CHAIRMAN Mao’s dictum - that political power comes from the barrel of the gun - has been taken to heart in Africa. The military has replaced the party as Africa’s most important political institution; more than half the states of the continent are or have been under military rule. And nowhere are elected governments completely safe from military intervention.
With the coming of independence it was already clear that military power would have a large role in shaping modern Africa. Historian Basil Davidson witnessed the Nigerian independence celebrations in late 1960:
‘The Union Jack came down and the Nigerian flag went up, floodlit in their momentary silence. And then, as I recall, pandemonium exploded. There burst upon the dark arena, without one word of warning, a phalanx of armoured cars firing blank ammunition at the assembled multitudes who thronged the encircling stands. This dreadful assault was brief and nobody was hurt, unless in the eardrums; but it was menacing. And whatever the devisors of that interlude may or may not have intended by it, the effect conveyed was unmistakable: days of wrath lay all too probably ahead.’
Weapons are indeed evocative symbols of state power and national independence. Armoured cars appeared on the streets a year or two after self-government even in relatively poor countries like Upper Volta, Mali and Rwanda. And several countries now have quite powerful armoured corps including tanks and modern artillery. The accumulation of hardware has increased dramatically since independence, with the military exercising a lot of budget clout. In the past ten years all but three African countries (Zaire, Ghana and Liberia) have increased their military spending. Arms imports grew more rapidly than in any other region of the Third World in the 1970s - more than twice as fast as the arms trade to the oil-rich Middle East. And while military spending is still small by world standards, it is very significant for hard-pressed economies of Africa. Before 1965 South Africa and Egypt were the only countries purchasing new combat jet aircraft on the international arms market. Now at least 17 African countries have ordered or taken delivery of such aircraft and several others posses second-hand combat aircraft or light air craft specifically adapted to ‘counter insurgency’. Today, no less than 21 countries on the continent possess guided missiles - mostly for sea and air defence. No country yet has a nuclear arsenal although South Africa is in the process of developing one. This will provide a powerful incentive for countries like Nigeria ant Libya to follow suit as nuclear proliferation hits the continent.
As the military’s fire power has grown so has its political power. It is now a major instrument of political change: making and unmaking revolutions and coups. Most of the institutions through which the colonial powers tried to establish their own style of pluralist democracy in Africa after independence - the political parties, the elections, the parliaments, the independent trade unions and the free press - have disappeared or fallen into disrepair. This was in any case a question of ‘do as I say, not a: I do’. For the instruments through which the colonial powers actually ruled Africa - the bureaucracy, centralised legal and educational systems, the police and armed forces - have flourished.
Volumes have been written on the rob of the military in African politics. How ever, the political forms of African regime: (civilian or military; one party or multiparty; presidential or parliamentary) art less important than how they actually operate. Civilian and military regimes alike have a tendency towards bureaucracy and a willingness to rely on the ‘armoured cat solution’ to solve political disputes ant keep their populations in line.
Unlike Latin American generals, traditionally the guardians of the ancien regime’, political intervention by the African military can mean a push to the right or to the left. In Africa the military is less united; riven instead with internal conflict and struggles for control. Manoeuvrings in the officers’ mess can be overtaken by rebel junior officers or even by mutinies of rank and file soldiers - sweeping Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings to the castle in Ghana, Staff Sergeant Samuel Doe to the executive mansion in Liberia and Captain Sankara to power in Upper Volta. And the New Year’s eve coup launched by Major General Buhari in Nigeria this year is widely believed to have been an attempt to pre-empt more radical action from lower down the ranks.
The Horn of Africa saw another radical takeover with a coalition of Ethiopian soldiers, workers and peasants bringing the military ‘Dergue’ to power. The overthrow of the Nkrumah regime in Ghana or the ascendency of General Mobutu in Zaire were right-wing coups. And Idi Amin’s Uganda provides still another possibility - a narrow military faction (often tribal) gains power in order to plunder the economy by terrorizing the population.
Conventional military structures can be a stumbling block for radical policies. Ethiopia’s ‘garrison socialism’ has run into a series of problems the result of trying to impose a revolution from above. The narrow interests of an autocratic military establishment have led to the destruction of most civilian allies including trade unions and peasant movements. A refusal to compromise with movements of self-determination like that in Eritrea has meant increasing economic and military dependence on the USSR and Cuba. In Africa, as elsewhere, the military shows a profound distrust of popular movements outside its control.
To satisfy its own needs, Africa’s military must look abroad. The ‘weapons systems’ that are swelling its armouries must either be brought at great cost from arms dealers - reinforcing ties with the international economy or acquired on subsidised terms from foreign powers - at a substantial political price. There is very little arms production on the continent outside South Africa. But if the African arms boom continues larger states like Nigeria, which already produces military vehicles, will soon want a piece of the action - although this is unlikely to make weapons any cheaper or less dependent on foreign technology.
The main arms suppliers to sub-Saharan Africa during the l970s were the Soviet Union (50 per cent), followed by France (14 per cent) with most of the rest made up by arms imports from other NATO countries. The main suppliers of new military goods to South Africa were the French (35 per cent) and Italians. (Both countries officially stick to the arms embargo, although military technology, computers and parts continue to reach South Africa in large quantities). Several countries also run extensive military training programs which help cement their ties with African military establishments. France has the most direct military involvement with troops in several countries and a history of intervention to prop up sympathetic governments.
The superpowers see their African policies in terms of lining up regional and subregional balances of ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ states - so exporting the cold war into Africa. The clearest example is the Horn of Africa where Soviet military support for Ethiopia and US acquisition of bases for its rapid deployment force in Somalia, the Sudan and Kenya have led to a regional arms race fuelled by local rivalries. South Africa’s build-up of a powerful war machine and its campaign to destabilize the neighbouring ‘Frontline States’ has led to a military build-up in that region. Throughout the continent governments are no longer exclusively concerned with internal security but increasingly with confrontation with their neighbours.
The sheer fire power of modern weaponry does not automatically bestow military advantage. It did not help General Amin and his Libyan reinforcements defeat the Tanzanian military in 1979. During revolutionary wars (particularly in southern Africa) guerilla movements have proved that they can win by mobilising the peasantry and forcing their opponents to fight on terrain which neutralizes the technological advantages of sophisticated weapons.
Yet Africa’s rulers - civilian as well as military - continue to acquire weapons in ever greater quantities. Is this gigantic pot-latch of guns, missiles, armour and army boots acquired to increase visible authority’ and prestige? Or does the massive export of weapons to the barracks and battlefields of Africa simply mean profits in the North and continued dependency in the South’? The answer is usually yes to both questions.
Weapons are supplied as part of a complete system that ties together the seller and buyer of weapons. This ‘package’ often includes not only hardware but the training of officers and technical assistance in the operation of modern weaponry. It involves transmitting ways of thinking about military power, strategy and the role of a ‘professional military in safeguarding national security - even from its own citizens. Complex military hardware tends to get chosen not so much for its (often doubtful) effectiveness on the battlefields or in the streets but because ordinary citizens lack the means to acquire it for themselves. The State’s monopoly of force is a very tangible reminder of its power against the citizen. It is also a very tangible cost that poor African economies must bear.
Robin Lackham is a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of’ Sussex, England.