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Rethinking Africa’s Security and Defense Nexus

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Niagale Bagayoko
Niagale Bagayoko

By Niagale Bagayoko

The difficulties encountered in dealing with crises and conflicts on the African continent can not be considered purely operational and technical. In reality, a number of obstacles related to the difficulty of taking into account, from a conceptual as well as a strategic point of view, the security dynamics currently at work, the nature of which structurally influences the future of African defense and security forces. Thus, it is appropriate today to rethink the mutual relationship that the very concept of ” security ” has with that of ” defense “.

Indeed, we are witnessing today a major epistemological break with the traditional conception according to which the “defense/security continuum” articulates around the strict distinction between internal and external threats which, in a consecutive way, has jumpstarted the differentiation between military and police missions. Thus, according to the Westphalian conception of security, which has not only structurally defined the format of European armies for centuries but also, as a consequence, inherited military instrument conceived as almost exclusively devoted to intervening outside national borders, whether its intervention was part of a defensive or offensive logic. The strategic environment of today’s Africa, on the one hand, calls for more and more frequent intervention of the armed forces within national borders.

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A case in point is Sub-Saharan Africa which lies in the cross-intervention of different categories of armed forces (military, police, gendarmes, national guard, customs officers, guards -Frontieres,) in the fight against both internal and transnational threats. Thus, the security and strategic environment is conducive to an increasingly frequent intervention, if not systematic military forces in missions within national borders. At the same time, the missions of the security forces (police and gendarmes in particular), rapidly incorporating an international dimension.

In addition, distribution of the various defense and security forces, largely linked to decentralization processes underway in many countries, is becoming ever more acute; and bringing to the fore, the question of redefining the areas of intervention of these different forces, particularly in the context of their deployment in peripheral areas and at borders.

The current context also increasingly questions the nature of the monopoly of legitimate coercion supposed to be held by African states: the growing role played by non-state security structures (vigilance, self-defense groups, militias) or by armed groups goes, again, beyond the defense / internal security, as demonstrated by the tactical alliance on the ground. Some African armed military, or even international forces, with some of these nonstate actors, frequently characterized by their community affiliations and whose activities, as a result, often extend beyond the borders.

Such developments suggest that, henceforth, the differentiation between military missions and police forces’ missions is actually based on a criterion other than that of the traditional internal/external distinction: that of judicialization, which is necessary for the accomplishment of a number of missions, including the dismantling of terrorist groups or criminal networks, which implies, consecutively, reflecting on the division of labor between the forces that are called upon to tackle insurgents they are fighting and the other , those called to prosecute them criminally.

Far from being purely cyclical, the difficulties currently faced by African armed forces deployed to respond to the various threats call for a structural reflection on the current nature of the security-defense continuum in the African strategic context. Such an effort of conceptualization appears necessary in order to rethink, define and strictly control the contemporary missions of the African defense and security forces, by consigning them to new national security strategies taking into account the inversion of the defense-security continuum, as well as the need to clearly articulate it with the central role of the judiciary and the criminal chain, which is essential to guarantee respect for the rule of law.

Niagalé Bagayoko is a political scientist. She has done extensive field research on security systems in African Francophone countries, Western security policies (France, United States, European Union) in Africa and African conflict-management mechanisms, focusing on the interface between security and development. She has taught at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Science Po) in Paris. From 2010 to 2015, she managed the “peacekeeping and peacebuilding program” at the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF). She is now the Chair of the African Security Sector Network (ASSN).

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