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An Interview With Professor Abel Esterhuyse on the Interface between Terrorism and Armed Force on the African Continent

April 10, 2018


An Interview With Professor Abel Esterhuyse on the Interface between Terrorism and Armed Force on the African Continent

RIMA Occasional Q & A , Volume 6 (2018), Number 1 (April 2018)

  1. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation there has been a 1000 percent increase in terrorists attacks on African soil since 2006. In your opinion what accounts for this escalation?


Three key factors, in my view, shaped the rise in violent terrorism on the African continent.  Firstly, it is impossible to isolate the Islamic and Muslim communities in Africa from what is happening in the rest of the Islamic world.  The deep divisions within the Islamic world and the radicalisation of certain segments of the Muslim communities outside Africa is definitely also affecting the followers of the faith in Africa.  This process was further inspired and given impetus by the political turmoil in a large part of Islamic Africa that culminated with the Western-inspired regime change and military involvement in Libya, Mali, and other places.  Secondly, large ungoverned spaces are a reality of African political geography.  It provide many rebel and dissident groups with safe havens to hide from the security forces, radicalise and build their institutional capacities.  This reality is rooted in the historical reality of Africa’s states’ borders, the size of many African states, and the fact that the reach of the central government is often limited because of physical geography of many of these states. Thirdly, and this is something that the more liberal peace building communities and NGOs in Africa do not want to hear, but Africa as a continent is under-militarised.  Not only is African defence budgets too small; but it is also not used to full effect and efficiency.  As a rule, African armed forces are too small, and lacking in professionalism and capacity.  Thus, the lack of military and security governance is a key factor in explaining the growth of international terrorism in Africa.


  1. It has often been asserted that Africa’s armed forces have been largely trained to conduct conventional battles and therefore are ill-suited to engage in asymmetric warfare or embark on counter-insurgency operations. Would you agree with this?


The assertion that African armed forces are conventional in orientation is rooted in the reality that African armed forces are often trained by conventionally minded forces of super and major powers from outside of Africa.  Conventional training is not necessarily bad for armed forces.  The basic military drills and discipline that accompanied this kind of training are a necessity for professional armed forces.  There are two key problems though.  African armed forces do not necessarily build their own institutional knowledge of African conflicts and security.  Stated differently, African military personnel often do not read and write. How often do you find the autobiography of a retired African general in bookstores around the continent of Africa? And because African officers and military personnel do not engage in serious writing, African armed forces cannot develop their own tailor-made doctrines.  Thus, they rely on doctrines from outside of Africa to train their forces for an operating environment that is substantially different than what these doctrines were developed for in the first place in western and eastern countries.  Secondly, the dynamic nature of the African security domain requires from the African armed forces to train and conduct a wide range of operations that often necessitate the integration of regular and irregular operational strategies.  Thus, for African armed forces, it is not a case of preparing for the one or the other – for regular or irregular warfare; it is a case of developing a tailor-made doctrine to integrate various types of action in one operational sphere and often work with police, and even private military companies, within that particular operational sphere.  Recent operations in northern Nigeria against Boko Haram are a good example in this regard.


  1. Following on from this, what needs to be done (training, equipment, doctrine) to assist Africa’s armed forces to conduct successful military operations against the likes of Al Shabaab and Boko Haram?


It is quite clear that African armed forces need to build their own institutional memories and capacity.  There is a strong and important imitative dynamic in warfare around the world.  Armed forces always tend to emulate the success of other armed forces.  The problem arises if you emulate the armed forces of countries that have not been successful in fighting irregular wars – if one has to be honest about the track record of western armed forces during the last 20 years and more.  Conventionally, the armed forces of the West have driven the other players off the field; it is like playing rugby against the New Zealand All Blacks – expect to lose. In the domain of irregular warfare, however, their track record is a disaster and not something than can and should be emulated by African armed forces.  The driving force behind any successful military operation is doctrine.  It is doctrine that informs the institutional structure, training and equipment of the armed forces; it is the software that drives the military hardware. But no serious doctrinal development is possible without institutional memory.  The institutional memory relies on the experience of soldiers and the codification thereof in writing.  Without soldiers writing about their experiences, it is impossible to develop a truly home-grown military doctrine for the uniqueness of your own armed forces and the operational environment they need to operate in.


  1. We have witnessed in recent years many Western boots on the ground in the Sahel and support for AMISOM in Somalia. What could be done to increase inter-operability between African armed forces and their Western counterparts?


This is firstly a matter of upscale and downscale.  There is at present a disequilibrium between the training, doctrine, and equipment of most Western armed forces and those of most African countries.  That disequilibrium is informed by the cornerstones of the Western military tradition – superior technology; group cohesion and exceptional discipline; an aggressive Clausewitzian military doctrine of kill or be killed; military doctrines based on generations of deeply analysed military history; and a state capacity that is able to appropriately finance the military endeavours.  Most African armed forces are struggling with many of these realities of military capacity and it is time for African political and military leaders to prioritise their commitment to their armed forces and to address these matters on a strategic level.  But it is secondly also a matter of African armed forces stepping up to the plate and doing their part.  African armed forces have to become more effective and efficient with what they have.  The essence and driving reality for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of armed forces is a good quality leadership.  African armed forces can do a lot to increase their interoperability with western armed forces through the quality of their command and control – good leadership.  That is the essential starting point for interoperability.  Of course, the alignment of training and equipment helps; it helps even more if these factors are cemented through regular joint field exercises.


Short CV:

Abel Esterhuyse is an associate professor of strategy in the Faculty of Military Science of Stellenbosch University at the South African Military Academy. He is also a research associate of the Centre for Conflict, Rule of Law and Society (CRoLS) at the Bournemouth University in the UK. Prof Esterhuyse teaches a wide variety of courses in the School for Security and Africa Studies of Stellenbosch University, regularly publishes on contemporary security, defence and military issues and has a keen interest in (South African) military history.  He served for five years (2010-2015) as the editor of ScientiaMilitaria: The South African Journal of Military Studies.  His most recent research on “The practice of strategy: South African defence in stasis” was published in the 1/2018 edition of Defence& Security Analysis.

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪Abel Esterhuyse‬‏


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