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Armies in Africa - an expert's view; 50 years of independent armed forces in Africa

National armies are also increasingly involved in peace-enforcing and peacekeeping operations which require different skills.

In Africa, most countries gained their independence in the past 50 years and set up armed forces as a sign of sovereignty. So, what's been the role of the armed forces in Africa and how has it evolved over the past 50 years? To find out, we spoke to Stephen Ellis, researcher at the Africa Studies Centre in Leiden, here in The Netherlands.

Can modern African armies help to contribute to the construction of countries?

"Governments have often tried to turn militaries into development units over the years, but that's a rather contradictory aspect of politics. As I see it, development is a social process and armies are not the main force in that process."

Increasingly, African armies are involved in peacekeeping missions, in preventing conflicts. Isn't this one of the most important developments in Africa in the last 50 years?

"Yes, this is a very important aspect and peacekeeping missions have become a major task for African armies. The last time I checked, there were seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa in which African troops were serving. And African forces have previously worked under the AU in places such as Burundi and Darfur. This has led to many discussions about the role that African forces may play in the future in peacekeeping missions throughout the continent."

How do African armies perform alongside Western armies that are often better paid, more equipped and have more training?

"To put it crudely, Western armies are extremely effective in destroying things with a maximum efficiency. But when it comes to talking to people and getting to know what's going on, African armies are much more effective. They may speak the language or know the local customs. They certainly have a better understanding of the dynamics of African life, and, after all, cultivating good relations with local populations can be key to a successful peacekeeping operation."

You were involved as the director of the Africa programme with the International Crisis Group. How did that change your perceptions of African armies?

"It didn't. However, it did change my perception of what is currently needed for peacekeeping in Africa. My general conclusion was that a combination of African troops and troops from outside Africa is necessary."

"There are many times in peacekeeping missions when advanced training and specific supplies are required that can be readily provided from abroad but which few African armies possess. Yet, African armies are essential when it comes to knowledge of African languages and cultures, social backgrounds, and terrain. So there really needs to be a cooperation between both African and foreign military aid."

What do you think of prospects for a full-fledged pan-African army?

"Although there are plans for an African force, we're a long way off. The idea is that a united African army would emerge that would be divided up into five brigades. These would be stand-by forces that could be activated to intervene at a moment's notice to stabilize situations in their region. However, I've talked to an officer who has been intimately involved in the planning of such a full-fledged army, but he was saying that even in the best of circumstances, you're not going to have these types of forces for at least another ten years."

"As you can see with other proposals to create united military organisations, plans for multinational forces are always contentious. Sovereign states in Africa as well as other parts of the world don't easily give up the control of their armies. It continually causes political tensions."

What do you see as the most important change that warfare has taken?

"Warfare is something that increasingly involves the civilian population. We can see this in Iraq and Afghanistan, where professional Western armies are fighting an enemy who uses guerrilla warfare techniques. While this makes combat extremely difficult for professional armies, it also has enormous implications for political and social relations and structures within a country."

What role do women play?

"Women tend not to be armed combatants since they don't generally have much training. If we take Liberia, for example, in the 1990s, only about 10 to 12 percent of the combatants were women and maybe one or two of them had been senior officers before the war. But women do play a vital role in warfare, although they are more often victims or camp supporters, cooking and campaigning and such."

"Women also seem to play a prominent role in supporting ideologies. However, it is unclear as to whether that ideology supports the war or tries to discourage fighting. In any case, they do have a specific and vital role in transmitting ideologies."

What can you say about the future of African armies?

"They are here to stay! A professional army still signifies a sovereign state. Even though the presence of a military continues to cause tensions between the armed forces and civil politics, most countries feel they need an army. Again, if we take Liberia as an example, after Charles Taylor was obliged to resign in 2003, there were doubts as to whether Liberia needed an army. Whatever the debates were, the result was that there is one being trained right now."

"On the professional front, I think that African armed forces are going to have to spend more and more of their time on international peacekeeping missions. This is presently receiving a lot of international attention and encouragement, not only on the level of logistics and training, but especially on the level of the political agreements that ultimately support maintaining peace."

Click to listen to the interview with Dr Stephen Ellis: Mediaplayer, Realplayer