Defence corruption: The AU’s next fight

Gavin Raymond News & Analysis Public Administration & Governance

Corruption is a major unseen contributor to insecurity, instability and conflict. Seifeddine Rezgui, the man who recently killed 37 tourists at the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Tunisia,was able to travel unimpeded into Libya for military training and to gain access to uncontrolled weapons, each the result of failures in a corrupt security system. We know that corrupt capital and organised crime provide substantial income for insurgent groups such as those who trained Rezgui and his three predecessors who attacked the Bardo Museum in March. We also know it has fuelled other violent opposition movements in Africa: a recent Council on Foreign Relations report reasonably calls the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency “an effect and not a cause…a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos”. Poor accountability for arms and money has already helped destabilise Libya and Mali dramatically, while in Côte d’Ivoire the next elections may well be influenced by former rebel commanders that have access to both through known pathways for corruption such as illegal artisanal mining.

Corruption becomes an even greater threat when it prevents governments from responding to the resultant security threats. It is particularly destructive when it comes to the armed forces and other security institutions, due to their monopoly on the legitimate use of force and their potential for malign influence where they are disconnected from the population and lack civilian oversight. For instance, there is increasing evidence to suggest that the pervasive culture within the Nigerian government, Ministry of Defence and the military has directly contributed to their continued failure to weaken Boko Haram. While Nigeria is now one of the largest defence spenders in Africa, in 2013 research by Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme clearly showed that weak parliamentary control of defence budgeting was enabling defence officials to rack up increasingly higher levels of extra-budget and off-budget spending without public accountability. Our research also showed the extent of both serving and retired Nigerian military officers abusing public position for personal gains from the oil sector.

Nigeria and Tunisia are not alone. In Nairobi, the 2013 attack on Westgate Mall demonstrated a similarly tragic but unsurprising structural failure of the Kenyan national security apparatus. Analysis from the incident indicates that corrupt security personnel facilitated access to the weapons and the shop the attackers rented during their preparation, while soldiers later sent in to secure the mall looted it instead. We know that the ongoing reluctance of the Kenyan government to address a £500m high-level corruption scandal over contracts with Anglo Leasing led to critical national security contracts such as a robust immigration control system being subverted, while petty police corruption only smooths the process for attacks to continue.

The link between weak defence institutions and conflict is well documented; however the corresponding link to weakness in defence oversight is not. Continental defence spending increasing by a phenomenal 91% over the last decade, and has not been matched by any comparative improvement in oversight. A simple consideration of other major spenders throws out risks immediately. The Rwandan and Ethiopian militaries, despite some success in professionalising at the tactical and operational level, remain as secretive now as a decade ago about the political and financial connections their senior officers hold, leaving both at significant risk of hollowing the armed forces’ capacities and eroding public trust. Even South Africa, arguably the most professionalised defence force in Africa, has seen increasing erosion of its claim to this title in recent years.

It is consistently clear from our research and case studies like Kenya, Mali and Nigeria that increasing defence spending at this rate will be a highly risky venture in light of the extent of corruption across the sector. After all, defence forces that are poorly led, equipped, trained or paid as the result of corruption will be likely to fail when most needed. States with strong, well-overseen defence frameworks would also struggle far less to adapt to the emerging threats and changing dynamics from non-state groups such as Boko Haram or Al Shabaab, or ongoing regional conflicts such as in the DRC or Libya.

One group that must support this change is the international community. Tens of states from all corners of the globe are now involved in providing security assistance or arms to fragile states and multiple countries can even be active in the same state. This has often provoked criticisms, as recently evidenced in France’s engagement with Cameroon. In some cases, such assistance is simply irresponsible and can work at cross purposes to other initiatives. Often it is well-intentioned but nonetheless ineffective when the controls put in place to prevent training or equipment being diverted are inadequate, or when coordination between donors is poor, or when donors do not understand the precise state of oversight mechanisms within each country.

Bodies such as such as the United Nations, the United States and the European Union member states often limit their engagement with defence corruption in Africa because of competing agendas between the international community and African member states or their institutions. Donors without this contextual understanding fail to conduct appropriately detailed assessments of existing corruption, informal structures that may be subverted, or to give the consequences of corruption appropriate weight in their analysis before they pour large quantities of practical support into weak institutions.

