Evolution of Security Sector Reform in Africa

By Doctor Niagalé Bagayoko, Security Sector Reform (SSR) , African Security Sector Network (ASSN)

Security Sector Reform (SSR) processes should be examined in the light of three challenges, which are too often considered from an isolationist approach:

  • Operational command, which involves the restructuring of defence and security forces (DSF) to improve expertise and performance in all theatres of operation.
  • Regulations with respect to the democratic governance of the security sector[1], which aim to reinforce external oversight conducted by designated democratic authorities (Parliament) and rule of law institutions (mediators and ombudspersons, human rights commissions, auditors general, etc.), and internal oversight conducted by inspectors general and disciplinary mechanisms.
  • Issues relating to human security, with a particular focus on respect for the dignity and fundamental rights of populations whom defence and security forces have a duty to protect along with the State.

Ten years after the SSR concept was formalized by Britain’s DFID, and after being pushed by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is important to note the lessons learned from the SSR processes carried out in Africa over the last decade, with the continent being the primary recipient of such policies, particularly in francophone regions:    

  • Institutional memory of the processes seems to be very important. The SSR processes promoted and supported by the international community are rarely implemented ex nihilo. Since the 1990s, several initiatives by national stakeholders—including both government and non‑state actors—have often been taken with the aim of improving security sector operations. Awareness and regular mention of these initiatives are key to promoting the implementation of processes based on a reform concept that is grounded more in local perceptions and realities. In the same vein, the idea of “appropriation”, both as a philosophy and a term, should be abandoned in that it suggests a simple imposition or cutting-and-pasting of upheld models:
  • Contrasting points of view—either overt or, as is most often the case, implied—on the SSR objectives can have a significant impact on the following:
    • To start, the very understanding of the concept of SSR, and of its underlying holistic approach in particular, can prove problematic, even at the highest levels, including among international partners. It is important, however, to remember that sector‑specific efforts do not clash with the overall global approach recommended for SSR. Quite the contrary; one should never under-estimate just how much such initiatives, although segmented, can contribute to reform efforts, the impacts of which are no less substantive and often provide solutions for basic necessities (such as in Mali, for example, with the Military Orientation and Planning Law (LOPM) and its equivalent internal security law (LOPSI)). Of course, the disadvantage to having segmented initiatives is that the majority of SSR processes are then deprived of any strategic overview.
    • It should also be taken into consideration that an internationally backed approach aimed at introducing a more inclusive and democratically run security sector does not necessarily correspond with the aspirations of local actors, as was the case in the Central African Republic, whether they be government officials—more concerned with the reorganisation of armed forces and with the material and logistical resources needed to improve their operational performance—or armed groups whose priority is to integrate their members into the various security departments[2].
    • There is also disagreement on the semantics of certain concepts. Some military officials are cautious to use the term SSR. From their perspective, the term “security” implies a more police-centric approach to reform. More broadly speaking, the overarching nature and precedence of the concept of “security” in relation to that of “defence” is sometimes challenged, raising the real fundamental issue of radically changing, or even completely reversing military missions. Today, armed forces are mobilized throughout the continent (and beyond) in missions carried out mostly within national borders.


  • The link established between SSR and peace agreements can prove to be problematic if viewed from an overly holistic approach. Although it is important that peace agreements take into consideration the need for post-conflict security sector reforms, it is crucial nonetheless that SSR processes are not limited to provisions laid out in said agreements. Furthermore, progress in SSR processes should not be restricted or measured by the implementation of peace agreement provisions alone. More often, SSR processes must go well beyond the terms set out in these agreements, precisely due to the fact that the crises have erupted partly as a result of the dire state of the security apparatus, leading to political turmoil (in the form of military coups, which in themselves add to the meltdown of the chain of command), devastating military defeats to armed movements or terrorist groups, and the inability to fight against organised crime, especially on a policing and judiciary level


  • The skills and credibility of actors on the ground, whether national stakeholders or external partners, should not be underestimated, nor should the nature and magnitude of the issues they must resolve on a daily basis. The lessons learned from SSR processes reflect the constant need to find a delicate balance so as to avoid causing frustration or feelings of alienation among the involved players. In this regard, it is important to properly gauge the types of difficulties that may arise as a result of the adopted guidelines[3].


