Dealing with Africa’s abusive Police and Security forces

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“Liberia is building a new army and we are very strict regarding its standards,” says Lieutenant Eric Dennis, who teaches international humanitarian law to recruits. In a country where previous armies committed widespread atrocities, he hopes to help build one that “will never tarnish the image of our army and our country. We want an army of professional soldiers.”

From South Africa to Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, other countries in Africa are also seeking to restructure and professionalize their armies, police and intelligence services. The process is fraught with difficulties, but is increasingly seen as vital for the continent’s long-term peace and stability.

The momentum for such reform is growing, notes Major General Carl Coleman, a former commandant in Ghana’s armed forces and now a senior analyst at the African Security Dialogue and Research (ASDR), a pan-African non-governmental think tank. In Africa’s new democracies, he told Africa Renewal, “security” is now being redefined to place “people at the centre.”

For too long, General Coleman pointed out, Africa’s militaries, police and intelligence agencies were a major source of insecurity for ordinary Africans. Sometimes poorly paid, their ranks robbed and extorted civilians. Politicians used armies to put down popular protests or eliminate rivals. And frequently, commanders staged coups to take the reins of power themselves.

Breaking with the past

In some countries emerging from civil wars or long periods of dictatorship, reformers are seeking to break with the past by restructuring their security forces and subjecting them to elected civilian control.

“Security sector reform” (SSR) is the most common term for such initiatives. Its concept of “security” extends beyond just “hard-core” institutions, such as the army and police, explains General Coleman. Courts, prison systems, government ministries and parliaments should also be part of the reform. “All of it is intertwined. You can’t do one to the neglect of the other.” The ultimate aim, he says, is to create security forces that guarantee “the protection of the ordinary person.”

South African success

One of the most successful military restructurings took place in South Africa. It was so fundamental and sweeping that South Africans call it a “transformation,” not just a reform. With the end of the white supremacist apartheid system and the first democratic election in 1994, a new army was created with the integration of seven different armed forces: the guerrilla wing of the victorious African National Congress, a smaller liberation group, the regular army of the previous regime and four apartheid-created “homeland” armies.

With further restructuring and training, the army and national police were crafted into highly professional forces dedicated to combating crime and insecurity at home and contributing to peacekeeping operations abroad.

DR Congo’s failure

Similarly, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ended with a peace agreement in 2002 establishing a power-sharing transitional government and committing the belligerents to demobilize some troops and merge the rest into a single army. Unfortunately, there was very little screening of troops. They included commanders of factions suspected of war crimes, and their patterns of behaviour have carried over into the new army.

Creating unified structures for the new army proved especially troublesome. In theory troops from different factions were to be merged into “integrated” brigades, retrained and then posted to areas outside their home zones. This process was intended to break down the old chains of command and forge loyalty to the new national institution.

But in the eastern DRC, General Laurent Nkunda, a civil war commander, refused redeployment and his forces broke with the army in 2006. By October 2008 fighting had escalated. Some army units crumbled, and only UN peacekeepers prevented General Nkunda’s fighters from taking the capital of North Kivu.

After General Nkunda’s arrest in Rwanda in late January, the government opened talks with his followers on their incorporation into the army. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during a visit to the eastern DRC in March 2009, cautioned that no one accused of sexual violence “be integrated into the national army or police.”

New Liberian vision

In Liberia multiparty negotiations in 2003 also established a transitional coalition government. But there was one crucial difference with the DRC: the agreement did not amalgamate the existing groups into a single army, but sought to fashion a new armed forces. The accord said that the soldiers of the new Armed Forces of Liberia “may be drawn from” the previous armed groups, but as individuals and only if qualified.

First, more than 100,000 fighters from the old factions were disarmed and demobilized by UN peacekeepers. Then in 2006 the building of the new army began. To be accepted, applicants not only had to be physically fit and have at least 12 years of schooling, but also were “vetted” to weed out anyone involved in past abuses.

Certain aspects of the initiative have stirred controversy, however. Liberia’s Governance Reform Commission has expressed concern over “the lack of participation of civil society and the national legislature in the SSR process.”

That is an issue that extends beyond Liberia. Proponents of reform generally agree that broad consultations should help shape SSR programmes and build support. But public discussions on military or police reform have been rare.

The UN, which is working to better coordinate its own security reform initiatives, seeks to promote wide consultations. “SSR models are too often imposed by external actors,” says Assistant Secretary-General Dmitry Titov.

Africa itself must take greater initiative, insists Major General Martin Agwai, a Nigerian who served as deputy force commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. “African nations must stand up and accept the torch of responsibility for transforming their own security sectors. Africans must kick-start this process themselves, and the assistance of the broader international community will follow.”

Mr. Ernest Harsch is the managing editor for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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