News | Oct. 21, 2020

International Competition to Provide Security Force Assistance in Africa: Civil-Military Relations Matter

By Jahara Matisek PRISM Vol. 9, No. 1

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Dr. Jahara ‘FRANKY’ Matisek (Lt Col, U.S. Air Force) is an Assistant Professor, Military and Strategic Studies Department, and the Director of Research, Center for Air Power Studies, at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

This material is based upon work supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

ZAMBATT V, the fifth iteration of troops from the country of Zambia to go in support of the United Nation’s Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), spent more than six weeks working with U.S., U.K., and French partners training and preparing for their mission to CAR.” (MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker)
ZAMBATT V, the fifth iteration of troops from the country of Zambia to go in support of the United Nation’s Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), spent more than six weeks working with U.S., U.K., and French partners training and preparing for their mission to CAR.” (MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker)
ZAMBATT V, the fifth iteration of troops from the country of Zambia to go in support of the United Nation’s Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), spent more than six weeks working with U.S., U.K., and French partners training and preparing for their mission to CAR.” (MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker)
ZAMBATT V, the fifth iteration of troops from the country of Zambia to go in support of the United Nation’s Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), spent more than six weeks working with U.S., U.K., and French partners training and preparing for their mission to CAR.” (MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker)
ZAMBATT V, the fifth iteration of troops from the country of Zambia to go in support of the United Nation’s Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), spent more than six weeks working with U.S., U.K., and French partners training and preparing for their mission to CAR.” (MC2 (SW/AW) Evan Parker)
Photo By: Evan Parker
VIRIN: 210819-D-BD104-015

Western states increasingly tackle the problem of state fragility in Africa through the delivery of security force assistance (SFA). What is SFA and why does it matter?1  Broadly speaking, SFA is a term used to describe the provision of military aid, advisors, and resources to a fragile state, so that the armed forces of that state can provide security in support of stability. SFA typically consists of the deployment of small numbers of military advisors and resources to a fragile or weak state to build effective armed forces.2 However, such efforts are often overly technical and rarely address the political and institutional problems that create insecurity and the fragmented security organizations of that state (e.g. police, military, intelligence, etc.). Worse, in some cases, such SFA has only created the veneer of military effectiveness, known as the Fabergé Egg army problem; an expensively built military, but easily broken by insurgents.3

The western approach to SFA is codified in NATO doctrine, specifically Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3.16 Security Force Assistance. The United States has created an organizational structure for SFA through the establishment of Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB). Providing SFA to weak states is an expensive endeavor, especially as done by the United States. Since 2001, the United States has provided over $9 billion to Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries and about $25 billion to the five North African states.4 Similarly, the European Union (EU) through its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has been spending over €100 million per year on five EU missions in Africa. Specifically, the EU is conducting civilian/political missions in Libya (2013-Present) and Niger (2012-Present), a blend of military and civilian/political training missions in Mali (2013-Present) and Somalia (2010-Present), and a pure military mission in the Central Africa Republic (2016-Present). These EU missions have cost, on average, $10-30 million a year. Though a drop in the bucket compared to U.S. SFA efforts, the logic has been to stymie the growth of insurgency and terrorism throughout Africa.

Addressing state fragility through SFA has become popular with political leaders in many western capitals who see state weakness as conducive to insurgency, terrorism, and state collapse.5 They fear the spillover from an influx of refugees coming to Europe as well as in more stable neighboring African states. Greece and Italy for example have experienced domestic turmoil and traumatic shifts (and increases) in political extremism, while the welfare systems of Botswana and South Africa are being stretched to and beyond the limit.6 The current problems of insecurity and mass migration emanating from Latin America are leading to a similar refugee crisis that has become a highly polarized and politicized issue in the United States.7

Despite the desire to provide safety and security—whatever their strategic intent might be—western SFA efforts are struggling to produce lasting outcomes in many African states (e.g. Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, etc.). Most of the failures stem from an inability to adapt assistance to the local context of civil-military relations (CMR) in each country. Contextually dependent CMR dictate how the army, police, and intelligence agencies are structured and manned. Such security architectures and the relationship to political and societal elites determine the sorts of informal relations that exist—and how much power and agency each security institution has. However, many political and military leaders in western capitals advance a technically oriented SFA approach because it is a low-risk foreign policy with the appearance of “doing something,” while committing few “boots on the ground.” Such western SFA attempts typically lack the necessary nuance because they fail to recognize the reality and actual practice of politics in a fragile state.8 This failure obscures many of the structural problems leading to instability throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel where climate change collides with transnational organizational crime, economic deprivation, and political and social iniquities producing perpetual civil war dynamics.9

