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The Role of Demilitarization in Promoting Democracy and Properity in Africa

Prof. Lloyd J. Dumas, University of Texas (Dallas), USA

(Text presented to the International Conference on "The Economics of Military
Expenditures in Developing and Emerging Economies"
Middlesex University, London, 13-14 March 1998)



In April 1994, the slaughter began. With guns, with knives with clubs, the people of Rwanda butchered each other in a carefully government-orchestrated ethnic genocide while the rest of the world watched in horror ... and did nothing1. By the time it was over, 500,000 - 1,000 ,000 people had died and several million more had fled their homes in terror. Squalid conditions in refugee camps took the lives of thousands who sought sanctuary in neighboring Zaire (a nation soon to be violently transformed into the Democratic Republic of Congo). Malnutrition and maltreatment weakened them, and cholera spread like wildfire.2

Though the tragedy in Rwanda was monumental in scale, it was not all that different in kind from many other episodes of political and ethnic violence that have repeatedly plagued that troubled continent. The legacy of political and economic domination and exploitation of Africans by colonial powers laid the foundation for decades of political and economic domination and exploitation of Africans by other Africans. It no longer the point who is to blame for the political oppression and depressed economic condition of the vast majority of the talented, culturally rich African people. It has gone on far too long, and it is time for it to end.

There are too many people with too many weapons in too many places in Africa. There is too much violence, too much poverty and desperation. The people of the continent that gave birth to all of humanity have the potential to do much better. Removing the obstacles that militarization has created is one key to unlocking that potential.


Militarization as an Impediment to Development

Economic development is much more than growth in the money economy as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), because economic activity is much more than the carrying out of money-valued transactions. The purpose of the economy as a social system is to provide for the material wellbeing of the population. Whether or not money is paid for it, any activity that results in the production and distribution of goods and services which add to material wellbeing contributes to that purpose. It is the quantity, quality and availability of the products of such "contributive "activity that measures the true size and state of development of the economy. At the same time, activities that result in the production and distribution of goods and services that do not add to material wellbeing is "noncontributive", even if money is paid for them.3

Military activity is one of the most important types of economically noncontributive activity in the modern world. Whatever else can be said for it, military activity does not grow food, it does not produce clothing, it does not build housing, and it does not keep people amused. Nor does it create the kind of machinery, equipment and facilities that can be used to grow food, produce clothing, build housing and the like. Military activity may have other kinds of value, but it has no economic value because it does not directly contribute to material wellbeing, to the material standard of living.

But while military goods and services have no economic value, they do have considerable economic cost. Military expenditures divert labor, machinery, equipment and other economically productive resources that could otherwise be directed to projects capable of raising the standard of living. Their true cost is "opportunity cost", the material wellbeing that has been sacrificed as a result of this noncontributive diversion of resources. To this cost must also be added the economic cost of the loss of human life, destruction of property and economic activity foregone because of the chaos and disruption caused when military goods and services are put to the violent use for which they are designed. In the more developed countries, this cost has been a difficult burden to bear. For the weaker economies of Africa and much of the rest of the developing world, it has been nearly unbearable.

Economic development cannot succeed without a great deal of economic investment. Education to raise the skill of labor and improved physical infrastructure are the two most important investments for generating strong, sustained development. It is difficult even to imagine how economies can mature beyond pure dependance on the export of extracted raw minerals and inefficiently produced specialized crops without major investments in education and infrastructure.

There is no force for development more powerful than growth in the skills and capabilities of the labor force. People are at once both the object of and the most important means for economic development. But as important as it is, education is not magic. It must be paralleled by and coordinated with investments in infrastructure and other necessary capital that create not only jobs, but the opportunity for productive, sustained and decently paid work. Raising education levels will only serve to frustrate people unless there is also the opportunity for them to use and be compensated for their newly acquired skills.

Large scale investments in education and infrastructure are critical. But they are also expensive. Countries of limited means cannot make the required investments and still maintain large, well-funded militaries. It is as simple as that.

