutions on the continent,” said Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a career diplomat, former Ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Uganda, and currently the National Intelligence Officer for Africa on the National Intelligence Council.
A number of African militaries have a historical image of being “more often than not a force for bad behaviour rather than good deeds and good governance,” Carson said in opening remarks at the conference. But in the past two decades, a growing number of nations have placed emphasis on helping their militaries become professional forces that protect the people of their nations.
“African militaries are one of the dominant institutions in African security,” Carson said. “They can play an important, productive role in the development of their countries.”
Africom commander General William Ward said the command coordinates US military relationships with the nations of Africa. But Ward said the command works only in ways approved by US diplomats at the Department of State.
Ward noted that some observers have asked whether Africom will make “better trained killers and coups-makers?”
“We are not supporting oppressive and abusive militaries,” Ward emphasised. Africom`s goal is to work with Africans to foster a more stable Africa where military organizations conduct themselves “professionally and with integrity.”
In his travels around the world, Ward said he particularly recalls occasions when people have told him that the actions of an American military member helped provide “hope for the future.”
Ward acknowledged that the U.S. military is far from a perfect organization but added that a modern military, well led under civilian control, is much more than just a combat force. The military can be “a hand that’s not just a hand of destruction but also a hand of construction, a hand that helps lift up an oppressed people.”
Discussions were unclassified but also off the record, and ranged from independence movements that began in the 1950s through an era of numerous military coups in the 1960s and ’70s to the end of the Cold War, when outside powers, including the US and former Soviet Union, reduced backing for oppressor governments and placed more emphasis on cooperative political conditions and human rights.
African nations today have relations with many countries around the world, not in a Cold War-style confrontation but in a wide variety of foreign policy choices that reflects that fact that Africa “is becoming a more normal place,” one academic said.
Africans are developing complex relationships with all the world powers, the United States, Europe, China, India and others, rather than focusing on European ties that reflect their colonial history.
The discussions also included many viewpoints by Africans, Europeans and others, including frank assessments of US policies in Africa and the difficulties in working with governments that are not democratic.
Approximately half the governments in Africa are not considered to be liberal democracies or aspiring democracies, according to research presented at the conference. However, about two-thirds of all Africans surveyed in independent academic studies have voiced support for democratic governance.
Also, the numbers of military coups have declined dramatically over the decades. From 1966 to 1985, there were more than 50 military coups in African governments compared to fewer than 20 coups from 1986 to 2001.