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Africa: Security and development for the twenty-first century

If the west is to continue to assert that there should be African solutions to African problems - as is so often espoused - then it is the west that must change its security paradigm

Shannon D. Beebe
18 January 2011

One thing is certain for Africa in the twenty-first century: its strategic importance in the world will continue to climb, for reasons such as resources, markets, and continued concerns over weak governance allowing for a host of international challenges - terrorism key amongst them. What is uncertain for Africa is at what pace and consistency the continent will be able to control its own destiny rather than be subject to the ebb and flow of foreign interest. The need for ‘sustainable development’ -those types of longer-term activities which provide for the populations, allowing populations to provide for themselves - is well documented. However, where the international community falls short in their understanding is that a necessary precursor to sustainable development is ‘sustainable security’. Why?

Tactical level survival

Collective populations living in fear for their immediate safety have little time (or motivation) to think about longer-term consequences. Which is to say, people living under the threat of death from violence, disease, or other factors concentrate specifically on ‘tactical’ level survival for that single day. Over the long term what this means is that those populations mortgage their future ‘sustainable development’ for survival today. The choices made for survival today most likely make survival tomorrow more difficult as these people destroy their natural environment for immediate resource requirements; pollute or deplete water sources; go for years without formal education, making them more susceptible to recruitment into local militias, gangs, transnational criminal organizations, or terrorist groups; remain outside the possibilities of global market connections. There is a reason one can't cry, “Fire!" in a crowded theatre - panic ensues. Yet, this is exactly the case in many parts of Africa. Desperate populations living in panic and a vortex of violence will continue to make desperate decisions befuddling many traditional international development efforts. Populations must first perceive they have some persistent degree of safety for themselves and their families to break this vortex of violence and tactical level survival panic decisions. This is what is meant by sustainable security. So, once this point is understood, the need to increase the level of African security comes far more into focus. The question then shifts from ‘if’ Africa needs a higher level of security to ‘how’ to go about it.

When we begin to look at how the United States and others have attempted to support Africans in their requests for higher security, more professionalized militaries, and greater interoperability focusing on the security concerns of Africans, there's no wonder that Africa is shaped like a question mark for the west. The western model of security and our attempts to help Africans achieve this goal are ill-suited to the needs of Africans on the ground. While the western model of security continues to emphasize the need for militaries oriented toward ‘kinetic enemies’ - preparing for conventional military operations against ground forces, air forces, naval forces, etc. - in a state-based threat model, the security challenges of Africa very much emanate from conditions creating creeping vulnerabilities that aren’t seen as threats (taken in isolation) or as requiring any concentrated attention. While the western security model is more analogous to an algebra in which the attempt is made to identify the one or two variables which tip the security scales, African security is more aligned with a security calculus. These combinations and permutations of destabilizing factors, left unchecked, continue to create the vortex of violence and panic mentioned above.

African answers

The strategic imperative to shift our thinking is there. It is the traditional strategic narrative that is incapable of successfully addressing African challenges. Often, western governments and ministries of defence scratch their collective heads on how best to assist African militaries solve their security woes. Many times western delegations have returned to their capitals lamenting that African militaries and their leadership don’t have the “capacity” to solve their problems, and that nothing will change in the near term. There is also a pervasive sense of intransigence on the part of African military leaderships towards accepting western military support. Yet, when African ministers and chiefs of defence are asked how they view their security and what best to do to help alleviate those problems, there’s a resounding coherence to their answers. However, the answers Africans give don’t sound like western security concerns.

How is it that African defence leaders discuss their security? Granted, Africa is a continent and not a country: security concerns may vary in importance from one country to the next. But inevitably the top security concerns of the military and civilian defence leadership will almost always be couched in terms of environmental security, poverty alleviation, issues of water and sanitation, food security, infrastructure development, and lack of vocational skills training. When a western military leadership hears these things, the most ready response is that these are not things that western militaries get involved in and are more suitable to development agencies. When development agencies are told of these desires on the part of the military, the inevitable response from this community is that they are either prohibited from or not inclined to work with African militaries, due to ‘perception concerns’.  So, at the end of the day, is it really a question of Africa’s capacity to solve their security issues or the west’s lack of capacity to understand?

A new paradigm

Again, this entire discussion begs the first order question of how best to define security on the continent. What is needed is a security paradigm that better aligns with the needs and wants of Africans. Until the west subsides in lecturing Africans on what is right for their security and begins to listen to what Africans see as relevant to their security, the west will continue to marginalize its influence, in a time when Africa has a choice for its strategic partners and can readily choose an alternative Chinese or other model. What is needed is a security model addressing the conditions of instability rather than the kinetics traditional security threats. Africans best understand a human security narrative.

Should the west earnestly adopt this human security narrative in addressing Africa, a great deal more could be accomplished. The language of human security opens the aperture from conventional defence conversations to a broader more inclusive audience, recognizing that security and development on the African continent are inextricably linked. We can only accomplish those things for which we have words and the language of human security provides this discourse. A human security model would see the shift in the needs of African military away from standing armies trained in traditional national defence roles to a more tailored and responsive security force to counter those creeping vulnerabilities the country might face; African militaries trained in civil engineering and infrastructure development, water and sanitation, medical and health professions, aviation, finance, and even farming techniques. Why? One of the greatest impediments to African development is the lack of a skilled work force. One of the greatest impediments to ‘downsizing’ African militaries is that they have no vocational skills other than basic infantry skills. Putting former combatants and soldiers on the streets with no skills other than how to pull a trigger, and no job prospects, certainly doesn’t lend itself to the stability and security of the country.

The reality of African militaries is that they tend to be one of the only functioning elements of the government. To begin using the military to train skilled vocations that would then become the foundation of the national work force has multiple benefits. First, by training the military on job skills crucial for national development, the military becomes a value-added to the society and not a predatory element. Second, these trained labourers can then be released from the military to make the foundations of a skilled national workforce, giving African governments more independence from foreign companies and influence. Finally, through shifting the focus of militaries away from defence and more towards human security concerns, these militaries can immediately begin to provide for the much-needed sustainable security. Not only is this important for the security and stability of that one country, but these same skills can then be transferred and shared with other developing states.

If the west is to continue to assert that there should be African solutions to African problems - as is so often espoused - then it is the west that must turn away from a concept of African security based on traditional kinetic based threats and towards a conditions-based model. Africa will continue to grow in importance this century, and there is no reason that this cannot be a positive sum gain for Africa and Africans. Leveraging the human security paradigm allows for this. 

 

The views reflected herein are solely those of the author and not of any US Government agency or the Department of Defense.

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