In 1948, reacting to this simple fact, the government of Costa Rica decided to eliminate its national military forces entirely and channel what resources were available to more productive pursuits. During the past half century, Costa Rica has remained independent and been the most stable, democratic and prosperous nation in Central America, while the rest of Central America has suffered serious economic troubles and terrible spasms of violence. It is an interesting and important lesson.

Aside from draining resources and destroying people and property, a militaristic mindset replaces the economic urge to develop new resources and create needed goods and services with the military urge to take them from others by force. Quite apart from the obvious moral distinction, there is a profound difference between acquiring goods and services by confiscation and acquiring them by economic activity. Acquisition by force is at best a zero sum game, a game of redistribution, where how much the winners gain depends on how much the losers have lost. More likely, it will be a negative sum game, a game of net loss, because some goods and services will be destroyed in the battle. By contrast, economic activity is a positive sum game, a game in which new wealth is created, a game in which the potential exists for everyone to win.

If the nations of Africa are to succeed in substantially raising the living standards of their people and replacing the bonds of economic dependence on the rest of the world with more balanced, mutually beneficial trade relations, they must accelerate their rate of economic development. Oversized, overfed, overly influential military and paramilitary forces, whether established by the government or disaffected rebel groups, are incompatible with broad-based economic development. Substantial demilitarization is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for success.


Militarization as an impediment to Democracy

People do not ordinarily relish the idea of killing other people, nor do they look forward to putting themselves in the position of being killed or seriously injured. Yet stripped of the pomp and ceremony, of the uniforms and rituals, that is exactly what militaries are all about. Soldiers must be ready to offer themselves up to kill or be killed, or militaries cannot do what they have been designed to do.

Accordingly, military training must be designed not merely to teach people to use weapons, but to take away their individuality and train them to unthinkingly do what they are told to do, when they are told to do it. There is no room for questioning authority, no place for free and open debate. In the midst of military action, votes cannot be taken on which tactics to use. Military organisations are simply not effective without authoritarian command structures. They cannot be built around democratic principles. It is therefore very difficult for truly democratic political systems to develop and prosper in militarized societies.

It is, of course, true that nearly all of the democratic nations in the world today have military forces. Some, such as Britain, France and the United States, have very large, well-funded militaries. But in all these nations, military forces are subordinated to and can only be activated by democratically elected civilian officials. Furthermore, there are strict rules that limit the use of military forces inside the borders of the nations themselves. There are also well established social norms, if not strictly enforced laws, that for the most part restrict the formation and sharply limit the impact of armed paramilitary forces. To be sure, such strictures do not always work perfectly --- witness the long history of the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Forces in Northern Ireland, and more recently the alarming growth of the so-called "militia "movement in the U.S.. But even in the U.K. and U.S., both the level of violence and the general influence of these paramilitary groups on life in the wider societies has been very limited.

While the mere existence of national military forces is not incompatible with democracy, the full flowering of democracy in Africa (and elsewhere) requires a major reduction in the size, power and influence of national and subnational armed forces. Even in the U.S. where democratic institutions are firmly established, one of the most successful military commanders of the twentieth century, Dwight Eisenhower, warned nearly forty years ago of the need to guard against the corrupting influence of what he called "the military-industrial complex "on the political life of the nation.4

The full flowering of democracy requires the establishment of democratically elected governments that truly reflect the interests and opinions of all of a nation’s people. In that respect, even the well-established democracies still have some distance to go. Electing governments by popular vote is part of what is required, but it is not enough. The qualified electorate must be broad enough to express the opinions and interests of all the nation’s people. There must be a sufficiently free flow of information in the society that those who want to go to the polls can be well enough informed about the issues to cast a considered vote. People of widely differing political viewpoints must not only be free to speak out, but must also have access to whatever it takes to seek political office and make themselves heard by the electorate. It is not particularly easy to establish these conditions. They are not fully established even in advanced democracies like the U.S. where among other things the corrupting influence of money on politics has again emerged as a big public issue. But it is important to keep moving in that direction.