Great power competition further complicates matters in Africa, as China and Russia are increasingly contesting the space by providing their own economic and military aid. Such competition is occurring within a globalized economy, with a high premium on acquiring access to new consumer markets and extracting precious minerals and natural resources. According to a retired U.S. Army General, with prior foreign area officer experience in security cooperation, China and Russia conduct military aid and assistance missions for “real hard-nose politics in pursuit of their own selfish strategic interests.” On the other hand, he contended, most U.S. military aid and advise and assist missions to African countries are for “altruistic purposes,” from improving humanitarian capabilities of African militaries, to pandemic and disaster response (e.g. Ebola, floods, etc.), to improving warfighting capability against local and regional threats (e.g. insurgents, terrorists, etc.).10

While some might rightly be skeptical of America’s altruistic intentions in Africa, one cannot ignore the reality that China, Russia, and America—and the West more broadly—present different visions for the world, to include how a state should govern and treat its citizens.11 Chinese activity in Africa appears part of a grand strategy of creating a global Belt and Road Initiative, which ties Africa (and other regions) ever-closer to Beijing.12 This may explain why China embraces a “comprehensive approach” to Africa, “blending trade and investment deals and cultural exchanges with arms sales, medical assistance, troops training, anti-piracy drills, and other programs.”13 Russia sees opportunities for re-establishing its presence and for selling arms. While the Trump Administration lacks any clear strategy for engaging Africa and advocates “America First,” China and Russia are making inroads on the continent and in international perception.14

The question remains though; what can the West actually achieve in Africa by building host-nation military capacity (i.e. SFA) in a way that does not lead to praetorianism and other military pathologies that corrupt governance and undermine legitimacy? Moreover, can SFA facilitate democracy and human rights, and shift African countries away from authoritarianism? To answer these questions, let us consider a recently assembled multinational fighting force in the Sahel, to consider the limits of SFA and how it can be improved. Based on a contextually informed understanding of civil-military relations we can escape traditional notions of military effectiveness and better grasp the challenges of stabilization and peacebuilding in a weak state. This would inform how the West and its partners provide military aid, assistance, and training to weak, fragile, and conflict-prone states. Success with SFA in such difficult environments requires a restructuring of the way core issues are handled by various elites.

A G5 “Pipedream” in the Sahel?

Created by regional leaders in 2014, the G5 Sahel Joint Force was established, “as a way of taking their security into their own hands and encouraging regional development by coordinating their efforts.” Joint military operations—comprised of army personnel from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—were initiated in 2017.15 The force, expected to consist of 10,000 personnel in the near-term, has been primarily dedicated to counterterrorism (CT) operations in the Lake Chad Basin (LCB) area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. However, the overly CT-focused approach has depoliticized adversaries by labeling them as terrorists, instead of treating them as rational actors using violence to achieve certain political goals (e.g. patronage, economic rents, autonomy, etc.).16 Such CT operations overlook local context and the ways in which elites conduct politics in the LCB region.

In conducting its CT mission, the G5 Sahel Joint Force often ignores the reasons some engage in criminality, insurgency, and terrorism. Underdevelopment and lack of opportunity motivate some, while weak state institutions make it easier for international terrorist and transnational criminal networks to operate and profit in these “stateless” areas.17 Moreover, communal violence between various ethnic groups and identities has spiraled out of control, especially in Mali and Niger, with back-and-forth massacres perpetrated by different tribes; and the anarchy is compounded by a substantial increase in highly successful insurgent attacks and ambushes against G5 military units.18 These struggles to contain and reduce the violence in the LCB region and the deteriorating situation should not come as a surprise. A 2017 analysis warned that the problem with the western SFA approach and the G5 Force was that it was an overly technical, “capacity-building approach geared to short-term success over security sector reform and lack[ed] a coordinated strategy. The Malian government [and others]…preserves the status quo and is not prepared to accept its political responsibility.”19

