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Conflict management

Abusive guardians

by Silja Emmel
Security forces can be a major source of insecurity, especially in conflict-ridden African countries. According to a recent study, reforms are necessary to change that – but they are unlikely to succeed in countries suffering from ongoing strife.

The main task of security forces is the provision of stability and protection. Concerning Africa, however, there is a lack of empirical research as to whether the military and the police actually fulfil that task. Security issues are typically kept secret. Research, especially on authoritarian regimes, is often only possible after a political system has broken down.

In quite a few cases, “severe security problems started inside the security forces, leading to an escalation of violence”, states a recent study published by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). As early as 2005, Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, had alluded to this issue: “In Guinea‐Bissau, the armed and security forces (…) appear to be among the major factors of instability.” Two coups were attempted in 2008, and in 2009, the president and the chief of staff were assassinated.

In the GIGA paper, author Andreas Mehler focuses on two examples: the Central African Republic (CAR) and Liberia. The case of the CAR shows that security forces can be a source of instability . The army was involved in several coups and mutinies that destabilised the country and cost civilian lives. Moreover, the CAR’s security forces were guilty of human-rights violations during the country’s various crises. They did not fulfil their duty as protectors of civilians, the study concludes, but rather caused suffering and proved unable to prevent rebels from doing the same.

Despite a security sector reform in 2000, which was supported by international actors like UN and World Bank, the situation in CAR did not improve notably. According to the GIGA-study, ongoing conflict and a lack of political will to promote a republican army were the reasons of failure. Moreover, the reform programme’s focus was on the sate and did not take into account civil society, parliament and non-state militias. The International Crisis Group (ICG) confirms that the army and the Presidential Guard killed hundreds of civilians in 2005.

Mehler’s second case, Liberia, is an example of more successful security-sector reform. Unlike in the CAR, the Liberian army quickly lost its special status as “state actor” in the civil war and was seen as just another armed party in the conflict. In general, warlords usurped all security agencies officially run by the state.

Since the conflict ended in 2003, Liberia has stayed under tight international control. This is the setting in which reforms of the security forces were started. A commission consulted civil society, government bodies, international partners and security agencies. Mehler’s results confirm an earlier assessment of the ICG, according to which the army reform was a “provisional success” whereas police reform gives reason to worry.

Nonetheless, surveys show that Liberians perceive the police as more important to their personal safety than the army. According to Mehler, they feel less threatened by the police, while roughly one in ten Liberians has a negative perception of the army.

As in Liberia, there are indicators of armies being considered a source of danger in many African countries. In order to guarantee that security forces fulfil their role as providers of stability and peace, security-sector reform is necessary in many places. According to Mehler, however, ongoing conflict often hampers such reforms, particularly as security forces themselves are often split in these circumstances. Moreover, stress and threat through conflict can result in bad performance, which again means more danger for civilians. Another important caveat of Mehler is that successful reforms do not follow any “blueprint model”, even though international agencies are prone to use them. Instead, reforms must always be based on specific local needs. Silja Emmel