  • The success of SSR efforts depends in large part on the handling of DDR processes, which have become increasingly more complex in light of shifting conflict dynamics. Whereas in the 1990s or early 2000s the waves of former combatants were made up of rebels fighting against the State, today this integration is more likely to involve movements that also brutally target civilian populations, whether through terrorist acts, religious abuses or assaults rooted in communalism. Another problem that seems to have arisen is the reintegration of former rebels who have since abandoned their cause to join new armed movements in vast numbers.


  • Government investments in African countries undertaking an SSR process is undeniable from a financial perspective (for example, Mali has invested nearly 12% of its GDP in the LOPM) as well as from an institutional perspective (establishment of necessary bodies or forums). This becomes less evident, however, from a perspective of political commitment.


  • The amount of support for SSR processes from the international community in countries such as Mali, CAR, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire and, to a lesser degree, Burundi, has been overwhelmingly substantial. Initially, the bulk of international support was directed at establishing the operational credibility of DSF, mainly through training and equipment programs. Although the budgets are much more conservative, a growing number of international partners are now investing in areas relating to internal and external governance as well as human rights issues. International programs are thus embarking on all areas of the security sector (defence, the various elements of national security, the decentralisation of policing and penal system management, border controls, etc.) while positioning themselves simultaneously on a political, strategic, operational and tactical level. However, there remains a certain number of challenges:
    • Problems of coordination between the various international partners have become pervasive. From an inter-agency perspective, projects have adopted a silo approach, leading to persistently noticeable rivalries between certain actors. One of the reasons why avoiding redundancies and duplications[4] can be difficult is that no partner keeps the others informed of its projects, once approved internally, with the aim of fulfilling its own objectives and mandate, despite the clear advantages of program coordination at the planning stage.
    • The country’s actual take-up capacity of the vast support provided must also be taken into account.
    • Of course, the impact of this expansive support is a considerable challenge. This question relates more broadly to the methodology used to evaluate progress through the currently preferred indicators (benchmarks, milestones, log frames, monitoring and evaluation), which are at least insufficient, if not totally ill-adapted, in terms of understanding the number of challenges faced, especially those relating to governance. On this point, the case of the SSR process launched in Burundi offers a good example. A number of texts and procedures were adopted by national authorities, and the international community was already congratulating itself, never mind that the enormous challenge of actually implementing these measures had yet to be accomplished.


  • Several questions remain regarding the rationale of the adopted approach to boost the operational capacity of DSF:
    • Some have questioned whether the defence training strategy highlighted by European missions such as EUTM in Mali and CAR is appropriate for the current context[5].
    • Another concern raised is the reforms’ lack of consideration for new developments in the current strategic context: defence and security apparatuses would not be revamped to reflect current threats, which are simultaneously asymmetrical and multifaceted, but rather in accordance with older models.
    • SSR processes have increasingly addressed the key issue of security decentralisation in both regional territories and border zones. Although the reform measures initially appeared to be centralised in all the countries—to the primary benefit of ministries, central government agencies, or training centres located in or near capital regions—the challenges of security decentralisation are addressed to a greater extend by peace and/or political agreements than by international programs. However, today it is certainly necessary to examine the territorial approach to defence and security, which is largely modelled after the centralised approach passed down from the colonial and post-colonial eras.


