On Third World militaries

It's "on and off and on again" interesting to me to look at and think about developing countries' (para)military forces. I mean countries such as in West or East Africa, not partially modern countries such as Brazil, India or oil countries.

The typical developing country has few benefits from its military. It's way too often rather a threat to political stability and usually overstretched once an actual armed conflict arises.
Border conflicts and all-out interstate warfare are rather rare. The most typical form of warfare is against an armed insurrection by a minority or against paramilitary forces infiltrating from a neighbouring country at war.

An article about the rebuilding (from scratch!) of the army of civil war-torn Liberia caught my interest a while ago and points in my opinion at the most important aspect: It's all about the personnel.

You don't need much equipment for a typical developing countries' military, especially not heavy equipment. Some cheap NORINCO small arms, mortars and RPGs plus a few patrol boats, some trucks and pickups, tents, some fatigues and boots plus a useful radio equipment are about all that it takes.
All else is a question of personnel (competence and motivation).

First of all, the personnel should not have a murderous (civil) war background or be suspected of corruption.
Second, it should be properly trained, properly cared for and loyal to the law.
Third, it shouldn't be some conscript force but rather a cadre force in order to enable a quick force expansion in times of crisis.

I would begin by setting up an academy for gendarmerie training (half year basic gendarmerie course). Indeed, I wouldn't set up a military at all, but only a gendarmerie (semi-police, semi-military institution).

This gendarmerie would be the only representative of the central government's privilege of the use of force. 
The other police institutions could be locally elected sheriffs, and of course this aims at empowering the populace to get rid of corrupt local police through elections.
Parliament and government institutions can run their own compound security service and high-ranking officials can get a driver-bodyguard - but these would be restricted to handguns and a purely defensive employment of the same.

The gendarmerie would

(1) enforce lawfulness of local police forces (investigation and arrest, protecting local elections)
(2) guard the borders, serve as customs agency
(3) guard wildlife sanctuaries
(4) control resource usage (detect and investigate illegal wood harvesting, fishing, mining, pollution etc)
(5) prepare as cadre force for warfare
(6) serve as coast guard, including search and rescue
(7) provide basic airport policing and investigate illegal flights based on reports of civilian air traffic controllers
(9) serve as national police reserve, for example for securing large public events
(10) run its own academy
(11) guard prisons and watch prisoner labour groups (and as such oversee some construction projects)
(12) accompany anti-corruption officials as enforcers
(13) guard embassies
(14) serve as basic intelligence agency for observation of armed forces in neighbouring countries
(15) serve as basic counter-intelligence agency, mostly for providing basic security for critical government institutions (foreign ministry, ministry of gendarmerie, head of government office)

The seeming jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none approach is probably necessary to give the forces a good utility in peacetime. It helps furthermore to keep the gendarmerie fragmented and with near-permanent personnel turnover even in leadership positions: These would be very difficult conditions for a coup d'état planner.

The personnel would rotate irregularly, leaving enough experienced personnel in one function, but infuse new personnel as well. This near-constant movement of personnel (average duration on a specialty about 1-3 years in a row after 1 month training) should make it more difficult for individual units to get on a wrong track.

The defence itself could be based on a motorised infantry + local guided militia approach. Small teams of gendarmerie would train and lead village or local militias while gendarmerie with quickly trained enlisted volunteers would strive for a quick end in an interstate conflict through small unit and unit competence and small formation manoeuvre. Meanwhile, other quickly trained enlisted volunteers would reinforce the gendarmerie in its civilian functions. These volunteers would sign up for a two-year period, possibly extend for one ear each or get accepted into the academy for full gendarmerie training after the first two years. The motivation would come from decent pay and a bonus for later applications for government jobs or for access to higher education. Real gendarms would work for pay that's enough for a family and a pension that's enough for a household of two.

The academy would be the one central piece, and its leadership has to be selected carefully, for the academy leadership is probably the only part of the gendarmerie that would be able to pull off a coup d'état. It would thus be very restricted in terms of available weapons and ammunition. The academy could also serve as the institution's symbol and pride.
I would separate it into basic training, advanced (officer) training and specialisation training - three months, three months and one month respectively.

Developing country military affairs may lack pseudo-sexy fighters, tanks and aircraft carriers - but they add some facets to the topic of personnel. We (in the "West") don't regularly think of a military as a force to be kept in check for it could otherwise attempt a coup d'état, do we?



  1. I have long since been interested in things like the above topic and due to my interest in it and my reading of history coups are somthing I think alot on, I very much liked your topic, here is a link on the Congo and how not to make an army (in my opinion).


    Will you be doing anymore blogs on the above topic?

  2. "... think of a military as a force to be kept in check for it could otherwise attempt a coup d'état, do we? ..."

    The Soviet invented something that proved quite effective for keeping an army under control: the political commissars (Narodny komissariat.)

