On July 29, 2013 a video that depicted a group of supposedly Congo Brazzaville presidential guards stripping naked a group of refugee women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo went viral on social media networks. Despite the gravity of the deed, there was no appropriate response from the country’s authorities.
The only audible but fledgling voice that was raised to condemn this heinous act was that of the president’s wife. This situation, emblematic of a culture of brutality developed by uniformed men in many African countries in the last few decades, requires attention and action.
Africa, they say, is the land of eternal dangers. The continent’s vitae are portrayed as a congeries of violent conflicts. Hardly does any day go by without hearing reports of violence perpetrated by the military. Consequently, the tale of violence in Africa remains almost always surreal. No known vocabulary can depict it any worse than it already is. Whether you turn on your TV, Internet, or radio, you hear more of the same. There are bad news, and then bad news and more bad news. Thus, the continent seems to be on ‘a path to permanent war,’ to borrow from the Yale Journal of International Affairs.
How has this culture of violence against civilians developed? Are there any possibilities for us to build a safer and a more peaceful world without military brutalities?
The military have been out of their barracks for too long. Groomed to keep us safe and protected, the military, on many occasions, have faithfully discharged their duties, often at the cost of their own lives—the greatest love and sacrifice a human can make. This is the type of military we need. On the other hand, some of these uniformed men who have been recruited under dubious conditions and have rarely received any appropriate training about the supremacy of law in armed conflicts, have contributed to some of the most gruesome atrocities the continent has ever witnessed. This is mostly true in failed states—states that, according to Rotberg, can “no longer deliver positive political goods to their people.”
Take a look at places of major conflicts on the continent. Central Africa (CAR) is a country where the military has refused to integrate into barracks life. Like ravening wolves, they roam the streets seeking whom to devour. How many more people have to die before the international community recognizes that CAR is reaching the point of no return? The Democratic Republic of the Congo is another classic example of how the failure to keep the military in barracks can ruin a country. Bissau Guinea has been crippled as a result of military rule. Somalia is a forgotten story. Chad is suffering a silent death. Sudan is not far behind. The crisis that is currently haunting the international community is the one in Mali. It was started by the military. And the list goes on.
Where do we go from here?
First, conflict and post-conflict countries must pay attention to the way they treat those they enlist lest they return and bite them back. Current reality indicates that with few exceptions, men in uniform are some of the most neglected people in times of peace and stability. Too often, warlords recruit them to take power; failing and ailing states recruit them to avert serious threats. But as soon as the trophy is won or the threat is over, men in uniform are left in the streets to prey on the civilian populations. Their remittances are hardly paid and they have no means to claim them. Perhaps, that is why these men in uniform don’t enjoy stability and peace.
Second, political leaders must be held accountable for the unruly acts of their men in uniform. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been doing well in this regard. Charles Taylor is in custody as a result of what his men did in Sierra Leone. The Sudanese President Omar El-Bechir has been indicted for the genocide committed in the Darfur region. Hissein Habre, the former president of Chad, is due for prosecution for allowing his men in uniform to kill thousands of Chadians. These, I believe, are positive international actions that must be supplemented by local initiatives.
Third, there is the need to create conditions to help those who are willing to return to civilian life. Little doubt, some young men and women enlist in the military in search of better living conditions in the first place. If their dreams are short-lived as far as the military is concerned, governments should create incentives for business corporations to hire those who have the necessary skills. Those with little or no skills can join literacy programs, and/or vocational and technical training programs made affordable for them.
Finally, let us redefine our understanding of peace. Most of the violent conflicts in Africa have happened against a background of years of misrule, cronyism, leadership deficit, and human right abuses. These conducts are threats to peace. Scholars have long concluded that peace is a practice of justice. It is not the result of entertaining a hodgepodge of ragtag armies who specialize in oppression, repression, and suppression of the civilian population.
Until we take appropriate actions, the monsters we have created will continue to haunt us.