  • Although the institutional framework required to foster democratic governance in the security sector exists formally in the majority of African countries[6] (including those in crisis or post‑crisis situations), in practice, the existence of these control mechanisms was unable to prevent dysfunctions, deviations, deficiencies and failings, many of which continue to persist today. In effect, the involvement of national and international actors in African security sector governance reform collides with the largely informal functioning of these systems, which becomes especially apparent when observing the extent to which political affiliations and solidarity—based on family and generational ties, social factors, corporatist arms and schools, and ethnicity—influence the following[7]:
    • efforts to introduce streamlined and computerised management solutions to human resources (especially in recruitment or promotion processes);
    • efforts to restore chains of command;
    • attempts to promote inspection mechanisms to ensure procedural transparency;
    • spending controls and tangible benefits inherent to military or police service, to which verification procedures are difficult to apply[8];
    • challenges with harmonising the ranks of different recruits in some militaries[9];
    • the limitations (too seldom underlined) of democratic control mechanisms and authorities, such as Parliament, or even inspection agencies and supreme audit institutions, as applied to DSF and the bodies to whom they report. In reality, the mere institutional existence of these supervisory bodies in no way presupposes their actual abilities to conduct effective oversight. One question that is rarely raised concerns the true independent nature of the executive sphere of such institutions. In far too many African countries, parliaments choose not to exercise their constitutionally protected powers because defence/security commissions are often overwhelmingly comprised of members affiliated with the governing/presidential majority. The limitations on controls conducted by civilian organisations can also be apparent in a context where the growing number of such institutions leads to fierce competition (which brings their legitimacy and representativeness into question).


  • Finally, SSR processes also face serious limitations with regard to promoting human security:
    • Human rights abuses and violations by DSF are regularly and profusely denounced by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The scope of training on humanitarian law and human rights appears to be limited in certain cases, as does support for investing in SSR processes from human rights commissions, mediators, ombudspersons, and civilian organisations. The ethics and behaviour of DSF in certain countries seem to stem from a legacy of a brutal and militarist culture, which also extends to policing, that has emerged out of the colonial and post-colonial eras[10].
    • In this regard there are also major concerns surrounding relations between local populations and DSF, given that the latter are often heavily criticized for being wilfully brutal, in the case of the military, or corrupt, in the case of police forces. The question of relations between populations and DSF has become increasingly more critical in the fight against certain threats—especially from terrorist or criminal organisations—which involves integration into the human environment and cooperation with local communities otherwise infiltrated by the networks to be defeated or dismantled. On this issue, it seems that SSR processes place too much emphasis on communication policies and civil-military dialogue.


  • Finally, there is the issue of the rentier economy which is currently formed around national and international budgets earmarked for SSR.


  • Generally speaking, SSR processes, up until now, have undoubtedly been focused too exclusively on so‑called “post-conflict” environments without the possibility of producing any definitely successful results. The most notable example of an intervention aiming to rebuild a state’s security sector in a post‑conflict situation would be that of Sierra Leone or even Liberia.


  • Today, the problem is made even more complex by the current landscape which involves deciding the best avenues for security system reform, despite its engagement in managing internal or cross-regional conflict. The difference with a fair number of SSR processes supported by the international community is that they were not executed in a post‑conflict situation—as we would have hoped to be the case at the signing of the Algiers Agreement in Mali, the election of Faustin-Archange Touadéra in CAR, or in the DRC in the late 2000s—but rather in a context of managing endemic insecurity or even structural conflicts. During the crises in Mali and CAR, the chains of command were severed by coups, and the armed forces suffered devastating defeats. The armies to be reformed were thus internally dismantled and externally humiliated. Since then, the forces undergoing a reorganization, or full-on rebuilding, have been challenged on all fronts. It is therefore extremely ambitious, unrealistic even, to expect that the immense reform effort will bring any remarkable results in the short term.


  • In pursuing efforts for threefold security system reform in crisis or post‑conflict situations, it has become increasingly urgent to work towards SSR policies that prioritize prevention. In addition, these policies should focus on reforming security sectors in more stable countries, with the aim of developing their internal insecurity management abilities and their projection capacity, with regard to both military interventions on the continent (and beyond) as well as contributing to civil and police components of peacekeeping missions. Such an approach is likely not only to reduce investments from external partners in the security of the continent but also to encourage the African states to take direct control over their security:
    • The African Union should play a major role in this strategy, relying primarily on its “Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform” [11];
    • However, the AU’s commitment is only possible if it is backed by a coalition of democratic states which are willing to show proactive initiative in the matter;
    • These efforts should also be undertaken using a preventative approach which the new United Nations Secretary-General intends to promote[12].


