Sunday, April 15, 2012

Military-civilian relations in West Africa

In the last few weeks, military coups have taken place in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, illustrating yet again the importance of a military under the control of civilians for maintaining order and rule of law.  

In Mali, a captain and a small group of soldiers deposed the out-going president, a few weeks prior to the end of his term, citing his mishandling of a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali.  In the power vacuum that followed, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the situation and declared a new state.  Now the interim administration has to deal with break-away rebels and a contentious military.  Not a pleasant endeavor and one that will take some serious negotiation.

In Guinea-Bissau, the coup occurred as campaigning for a second presidential run-off election began.  The "Military Command" that took into custody the former prime minister and front runner candidate Carlos Gomes Junior and interim president Raimundo Pereira, has claimed a dispute with Angola as the primary cause.  The coup leaders stated that there was a secret agreement between the leaders of Guinea-Bissau and Angola allowing Angola to take action against Guinea-Bissau's military.  Perhaps flaming the fires, recently Angola decided to withdraw a $30 million program for security reform in Guinea-Bissau, and there have been allegations of Carlos Gomes Junior using Angolan troops for personal security detail.  Other reports state that the military was unhappy with Gomes who would allow Angolan troops to interfere with cocaine trafficking, with which the military is involved.  However, it appears that the military is stepping back to allow a transitional administration to coalesce under the supervision of ECOWAS.

These cases clearly illustrate the negative consequences of a military that is not under the control of the civilian government.  Unfortunately, this is so often the case in weak states, where the military retains power and influence both over political elites and the common citizenry.  In such states, joining the military is often the best available career choice, providing a somewhat stable income, whether through legitimate means or bribery and other coercive tactics.  As long as a military retains guns, and sees no need to obey the civilian government in question, democracy will remain fragile.

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