Challenges of Human Security in Africa

By Abdul Omar | 2000-07-01 12:00:00

This article will address the challenges in Africa to the safety of people from violent and non-violent threats. This is "human security" - a concept that extends traditional security thinking. The concept lays emphasis on the security of people, while still recognizing the importance of the security of states and governments. Poor civil-military relations, the politics of exclusion, a weak civil society, and the problem of failed states all represent the challenges of human security.

Poor Civil-Military Relations

First let us look at the problems generated by poor relations between governments and the military. The military officer has three responsibilities to the state. The first is to provide information to the authorities regarding the minimum security that the state needs while taking into account the capabilities of other states. His second responsibility is to analyze the implications of different state actions. He may highlight actions the state can easily execute based on its military strength, but cannot spell out the most desirable action. His third responsibility is to execute state decisions in the realm of military security, including decisions that are not in line with his military point of view.1

This suggests that the military is subservient to the civilian authorities at the helm of state machinery. In Africa, however, this has not been the case, as often the military not only challenges the civilian democratic authorities, but also assumes their responsibilities. The military in the continent uses a variety of arguments to usurp power from the civilian authorities. These arguments can be generally classified as having their roots either in the "development thesis" or in "the guardian perspective."2

The "development thesis" posits that the military represents the people, and coup leaders intervene on behalf of the downtrodden citizens. Coup leaders may cite lack of success in nation-building and economic failures as the basis of their intervention. Major General Juvenal Habyarimana's coup in Rwanda in July 1973 was begun following accusations of increased national disunity during the rule of President Gregiore Kayabinda. Sergeant Samuel Doe's 1980 coup in Liberia was based on accusations of unequal distribution of the nation's economic resources by the Tolbert government.3

The "guardian perspective" states that the military is responsible for the nation's defence and that military coups are aimed at maintaining political sanity. The use of the "guardian perspective" may be evident in the period following elections, particularly when the loser fails to acknowledge the victory of its opponent and alleges electoral malpractice. It is uncommon for electoral candidates in most African states to accept the outcome of elections even if they are free and fair. As electoral squabbles can degenerate into conflict, the military steps in, claiming that it should guarantee the country's peace. Additional justifications announced by the coup leaders, which are considered as part of the "guardian perspective," include lack of law and order, unlawful acts on the part of the government, and the military's responsibility to guarantee law and order.4

Military's Control of the State

Regardless of its intentions, the military's control of the state, or even its attempt, has serious implications for human security. The tragedies in Sierra Leone and the Republic of Congo illustrate the insecurity that arises when the military leaves the barracks. In Sierra Leone, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who was democratically elected by the people, was ousted from power by Major Johnny Paul Koroma and other junior military officers in May 1997. To consolidate power, Koroma invited the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which has been locked in a bitter conflict with different governments in Sierra Leone since 1991, to join the military junta. Although President Kabbah was reinstated in March 1998, with the assistance of a Nigerian-led monitoring group, and a peace agreement was signed with the RUF in Lome in July 1999, the human cost of the conflict has been alarming. In 1998 alone, 1,300 people, the majority of whom were civilians, were killed in the conflict.5 As part of their war strategy, the rebels resorted to barbaric acts, including the maiming of thousands of civilians.

The situation in the Republic of Congo, although there are signs of improvements, is similar to that of Sierra Leone. In June 1997, the government forces attempted to disarm the private militia of General Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who led the country before the 1992 elections. Enraged by the government's actions just before the presidential elections that were scheduled for July 1997, Sassou-Nguesso drove President Pascal Lissouba out of Brazzaville in October 1997, with the support of Angolan troops. The casualties of the first encounters between the armed groups were disheartening. It is estimated that as many as 3,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed while many others were displaced.6

Despite the military's claims that its interests are not divorced from those of the people, it is clear that the military undermines human security when it attempts to govern rather than follow the lead of the elected civilian authorities. The military barely understands the nature of its own institutions-and still less those of the democratic civilian governments.The military is undemocratic, order-oriented, and hierarchical, and does not tolerate differences of opinions. Conversely, democratic governments are participatory and give citizens legitimate opportunities to better themselves. Above all, democratic governments encourage diversity and provide avenues for improvements and innovations.

