Security Sector Reform at the Crossroads?

by Web Administrator · September 14th, 2015.

Building on the statement by the German Secretary of State that 'crisis' is the 'new normal', and taking advantage of my position as the first speaker on the first panel, allow me to inject some contrarian thoughts into today's discussion. 

Recent developments have clearly signalled that we cannot continue to approach or discuss Security Sector Reform (SSR) with the same mantras, or endlessly interrogate the same familiar issues from SSR conference to SSR conference –'same-old, same-old' as we say in West Africa.

The three principal developments that I have in mind are the following:

1. Recent acts of terrorism have exposed African states as having feet of clay, simply unable (or unwilling) to confront blatant new security threats. All the more worrisome that what we have in mind are not the usual suspects, but some of Africa's most militarily capable states, Nigeria and Kenya. The fact that these new threats are engulfing some of the strongest states in the region leads one to question the very concept of 'fragility';

2. Current events in Burundi (as in South Sudan earlier) have once again underscored how easily painfully executed SSR programmes can be derailed by broader political dynamics, or unravel in the face of ruthless contests for political power. The case of Burundi is particularly poignant, as it was only recently showcased at the 'Africa Forum on SSR' as a rare example of African SSR success, and – more to the point – hailed as an equally unique example of the positive difference made by placing governance at the heart of SSR. Less dramatic—but no less significant—is how longer-lived SSR initiatives in countries such as South Africa and Sierra Leone (also deemed in their day as largely successful) are slowly being shredded under the weight of shifting ruling regime interests;

3. The horrendous humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean: in two weeks in April 1200 people ('illegal migrants') drowned, and this morning alone (May 4) an additional 600 were rescued. What could possibly motivate large –apparently endless--streams of people to contemplate such desperate acts, particularly in view of the demonstrable dangers? On the other side of the continent, we have been witnessing another round of so-called 'xenophobic attacks' against African migrants in South Africa. What appears to link these two sets of events are the same dynamics of poverty and marginalisation. These developments demand that we rethink SSR itself, the environment within which SSR unfolds, and (most importantly) the way(s) in which we conceive the linkage between SSR, governance, and development.

Let us consider each of these in turn:


'Emperors without Clothes': African states are demonstrating extraordinary ineptitude at confronting serious emerging security challenges. The worrisome new element is that this is no longer your 'broken states', but now involves African states with vaunted military capabilities.

It is clear that addressing these new threats requires a different skillset than what African security institutions are currently deploying. Core to this skill set is heightened intelligence capabilities. Yet 'Intelligence' is an element that is rarely addressed – indeed often studiously ignored – in SSR. 

Or at least in the PUBLIC rhetoric of SSR. What is in reality is emerging is what some have called 'two-track SSR': on the one hand, the norm-driven, public 'SSR', on the other, the more covert and much more muscular Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations and capabilities (such as the regional operations in the Sahel, the Horn and in Nigeria) that are also closely tied to European and American security concerns and interests. It is already apparent (from both Kenya and Nigeria) that these CT operations are directly undermining governance and human rights, and will continue to do so as long as the focus is on military and police responses not informed (as my colleagues 'Funmi Olonisakin and Awino Okech argued eloquently at the Africa Forum on SSR) by a wider political and social strategy. 

An increasingly urgent question is: To what can SSR be expected to equip African states to counter these new threats? This is not an easy question to answer, as it has never been clear what level of capability
SSR is intended, expected or required to deliver. What one can conclude on the basis of available evidence, however, is that SSR has never been intended to deliver serious capability, offensive or defensive. 

This provides an opportunity to address (however parenthetically) the misleading opposition that some have drawn between 'building operational capability' and 'building accountable and democratic security governance'.

Many critics of SSR have complained that SSR focuses too much on one at the expense of the other. In fact, operationally capable armed forces and security services are also much more likely to have both the discipline and institutional capacity to be responsive to civil oversight. For oversight is a technically complex and demanding exercise, both for those exercising oversight, and for those complying with its requirements. Conversely, there is little doubt that strong oversight contributes to institutional strengthening, as much in the security as the wider public sector. Studies (such as our own earlier survey of military budgeting processes in African countries) suggest that weak armed forces often go together with weak oversight, and vice versa (though there is no suggestion that strong military institutions necessarily or automatically sprout effective oversight or governance mechanisms – vide the fascinating example of apartheid South Africa).


Evidence is emerging again (in Burundi as in South Sudan earlier) of how SSR may be destabilised by wider political dynamics. The reality is that SSR will remain inherently vulnerable to destabilisation in contested political environments where there is at best only tenuous respect for the rules of the game.