[1] The democratic governance of the security sector does not refer to a specific institutional model, but rather encompasses fundamental principles which could be applied differently according to the local situation: a legal framework that guarantees the State a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; compliance and adherence of security bodies with constitutional provisions and national and international laws; the recruitment of personnel on an inclusive and non‑discriminatory basis (regardless of race, gender or religious denomination); an obligation for security bodies to report to democratically elected civil authorities; transparency and public access to government information on issues of security with due regard to confidentiality and legitimate efforts to protect persons or the State; the existence of recourses by which citizens may defend their rights in case of abuse thereof committed by armed and security forces; an independent judiciary, particularly as it concerns the prosecution and adjudication of security sector personnel.

[2] Thierry Vircoulon, “La reconstitution de l’armée centrafricaine : un enjeu à hauts risques” », Research Paper No. 36, IRSEM, April 2017,  http://www.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/501361/8515378/file/NR_IRSEM_36.pdf

[3] For example: In Mali, some delays in the implementation of the SSR process were caused by the inability to issue compensation to representatives of armed movements appointed to serve in various bodies of the SSR institutional structure, because the civil status they declared did not match the identity documents submitted. Due to statutory limits, certain bodies, such as the Gendarmerie, are restricted to recruiting NCOs, which makes the recruitment process twice as expensive as that conducted by the army, which is able to recruit rank officers (for whom the training process is half as long). The process of determining the integration criteria for former combatants can lead to disputes, within the armed movements as well, and to challenges in reconciling inclusion and competencies: especially in police forces, an OPJ (judicial police officer) diploma is required to be granted officer status, which makes it difficult to integrate former combatants into high-level positions. The amount issued for risk premiums to improve military life for soldiers deployed on various fronts remains modest (76 euros per month).       

[4] For example, there is currently an exceptionally large number of training programmes: their respective relevance should be evaluated based on overall international training provisions while recipient personnel should be monitored scrupulously.

[5] Laurent Touchard, Forces Armées Africaines: Organisation, equipements, etat des lieux et capacites, May 2017

[6] Notably, the missions and prerogatives of security forces are determined by the state’s fundamental law; security forces created in accordance with national legislation and regulations (laws, decrees, ministerial orders, administrative decisions, etc.); DSF’s respect for democratically elected civil power; defence and security budget planning within the framework of the national budget and the budget’s submission for approval to the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly; enrolment of DSF operations and management within the legal mechanisms –

[7] Marc-André Boisvert, 2012 : “l’étrange défaite de l’armée malienne”, January 2017, http://ultimaratio-blog.org/archives/8272 ; Niagalé Bagayoko, Eboe Hutchful & Robin Luckham (2016) “Hybrid security governance in Africa: rethinking the foundations of security, justice and legitimate public authority”, Conflict, Security & Development, 16:1, 1-32, DOI, http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/C3IuMiH2zwb2nBnQF3Pb/full

[8] The majority of programmes backed by international partners have no anti-corruption mandate.

[9] Aline Leboeuf, “La réforme du secteur de sécurité à l'ivoirienne”, Ifri study, March 2016, https://www.ifri.org/fr/publications/reforme-secteur-de-securite-livoirienne#sthash.Xnr0I5nW.dpbs  

[10] Bat Jean-Pierre, Courtin Nicolas (dir.), Maintenir l’ordre colonial. Afrique et Madagascar, XIXe-XX esiècles, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, “Histoire” collection, 2012.

[11] http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/au-policy-framework-on-security-sector-reform-ae-ssr.pdf

[12] https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12673.doc.htm

contribution REFORMES_compressed

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


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