Donors must also understand why many African states have seen strong executive control on power and the politicisation of the military since their independence.Unlike in Europe, where states expanded based on the amount of territory they could control militarily, most African states inherited borders that were bigger than they could dominate. Power networks that were based on tribal or ethnic structures and patrimony were also unable to evolve quickly enough and became increasingly subverted – both by Western powers and internally – as Africa’s connection to the global economy rapidly expanded.Military leadership has thus often been intrinsically tied to personal loyalty and patriarchy, whether by societal or tribal affiliation, military networks or both.

Realistic donors will expect member states to establish strong but pragmatic civilian oversight mechanisms in light of the rapid political, structural and technological transition that has occurred in just a century. They must also more carefully consider the capacity for existent civilian oversight structures – including the press and civil society – to provide effective checks and balances on the power dynamics in countries they are supporting. Prior to the Malian coup, the substantial investments by the French and American governments in professional and technical assistance to the military were not underpinned by initiatives to improve integrity, civilian oversight and accountability. Our research on Mali shows that the prevalence of short-term, unsustainable donor-driven programmes meant the results of these initiatives were not robust enough to withstand the challenges of corrupt practices, weak institutions and inadequate resources.

The African Union has a crucial role to play in all this. The AU was in many ways born as a security organisation simply because its predecessor, the OAU, was unable to address regional armed conflict. The United Nations (UN) has also increasingly turned to the AU to mount peacekeeping interventions in countries such as Burundi, Somalia, Darfur and the Central African Republic. As the AU has assumed greater responsibility for peace and security issues, it has developed the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) to actively and substantively address conflicts as a collective body through a range of African-led initiatives. This includes the African Standby Force (ASF), which will include contributors such as Algeria, Ghana, or Rwanda that demonstrate significant defence resources but varying levels of corresponding oversight. The AU’s capacity to limit armed conflict or project power on a regional basis is therefore directly related to the extent of corruption within its member states’ defence sectors, and its relationship with each of the key regional economic communities in turn. To do this, it will need to improve focus on defence oversight and executive leadership, integrity within the armed forces, and promoting technical improvements.

The AU is well placed to diplomatically highlight the threat corruption poses to member states. It should use this to place pressure through RECs for states to implement legislative changes such as an effective, independent parliamentary defence committee and a transparent and independently audited defence budget. States can certainly be reminded these are critical preliminary steps in meeting their commitment to end all conflicts in Africa by 2020. Diplomacy could also deliver other initiatives that a strong executive may accept, such as to establish a suitably independent closed committee to scrutinise intelligence services and secret spending.

Defence integrity and leadership can be strengthened and the AU could support the institutional conditions for a future generation of accountable leaders through the ASF. For example, it could have a substantial influence by developing relevant guidance on preventing corruption in AU missions. It must similarly recognize that certain political and social dynamics act as pathways for corruption during military operations: these include factionalism, organized crime, exploitation of natural assets, land title and expropriation, elections, and security forces linked to private individuals. The AU must have a detailed understanding of these dynamicsbefore it deploys forces into conflict environments. It must also recognize and take advantage of windows of opportunity to promote reform; such as if forces report that resource exploitation or criminality by partner forces is placing them or their mission at increased risk.

Finally, technical solutions should continue to be sought within member states. They can have significant long-term impact and take efficient political effort. The Nigerian military’s performance in Bama in 2014 typifies how the interrelation between poor leadership, poor professionalization and corruption inside forces will consistently lead to them collapsing at critical junctures. Conversely, many of the solutions such as introducing a list of personnel, biometric identity cards and bank deposits to limit payroll fraud are comparatively simple and can be effectively implemented in any country, as demonstrated in DRC.

The data and the framework are already available for the AU and its member states to tackle each ofthese areas. Every defence institution in Africa is examined in TI’s 2015 Government Defence Anticorruption Index (GI), which comprehensively examines 76 risk areas that span political and legislative oversight, financial mechanisms, personnel, operations, and procurement. Prominent research bodies and think tanks such as the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies and RUSI have already begun to provide comprehensive and accurate insights from our research. This index is not simply a risk assessment tool however: it is designed to evolve into a platform for governments to use in developing detailed action plans for reform. NATO has already adopted our approach, as have an increasing number of individual ministries and defence forces.

Africa has defied the odds in recent decades. Unprecedented levels of economic growth coupled with political reform and the emergence of African democracy mean the 1960s desire for independence is increasingly being matched with tangible action. Corruption still restrains many countries from their full potential and it is clear that defence spending is a high risk area. It is not just a political necessity for the AU or the international community that African countries tackle these issues. For those countries where corruption has now fed into national violence, it may be a factor for survival.

Written by

Gavin Raymond is a specialist on the stabilisation of fragile and conflict-affected states. He currently works for Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme, based in London.