The process of building democracy is not restricted to the establishment of the formal institutions of democratic government. It is also important to build the underlying political infrastructure of civil society from which democracy draws its strength and durability. Civil society is neither government nor business, but the set of formal institutions as well as informal relationships and traditions that promote trust, a sense of wider community and a shared obligation for creating a better common future.5

The formal institutions of civil society are non governmental non profit organizations created by the people of a country. They are established for a wide variety of reasons : to help those who need help ; to raise public awareness of social inequities and political injustices ; to further a social or political cause in which their members believe by providing information and encouraging peaceful civil action. A truly democratic society not only permits such organizations to exist and operate independently of control by business or government, it encourages and facilitates their formation.

The informal relationships and traditions of civil society are also of great importance. Democracy requires open civil discourse with tolerance of, if not respect for, the expression of opinions which may not only be critical of the government, but with which many of the people of the nation may disagree. Shouting down or shutting out those who express contrary opinions --- practices which I’m sad to say have become more common in the U.S. in recent decades --- have no place in civil society. But they are not so much precluded by government or formal civil institutions as they are inhibited by the culture and traditions of open civil discourse. Simplistic slogans, satire and ridicule, on the other hand, do have their place in free political debate, but they too tend to close the mind to alternative points of view. And "minds, like parachutes, work best when they are open".

The formal institutions and informal traditions of civil society have little room to operate within the authoritarian structure of military organizations. Freestanding, independent organizations of soldiers that might serve as alternative centers of power and influence cannot be permitted. Debate about policies, strategies and tactics is severely circumscribed. While militaries do encourage cooperation and joint effort in the service of an objective, their culture of obedience and discipline, their hierarchical command structure, and their tradition of rank and privilege are not conducive to either the open discourse or the freedom of action that are essential to civil democracy.

A society in which roving armed bands of government, rebel or criminal military and paramilitary forces are the order of the day is not a society in which open political discourse and free polical activity can flourish. When force is the prevailing means of settling disputes and fear the prevailing means of enforcing order, elections and the other formal trappings of democracy become empty illusions.

Between 1990 and 1995, some form of election was held in almost every African country. There were national elections in at least 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet it is far from obvious that this flurry of electoral activity was in fact an indication of the spread of real democracy. According to Villalon, "This proliferation of elections... tells us little about the extent of substantive change or the degree of democratization in fact occuring on the continent... (E)lections themselves may be a strategy for maintaining power, and many African... elections in the 1990s have been clearly intended to forestall change, or even to strengthen the status quo".6 The appearance of democracy is not democracy.

Nevertheless, the pressures which led to these elections may have created a small opening to democratic process. It is possible that this opening can later be widened enough to make free and open elections a reality at some point in the future, at least in some places.


The Long Run Value of Democracy to Development

It is sometimes argued that authoritarian governments have the advantage in encouraging economic development because they can impose the discipline and organization necessary to get things done. If that is true at all, it is only true in the short run. In the words of Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria,

"... one-man, one-party, non-pluralistic, or military regimes... imposed with the excuse of having the potential to provide greater unity, or correcting the ills and abuses to which the operators of the different democratic experiments in Africa subjected their countries, have proven perhaps more divisive and prone to corruption than the regimes they ousted. In most cases, in fact, such dictatorial regimes have tended to exacerbate the ills against which they ostensibly forced their way into the seat of power."7

Development is unlikely to surge forward in fragmented, chaotic societies. Social order and a degree of discipline is important to economic progress. But when that order is imposed by force and fear, as it must be in authoritarian societies, it creates an atmosphere that virtually guarantees that any economic advantages it creates will be transitory. There are specific reasons for this.

