How to Build Better Militaries in Africa: Lessons from Niger


Oct 2, 2020

Niger soldiers guard with their weapons pointed towards the border with neighbouring Nigeria, near the town of Diffa, Niger, June 21, 2016, photo by Luc Gnago/Reuters

Niger soldiers guard with their weapons pointed towards the border with neighbouring Nigeria, near the town of Diffa, Niger, June 21, 2016

Photo by Luc Gnago/Reuters

By Alexander Noyes, Ashley Bybee, Paul Clarke

This commentary originally appeared on Council on Foreign Relations on October 1, 2020.

In August, jihadists in Niger killed six French aid workers and two Nigeriens just outside of the capital, Niamey. Terrorist attacks have increased by 250 percent over the last two years in Africa's Sahel region, according (PDF) to the State Department. To help counter the threat of terrorism and build the capacity of African militaries, the U.S. government spends over $1.5 billion a year on security assistance to the African continent. Does this support work?

Reliable security cooperation and assistance data are scarce. But the existing evidence suggests that the current U.S. focus on training and equipping African partners, without due attention to governance and institutional-level reforms, has been insufficient at best and counterproductive at worst.

Focusing solely on increasing the operational capabilities of security forces in Africa runs the risk of strengthening unaccountable, corrupt, and predatory security sectors, throwing away U.S. taxpayer dollars on equipment that will not be sustained, and undermining U.S. governance and human rights priorities.

The deficiencies of the traditional train and equip approach in Africa are well documented, including anecdotes of U.S.-supplied equipment rusting on runways due to neglect, investments swallowed by corruption, and U.S.-supported militaries being used for government repression or launching coups.

A 2018 RAND study found that prior to 1990, U.S. security assistance to Africa in fact did more harm than good and was associated with an increase in civil wars. The impact of more recent efforts has also been paltry, as U.S. security assistance since 1990 in Africa “appears to have had little or no net effect on political violence.”

The study found, however, that a more holistic focus on governance and institution building showed more promise. Such assistance can be a more effective way to achieve both U.S. and partner country objectives, leading to “durable improvements” in the security environment.

Our research (PDF) in Niger—where we served as subject matter experts for U.S. defense-institution building initiatives—supports this finding. Niger is a key partner of the U.S. in West Africa. The United States provides a range of assistance to Niger, but the country stands out because strategic-level reforms have been taken seriously by both the United States and the partner country.

[Niger] has made strides over the past five years toward building better defense institutions and improving its defense management practices.

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Niger continues to suffer from corruption, serious allegations of abuse, and often tumultuous civil-military relations. Yet our research found that the country has made strides over the past five years toward building better defense institutions and improving its defense management practices. Niger's political leadership—at the highest levels—appears to be genuinely interested in reforms aimed at improving the professionalism and performance of their defense and internal security forces.

Our experience in Niger points to four main lessons for how to build better military institutions in low-capacity countries facing a host of threats in Africa (and beyond).

  1. Generate high-level political will. Local buy-in and senior level political will are crucial to all security sector reform efforts, but are particularly important for institution building. Identifying and cultivating change agents to take the lead in devising and implementing potentially disruptive reforms is key to ensuring gains are made and progress is sustained. In Niger, a full-time senior-level coordinator, with excellent high-level access and working relationships with senior leaders, was critical.
  2. Codify shared commitments. Where U.S. and partner interests align (PDF), successful reforms are more likely. In Niger, an official Joint Country Action Plan—essentially a memorandum of understanding between senior leaders on both sides—helped establish and codify shared priorities and goals, and lay out tangible ways to achieve them.
  3. Focus on the institutional as well as the operational. Niger conducts myriad military operations and hosts U.S. defense-institution building teams concurrently. Identifying opportunities to apply defense-institution building principles to current operations is a sweet spot where partners' operational effectiveness can be enhanced while simultaneously building more effective and accountable defense institutions.
  4. Engage holistically support military and police reforms equally. In many African countries, police forces are just as important to security—and in need of reform—as the military. With Nigeriens in the lead, U.S. teams helped create a unified interministerial structure that allowed the military and police to work more effectively and streamline joint reforms.

Institution building and reform processes are long-term endeavors where progress should be measured in decades, not years. Even where clear progress is made, defense institution building is surely no panacea for fledgling democracies struggling with recent coup legacies and allegations of abuse.

While Niger still has a long way to go, the country's recent experience suggests useful ways to help build more effective, affordable, and accountable defense sectors in other low-capacity countries facing similar challenges and threats.

Alexander Noyes is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Ashley Bybee is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Paul Clarke is an adjunct research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

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