A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5-Sahel in February 2018. (NigerTZai - Own work)
A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5-Sahel in February 2018. (NigerTZai - Own work)
A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5-Sahel in February 2018. (NigerTZai - Own work)
A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5-Sahel in February 2018. (NigerTZai - Own work)
A billboard in Niamey (Niger) announcing a summit of Heads of State of the G5-Sahel in February 2018. (NigerTZai - Own work)
Photo By: NigerTZai
VIRIN: 210819-D-BD104-014

In interviews at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2017 the current western SFA approach of building up the G5 Sahel Alliance to deal with the unique security threats of the region, was described by one officer as essentially a “pipedream.” These militaries “can barely function in their own country,” he argued, “let alone be expected to safely conduct multinational operations.”20 While such dismissive remarks may have seemed overly harsh at the time, the situation in the LCB region has continued to deteriorate. Even the notoriously effective Chadian armed forces had one of its bases overrun March 23, 2020, with at least 92 troops killed by Boko Haram.21

Competing for Influence in Africa: Damned If You Do, Even More Damned If You Don’t

Despite international efforts to deal with insecurity in Africa through SFA, other western aid programs and investment in Africa have decreased significantly over the last decade.22 These reductions in western assistance, however, have been offset by a significant increase in aid from China and Russia. This pits great powers with conflicting visions of world order and competing interests and beliefs in how Africa should look against each other. The shrinkage of western aid programs has implications:

All Africans want democracy. We all want to be like the United States. We need help with roads and infrastructure, but our governments cannot work with USAID and the World Bank. Who can the people get help from? If not China, who?23

His thoughts reflect similar sentiments, in terms of frustration of not getting the help their country needs, by dozens of foreign military personnel interviewed by the author.24

The slow withdrawal of the United States and European powers from Africa gives China and Russia a geopolitical opportunity in the competition for resources and influence. Substantial evidence indicates that Beijing and Moscow are strategically seeking to reshape the continent in a way that reinforces authoritarianism and enables those regimes that are the most malleable, and those that are most unconscientious in extracting resources.25 Their expanding influence and their strategic intent are already noticeable. China built a military base in the port of Djibouti in 2017 and Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with over 20 African states.26 In addition, Russia appears bent on setting up military bases in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in the autonomous republic of Somaliland.27 The return of military personnel from opposing blocs is reminiscent of the Cold War, except the 21st century is less about promoting ideologies and more about seeking reliable partners in resource extraction and consumer markets to sell to.

While China’s and Russia’s military bases in Africa appear to have benign intent for the time being—protecting the region from terrorists and defending economic and commercial interests—there is a dark side as well. China increasingly appears intent on collecting debts and guaranteeing investments. Intentional or not, China’s actions appear to constitute a Sino-colonial relationship with African states—and others engaged in the Belt and Road Initiative—leveraging debt-traps. China increasingly believes it can take actions—peaceful or not so peaceful—to recoup loans and investments when a country falls behind on loan payments; like Sri Lanka, which had to cede to China a 99-year lease on the Port of Hambantota, several African nations including Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia, appear on course to default, and could fall prey to similar Chinese infrastructure seizures.28

Moscow, on the other hand, sees pecuniary value in selling ammunition and weapon systems to African countries to prop up the Russian economy and industrial base.29 Leaked documents reveal Moscow’s desire to turn Africa into a “Strategic Hub,” and pursue political and information warfare tactics to back pro-Russian leaders and discredit their opponents.30 If this was not troubling enough, the notorious Russian private military contractor, Wagner Group, with deep ties to President Putin—that works on behalf of Russian interests in eastern Ukraine and Syria—has been spotted in the CAR, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.31

While it is difficult to obtain aggregate data on purported economic and security aid from non-transparent governments like China and Russia, it does appear that the United States provides considerably more security assistance to African countries.32 However, quality does not substitute for timeliness, often preventing the United States from providing assistance when and where most needed. Consider for example how the U.S. Congress slows down the processes of acquisition and implementation by the Departments of State and Defense in providing security assistance to foreign countries. The so-called Leahy rules were first imposed in the late 1990s to ensure that U.S. aid would not be implicated in gross human rights abuses. Such legislative initiative and constraint was in response to evidence directly linking American aid to Latin American security forces engaging in gross human rights violations in the 1980s.33