In spite of constant reiteration that SSR is 'highly political', the reality is that we have continued to approach it as a series of technical fixes. There has thus been a huge gap between rhetoric and action in the realm of governance in SSR programming. One has only to 'follow the money' to realise how little real priority has been placed on strengthening security governance even in contexts such as Sierra Leone. At best, 'governance' has been approached as an extraneous layer, to be executed by 'NGOs' or delivered through informal action (pretty much the experience for instance of ASSN and partners with parliamentary capacitybuilding as well as our work in Liberia from 2005-2009).

Similarly, our ideas of 'democratic security governance' have been both exaggerated and simplistic: the SSR policy literature is replete with elevated norms of 'security governance' that would seem ambitious even in a mature democracy (and certainly well beyond what is realistically possible in 'fragile' states, often coming out of conflict and/or with little or no tradition of security governance).

For that matter, the nostrums on 'governance' tend to reflect little understanding of the protracted, contested, and always contingent and uneven processes by which the metropolitan democracies themselves arrived at democratic security governance as we know it today; and little hint as well of the crisis in SSG that is roiling these societies as new and 'unconventional' threats bring these arrangements (both fact and myth) under renewed pressure. It would be much more realistic and helpful to see SSG as a global problem – and organise candid dialogue around that issue – rather than present it as yet another Northern solution to a distinctively 'Southern' problem.

The prevailing naivety is also partly linked to the tendency in the SSR lexicon to view security institutions in terms of 'service delivery' (which is indeed part of their raison d'etre) rather than as pre-eminently apparatuses of power at the heart of the state – underscoring, once again, the deficits in the analysis of both the state and power that permeates much of the SSR discourse. 

At the core of politics and SSR (or the politics of SSR) is the question rarely raised: which social, political or class factions are going to control those apparatuses. Probably the most insightful – and at the same time neglected – observation in Samuel Huntington's 1957 book The Soldier and the State is the argument that the state of 'civil-military relations' depends less on the relationship between the military and civilians than on the relationship between contending civilian groups or interests interested in acquiring control over the military as an instrument of political supremacy. Opposing political interests are tempted to use the military against each other, entailing attempts to monopolise control. (Of course we have learned in Africa that the contest for power between military and civil power is also very much an issue). 

An associated danger – as we are again seeing in Burundi today – is that political gridlock and contestation between civilian parties over fundamental rules of the game place the military in a position to make political decisions (or execute political interventions) for which it is ill-equipped. 

The core problem is precisely that we have failed to commit African leaders and elites (security elites included) to respect for the wider rules of the game. In essence, we have created “democracies” without democrats, and in the process exposed security institutions to their own political calculus.

We have also (surprisingly) neglected entirely to address political parties or to view them as key SSR actors – as the principal instruments for organising democratic power, gestating norms and programmes, and shaping political policies and practices. Few indeed are the political parties in Africa that have any firm orientation on the specific issue of security governance; attitudes on this question (all too often reflected as well among parliamentarians) can often be described as ad-hoc, opportunistic, or abstentionist ('leave it to the President or the executive'). Our preoccupation with 'civil society organisations' – while entirely legitimate – appears however to have cascaded directly down from the (neoliberal) suspicion of the state and politics (and all things connected therewith) that characterised much of the 1980s. The disregard – even marginalisation – of political parties that went along with this ideology is overdue for reconsideration. This links up with the wider question of elite incentives that my copanellist Erwin van Veen and colleagues have been exploring: as with the previous generation of structural adjustment or public sector reform, what incentives are there for political elites to do things any differently than they have done in the past, particularly given the high political risks – and unpredictable outcomes – of SSR?

It is no longer just an issue of revitalising the governance agenda (i.e. acknowledging that the element of governance is more at risk – as well as gestator of risk – than ever before), but also rethinking and expanding the remit of that agenda, to include political engagement and dialogue with extremists and 'rejectionists' of all stripes as a means to counter radicalisation.


It is by now clear that whatever our model of development is, it is not working for the poor, the vulnerable and the youth. This is the message that links the dramatic media clips of recent days: the ease (and frequency) with which youth are being radicalised, the desperate waves of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, and the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. It is a message of deep marginalisation and political and social alienation.

It is equally alarming to realise that, given the right context, these same actors might be interchangeable: gravitating as easily in the direction of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram as braving the Mediterranean, – or in earlier days, toward revolutionary Marxism rather than religious extremism.

In other words, what we are witnessing is the comprehensive failure of the vision of Human Security driving SSR, in turn generating threats out of all proportion to anything that SSR is designed to address or prevent.

Professor Eboe Hutchful is Executive Secretary of the African Security Sector Network (ASSN). This is the text of a presentation he gave at a conference on 'Security Sector Reform and Governance: Reviewing Germany's Contribution,' organised on May 4, 2015, by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin.


Be the first to add a comment!