A Malian soldier holds an unlit cigarette in his mouth during gun battles with Islamist insurgents in the northern city of Gao in 2013. Picture: REUTERS
A Malian soldier holds an unlit cigarette in his mouth during gun battles with Islamist insurgents in the northern city of Gao in 2013. Picture: REUTERS

IN SOTHO, the word for weapon and tool is the same. In Africa in the 1960s, armies were both a tool of liberation from colonial rule and of repression by colonial masters. But they were also used in post-independence Africa as a tool of intervention in politics, undermining and frequently usurping civilian rule.

In the 1970s, there were more than 30 unconstitutional changes of government. No African heads of state departed by the ballot box. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, experienced eight coups d’état, and the military ruled virtually uninterrupted for 33 years from 1966.

Today, much has improved. Multiparty elections are now the norm in Africa. Forty of 49 sub-Saharan countries regularly stage such polls, one measure of democratic progress in spite of their often imperfect nature. Governance is improving, especially if measured in terms of human rights and economic freedoms. This reflects improvements to African economic circumstances, with the continent, in the 2000s, enjoying the best growth decade on record.

Of course, Africa’s development circumstances are highly differentiated, reflecting history, policy choices, resource endowments, geographic location and size. That smaller countries have generally done better than bigger ones, for example, reflects in part the challenge of governing over large areas.

Africa’s armed forces unsurprisingly also relate to these historical as well as contemporary differences. A combination of the end of the Cold War, continental intolerance for coups led by the African Union’s moratorium, and the spread of technology, electoral standards and values, have all helped to shape the militaries’ contemporary orientation.

Indeed, today it is possible to discern a taxonomy of African militaries in terms of their relationship with civilian government. Like the countries they represent, Africa’s militaries are differentiated.

There are the "red carders", where military regimes (such as Mali recently) have come to power unconstitutionally. Coups remain a threat, particularly where there is an insurgency that throws the absence of civilian leadership into sharp relief.

A second category comprises the "legitimators", where military governments or armies have morphed into civilian regimes. This category includes a large number of countries, literally all the way from Angola to Zimbabwe. A history of liberation struggle invests the army and especially its leadership in one party and one electoral outcome. And given the influence on the rule of law, this usually goes hand in hand with negative investment perceptions and economic fortunes, natural resources notwithstanding.

The third group is those countries with a history of military rule, where civilians once more govern, including Nigeria, Liberia, Benin, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso. The fourth category are "constitutionalists", where there is no formal history of military rule, including Botswana, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia. No formal role in politics does not mean, however, that the military is out of government altogether, not least in pursuing business interests.

While this "arrangement" might keep the military formally in the barracks, in the longer term it risks promoting elite interests, patronage and uncompetitive practices over wider developmental needs. Translating growth into development remains a key African concern, especially among its burgeoning young population.

Where there are such vested interests, there is a danger also of militaries protecting political interests and sponsors. Still, the African military’s role in politics has also largely overshadowed a key question — what should be the key attributes and skills required to do the job before it today?

The variability of African militaries can be a threat to the people they are supposed to protect. Africa’s post-independence history shows that if you neglect your army, it can become a domestic risk.

Aside from the overriding need to act in support of the constitution, here another essential guideline stands out: the military should contribute to a secure environment for development. The best contribution the military can make in this regard is to stay out of politics. Institutional incentives should be geared to wider, national objectives rather than those narrow, elite and often patronage-driven interests linked to one or another political party or personality. But here, a further, different taxonomy can be developed — a categorisation of African military capabilities, distinguishing at least in terms of peacekeeping capacity between "enablers", "providers" and "followers".

The reality is that the African military is generally under-resourced for the roles it is expected to assume. Obviously, as with every area of government, hard choices will have to be made on capabilities. Inevitably, the biggest African gaps exist, as in most areas of government, in management, logistics and, more controversially, in the way in which militaries can and should respond to development needs.

One important principle stands out. While there are sometimes exceptional circumstances, the military cannot be stronger than the national economy can afford. A corollary is that it should not do anything to undermine the economy. This includes the furthering of elite over national interests.

The traditional notion is for armies to deal with development as a "secondary" role through engineering inputs and disaster relief. But there is a more explicit security aspect to this.

The experience of agriculture development specialists working with US special forces in Afghanistan shows that promoting better techniques not only led to 350% increases in yields but a 10-fold reduction in roadside bombs in some of the most insecure districts of the restive Kandahar province.

All this raises questions about where and how external actors might assist African militaries as they continue their transition out of politics to traditional roles and capacities. External assistance should be guided by sustainability, cohesion and relevance. Changes that are instigated by outsiders but cannot endure without their support have failed and should not be attempted.

Understanding why solutions fail is essential. It usually goes beyond money, and to the heart of the design of the solution, and to the extent of local ownership.

External assistance should also distinguish between explicit military support and strengthening the civil institutions in which militaries are located or those the military has to work with, including the police.

Above all else, leadership mentoring, and especially training for local budgetary, procurement and logistics processes, would help to reinforce the essence of a modern military. Teaching soldiers how to fight is not the principal problem. Rather, it is the system that supports them that is lacking.

Better systems can promote a positive cycle. Improved capacity and less stress over resources will in turn help to keep the military focused on national rather than partisan political interests.

Obasanjo is the former president of Nigeria; Richards is the UK’s chief of defence staff; Diogo is the former prime minister of Mozambique; and Myers is the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.