For one, to be successful in the long run, an economy requires an ongoing stream of people with a variety of critical managerial talents --- talents like organizational skill, innovativeness, entrepreneurial flair and leadership ability. These talents are widely distributed among the human population. Centralized and authoritarian forms of social organization do not typically provide widespread enough opportunities for those who possess these talents to develop and employ them. They draw from too narrow an in-group. They use kinship, social class, political loyalty, ideology or other criteria wholly irrelevant to managerial ability to determine who is put into positions of economic authority. Thus, the most capable often never get the chance to show what they can do. Over time, economic institutions come to be run by second or third rate managers. In more politically and economically democratic societies, this is much less likely to happen, especially if careful attention is paid to breaking up the concentrations of economic power that tend to develop. Monopoly power tends also to produce managerial inbreeding and sloppiness over time.

Just a important, wisdom is also not highly concentrated in a specific segment of the human population. Where there is no room for free discourse, poor decisions made by those at the top are unlikely to be criticized before they have led to economic disaster. In the heat of the lengthy andoften irritating open public debate of democratic societies, better alternatives are more likely to eventually emerge and be chosen. Or at the very least, the worst decisions are more likely to be abandoned before they have done too mauch damage. That is not only true of government decisions, it is also true of decisions made in private economic organizations. Unfortunately, hierarchical authoritarian decision making is often the rule in private business organizations even within democratic societies with free market economies. This is one reason why less hierarchical worker decision making schemes can be a real advantage.

The concentration of wealth and power within economic systems and authoritarian political regimes often become self-serving and obsessive. It is easily corrupted and rarely operates in the long term best interest of those subject to its power. In the long run, because they provide greater opportunities to draw on the talents and wisdom that are widely dispersed through the population, both political and economic democratization have great advantages in fostering and sustaining real, widespread economic development.


Making Demilitarization Work : The Process of Effective Demobilization

In the United States, the former Soviet Union and many of the more developed countries of the world, the end of the Cold War raised the challenge of converting unneeded military bases and military industrial capacity to civilian use. Though it has been very poorly implemented in all too many places, this type of economic conversion has been well-studied and is rather well understood.8 But the demobilization of armed forces has been given much less attention, largely because it has not been that much of a problem in countries with well-developed economies and integrated societies that can absorb soldiers returning to civilian life.

In africa, where few nations have significant military industry, demobilization is a first order problem. In Ethiopia, for example, a series of wars of liberation wracked the nation beginning in the early 1960s. By 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had pushed Ethiopean troops out of the territory that became the independent nation of Eritrea two years later.9 After the war with Eritrea ended, many soldiers were simply released from their military duties and told to go home. No special attempt was made to integrate them into civilian life. A lot of them had been in the military so long that they knew little, if anything else. So when they were sent home, they took their guns with them. Used to a military life and without any real civilian skills, they turned into roving bandits who preyed on people in the countryside and further disrupted economic life. A great deal of damage was done before the government finally decided to undertake a variety of programs specifically aimed at retraining and otherwise reintegrating former soldiers into civilian life. These programs have apparently met with considerable success. It was a painful but important lesson to learn.

There is by now considerable experience with attempts at demobilization in Africa. Not all of it has been positive. In Somalia, several attempts have failed since 1992. In Angola, an agreement was reached in 1994 by both sides in the long civil war to demobilize about 73,000 ex-combatants. After some early progress, the demobilization ran into serious trouble when it appeared that some of the former fighters had not really been demobilized. In Sierra Leone, plans for demobilization were frustrated when the military seized power last May. It remains to be seen whether that demobilization will now take place. On the other hand, Eritrea demobilized 55,000 former fighters since 1993, and Ethiopea about half a million since 1991. In Mozambique, some 70,000 government forces and 20,000 opposition forces were demobilized from 1992-1994. And in Namibia (1989), Uganda (1992-1995) and Liberia (1996-1997), a total of nearly 100,000 former soldiers have been returned to civilianlife.10 Each demobilization occurred for its own specific set of reasons within its own socio-economic and political context. But some common threads run through the process of demobilization and connect it to other types of economic conversion. As in military-industrial conversion, both retraining and reorientation of the personnel involved are crucial. Retraining means giving those in transition useful skills that they did not previously possess, skills that will help them take advantage of existing or newly created economic opportunities. Reorientation means getting them to leave behind the way of thinking they learned in the military world and replace it by a way of thinking that is more compatible with success in the very different civilian world.

