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The dangers of feel-good militarism in Africa

As Africans, it is paramount to acknowledge that militarism threatens Africa’s quest for genuine homegrown democracy
Wagner fighters posing with evacuated Chinese miners who were at a mine near Bambari in the Central African Republic, July 2023

From the ‘Wagner effect’ (i.e., the increase in the presence of the Russian paramilitary group on the African continent) to the ever-growing security forces in my country, Namibia, and the lengthening of the coup belt in West Africa, the complex interplay between militarism and democracy has begun to shine through across Africa in recent years. As Africans, it is paramount to acknowledge that militarism threatens Africa’s quest for genuine homegrown democracy.

What is feel-good militarism?

When I recently stumbled across the notion of ‘feel good’ militarism as espoused by political sociologist Rita Abrahamsen, I was enamoured with how much the term puts into perspective the abnormal mutation of militarism that has been witnessed in various African countries in the last half-decade.

Militarism may be defined as the intrusion of military considerations into the process of political and diplomatic decision-making. The term explores how the military, as an entity and as an embodiment of state-sanctioned violence, entrenches itself in the public consciousness as well as in daily civilian life.

‘Feel-good’ militarism emphasises the positive role that armed forces (that is, any security or military players that have the mandate to wield force against various social stakeholders) play either in development or in liberatory impulses. The term captures the circumstances in which the prominence of violence-wielding actors – which brings militaristic behaviour closer to the lives of civilians and threatens to upend the norms of civilian-military relations – is normalised despite the inherent risks of enabling armed forces.

Fertile ground for “feel-good militarism”

Feel-good militarism has found perfect conditions for its development in Africa. Several regions, particularly in Southern Africa, have their national historical and identity narratives closely intertwined with military culture. In nations like these where liberation parties still rule and continue to enjoy the majority support, the negotiation processes that facilitated liberation are downplayed to favour freedom struggles waged by armed groups. This has resulted in a noticeable celebration of the military as a contemporary extension of the liberation armed forces that defeated colonial powers. Here, feel-good militarism is evoked by co-opting the national culture of these pro-armed forces.

In nations where neocolonialism holds sway (particularly in Francophone Africa), militarism has largely been seen as a way to break free from neocolonial control. The recent waves of coups in Francophone Africa typify this. Many scholars have argued that the recent coups in Francophone Africa signal the rejection of France’s neocolonial policies. In fact, this is the logic that coup architects have used to explain their decision to oust standing governments and replace them with military leaders. For instance, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, who became Mali’s interim leader in 2022, chastised France for its sanctions against the country since 2020, citing its actions as “neocolonialist, condescending, paternalist and vengeful policies.”

Similarly, the Burkinabe coup leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, evoked discourses of neo-colonialism and imperialism at the 2023 Russia-Africa summit after he removed Sandaogo Damiba from the top seat in the country.

The question is not whether coup leaders are honest in their pursuit of an end to neo-colonialism, but rather how the existence of neo-colonialism creates a fertile ground for militarism as the populace seeks immediate solutions to socio-political and economic problems wrought by neo-colonial extraction.

Finally, failing democracies themselves incentivise military actors to enjoy higher levels of power and freedom. Similar to the military leader in a country brought to its knees by neo-colonialism, the military leader in a nation that fails to deliver the promises of prosperity through democratic processes finds an opportunity to make militarism the order of the day. Studies have shown, for example, that in North African nations such as Libya, public trust in the armed forces increases during times of turmoil as they become increasingly seen as the only agent responsible for ensuring personal safety and protecting the nation. In nations with failing institutions, public trust is significantly lower for civilian institutions like the government, parliament and civil society. This is disheartening, considering that in these same nations, the armed forces have actively repressed uprisings, undermined peaceful transitions of power and been implicated in corruption scandals.

What these three contexts show is that feel-good militarism, while seemingly unfitting in the normal processes of running a nation, actually emerges because the context gives the state and the public an opportunity to celebrate armed force actors. It is, therefore, useful to explore two instances in which ‘feel good’ militarism manifested itself on the continent in the last half-decade – here highlighting how the state emerges as one of the largest proponents of feel-good militarism in Africa. This is to reflect on what implications this sort of militarism has on our civilian understanding of security as well as, on a broader scale, security dynamics in Africa.


The Wagner effect


The increased activities of the Wagner group in Africa indicate that it is a ground for great power conflict. Wagner emerged during the 2014 Donbas war in Ukraine and has grown into a private military network comprising businesses and military groups.

