Taming the wounded lion: Transforming security forces in West Africa

February 01, 2011
Peter S. Moore
Coups and conflict have been a sad part of life for millions of West Africans over the past four decades. Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria are synonymous with intractable and brutal civil wars, guerrilla armies, and repression.

With the arrival of fragile democracies, new civilian governments are replacing military rule but often the two parties do not know how to talk to each other. In fact, in many cases, they can be suspicious of each other’s motivations and objectives. Civilians who have lived in repressive societies often fear the security forces. They may also avoid interacting with security forces because of a lack of knowledge concerning defence and policing matters.

For their part, military, police, and intelligence forces — the security sector — often doubt civilians’ ability to understand security matters and make effective decisions. Moreover, in cases where security forces have been implicated in human rights abuses, or have pursued corrupt policies or practices, leaders may fear retribution once civilians gain power.

“A wounded lion is very dangerous,” says Dr Kayode Fayemi, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a nongovernmental organization that aims to promote the values of democracy, peace, and human rights in Africa through advocacy, training, and research. Knowing how to deal with the “wounded lion” is one of the keys to achieving a lasting national and regional peace in West Africa, he says.

Policy guide to change

The CDD has just published a 176-page handbook on the security sector that will serve as a policy guide as well as a training tool for both individuals and policymakers. Developed with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the handbook is designed to provide military, government, and civil society throughout Africa with a holistic tool to analyze and choose alternatives. It includes examples from all over the continent of good and bad practices and also promotes new values such as the “human security” approach championed by Canada at the United Nations.

The handbook aims to help inform the thinking and attitudes of policymakers and practitioners, including mid- to senior military ranks, civil servants, and parliamentarians, including those who sit on defence-related committees.

Competition for resources

West Africa has been plagued by conflict. The region’s political history is one of intense competition among European colonial powers — France, Germany, Britain, Spain, and Portugal — for the region’s rich natural resources of gold, diamonds, oil, foodstuffs, and in earlier times, slaves. Competition for those resources, complicated by a patchwork of arbitrary boundaries and weak states, still fuels conflict in West Africa between countries, as well as between military and civilian authorities. In each of the conflicts that have plagued 10 of the 16 West African countries during the 1990s, the “security sector” has waged war. This has resulted in confusion about the status and role of civilian and military authority.

Military resentment of government interference in the size and role of the forces, policy differences between once-strong militaries and new civilian governments, the use of the military to defy the rulings of international bodies, and the destruction of professional security forces by a political leader to maintain a grip on power have all featured in the West African context in recent years.

Solidarity networks of language and culture link ethnic groups across many West African states and the borders are porous. West Africa, especially Sierra Leone and Liberia, has seen massive refugee movements and human rights abuses as a result of recent conflicts.

Tinkering at the edges

Reshaping military and government thinking is an important challenge. When most states talk military reform, they are “tinkering at the edges,” according to Dr Fayemi, because they don’t want real change that will threaten their interests.

“If you have a security sector that has prided itself on intimidating its own population,” he says, “all the best policies will fail if you don’t change the mind-set of the people in charge...”

CDD hopes that the training handbook for policymakers and practitioners will make a contribution toward this end. The handbook deals with governance issues in all sectors of the security services, with lessons drawn from African examples. Chapters are devoted to the national security policymaking process, financial management issues, defence forces, police and related criminal justice services, the intelligence services, regional institutions involved in security policymaking, and international agencies.

CDD has held consultations at every stage of the handbook’s development with government officials in Senegal, Nigeria, the Seychelles, South Africa, and Mozambique. Senior military, police, intelligence, and government officials, as well as academics, think tanks, and civil society organizations have been involved. Ultimately, says Dr Fayemi, the training aims to help democratic control of the security sector become a reality by promoting values that reinforce peace, democracy, and civilian oversight of military affairs. The expectation is that government policies will ultimately reflect this.

Filling a need

Anicia Lala, a researcher with the Southern African Defence and Security Management (SADSEM) Network who worked formerly with the Mozambican Ministry of Defence’s National Directorate for Defence Policy, says the handbook will serve as an “enlightening instrument” for security practitioners and for civil society, who mostly lack expertise.

The handbook would also be a tool to relaunch the political debate of how security and development interrelate, she says. The debate starts from the premise that without security, you cannot have development. But security in this sense assumes a wider meaning — shelter, human rights protection, food security, environmental security — not just military security.

“The extent to which the security sector is successfully reformed or transformed has tended to determine the success or failure” of rebuilding failed states, says Dr Funmi Olonisakin, who formerly worked with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict at the United Nations and was a member of the team that developed CDD’s handbook. In Mali and South Africa, for example, the nature of security sector reform has been entrenched in their democratic development. But in Liberia, where the security sector was not reformed in the aftermath of conflict, the tendency to relapse and re-ignite conflict has become evident.

Reshaping thinking and attitudes

The handbook will be distributed to key institutions in the security sector — the African Union; subregional organizations; the national ministries of the interior, security, defence, and justice; training institutions such as military academies and police colleges; criminal justice institutions; civil society organizations and development agencies.

CDD also plans to open a regional institute for peace and security in Nigeria in the near future. Training will concentrate on civilians’ involvement in the security sector, but courses on human rights and human security will also be offered for police and soldiers.

Peter S. Moore is a writer based in Ottawa.