Observers Warn Chinese PME Training Could Harm Civil-Military Relations
When he traveled to Beijing for a state visit in May, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki was retracing a trip he made more than 50 years earlier when he was trained in guerilla warfare tactics in the People’s Republic of China.
Isaias is one of two sitting African leaders — Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is the other — to have participated in China’s professional military education (PME) program. The system targets the continent’s military leadership for training that emphasizes the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) philosophy of “the party controls the gun.”
That philosophy promotes the notion that a country’s military should be loyal to its rulers first rather than to the country or the constitution, a philosophy that goes against many African countries’ established governance.
“The dangers of reinforcing this model are obvious, especially in light of the steady decline of democracy in Africa in the past decade,” Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), wrote.
Some African leaders have accepted China’s offer of what it calls “military political work” through training at military academies and other institutions across China. They’ve done so even as nearly 70% of Africans surveyed across 34 countries told Afrobarometer they want more democratic governments and less autocracy for Africa.
Nevertheless, China’s offer of 100,000 scholarships every three years can be hard to resist. Up to 6,000 of those positions are for military education. The rest are for community leaders, police training and academic study.
“Many ruling parties continue to find the party-army model attractive, however,” Nantulya noted, “especially those focused on regime survival.”
Where the military identifies itself with serving a particular leader or party rather than serving the constitution, coups or other interference in the democratic process can result, experts say.
“The way our militaries are unduly creeping into our democratic space is alarming,” Jainaba Jagne, The Gambia’s ambassador to the African Union, told a recent seminar on African coups sponsored by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
While the PME sessions aim to develop closer relations between China and African countries, participants have reported that African participants studying at the People’s Liberation Army’s National Defense University are isolated from their Chinese counterparts and unable to question or critique their Chinese instructors.
In 2022, China took its training a step farther, opening the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Kibaha, Tanzania. The school is a joint project with members of the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSA) and presses leaders from those parties to adopt a Chinese model for ruling.
Chinese instructors emphasize the notion that ruling parties should take steps to remain in power for decades to come, according to sociologist Massimo Introvigne, writing for the online magazine Bitter Winter, which promotes religious liberty and human rights.
Experts say the school in Tanzania could encourage anti-democratic tendencies already on display among some of the countries participating.
“While they all ostensibly adhere to multiparty political systems, many have been largely intolerant of opposition challenges and have employed wide ranging measures to stifle, constrain, and even dismantle opposition parties,” Nantulya wrote in a separate ACSS article.
As China continues to spread its military and political philosophy across Africa, it is bumping up against a civilian population that opposes one-party rule by 77% to 23%, according to Afrobarometer.
“The extent to which this training encourages countries to adopt the party-army model remains a concern, especially within civil society,” Nantulya wrote. “Given Africa’s tragic legacy of military government, African countries should be mindful of adhering to well-established African norms of PME and of military management.”