The rationale and intent of the Leahy amendments are quite noble in their concern for ensuring that American SFA is not used to oppress recipient country populations. However, the vetting process is overly bureaucratic and time consuming—and makes the United States appear weak and indecisive. In a 2017 interview, an Ethiopian General complained of the contrast between the American image of strength and capability and the realities of working with a slow and inept U.S. government. He had attempted to acquire mortars for his soldiers fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia believing this was a simple request that could be quickly delivered. Unfortunately, it took approximately two years for the United States to deliver the weapons, during which time he had no choice but to acquire the needed weapons from China and Russia, taking delivery within weeks.34 Nigeria had a similar experience when trying to purchase light-attack aircraft from the U.S. government for the purposes of fighting Boko Haram, with it taking over four years of political debate to finally approve the sale in 2019.35

Leahy rules requiring extensive vetting for any sort of SFA, and similar laws in most European countries seriously undercut attempts to deal with contingencies in Africa. Clumsy laws and slow administration are a significant bureaucratic impediment to achieving influence with potential partners. In order to capitalize on the potential of SFA, both in terms of influence for the United States and its allies, and enhanced capabilities for African countries, SFA requires national and international legal regimes and procedures conducive to timely delivery of aid and assistance. As great power competitors, China and Russia provide all forms of aid and military assistance readily and without restraint.

The struggle for influence creates a deeper inherent problem, namely the security assistance dilemma: The U.S. wants a dependable military ally but also wants the government and security forces to abide by democratic standards and respect for human rights. Already, America seems to be facing such a dilemma with its commitment to Saudi Arabia, in terms of arms sales and military training, as the UN has identified numerous Saudi war crimes in Yemen.36 The Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR – Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide) in Cameroon puts the West in a similar situation, as the BIR of approximately 4,500 elite troops has been trained by France, Israel, and the U.S. The BIR has been a highly effective force against regional insurgents, but is responsible for attacking Anglophone villages in western Cameroon in an attempt to cleanse them.37 These examples illustrate how SFA recipients can misuse their armed forces, adding only more stressors to state fragility.

At the same time, successful western competition for influence in Africa (and elsewhere) is dependent upon socialization efforts and building relations with political and military elites in these countries so that they can transition away from illiberal politics and praetorian pathologies. Thus, if we accept that the West is somewhat trapped with not being able to punish partners (e.g. cancelling SFA, etc.) in the era of great power competition—since China and Russia will fill that void—then the West must adapt expectations and make assistance contingent on reforms. Such actions would enable the recipient state to make the necessary bargains with various power brokers—fixing fragmented state and security institutions—lending itself to long-term stability and institutionalization.

Civil-Military Relations and Partnerships

The greatest challenge for African countries dealing with insurgents and other violent non-state actors is formulating a national approach that consolidates rather than fractures the state or the society. For example, one of the less-discussed aspects of the Tuareg 2012 rebellion in Mali was the Bamako government treatment of northern ethnic Tuaregs. While struggling to integrate these nomadic peoples into the government and military, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré provoked them by disrupting traditional power structures.38 Touré began promoting the Imghad clan (led by El Hadj Ag) as the newly empowered security force of the north, undermining the historically dominant Ifoghas clan.39 Touré’s disruption of patronage networks by restructuring and reforming the state essentially led to the collapse of his government. The collapse culminated with troop defections and mutiny, ultimately leading to a coup d’état.

While the Malian example may represent a unique case of state collapse, the challenge of balancing and reforming different parts of the state with society and the armed forces creates a dangerous triangle, which has defined the politics of most African countries since independence. This triangle consists of predatory political, societal, and military/bureaucratic elites competing with one another in a pursuit of short-term gains that undermines the long-term interests of the state as a whole.40 While UN staff and western military advisors may believe they can implement and install a western system of politics and governance, such neo-colonial attempts ignore the contextualized way in which politics are conducted.41 Moreover, it changes the equilibrium of politics, disrupting power centers in state and society, which in a state lacking a monopoly over violence, adds to volatility and the likelihood of civil war.