    Mao's PLA and the vietnamese PLA also had political commissars to monitor and control everyone from officers to soldiers. Latin American and African countries could have had much better chance of detecting/preventing coups, had they have the same kind of institutions... but then again, one has to carefully ponder... what is worse: experiencing frequent coups or having to live under the grip of your own monstrous NKVD !!

    back to the topic of third world armies: I have always wondered why African countries do not mandate their conscripts to engage in farming, running small pig farms, simple/light manufacturing, or even digging canals/levees and road work activities and such.

    I think that your idea of forming a gendarmerie (along with the described duties) is better. However many of the East African countries are still at very difficult developmental stages. Many are still recovering from prolonged period of savage wars, etc. The pool of men/women who are suitable for such a gendarmerie might be small. And one would have to compete with other ministries for this same pool of qualified cadres.

    I think it is probably easier to go with the
    Chinese model of farmer/worker/soldier armed forces. When the conscripts are done 'doing their time', they return to civilian life being more employable.


  3. "(1) enforce lawfulness of local police forces (investigation and arrest, protecting local elections)"
    But that sets the localy elected sherrif up against the nationaly appointed Gendarme, and I'm not sure I agree with you on which is most likely to be corrupted....

    That said, I pretty much agree with what you say.
    It seems insane for Keyna to have over 100 T72's
    Ethiopia has more MBTs than Germany!

  4. All of this is excellent, except one minor issue - electing sheriffs? The US experience seems to suggest its a rotten idea if there is a minority that is disliked (i.e. everywhere), because the elections can then be won on overt oppression, which leads to dissident splinter groups of the minority and, hello Biafra (or Rwanda, or..)

  5. This gendarmerie would be the only representative of the central government’s privilege of the use of force.

    Is Costa Rica your touchstone here?

  6. Wow, this blog post was meant as a gap filler, a refreshed draft from months ago that was published because I had no better idea...

    About sheriffs; think about it: If you select local cops nationally then the national majority will have the opportunity to oppress. If you select them locally, you get at least a minority sheriff in a minority region. Plus there's a check built-in with national cops watching the local ones.

    About Costa Rica; not really (I don't know about their police system), but this touches on an interesting side-effect.
    A country with a gendarmerie instead of a military could be recognized as demilitarised and thus enjoy extra reputation and protection (by great powers intent on maintaining stability of the international system). A demilitarised country would hardly be blamed as aggressor in a border dispute gone wrong!

  7. The right to keep and bear arms ...
    A well regulated militia ...

    IF you did and do behave in a way that will not make people want to kill you at the first possibility
    IF you trust your own people
    IF your people is homogenous enough not to start fighting once they are armed
    IF your socio-economic landscape is stable enough for an armed populace
    &c &c

    Works with an intelligent and civilized people in more or less stable economic conditions - like Switzerland. 3rd world - not so much. There is a reason they are 3rd world. No answer. No place for romantic European ideas.

  8. The article leads me to think that these "afriacn armies" are going to be cannon fodder for the AFRICOM branch of operations of the US military / intelligence complex.

    Gendarmerie is indeed the way to go if you want a stable exploitation of the country, it's what french ex-colonies actually did until the late 80's. They did a lot of what you describe (I have a book on Togo's armed forces, in french, and most of these missions are mentionned).

    Africa today is structurally unstable. Any place of mid-term stability could attract swarms of refugees / raiders from near or far.

    Instead of region-wide stability, which is too cost-effective, I'll reckon that some spots (plantations, mines, pipelines etc.) will be sufficiently protected by local "private" companies (i.e. subsidiaries of Xe Services, locals as troops and mercenaries as cadres).

  9. I doubt many Africans will like this idea because it's reminescent of what the colonial troops did and you can be dead sure it'll be corrupt to the bones. There's also a reason why many countries banned their military from doing a police job in the interior.
    Looking at your concept from a different angle, there are many guard units in little democratic countries that keep a conscript military in check. Egypt, Iran, in Syria and Lybia it is/was rather hidden. The conscripts could be nice guys getting a decent meal and doing lots of infrastructure work after a brief arms training. People like this armed force and it does lots of useful thinks that would otherwise cost a lot more, plus they retain the official title of military for the defense of the country. These guys will be unlikely to stage a coup unless your population is really dissatisfied and the military leadership agrees.
    The professional gendarmery of yours can still do the job you suggested, but they're more part of checks and balances because there are other armed guys outnumbering, although not outclassing them, who might have some very old equipment the gendarmeire can't counter like a few armoured vehicles and Korean War-style fighter and bomber planes to make up for the lack of infantry capability. In such a system you can push development projects with your nice guy conscript army that feels very useful. To keep out the neighbouring professional guerilla racketeers you have a professional paramilitary force that operates under informally defined rules for baksheesh (like in Ghana) in order not to go rampage on the laws it's meant to uphold.