Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Governing the African Security Sector


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The wave of popular pressures for political reform that spread across Africa in the period stretching from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s culminated in the restoration of electoral pluralism in most of the countries of the continent. This development went hand-in-hand with the adoption of constitutional frames that, nominally at least, guaranteed wide-ranging freedoms for the peoples of the continent. In most countries where transitions to elected government occurred, the most visible sign of the changes that took place was the withdrawal of the military from a direct role in the political arena and its adoption of a more low profile position in public policy discussions. Indeed, one of the stated aims of the political reform effort was to ensure that the military was brought (fully) under elected civilian governmental control. Thus, during the course of the 1990s, a considerable amount of discussion took place on the theory and practice of civilian control over the military in a democratic or democratising context; not a few African countries concluded bilateral agreements with the United States and the European Union purportedly for the attainment of this goal. Various academic and policy studies were produced with a primary focus on how to achieve the twin project of the depoliticisation of the military and the demilitarisation of the polity. But few recognised that this twin project was also an ideal that required a close and constant attention to the very foundation on which the modern state system is built, including especially the modes of political domination that inform its structuring. Fewer still were those who addressed themselves to distortions that arise when the security logic on which the state is founded is eroded for whatever reason. Also, there was insufficient attention to the fact that the attainment of the objectives built into the twin project had the potentiality to become a policy proxy for big power hegemonic advantage in the international system. Furthermore, the conflation of the military services with the entire security sector led to a disproportionate focus of attention on the armed forces to the exclusion of other components of the state and non-state security systems which, for better or for worse, play a critical role in the polity.

The extensive and expansive writ given to the formal security sector, of which the military is a crucial but not the sole component, and the fact that many operations central to the overall direction of a polity can and are shielded from public scrutiny for the very reason of security underscores the need for a closer attention to its governance. While this is a development that is true worldwide, its consequences are probably more keenly felt in Africa where struggles are still going on to consolidate fragile democratic processes and structures. Indeed, in the case of the continent, recent efforts at democratisation have gone hand in hand with an expansion in the security sector even as the military withdrew from a direct controlling role in political governance. The reasons for the expansion that has occurred in the security sector are legion, comprising domestic and external factors that need not detain us for now. The important point to note is that although various policy programmes were pursued in the period from the 1990s onwards to reform the African security sector, these have hardly resulted in a system of governance of the sector that is either democratic internally or open to popular democratic scrutiny. Apart from the military which still functions in most countries with a considerable amount of latitude, the police services have continued to relate to the bulk of the populace on the basis of extortionary and predatory practices, abridging citizenship rights with impunity, undermining democratic processes at the same time, and enforcing the bureaucratic fiat of the ruling political elite. The secret services have also undergone a generalised expansion in mandate and powers with no shortage of issues around which their intervention in the political system is justified. Finally, private formal and informal security services, structured as commercial or neighbourhood vigilante operations, have also expanded considerably, exercising powers over the citizenry without either an effective public regulatory system in place or a framework for the exaction of accountability to the local community. In sum, at the same time as African countries have been immersed in the rituals of formal democratic politics, they have experienced an expansion in their security sectors without a commensurate investment in mechanisms for exacting democratic accountability. And yet, few will disagree that, in the final analysis, the mode of functioning of the sector both mirrors and summarises the entire record of the politics of the democratic process itself, serving as a platform by which its quality might be usefully measured.

Through the 2007 Governance Institute, the Council proposes to focus scholarly attention primarily on the workings of the security sector as an expression of and an arena for the joining of issues around the contradictory quests for popular democratic governance on the one hand and, on the other hand, the imperatives of local and global political domination as mediated by the security logic underpinning the modern state system. In this struggle, it would seem to matter little – or amount only to a question of details - whether the project of domination is personalised or more broad-based. Prospective participants will be encouraged to review existing debates on the pre-colonial/historical antecedents of the modern security establishment; the ways in which the structuring of the security system shape the form of the modern state; the role and place of the security services in contemporary African politics, economy and society; the factors that underpin the emergence and expansion of informal security arrangements and the interfaces which these informal arrangements might have with the formal sector; strategies that have been pursued for the legitimation of the formal and informal security systems, including the ideologies that have been generated to this end; and the moral universe within which the personnel of the security services function. Participants will be supported to produce fresh empirical and analytic insights into the ways in which processes of political domination are secured – and challenged - through the modus operandi of the security services, engage in a comparative analysis of their findings and reflect on the challenges posed by their own work to inherited/dominant conceptual frames on the security sector and its reform. The formal security services as integral elements of the state generate and deploy information – and disinformation- on the different trends, tendencies and struggles in any country as part of their bid to master the national-territorial space; laureates of the 2007 Governance institute will be encouraged to read the politics of democratisation in contemporary Africa as captured by the extent of submission of the security sector to democratic governance. But they will also be challenged to identify the pressures for change that may be in evidence in the public debates that are taking place on the need for a root-and-branch programme of security sector reform.


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