Africa Defense Forum
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From Bullies to Officers and Gentlemen

How the Ghana Armed Forces Abandoned Coups and Embraced Professionalism



In Africa, military interventions in politics are an ever-present threat. In recent years, military forces have staged coups in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, twice in Burkina Faso and twice in Mali. Yet, for nearly four decades Ghana has remained an island of relative stability in West Africa. Members of the Ghana Armed Forces (GAF) have been praised for their high level of professionalism and their apolitical nature. This raises the question: How does the GAF manage to avoid involvement in coups?

The answer is multifaceted. To understand the newfound professionalism of the Ghanaian military, we need to focus on how it was created and look back at the destructive history from which it emerged. The information for this article is based on first-person interviews with current and former Soldiers of the GAF.

Breakdown of Military Order

In the early post-independence years, Ghana was one of the most coup-prone countries in the world. In this period, soldiers orchestrated and executed five successful coups and many more unsuccessful attempts. These events not only toppled democratically elected governments, but they also caused social unrest and human rights violations. Nearly all levels of the GAF succumbed to the coup temptation. The coup d’etats of 1966, 1972 and 1978 were orchestrated by high-ranking military officers, such as colonels, brigadier generals and above. In contrast, junior officers and other ranks orchestrated the coups of 1979 and 1981, leading to a temporary breakdown of hierarchy and command structures in the GAF.

Soldiers sit near the Electoral Commission in Accra, Ghana, on December 8, 2020, as Ghanaians await results of presidential and parliamentary elections.

On February 4, 1982, the coxswain and two naval officers at the Sekondi Naval Base were assassinated. A retired commodore, who was a junior officer then and narrowly escaped assassination himself, recalls chaos taking over. “The killings sent shockwaves through the military,” he said. “Everybody feared for their lives, especially officers, because we knew the regime will do nothing for us because it relied heavily on the other ranks for its power.” 

This was a low point in the history of the GAF. The fear associated with the killings led to a temporary breakdown of order in the barracks as officers and other superiors dared not enforce discipline. At the same time, the junior officers and other ranks were not capable of upholding the disciplinary and professional standards of the military.

Soldierly Values

After the assassinations in Sekondi, it was clear that change was needed. For the GAF to become a professional organization, it had to reintroduce and enforce discipline and hierarchy. This was a complex operation involving the issuance of leadership directives and performance of hierarchy, but it also led to the establishment of what has come to be known as the “human face” philosophy.

In 1983, the junta Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) appointed Gen. Arnold Quainoo to oversee the recovery of the GAF. Nicknamed “Buffalo Soldier” for his tough disciplinary style, the general was trusted by his subordinates. He immediately demanded professional behavior from his Soldiers. He encouraged officers to show leadership by commanding their men and banned officers from using Soldiers for nonmilitary tasks, such as washing and cleaning their superiors’ uniforms. These interventions marked the beginning of reinstating order.

Soldiers attend the funeral of Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat and former secretary-general of the United Nations.

“The military is centered on discipline; it is the bedrock, the foundation of every armed force. Without discipline, there is no army,” a retired general said. Put differently, for hierarchy and the internal structures of the military to function properly, discipline had to be restored. This was done in part by eliminating groups within the military perceived to be a source of indiscipline, such as the Junior Leaders’ Company, Border Guards and the athletes of Super Stars ’74, who were recruited to compete in sporting events on behalf of the military. The Armed Forces also introduced a forum for expressing grievances known as “the monthly durbar,” an overhaul of the military judicial system and a reinforced appeal to model soldierly values.

During this period, each time military leadership visited a base, the commanding officer organized a meeting with officers and men who then staged a performance of military hierarchy and authority. Quainoo, surrounded by officers, dramatically demonstrated his authority, and it was clear he expected to see it implemented at the various battalions and regiments.

In addresses, he emphasized that “a Soldier always works under the authority of an officer, and a Soldier respects his superiors and the rank,” a retired general who served during this period recalled.

The military leadership also emphasized that Soldiers must live by rules and regulations. These were the values instilled in them during their training at the Recruit Training Centre and at the military academies. The leadership emphasized that Soldiers who failed to uphold these values ceased to be Soldiers and became rebels. “I will not allow a military under my command to turn into a collection of rebels,” Quainoo said, according to people who served at the time.

These demonstrations showed Soldiers what the military leadership expected of them in terms of discipline, respect for authority and professionalism. These became the fundamental steppingstones in the transformation of the GAF.

Human Face Philosophy

After the initial interventions by the military leadership over the course of several years, further steps were needed. Many well-qualified senior officers who disagreed with the military’s involvement in politics resigned from service voluntarily or were forced out in the early 1980s, leaving an authority and knowledge vacuum. “We basically were not a functioning military, let alone a professional one,” says a retired major general who served during this period. The PNDC, in its efforts to stabilize the military, appointed Gen. Winston Mensah-Wood in 1990. He is credited with creating the human face philosophy, which has been instrumental in improving the professionalism of the GAF. The human face philosophy is considered the antidote to the “Obey before complain” modus operandi that was prevalent for many years in the barracks.

