Coup issue: What military academies should do

Africa has experienced more military coups than any other continent worldwide, with five coups this year alone – in Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan.

The number is higher than the average of two decades ago. This turns the spotlight on the role of African military academies in preparing military leaders for 21st-century security challenges.

Several African academies rank high

Professor Kwesi Aning, the director of the faculty of academic affairs and research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, told University World News that most academies are struggling to retain the best and the brightest minds, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, there are military schools where the quality of education is high, particularly in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, Aning said.

There are 77 military schools in 31 African countries. The top five military academies are the Combined Services Military Academy in Cameroon, the Ghana Military Academy, the Nigerian Defence Academy, the South African Military Academy, and the Egyptian Military Academy, according to Opera News.

According to WorldAtlas, the South African Military Academy is among the 10 best military academies in the world.

Military education faces serious challenges

Defence and military analyst Colin Robinson, research fellow at the Africa Research Institute of Obuda University in Hungary, told University World News that challenges facing African officers include a lack of strong higher-level backing for extensive or expanded academic preparation.

Robinson said that dealing with military education’s challenges includes retaining critical staff who do not merely regurgitate knowledge, but produce knowledge. Critical leadership skills in an era of rapidly changing operational challenges along with more balanced and inclusive selection and recruitment processes devoid of ethnic biases are equally important.

“Two critical factors are essential and worth considering: the political context within which these academies function, and the type and quality of military leadership at the helm of affairs at these academies,” Aning pointed out. “These are dynamics that must function in synergy to keep up with the quality that is needed,” he said.

Aning said: “There are multiple challenges facing military higher learning institutions, including politicising the recruitment of students; retaining and maintaining quality staff; upgrading curricula to ensure that, apart from core military subjects, there is a broader introduction to the societies within which they are located; and improving and explaining civil-military relations as a dynamic. ever-changing process.”

Academies’ role in coup context

Charles Thomas, professor and researcher for the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, as well as a course director in the department of strategy and security studies at the US Air Force’s eSchool of Graduate PME (professional military education), told University World News the main issues in many of the coups that happen in African countries come from the weakness of civil society and national identities. This leads the military to feel it is both the sole professional organisation and separated from the people.

“As such, changes to the academies may not solve all the problems. However, they can create an officer class that is more wedded to political and civil stability and the political project of the nation than currently exists,” Thomas said.

“Academies, therefore, should hold discussions and seminars that help towards normalising the place of the military within a larger national construct by linking it to national identity, the legal foundations of the state, and the political class and civil society.”

Thomas said this should help produce nationally conscious officers who more effectively serve as “a bulwark against other praetorian activity” and a military that feels connected to the civilian government, understands its people and processes, and can speak to it directly.

“This military is one less likely to jump directly to military intervention when encountering challenges,” Thomas said.

Consolidate civilian-military relations

Professor Samuel Tshehla, dean of the faculty of military science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said peacetime militaries worldwide invest quality time and resources in the development, training and education of their personnel.

“Sound education means that military personnel are often better educated than their civilian counterparts in business and politics, leading to military people believing that, perhaps, they will be better in running a country than their political office bearers,” he said.

A sound foundation in civil-military relations, the practical realities and theory thereof, should be ingrained in the education curriculum of African military academies, Tshehla said.

He pointed out that, although education provides context and understanding, it cannot be a guarantee against future military involvement in the political domain.

Echoing Tshehla’s views, Dr David Zounmenou, senior research consultant at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said investing more in civilian-military relations consolidation offers better guarantees for the emergence of peaceful nations based on mutual trust.

“As Africa is struggling for democracy and the promotion of the rule of law, educational programmes at African military academies should focus on preparing officers for defending the territorial integrity of their nations,” he said.

They should be prepared to protect citizens and national institutions, and uphold the rule of law, the constitution and support citizen-based legitimacy of political processes, Zounmenou added.

Training approach influences perceptions

Lieutenant Colonel Jahara Matisek, chief of research and development at the Strategy and Warfare Center of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said colonial legacies, Cold War competition and costs have caused the challenges in military education across Africa. Many African countries have to send their personnel overseas for their officer education.

“This has created a fragmented approach to training in each African country because the average officer may have attended officer school in India, taken an infantry course in South Korea, and earned a masters degree at the US Army War College,” Matisek said.

This has also been highlighted in a 2017 study on how training “alters the balance of power between the military and the regime resulting in greater coup propensity”.

Matisek argues that military assistance from various countries in the West and East might contribute to the coup problems because it creates “different sects” within a military. He said that officers can think differently about their own military and government depending on where they completed a military training and education programme.

For example, the Chinese military model is highly dependent on indoctrination to create a political army, which fits better with the armed forces of Ethiopia and Tanzania. The Russian military model is highly personalised, and such a civil-military relations approach works better in Uganda, according to Matisek.

“Finally, Western militaries are apolitical. Senegal is a remarkable outlier for remaining one of the few apolitical armies on the African continent that has never engaged in a coup,” Matisek pointed out.

“The long-term solution for many African militaries is for them to develop their own PME institutions steeped in the rich culture and history of their country and armed forces.”

This article was updated on 29 December 2021.