We would be well-advised to consider the strategic partnership vision promulgated by retired South African Colonel Rocklyn “Rocky” Williams. A rebel in the African National Congress (ANC), Williams fought against South African apartheid. Post-apartheid he eventually rose to the rank of Colonel in the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF). During that time he proposed a transformative vision for civil-military relations (CMR) in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. Williams contended that with their contextually specific histories, including differing pathways to independence, each African country has unique informal power structures that heavily influence the exercise of authority and legitimacy. It was Williams’ contention that the problem with CMR in most African countries is in the struggles to balance western models of objective and subjective control of the military by political leadership.42 However, this tension is precisely why CMR reform is so difficult. Few African leaders see advantage in a capable military; the armed forces become just another vestigial organ of patronage. The current political landscape in Africa demands a shift towards constructive modes of CMR that promote military professionalism, and are integrated into the decision-making processes of the state.43

Countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda appear good candidates for the CMR model proposed by Williams. Both have built robust armed forces that rely on informal power sharing between the government, society, and even parts of the economic sector. Moreover, their current forms are informed by political ideologies formed while fighting as rebels against the previous Derg Regime of Ethiopia and genocidal Hutu Regime in Rwanda. While CMR in Ethiopia or Rwanda may appear “alien” to western military officers, their armed forces act as strategic partners and are contextually professional and effective in their respective home country processes of nation- and state-building.44 The blending and blurring of lines between the government and armed forces may appear “corrupt” to many international observers, but this contextualized form of CMR has led to stability in both countries and effective military institutions.45 Indeed Ethiopia and Rwanda are capable stability providers elsewhere in Africa through UN and AU peacekeeping missions with some of the highest participation rates across the continent, and have proven to be among the most reliable and effective forces in these missions.46

These examples show that when political and military elites create partnerships, effective armed forces can be built that are not a threat. Western SFA efforts in fragile African states—and elsewhere—should increasingly build in a political element that brings CMR reforms—but that do not excessively emphasize democratization or other western values at the expense of stability.47 This requires partnerships between the various branches of government, so that various actors each share the “buy-in” necessary to meet the challenges of both domestic and regional problems, conflict, and instability. Finally, and most importantly, the development of professionalism is dependent upon the dynamics of the political context. Defense institution building alongside broader developmental efforts can sustain this process by institutionalizing cooperation between numerous political and societal elites.48

Members of the Rwanda Defense Force move into formation after arriving in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), Jan.
16, 2014. (CPT Tom Byrd)
Members of the Rwanda Defense Force move into formation after arriving in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), Jan. 16, 2014. (CPT Tom Byrd)
Members of the Rwanda Defense Force move into formation after arriving in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), Jan.
16, 2014. (CPT Tom Byrd)
Members of the Rwanda Defense Force move into formation after arriving in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), Jan. 16, 2014. (CPT Tom Byrd)
Members of the Rwanda Defense Force move into formation after arriving in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), Jan. 16, 2014. (CPT Tom Byrd)
Photo By: Tom Byrd
VIRIN: 210819-D-BD104-013

Conclusion: Less Lethality, More Consolidation

Despite supposed strategic shifts in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) to more traditional national security concerns such as great power competition with China and Russia, Africa should not be left out of the equation.49 Western efforts to counter recent geopolitical inroads into Africa by China and Russia also require new forms of SFA engagement, and alternative ways of achieving development. The United States and its allies, and the UN cannot continue the old approach of trying to impose “rich-country institutions” throughout Africa, neglecting the unique histories, contexts, and cultures that inform the way authority, legitimacy, and power are organized and exercised in each state.50 An interloping SFA advisor in this situation can show little innovation locked into the traditional rules of engagement, and often ends up operating in an ad hoc fashion primarily to protect him or herself, strategically undermining the whole point of the mission.51 A summary statement by an Italian Colonel briefing his experience providing SFA in a weak state captures this problem at its worst: “Force Protection is ALWAYS the highest priority.”52 Such risk-adverse approaches undermine the development of relationships with local counterparts, and decrease the likelihood of local elites collaborating with SFA advisors other than for the pursuit of their own selfish interests, such as providing false intelligence to target their rivals.53

