OBBO: The region’s armies are ‘smart’: They are creating a political federation

Friday September 12 2014

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A headline in Daily Nation said that “KDF troops set to join regional standby force”. The Kenya Defence Forces, it reports, is set to get approval to contribute troops to the East Africa Standby Force (EASF).

EASF’s business is to keep the region during times of conflict, the paper reminds up, in situations such as in Somalia and South Sudan. Lately, they are working together on counter-terrorism.

Its present members are Kenya, Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

EASF is the most advanced in formation, of all the African standby brigades. All this might seem like ordinary stuff, but it isn’t. The thing with modern Eastern African armies, from Djibouti, Eritrean, Ethiopian, the two Sudans, the Burundians, the Rwandans, (lately even) the Congolese, the Kenyans, the Tanzanians is that they stand and fight.

They don’t, like happened in Mali, take flight when they hear rumours of rebels advancing. And they don’t do the Naija scoot. Recently, the Boko Haram militants overran a town in northeastern Nigeria. The soldiers fled with the civilians--barefoot and in vests.

The Nigerian army was once mighty, roaming West Africa, knocking heads of warlords and restoring order. Its recent collapse is truly bewildering.

Why don’t East African armies flee? For starters, they have a lot of practice fighting at home, in neighbouring countries, and working in troubled lands like Somalia, South Sudan, the Darfur region, and so forth. But some of it has to do with the craft that they have developed from their joint military exercises, especially the East African Community armies.

Some time ago I read a leaked brief from the EAC headquarters. One of the fascinating bits was on the joint military and training exercises, many of them with the US military, that the regional forces hold – and we in the media never get to know. There are many.

In July during the 20th liberation anniversary in Rwanda, I went on a trip that traced the route of the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebels during the war that eventually brought Paul Kagame to power.

One of the stops was Gabiro, scene of lot of military activity during the war. It used to be a village when we covered the war. Now it is a small modernish town. It also has a Combat Training School. The school is also the East African regional training centre for non-commissioned officers. You hear about these military training schools in Africa, and most times they are just shacks and overgrown grounds.

The Gabiro centre will surprise you. It is a world-class facility, and there the region’s NCOs hone their battlefield skills---again, without us in the media knowing.

What we are saying is that the EASF is another step in a major reorganisation of our militaries that could fundamentally change even how national politics is conducted in East Africa in the years to come.

My own sense is that because terrorism has become transnational, and regional crises like South Sudan have consequences way beyond their borders, in organising as standby brigades, or peace-enforcement consortiums (Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti in Somalia), the militaries are creating a regional federation. Only that they are not aware they are doing so.

But even without that, the expansion of the military role all over Africa is happening in subtle and sophisticated ways. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, they have been deployed to enforce Ebola quarantines (and, not surprisingly, rogue elements took opportunity to collect bribes from people to let them escape the quarantine zones. Some things never change).

In Egypt, the military – which already dabbles in business – is to lead in funding and working on the $4 billion expansion of the Suez Canal. There will be a mega industrial and logistics hubs built around the expanded canal that will cost another $4m. It has been awarded to a Bahrain registered firm, Dar Al-Handasah Egypt. The Egyptian army is the local partner in Dar Al-Handasain.

African armies are getting multi-skilled, making money, learning to work regionally and internationally. This gives them a knowledge base, resources, and networks that don’t have to rely on civilian structures, and therefore great autonomy and ability to purse pan-regionalism. What next? Will the Kenya-Uganda-Kenya armies take over the new railway to end the bickering? Will the regional armies standardise their equipment?  Will they federate ahead of the politicians?

Well, this time we will be there to tell you.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3