The group is currently most active in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali. Wagner’s stationed troops include former Russian soldiers and convicts turned mercenaries. These nations’ leanings towards Russia’s Wagner have largely been influenced by a strenuous relationship with the West; for example, increasing fragmentation in the Libyan conflict has historically been escalated by foreign backing of warring factions, while nations like Mali and CAR have long held anti-French sentiments due to the French neocolonial system known as la Françafrique.

In pursuit of liberatory impulses, these African nations saturated by Wagner forces have accepted militarism painted with a feel-good essence: a mercenary to defend their sovereignty from extremist groups and western interference.

Wagner has been used for combat operations and security and training support in CAR. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra welcomed one thousand Wagner troops in 2018 to defend his government against rebel attacks on the capital of Bangui, and to subsequently serve as part of his personal protection detail, as well as to train the army in preparation for coups.

In return for their services to the Central African government, Wagner subsidiaries received unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative Ndassima gold mine. This is a choice which has, over the years, been proven to blur the lines between militarism, economics, and governance in the country. In 2021, Wagner Group fighters massacred villagers who were perceived to be aligned with the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) rebels in the Ouaka prefecture where the Ndamissa mine located. The two parties have long been embroiled in a conflict to control the gold-rich mineral zone, while citizens of the prefecture have been displaced from the zone through terror campaigns. The most notable of which has been the wiping out of an artisanal mining village located within the vicinity of Ndasimma between November 2020 and May 2022.

The country’s openness to invite Wagner en masse to ‘deal with the instability’  opened up a can of terror and fear as the Central African nation was made to submit to the paramilitary force and its appendages – this is exactly what ‘feel-good’ militarism portends.  When the coercive capacities of African or non-African security institutions are strengthened to make them more efficient in the global fight against violent extremism without considerable oversight, these security institutions increase the insecurity rather than heal it.


Burgeoning defence forces


In March of 2023, the Namibian president announced that the government would create close to 3,000 new jobs in the police, prisons and Namibian Defence Force to address youth unemployment. This programme would include the recruitment of 1,500 new intakes for the Defense Force after the military grew by 1,470 in 2022. At the announcement, Geingob stated that there was a danger of instability and violence to rise out of high youth unemployment rates. “They can get guns somewhere. We are talking about terrorism. They are available. There is a danger. That’s true,” he said at the time.

The enmeshment of development and security discourses and their convergence in praxis are not new. It has been long commonly held that development cannot occur within an insecure landscape nor be safeguarded without active and diligent security agents. This is the so-called security-development nexus.

The expansion of formal and informal armed groups is a growing trend on the continent, and studies have shown that the lack of employment has pushed young people into militaristic jobs. For example, a 2023 UNDP study involving nearly 2000 interviewees from eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa (namely Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) showed that 73% of voluntary recruits in extremist groups in Sub-Saharan Africa expressed frustration with the government in terms of providing employment opportunities.

So, what is the link between the growth of military forces in a relatively peaceful nation like Namibia and the recruitment of volunteers in nations that have a pattern of violence?

Well, it obviously highlights that economic grievances are, in fact, an incentive for the mushrooming of extremism. President Geingob is not wrong for skirting the type of instability that may be brought on by mass revolt.

However, the bloating of military institutions is concerning. One may commend the employment initiatives of the Namibian government, especially for a nation with almost a 40% youth unemployment rate. However, I am inclined to posit that any form of violence-wielding organised force, be it state-sanctioned, paramilitary or outright terrorist, should not grow as a Band-Aid solution to employment woes. Such an approach sometimes triggers an imperceptible shift in general social values, demographics and discourses, tilting towards militarism – for the people make up the sum of the nation, and the increase in the number of those trained and socialised within militarism equates to the growth in militaristic values and behaviours not only in the barracks but within the greater society.

It is undeniable that there is an inherent complexity in our understanding of armed forces in African societies. In some countries, the state’s ideological construction of militaristic forces is married to the logic of liberation from colonial forces as liberation parties continue to hold onto rule in places like Southern Africa. In other countries, the military has been a force of violence directed towards citizens to get them to submit to the government in power, whether military or civilian.

Amid this complexity, however, is the truth that humans have a deep reverence for anything that is powerful – it may not necessarily be a positive reverence, but it is a deep respect, nevertheless. Perhaps this is because those who are mighty may crush you at will. We must resist feel-good militarism as the dominant framework with which we approach our security. Militarism threatens our quest for democracy; however, feel-good militarism threatens our very conceptualisation of what it means to live in a democracy – at least one where power lies with the people and not with the armed forces.

As Abrahamsen writes, ‘the risk is that contemporary interventions undertaken in the name of development and security may end up the handmaiden not only of increased militaristic violence, but also of oppression.’ It is, therefore, so important to keep a close watch on the shifting dynamics in civil-military relations and how we construct the armed forces within the collective unconscious.

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