In military-industrial conversion, that means putting aside the way of thinking appropriate to an environment in which maximum possible performance is crucial and cost is relatively unimportant, and adopting a way of thinking in which reasonable performance and lowest possible cost are the order of the day. In demobilization, it means shifting from a mindset in which unquestioning obedience and the use of exteme violence to achieve objectives is the norm to a way of thinking that is oriented to creation, initiative and achieving objectives through peaceful cooperation. In both cases, it is a major shift that is critical to success. And in both cases, it cannot be safely assumed that it will occur automatically.

The process of demobilizing soldiers in Africa must contend with an especially difficult set of problems. Accord to Nicole Ball of the Overseas Development Council in Washington,

"African ex-combatants constitute a specially disadvantaged group. The typical veteran is semi-literate at best, is unskilled, has few personal possessions, often has no housing or land, and frequently has many dependents. Some veterans are also physically and psychologically handicapped by wartime experiences. Many find it difficult to take independent initiatives and to cope with the ordinary demands of civilian life. Even when they possess a marketable skill, such as mechanic or driver, ex-combatants tend to have little or no experience in the labor market, having taken up arms at an early age."11

Ball divides the demobilization process into four useful phases : assembly, discharge, short term reinsertion and long term reintegration.12

During assembly, primarily for security reasons, soldiers are brought to a particular area so they can be counted, registered, disarmed and given identification cards. While in these areas, they need to be supplied with shelter, food, clothing, sanitary facilities and medical care. All of this can be expensive. There are thus financial pressures as well as military and political reasons why they are often discharged as soon as possible. In fact, when demobilization is the result of negotiation rather than the defeat of one side by the other, a one year maximum timespan for discharge is typically written into the agreement.13

For social and economic reasons, not the least of which is having the time and resources to properly carry out effective retraining and reorientation, a period of assembly areas may be the most cost effective locations to retrain and reorient them.

Assembly is used to provide both information and tangible packages of cash and/or in-kind assistance including "food, civilian clothing, household utensils, building material, seeds or agricultural implements". In Uganda, for example, demobilizing soldiers and their dependents were briefed about legal issues, family planning and start income generating activities. Their demobilization package also included payment of one year’s school fees for their children.14

When they are ready for discharge, it is a good idea to provide former soldiers (and their dependents) with transportation to the areas where they intend to settle rather than leaving them to their own devices. In addition to being helpful to them, this helps assure that the ex-combatants do not all congregate in the same place and become a source of future trouble.

Once they have been transported to their home areas, further re-orientation sessions are useful to help them adjust to the specifics of their new surroundings and the roles they are now expected to play. These sessions are probably best conducted by or at least in concert with people from the local community. It may be necessary to provide. Other forms of transitory "reinsertion assistance", including providing additional food, household goods and temporary shelter may also be a good idea. But it is important not to overdo it. It is not a good idea for demobilizing soldiers to get the idea they will be permanently on the dole. And too much assistance is also likely to generate resentment on the part of their neighbors, resentment that can seriously interfere with their ability to successfully reintegrate into civilian society in the long term.

Even if all the other stages of demobilization are successful, there may still be real barriers to effective long term reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life. Reintegration is not just a matter of economic success. Former soldiers and their dependents must also be accepted by the communities in which they will now live. If they are veterans of a popular war or successful liberation struggle, they may be looked upon as returning heroes, and social acceptance may not be a problem. But if they have been part of a government or guerrilla force that killed many of their countrymen and countrywomen, destroyed a great deal of property and generally made the lives of people in the community miserable, long term reintegration will be much harder to achieve. It will require careful attention to a lengthy, painful and complicated process of national or regional reconciliation that may never fully succeed.