The Politics of Exclusion

In many African states power is concentrated in the hands of one group. To consolidate its position, the power wielders exclude others from fully participating in national life. In the process, the ruling group enhances the welfare of its followers at the expense of the other groups so that their support can be relied on if a military campaign becomes necessary. The attempts of disadvantaged groups to reverse unjust conditions often meet with harsh responses. Violence is used to force them to cooperate with the authorities. Detention, persecution, mistreatment, and other human rights violations become a common practice. The victims of the politics of exclusion rarely achieve a fair hearing before courts, which further exacerbates their conditions. They are not allowed to become active players in the key areas of the economy, lacking access to agricultural lands, investment opportunities, or the higher positions that their counterparts enjoy. Modern African history is replete with examples of leaders enriching their own groups while paying little attention to the plight of their fellow citizens. Some leaders have even made their birthplaces into exclusive development zones.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since independence, Burundi has been run by the Tutsi minority except for brief periods of time. The Tutsis have excluded the Hutu majority from military and economic activities. The struggle of the Hutus to overcome what they regard as Tutsi oppression accounts for the loss of lives of an estimated 200,000 people.7 The situation in Burundi could get out of control at any moment.

Rwanda demonstrates a classic example of the politics of exclusion. After independence, Rwanda was run by the Hutus, who provided few rights to the Tutsis. In mid-1994, after the 1993 Arusha peace accord had collapsed, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriortic Front (RPF) launched a military campaign from Uganda, taking control of the country. Rather than admitting defeat, the Rwandan army and its partner, the Interahamwe militia, engaged in a spate of killings and some one million people, mainly Tutsis, were killed by the end of June 1994. A large segment of the population became internally displaced or sought shelter in neighboring states.

The human condition in the Congo is not severe compared to Burundi and Rwanda.8 However, much of the suffering in the country can be traced to the exclusionary policies of the Congolese leaders. The first rebellion that ousted the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997 was launched after his government attempted to strip the Banyamulenge - Congolese who speak the same language as Rwandans - of their nationality in the previous year. The current rebellion, with which President Laurent Kabila continues to grapple, also began after he set out to isolate the Banyamulenge. It is logical to argue that had the Congolese leaders treated the Banyamulenge as fellow citizens, much of the bloodshed in the DRC could have been avoided.

Weak Civil Society

At the dawn of the new century, the development of civil society in Africa is gaining momentum. This stems from greater understanding that non-governmental organizations can contribute to the public good. In Angola, civil society is at the forefront of the struggle to end the conflict in a peaceful manner. In Nigeria, civil society organizations are increasing the awareness of human rights and consolidating democracy. The Committee for Defense of Human Rights, for instance, organizes forums aimed at promoting human rights and democracy. Nevertheless, civil society is also fraught with weaknesses because of its poor working relationship with governments. In cases where state-civil society relations are poor, governments tend to be wary of the amount of perceived power in the hands of civil society. Perhaps this will change when governments become more familiar with civil society.

Civil society in Africa is excessively dependent on donor communities. Unfortunately, only when generous donors are willing to come forward with the necessary resources can civil society realize its goals.

Another weakness arises from some civil society organizations portraying themselves as private enterprises. Organizations adopting this strategy view everything through profit-making lenses, sharing information only so long as there is a chance to make money. In some cases these organizations deny access to information that may contribute to the welfare of people, because they gain nothing financially from sharing it.

Civil society in Africa remains generally uncoordinated. Most of these organizations are committed to the work in which they are engaged, yet they rarely engage in sustained discussions so that they could mutually reinforce each other. Competition for funding sources and parochial interests usually impede their coordination.

