At LobeLog today there’s an interesting piece by two Africa analysts, Alexis Kedo and Colby Goodman, looking at the US practice of training presidential guards, such as the unit that just recently tried and failed to overthrow Burkina Faso’s civilian government. The US often views these presidential guard units, which can be found all over Africa (though not in Burkina Faso any more) as the “special operations” forces within their states, and that’s true insofar as these units are generally separate from the main army and get better pay, better equipment, and better training. This makes those guard forces the ideal partners for the United States in counter-terrorist operations, and so you have guard units receiving American training in Chad, the Comoros, Senegal, Rwanda, and many other African nations. The problem is that these units are often given elite-level US training without being vetted for potential political concerns, and so they wind up putting that training to use in national politics, either suppressing political opposition to the sitting president or seeking to overthrow the sitting president and seize power directly:
Like all cliques, African guards usually become both highly cohesive and highly politicized. And understandably, this “sub-state identity,” as some experts call it, is detrimental to the national unity, strengthening party or ethnic loyalties at the expense of society as a whole. Providing these already highly decorated factions with additional combat knowledge and resources, as the U.S. does, can have unintended, but highly problematic, consequences.
These presidential guards can usually do whatever they want. Depending on the circumstance, they will sometimes assist a leader to whom they have fidelity cling to power, squelch dissent, and silence opposition. In this scenario, human rights violations are ubiquitous. However, if certain guard members have the right mix of confidence and greed, they will attempt power grabs, much like Diendéré’s futile subversion in Burkina.
Despite the trouble these guards can spell for democracy and human rights, the use of them is more the norm than the exception. The list of crises exacerbated by power-hungry guards—or by reactionary military non-elites—is long, and one can pinpoint their effects within some of Africa’s most violence-ridden states.
I recommend heading over there and reading the whole thing.
Africa is the focus of a lot of US counter-terrorism training efforts at the moment, despite the fact that the epicenter of global terrorist activity continues to be the Middle East. Most Middle Eastern nations either don’t want US assistance, have already gotten US assistance, or are already in such desperate straits dealing with insurgencies that counter-terrorism training just isn’t a priority for them. But there’s a certain irony in the fact that the US is training these African presidential guard units in ways that can be destructive to the countries they come from, but can’t seem to train the Afghan or Iraqi armies, or a significant Syrian rebel force for that matter, to a level that allows them to effectively resist groups like ISIS or the Taliban.
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