As this article argues, the G5 Sahel Joint Force remains a pipedream in terms of addressing problems associated with under-development that have made ethnic conflict, insurgency, and criminality so enticing to so many living in the Lake Chad Basin region. Neighboring states must be encouraged by the West to take steps towards deep structural reforms, which requires a deeper level of western engagement. This requires an enduring commitment to support governments once conflict is contained through the crucial five years of rebuilding during which civil war relapse is most likely.54 Such long-term engagement by the West is crucial; decreasing western engagement only opens a power and influence vacuum for China and Russia, with many of their efforts supporting those African leaders rolling back democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Increased western emphasis on making African militaries more lethal and combat effective—in the absence of broader developmental assistance—merely masks (and reinforces) the institutional problems that lead to poor governance and weak security institutions.

Such realities in context of great power competition, and the existence of several professionalized militaries in Africa, suggests the United States and its allies can improve G5 countries and other failing states via reliable SFA proxies. This might mean the West can support and empower the militaries of Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Senegal, to act as mediating SFA providers. For instance, given Senegal’s robust institutionalization of CMR and military effectiveness since independence, the West could directly support Senegal to act as an intermediary SFA provider to G5 member states. Given Senegal’s legitimacy as having professionalized armed forces and their proximity and understanding of culture and political context in G5 countries, they could facilitate dialogue in these countries, helping reform politics and restructuring elite level agreements. Such an idea of western SFA by proxy is not without merit. The former Minister of Security of Burkina Faso, Dr. Emile Ouédraogo, suggested in 2019 that Senegal should be leading the G5 for numerous reasons.55 Such a G5+1 (Senegal) idea best encompasses the focus of shifting away from overly technical western SFA and towards broader political SFA peacebuilding efforts. Senegalese military advisors, if properly supported by the West, could better facilitate CMR reforms, while enabling cooperative institutions in each G5 country. Similarly positive impacts could be made with fragile states in Central and Eastern Africa, by the West empowering the militaries of Ethiopia and Rwanda (and other professionalized African militaries) to provide SFA as a way of avoiding the typical traps of western SFA.

The West needs broader SFA approaches to remain competitive and influential. Partnerships and peacebuilding between influential elites and other informal powerbrokers should be the hallmark of future SFA efforts.56 This builds on the idea of creating contextually dependent versions of African civil-military relations that enable strategic partnerships between formal and informal actors in government, security institutions, and society. Such overlap is needed to create a shared vision and cooperation. Most importantly, it gets away from the overly technical understanding of military development in a weak state that often causes imbalances in power and a loss of trust. Helping Africans overcome state fragility requires shared ownership by elites and citizens alike across Africa and a willingness to overcome socially constructed identities.57

If the U.S. and allies continue down the path of providing SFA for the sake of CT, then the frustration of seeing such assistance creating the moral hazard of dependency or being used for repression and other abuses will likely continue. The security assistance dilemma of only providing SFA to block Chinese and Russian access is a precarious balance. Such SFA must maintain entry ramps to integrate with broader developmental programs, which requires strategic intent and resolve to confront this paradox. Tailoring such assistance means that western capitals must tailor contingent SFA in a timely and effective manner, to include a country-specific analysis of power dynamics. This enables alternative pathways of achieving contextually effective CMR reforms in a host-nation, helping socialize what an effective and professional army looks like—and the ways it can reshape the state into being more effective and professional. This all sounds easy in theory, but the toughest part is convincing a host-nation that western commitments are long-term—and not apt to stopping due to the whims of domestic fervor over providing assistance to faraway countries they cannot locate on a map. PRISM


1 The views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect the official views or position of the U.S. military, Department of Defense, or U.S. government. The author thanks Renanah Miles Joyce and Will Reno for article comments and Theodore McLauchlin and Lee Seymour for the invitation to present this research at the Workshop on International Training Activities, hosted by the Canada Research Chair on the Politics of Violence, and Center for International Peace and Security Studies (CEPSI) in Montreal, Canada, November 14-15, 2019.