The human face philosophy takes a human-centered approach to military management. Compared to the previous stringent approach, the human face philosophy recognizes that punishment is not always the right answer. The philosophy begins by recognizing that the Soldier is a human being who should be approached with empathy and support. “The military is a human institution, with people working in it. We have to treat them as such to get the best out of our people,” said a Ghanaian military public relations officer.

The implementation of the human face philosophy called for the Ghanaian military to adjust its recruitment practices. In post-independence Ghana, until the beginning of the 1990s, a majority of the lower ranks such as privates, corporals, warrant officers and sergeants consisted of soldiers who were semiliterate or illiterate. Since these soldiers could not read or write, parades had to be organized for the weekly instructions to be to read out. “Soldiers were good at their job, like drill, manning the sentry, training and the like, but the larger implications of what it meant for a Soldier to serve his society were lost on most of them,” noted a former warrant officer. “Remember, most of them we recruited in the colonial period. They had a different kind of training, and so they were very obedient and not critical at all.” Sometimes nicknamed the “Buga-Buga” soldiers, a term derived from the Hausa word for “to apply force,” this previous generation of soldiers were known to be brutish, rigid and rough. A change in philosophy required a more stringent process to recruit high-quality personnel and elevate the standards for military education.


Professional military education started as a way to attract high-quality personnel into the GAF, but education has evolved into a way to improve the professional standards of the institution. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the pursuance of certificates in higher education became the norm in the barracks. The justification for this policy was a report published by the military leadership, which stated: “The ever-improving sophistication of modern weapons and equipment, their application and usage will definitely demand troops with higher educational qualifications. Opportunity should therefore be given to troops to broaden their education.”

Henceforth, the GAF started to recruit only people with secondary education into its ranks, while gradually phasing out those recruited at the tail end of colonialism.

The implication of this policy is that it has contributed to professionalizing the Ghanaian military. “The individual level of education of Soldiers has risen dramatically. The mentality of Soldiers has changed. To be able to get something done around here, you have to be educated nowadays,” a lieutenant said. “Our Soldiers have gone from illiterate to semiliterate to literate.”

Education institutions such as the University of Ghana, the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration, the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College and the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre have been instrumental in this transformation.

This emphasis on education also has contributed to changing Ghanaian Soldiers’ perspectives on their task and coups. In the past, soldiers openly engaged in politics and sometimes plotted coups in the barracks. Today, such activities have been stamped out due to recruitment and training practices. Moreover, commanders are more flexible in their approach to their subordinates. Unlike in the past when Soldiers were harshly penalized for minor infringements of the codes of conduct, the human face philosophy calls for the Soldier’s personal circumstances to be taken into consideration. Depending on the circumstances, commanders can elect to give a reprimand rather than harsh punishments.

In short, there has been a shift from rigidity to a more flexible approach, while education has contributed to improving Soldiers’ understanding of their roles and responsibilities toward society.


Ghana has a proud history of peacekeeping and has contributed to U.N. missions since the 1960s. It is typically one of the top 10 troop-contributing countries globally, with 2,000 to 3,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world at any given time. This contributes to the professionalism of the Ghanaian military in a number of ways. First, officials provide valuable advanced predeployment training and modern equipment. The predeployment training is provided by the international community, such as the European Union and the United States, which provided millions of dollars’ worth of training and equipment. Furthermore, Ghana has embraced peacekeeping as a way to provide Soldiers continuing training throughout their careers. “Peacekeeping is good for us,” a group captain said. “When we go out there, we get ‘in field training.’ The United Nations trains us in the theater. This enhances our professionalism as we get new knowledge, which when we come back can be put to use.”

Peacekeeping also exposes Ghanaian peacekeepers to new ideas about soldiering, such as “fighting counterinsurgents but also to international norms of human rights,” said a lieutenant colonel. Peacekeeping has changed Ghanaian Soldiers’ views on coups and war due to exposure to the effects that conflict has had on the societies they have been deployed to. In the words of a veteran of multiple missions: “War is hard. It is something you don’t want in your own country.” The peacekeeping arena is thus a forum for gaining vital military knowledge, insights and social experience. This has contributed to shaping the Ghanaian military’s professionalism by exposing Soldiers to how other militaries are managed.

Replicating the Ghana Model

The Ghanaian military went through turmoil in its post-independence period due to its involvement in coups and politics. These activities diminished its discipline and undermined military professionalism. To resuscitate the institution, the military initiated a number of important measures, such as the emphasis on soldierly values, the establishment of the human face philosophy and peacekeeping deployments. Key in all of these measures was the move to attract educated personnel into the military. There is no blueprint for transforming a military from one that violates the rights of citizens and participates in coups to a professional fighting force. But Ghana’s experience shows that a military must invest in the recruitment, education and development of its Soldiers. This has allowed it to build a military culture that seeks to serve its country rather than abuse it.  

Humphrey Asamoah Agyekum, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, where he works on maritime security and manages the project “Analyzing Maritime (In)security in the Gulf of Guinea.” He is the author of “From Bullies to Officers and Gentlemen: How Notions of Professionalism and Civility Transformed the Ghana Armed Forces.”

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