The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has years of experience in dealing with environmental problems, but it mostly has been a key player in weather-related disasters. With flooding becoming an almost annual problem in Southern Africa, the SANDF has some of the most experienced rescue teams on the continent.
The response to flooding in 2013 in Mozambique was typical of how the SANDF operates in crises. The South African Air Force first provided airlift capacity to a disaster relief group, Gift of the Givers. SANDF C-130 transport planes shipped more than 136 metric tons of food. The SANDF deployment included Navy divers; Oryx helicopters and crew; and primary health-care nurses, dietitians and environmental health officers from the South African Military Health Service. After completing search-and-rescue operations for flood victims, the Air Force began food distribution flights.
Col. Andre Pieterse told the South African newspaper Beeld that in one operation alone, SANDF rescued at least 500 people from the raging Limpopo River in Mozambique. This work included hoisting people to safety from rooftops and out of trees.
A SANDF officer told ADF that in South Africa’s neighboring countries, civilians have come to think of SANDF personnel more as rescue workers than as traditional Soldiers.
South Africa is not the only country using its military forces in new ways. In the 21st century, Soldiers are beginning to discover that environmental protection and repair are key elements of peacekeeping, preventing warfare and protecting civilians.
In 2019, Kenyan Secretary of Defence Raychelle Omamo said the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) would use protection of the environment as the first line of defense to resolve resource-based conflicts, such as those between farmers and herders.
In the past, Omamo said, Soldiers had been deployed to some parts of the country to reinstate order and stability between the two disputing groups in times of drought.
“Environmental degradation and the destructive effects of climate change serve as multipliers for insecurity and conflict and add credence to the enduring connection between peace, good governance and environmental protection,” she said, as reported by the website News Ghana.
Omamo said Kenya’s Armed Forces are not restricted to protecting the country from external aggression. Their role, she said, also can be interpreted to include protection from cyclical threats of hunger, disease and the disruption of livelihood arising from extreme weather. Gen. Samson Mwathethe, Kenya’s chief of defense forces, said the approach continues to bear fruit, but more is needed.
“The KDF is today reaching out in a bid to establish partnerships towards enhancing a secure and healthy world for present and future generations,” he said, as reported by News Ghana.
Nigeria also is taking steps to address environmental challenges. The country has been described as having the worst deforestation problems on the planet. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation says Nigeria has lost 96% of its natural forest cover. One significant cause is the illegal logging of valuable furniture wood for the Chinese market.
Nigerian Armed Forces officials say that they have the added problem of trying to protect an environment for plants and animals while preventing that same environment from being a sanctuary for criminals, kidnappers and terrorists.
In March 2019, the Nigerian Army announced a radical step to help preserve the nation’s wildlife. Army officials announced they were planning to establish “mini zoos” and wildlife parks in all military camps to protect endangered plants and animals.
Maj. Gen. Adekunle Shodunke said the zoos and parks also would serve as recreational areas for military personnel. He asked officials with Nigeria’s National Park Service to help develop “eco-tourism in the zoos and parks and to have them meet international standards,” Vanguard Media reported. The park service pledged its support for the base zoos.
The Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) says a cornerstone of its service is civic involvement. “RDF is mandated to support and contribute to government efforts in poverty reduction, infrastructure development, health care, education and other activities aimed at addressing human security challenges,” said the RDF in a 2019 news release. In mid-April 2019, the RDF rolled out its 2019 Citizen Outreach Program, sending medical equipment, along with farm and engineering tools, into poor parts of the country. Rwandan medical personnel offered free treatment for the sick while other personnel plowed fields and built houses. The annual program lasts about six weeks.
The Rwandan news agency Taarifa said the program anticipated treating 138,000 patients while also working to improve sanitation. The agency said military workers planned to build 1,141 houses for “the most vulnerable citizens across the country.” Soldiers also planned to cultivate 11,139 hectares of farm land while setting aside 45,300 hectares for soil erosion control and environmental protection.
LESSONS FROM AMISOM
Some of these civic duties taken on by military groups have evolved out of peacekeeping efforts. One conspicuous example is the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), now in its 12th year. It is the African Union’s longest-running and largest peace operation, and its results have been heavily studied. Research papers have documented the lessons learned from the operation, and how they can be applied throughout the continent.
AMISOM was mandated to help and protect political leaders in Somalia, reconstruct the country’s security forces, support elections, and provide humanitarian assistance. That humanitarian work evolved into reaching out to civilian and government groups in search of ways they could help each other.
In April 2019, AMISOM and civil groups in Somalia resolved to come up with programs that will empower citizens to participate in the affairs of the country.
AMISOM reported that it was working closely with the major players in Somalia to ensure that the transfer of security responsibility to Somali national forces proceeds smoothly and ensures that gains already made in the stabilization process are maintained.
“We want you to take over, and AMISOM is ready to help the people of Somalia make the country a better place to live in,” said Francisco Madeira, head of AMISOM.