2 AJP 3-16, Allied Joint Doctrine for Security Force Assistance (London: U.K. Ministry of Defence, 2016).

3 Jahara Matisek, “The crisis of American military assistance: Strategic dithering and Fabergé Egg armies,” Defense & Security Analysis 34, no. 3 (2018): 267-290.

4 “Security Assistance Dashboard, 2001-2018, Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa,” Security Assistance Monitor, 2019,

5 Catherine Gegout, Why Europe intervenes in Africa: Security prestige and the legacy of colonialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

6 Loren B. Landau, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, and Hannah Postel, “Europe Is Making Its Migration Problem Worse: The Dangers of Aiding Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, September 5, 2018,

7 “US migrant crisis: Trump seeks to curb Central America asylum claims,” BBC, July 16, 2019,

8 These are known as limited access orders (LAOs), where politics by elites in these weak states are negotiated via violence, bringing the economic system of sharing rents into equilibrium, whereas open access orders (OAOs) – primarily the developed world – allow everyone to compete politically and economically without the use of coercion. For more, refer to: Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, Steven B. Webb, and Barry R. Weingast (eds.), In the shadow of violence: Politics, economics, and the problems of development (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

9 Buddhika Jayamaha, Jahara Matisek, William Reno, and Molly Jahn, “Changing Weather Patterns, Climate Change and Civil War Dynamics: Institutions and Conflicts in the Sahel,” Journal of Diplomacy 20, no. 1, (Fall/Winter 2018): 70–87.

10 Informal discussion with retired U.S. Army General, October 24, 2019.

11 One of the biggest critics of American involvement in Africa is the investigative journalist Nick Turse who is a fellow at the Nation Institute, managing editor of TomDispatch, and a contributing writer at The Intercept.

12 Toyo Amegnonna and Marcel Dossou, “The impact of China’s one belt one road Initiative in Africa: The Evidence from Kenya,” MPRA Paper 90460, University Library of Munich, Germany, 2018.

13 Lina Benabdallah, “China-Africa military ties have deepened. Here are 4 things to know,” Washington Post: Monkey Cage, July 6, 2018,

14 Reuben Brigety, “A Post-American Africa: The U.S. Is Falling Behind,” Foreign Affairs, August 28, 2018,; Cara Anna, “Russia’s new focus on Africa takes advantage of US drift under Trump administration,” ABC News, October 21, 2019,

15 “G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance,” France Diplomatie: Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, February 2019,

16 Natasja Rupesinghe, “The Joint Force of the G5 Sahel: An Appropriate Response to Combat Terrorism?” Conflict Trends, no. 2 (2018): 11-18.

17 Morten Bøås, Rival priorities in the Sahel: finding the balance between security and development (Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2018.

18 “‘Continuing deterioration’ leaves Mali facing critical security level: UN expert,” UN News, December 2, 2019,; “G5 Sahel leaders hold crisis talks in response to deadly jihadist attack in Niger,” France 24, December 15, 2019,

19 Denis M. Tull, “Mali, the G5 and security sector assistance: Political obstacles to effective cooperation,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) Comments, 52, December 2017, German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

20 Interviews, AFRICOM, Stuttgart, Germany, July 31 – August 4, 2017.

21 Will Brown, “As the World Is Distracted, Boko Haram Terrorists Strike a Key Western Ally,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2020,

22 Barbara Wesel, “EU investment in Africa: Europe racing to catch up,” DW, September 9, 2018,; Mfonobong Nsehe, “The Importance of Improving America’s Investment Policies in Africa - An Interview with Yuri Vanetik,” Forbes, December 17, 2019,

23 Matthew Quintero, “If Not China, Who? Competing in Africa through Foreign Military Education,” Center for International Maritime Security, July 23, 2019,

24 Interviews with foreign military personnel from over 40 countries. 2015-2020.

25 Laura Zhou, “What to know about China’s ties with Africa, from aid to infrastructure,” South China Morning Post, July 22, 2018,; Eric Schmitt, “Russia’s Military Mission Creep Advances to a New Front: Africa,” The New York Times, March 31, 2019,

26 Jakob Hedenskog, “Russia is Stepping Up its Military Cooperation in Africa,” Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 2018,

27 “Alpha Conde, Putin’s middleman for Somaliland,” The Indian Ocean Newsletter, July 19, 2019,,108366322-eve; Andrew Roth, “Central African Republic considers hosting Russian military base,” The Guardian, October 25, 2019,

