This January marks the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s first coup, an event that occurred shortly after its first steps towards independence and democracy. Unfortunately, such violence became the norm across Africa as each countries’ first, violent transfers of power initiated ‘coup traps’ that continue to plague Abuja and other capitals across the continent in places like Chad, Uganda, Liberia, and other African dictatorships. The majority of these leaders rose to power with the fickle support of the military, which just as often later orchestrated the leader’s own downfall by backing a new, more promising figure to assume the reins of power. These forces are thus politically useful and effective, right up until the moment when they are not, resulting in the overthrow and replacement of the autocrat with one more amenable to the military’s own interests.
Few observers are surprised by the poor effectiveness of these regimes’ forces. As clearly illustrated by the pathetic performance of cases like Egypt’s wars with Israel or the inability of Zairian or Rwandan forces to fight off rebel groups, autocratic armies are simply not designed to compete with other countries in an inter-state war. Instead, dictators like a Mobutu, Nasser, Amin, Bokassa, or more recently, Nkurunziza in Burundi make a conscious trade-off between their armies’ tactical, operational, and strategic effectiveness for political reliability to keep them in power. Indeed, as noted by a recent article by War on the Rocks, these troops’ sole purpose is to maintain the control of a brutal autocrat and the corrupt system he controls. Yet as history demonstrates, these forces can ultimately prove as dangerous to the leader as the people he rules should he run out of the funds to pay his generals. When that occurs, the officers can easily find another aspirant willing to assume command and provide better benefits to the armed forces.
Wikimedia Commons (Democratic Republic of the Congo Military)
The militaries autocracies are thus often highly successful in terms of political effectiveness, in so far as it balances the ‘national’ goal co-opted by the leader of keeping himself in power with the second requirement of ensuring a consistent source of revenues for the generals. Thus, in contrast to the institutionalized civil-military framework of western democracies, autocratic militaries play a careful game in which they sacrifice their tactical, operational, and strategic capabilities to ensure the political survival of their benefactor. Yet when their patronage comes in doubt, the military moves to replace the autocrat with another more willing to provide greater benefits, whereupon they once again resume the political goal of ensuring that new leader’s political survival.
Wikimedia Commons (Mauritanian coup d’état)
Growing trends over the past half decade, however, suggest that the risk of political coups may decrease, ultimately enhancing the political effectiveness of these autocratic militaries. An article back in April 2014 noted that African countries were arming faster than any other continent. Current signs also suggest that a host of African nations will soon find themselves awash in growing oil wealth from the East Africa, further fueling the growth of the region’s security/military forces at the hands of the petty dictators that tentatively control them. While most of the past half century clearly shows that these troops have been nearly as dangerous for the leaders that control them, these funds will relieve pressure on the military’s benefits, thus strengthening its own political effectiveness towards securing its autocrat’s political survival. In comparison to their resource-rich countries, however, those African dictators that rode to power on the army’s support may soon fall prey to the tiger they have used to reach this position that is now jealous of the greater wealth of their resource-rich counterparts.