Analysts: Civilian Oversight Critical to Hold Security Sector Accountable
Lack of civilian oversight of a country’s security sector can have dire consequences that lead to public mistrust of security forces, a continentwide challenge.
Afrobaromoter reported that more than 50% of survey respondents in Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Gabon, Nigeria and Togo expressed little or no trust in their country’s military. More than 40% of respondents in nine other countries held the same opinions.
Civilian oversight includes the role of parliaments and parliamentary committees in overseeing the governance, transparency, accountability and effectiveness of a nation’s security sector.
Sean Tait, director of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, described civilian oversight as “both proactive and reactive.”
It involves “the lawmaking, the defense policies and all the regulatory and legal frameworks,” Tait told ADF. “There’s the role that parliamentary committees play. The role of your own defense committee is critical to providing a civilian component and oversight into [the direction] you want the military to take. It involves budget appropriation and reviewing its performance areas. The parliamentary committees on defense are incredibly important.”
Establishing a defense budget is among a parliamentary committee’s most important tasks.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Committee on Defense and Security of the National Assembly meets with budget teams for the Army, Police, Department of Immigration and intelligence services to determine their requirements and needs. Meetings follow with the Financial and Economic Committee. All members of parliament review the defense and security sector’s budget before it is allocated.
“This year, our work allowed us to double the defense budget,” Bertin Mubonzi, president of the DRC’s Committee on Defense and Security, told the Africa Center for Security Studies.
Mubonzi also leads a committee established by the National Assembly’s Bureau to determine whether security funds are being used appropriately.
“This committee was established because we unfortunately received information detailing the diversion of funds amidst the chain of command of the Army and of other security services,” Mubonzi told the center. “Indeed, sometimes we allocate funds and senior officers use them for their own purposes. Then, in the end, the soldier who is serving on the front lines has nothing.”
Many African nations lack effective legislative oversight of their security sectors. According to Tait, control of the armed forces is often concentrated in the executive branch.
“The president is also chief of armed forces,” Tait said. “It’s this lever they have, and they have this power, and it’s not something they will relinquish very easily. There’s a lot of corruption as well. There’s a budget, but there’s the obfuscation not to be clear in terms of what you’re spending. Just get a global budget and smudge it.”
According to Brig. Gen. Dan Kuwali, who serves in the Malawi Defense Force as commandant of the Malawi National Defense College, the professionalism of defense and security forces fades when they are beholden to political leaders rather than the public.
“Each African country should have clear laws that prohibit political actors from directing members of the security organs to take actions of a political nature intended to benefit the incumbent party or undermine the interests of opposition parties,” Kuwali wrote. “These laws should specify stiff penalties for those that do so. Citizens should also be legally empowered to petition the courts when security actors are deployed in political actions.”
Despite many challenges, there are ways to bolster civilian oversight, such as appointing an ombudsperson.
“The military ombud is empowered to receive complaints from military personnel,” Tait said. “It also takes complaints from the public and has an oversight component into military police. They’re not common on the continent but their direction is to provide for operational civilian oversight in addition to parliamentary oversight.”
Human rights commissioners and anticorruption agencies — such as those in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa — are also viable ways civilians can contribute to security sector governance, Kuwali said. Cases of defense corruption, embezzlement and money laundering are often brought to public attention by civil society organizations.
Establishing a regular schedule of security briefings for elected officials to raise their understanding of the security sector will also establish public trust of the military and police.
Kuwali also called for independent auditing mechanisms and greater support for civil society collaboration.
Some countries are moving toward greater civilian oversight.
“In Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi you have the beginnings and existence of strong legislative frameworks and institutionalization of civilian oversight in the national thinking and in the constitution,” Tait said.