A weak civil society compromises human security, for it can serve as a formidable force only when well-organized. In addition to its importance as an early-warning device, civil society can assist governments to advance policies that ensure the safety of people.

Above all, civil society can build an indigenous capacity to advance human security. Outside donor communities can provide the necessary resources, but cannot bridge an important gap: attracting local people to participate. Because of their greater understanding of the local dynamics, civil society is best suited for this task.

Failed States

The African state is a colonial creation, and thus did not emerge from the needs of its inhabitants. As colonization became too costly, colonial authorities turned over to the local elite the institutions at their disposal. Unfortunately, those who inherited the colonial state were inexperienced or not in touch with the people they represented.

After independence, a handful of the ruling elite lost power, and the rule of a strong man became the order of the day. This turn in African polity was hardly challenged at the international level, for it was perfectly acceptable in the context of rivalry between Russian and American military camps. The accommodation of an authoritarian state, whether run by a military or civilian leader, was viewed as a strategic advantage. To muster its support, political, military, and economic assistance were given.

As the Cold War wound down with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the interests of the African states receded from Western focus. The victors began to rebuild the economies of their former adversaries in Europe and turned their backs on Africa. The end of the Cold War had serious ramifications for the African states, which became weaker. The phenomenon of the failed states, which William Zartman describes as a "situation where the structure, authority (legitimate power), law, and political order have fallen apart...,"9 has taken centre stage. Policy-makers are now trying urgently to stem the threats emanating from them.

Failed states pose considerable challenges to the security of people, as shown by the experiences of Somalia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to name a few. Such states can no longer guarantee the security of people and do not fully control their territories. The people look to other groups or institutions for protection. Laws have no use, and every conceivable action is carried out in the name of ensuring one's security, which becomes privatized, since it is no longer the responsibility of the state.

The economies are in no better situation, for they are assumed by criminal activities. Bribery, extortion, and black markets become the prevailing economic order. People pay hefty prices, as they struggle with the hardships engendered by the failure of the economy. In some cases, individuals opt for the currencies of the neighboring states to alleviate their difficulties.

No less significant is the humanitarian crisis that comes with the failure of states. Criminal activity increases, as many kinds of deadly weapons are introduced into the market. Marauding gangs and militia members, who are not responsible to any recognized authority, terrorize innocent civilians. Famine, starvation, and diseases endanger the local people. Those who are fortunate enough to capture the attention of the international community are rescued; other peoples perish.


In short, human security in Africa is in a precarious situation. The challenges of attaining the security of people are manifold and include poor relations between the military and civilian authorities, the prevalence of a politics of exclusion, the weakness of civil society, and the failure of states. There is room for hope - but only when it is recognized that any successful security project must stress, above all, the safety of people.

Abdul Omar is with Project Ploughshares.


1 Samuel P. Huntington. The Soldier and the State: The Theory of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 72.

2 Onwumechili makes a reference to arguments that cannot easily fit either the development thesis or the guardian perspective. These arguments include lack of democracy, corruption, interference in military affairs, and inadequate military budgets. See Chuka Onwumechili. African Democratization and Military Coups, (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998), pp. 38-39.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Project Ploughshares. Armed Conflicts Report 1999 (Waterloo: Project Ploughshares, 1999)

6 Mark Malan. "The Crisis in International Response," in Jackie Cilliers and Peggy Mason (eds). Peace, Profit or Plunder? The Privatization of Security in War Torn African Societies (Halfway House: Institute for Security Studies, 1998), p. 46.

7 BBC News, August 30, 1999.

8 UN, The United Nations and Rwanda, 1996, (New York: Department of Public Information, 1996), p. 61.

9 William Zartman. "Posing the Problem of State Collapse," in William Zartman (ed.) Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1995), p. 1.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 9. Some rights reserved.

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