This much is clear. Demilitarization is vital to the future political freedom and economic success of the African people. Even when those under arms are not killing people, destroying property and disrupting life, they are draining the economy and holding back political progress toward democracy. But demilitarization is unlikely to succeed without effective programs of demobilization to ease the transition of soldiers to economically productive civilians, no matter how difficult this transition may be.


What About Security ?

It may be true that overlarge, overly influential armed forces burden the economy and interfere with the full development of democracy. Still, internal and external security remain important to both political stability and successful economic development. Neither democracy nor development can flourish in the midst of chaos. Militaries and police forces under the control of democratic governments have a role to play. But the inherent tension between democracy/development and armed forces makes it best to put greatest emphasis on alternative security mechanisms.

Interestingly enough, both democracy and economic development can themselves be powerful sources of security. Because democracies rarely go to war with each other, the spread of democracy in Africa will reduce the threat of external attack.15 Furthermore, truly free and democratic societies tend to be more internally secure. Since there are many mechanisms for expressing dissent and redressing grievances, those who feel ill-treated are not as likely to resort to violence to make themselves heard. This is strengthened when the formal institutions of democracy are supplemented by a well-developed and vigorous civil society.

Africans know very well how destructive and violent exploitative economic relationships can be. But successful economic development facilitates building mutually beneficial trade, among African nations and between Africa and the wider world. Balanced economic relationships are much easier to establish and maintain among countries at higher levels of development --- they have more to offer each other. And balanced relationships that benefit all parties not only increase economic wellbeing all around, they reduce the threat of violence and war among the trading nations.16 More prosperous people are also less likely to arm themselves and fight when conflicts arise within the nation.

That balanced economic relations can provide security and help keep the peace is not is not merely a nice thought or a theoretical speculation. The European Community (EC) is a clear demonstration that it can and does work. The nations that belong to the European Common Market have not only fought with and dominated the people of other nations, they have fought many wars with each other. Some of the same nations that now are members of the Common Market played key roles in both World Wars I an II. There are still many conflicts among the EC member nations, some of them quite serious. But these nations are now a part of a web of balanced economic relations that is so valuable to all of them that they no longer think in terms of going to war with each other.

In the past, Africans have experimented with common market arrangements such as ECOWAS with limited success. But such arrangements will have a much higher probability of fulfilling their economic and political promise when African nations are able to raise living standards enough to expand both their market potential and the range of goods and services they can offer each other.


Summary and Conclusions

The military model is inherently rigid, authoritarian and hierarchical. It is not a model from which free, open and democratic political systems can be readily derived. If real democracy is to grow in Africa, the power and influence of military and paramilitary organizations will have to be reduced and subordinated to the control of governments put into office in free and fair popular elections. The institutions, culture and traditions of civil society must be allowed to flourish and weave themselves into the political and social fabric, becoming an inseparable part of the way things are.

Demilitarization is also key to the acceleration and sustainability of economic development in Africa. Africa is a continent of rich natural resources. But the only resource that can really make development happen is the people. Major investment in their skills and education, coordinated with investment in the capital with which they must work is critical. These are very expensive investments. It is difficult enough for nations with limited means to afford them. In the face of the resources required to support extensive armed forces, it is impossible.

Militaries can only win if they are able to defeat their enemy. The only way to gain by military activity is to take what you want and need from the vanquished. It is at best a zero sum game. Economic activity is very different. Not only is it possible for all participants to gain, in the long run it is likely that each will gain more when all participants share in the winnings.

The dream of a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous Africa is a workable, practical vision. It is not going to be easy to achieve. It will not be simple, it will not happen quickly and it will not be cheap. But if Africans can throw off the militarized, hierarchical colonial model they have inherited and the authoritarian, exploitative way of thinking that goes with it, if they can reclaim and redirect the resources now being siphoned into economically unproductive military activitéy, there is no doubt that they can turn that vision into reality. And the Africa of tomorrow will indeed be a much more peaceful, democratic and prosperous place than the Africa of today.


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