28 Wilson VornDick, “Let China Fail in Africa,” The National Interest, January 29, 2019,

29 Kester Kenn Klomegah, “Russia, Africa and the Debts,” Modern Diplomacy, November 19, 2019,

30 Luke Harding and Jason Burke, “Leaked documents reveal Russian effort to exert influence in Africa,” The Guardian, June 11, 2019,

31 Tim Lister, Sebastian Shukla, and Clarissa Ward, “Putin’s Private Army,” CNN: Special Report, September 2019,

32 “Russia’s foreign aid re-emerges,” Aid Data: A Research Lab at William & Mary, April 9, 2018,; “Data: Chinese Foreign Aid,” China Africa Research Initiative, John Hopkins: School of Advanced International Studies, 2019,

33 Tanya Broder and Bernard D. Lambek, “Military Aid to Guatemala: The failure of US human rights legislation,” Yale Journal of International Law 13, no 1. (1988): 111-145.

34 Fieldwork and Interviews, August, Addis Abbaba, Ethiopa, August 2017.

35 “Trump plans to move ahead with Nigeria plane sale – source,” Stock Daily Dish, December 18, 2019,

36 “Situation of human rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014,” Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, A/HRC/42/CRP.1, September 3, 2019.

37 “Burning Cameroon: Images you’re not meant to see,” BBC News, June 25, 2018,

38 “Country Profile: Mali, January 2005,” Library of Congress—Federal Research Division, 5,

39 Jahara Matisek, “An Effective Senegalese Military Enclave: The Armée-Nation “Rolls On”,” African Security 12, no. 1 (2019): 62-86.

40 Joel S. Migdal, Strong societies and weak states: State-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

41 Alain Rouvez, Michael Coco, and Jean-Paul Paddack, Disconsolate Empires: French, British and Belgian Military Involvement in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa (New York: University Press of America, 1994).

42 Samuel P. Huntington, The soldier and the state: The theory and politics of civil-military relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).

43 Rocky Williams, “Towards the creation of an African civil-military relations tradition,” African Journal of Political Science/Revue Africaine de Science Politique 3, no. 1 (1998): 20-41.

44 Fieldwork, Ethiopia and Rwanda, August 2017; Gérard Prunier, “The Armies of the Great Lakes Countries,” PRISM 6, no. 4 (2018): 99-111.

45 Jahara Matisek and William Reno, “Getting American Security Force Assistance Right: Political Context Matters,” Joint Force Quarterly 92 (2019): 65-73.

46 Scott Firsing, “Thinking through the role of Africa’s militaries in peacekeeping: The cases of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda,” South African Journal of International Affairs 21, no. 1 (2014): 45-67.

47 This proposition goes against the views of one prominent scholar that believes only westernized democratic control of armies in Africa will work. For more, see: Mathurin C. Houngnikpo, Guarding the Guardians: Civil-military relations and democratic governance in Africa (New York: Routledge, 2016).

48 Alexandra Kerr and Michael Miklaucic (eds.), Effective, Legitimate, Secure: Insights for Defense Institution Building (Washington, DC: National Defense University).

49 Donald J. Trump, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, 2017).

50 Kate Bridges and Michael Woolcock, How (not) to fix problems that matter: assessing and responding to Malawi’s history of institutional reform (New York: The World Bank, 2017).

51 William Reno, “The politics of security assistance in the Horn of Africa,” Defence Studies 18, no. 4 (2018): 498-513.

52 Italian Army Colonel, PowerPoint Briefing, Rome, Italy, September 24, 2019.

53 Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

54 Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

55 “SECURITE – Dr Emile Ouédraogo, ancien ministre burkinabè de la Sécurité : «Je ne comprends pas pourquoi le Sénégal ne fait pas partie du G5 sahel»,” le Qoutidien, August 28, 2019,

56 Emily Knowles and Jahara Matisek, “Western Security Force Assistance in Weak States: Time for a Peacebuilding Approach,” The RUSI Journal 164, no. 3 (2019): 10-21.

57 Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007); Clayton Christensen, Efosa Ojomo, and Karen Dillon, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019).