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Are African peacekeepers prone to mutiny?

- March 25, 2015

An African Union (AU) peacekeeper walks through thick vegetation as he pursues possible Christian anti-Balaka militia who tried to attack a group of ethnic Muslim Peul near the town of Bouar, Central African Republic, on March 9, 2014. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)
Last month’s farewell ceremony to Gambian troops participating in the Darfur peacekeeping mission ended up sounding like a warning rather than the intended pep talk.  The chief of defense cautioned against misconduct, told soldiers not to undermine their leadership and warned that “culprits will be dealt with seriously.” This message hints at some of the less peaceful aspects of peacekeeping missions.  Well-publicized cases include peacekeeper involvement in sexual exploitation, trading in conflict minerals and arms trafficking in some missions.
It is not only misbehavior abroad that leaders should worry about; there is also a pattern of peacekeepers mutinying when they return from missions. My research found 12 cases of peacekeeping-related mutinies spread across nine countries in Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Nigeria) since the early 1990s.  In other cases, such as Sierra Leone, peacekeepers have threatened to mutiny to put their leadership under pressure.
Mutiny occurs when soldiers collectively revolt against their leadership for goals other than political power.  These are not coups, which by definition involve the overthrow of a head of state. Mutinies are generally initiated by rank-and-file soldiers and exemplify deep tensions within the military hierarchy. African top brass do not take mutinies lightly.  For instance, 54 Nigerian soldiers convicted of mutiny in 2014 were sentenced to death by firing squad.
My research, which involved interviews and conversations with former mutineers and soldiers in five West African countries, found a combination of reasons for discontent amongst peacekeepers. While on deployment supplies, equipment and logistics are required that would not be necessary while stationed at home. These further needs are at times not met, and soldiers have mutinied over claims that they have not received the required supplies. Being under-equipped is not a new concern for many African militaries, but the complaints take on a new urgency in a deployment setting where soldiers often face combat. Outdated equipment, inadequate training or a lack of supplies such as ammunition can be the difference between life and death in these missions.
There have also been complaints about the internal military procedures regulating deployments. Dissatisfaction over deployment rotation schedules and deployment selection processes have triggered mutinies and threats to revolt by peacekeepers from Chad, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
Another key concern amongst mutinying peacekeepers is pay. Some African peacekeepers have been highly critical of their governments for not paying their salaries on time or not paying them the full U.N. rate. For example, during my discussions with a Sierra Leonean soldier regarding deployments to Darfur, he explained that the peacekeepers “are not happy, they are grumbling. [U.S.$]1,225 to country and we only get $400.  We do not know what the government is using the money for.” Complaints like this make sense in relation to the way peacekeepers are paid. For U.N. missions, the U.N. pays contributing countries $1,028 for each soldier per month.  Governments are then responsible for paying their peacekeepers.  As the soldier above explained, African peacekeepers rarely receive the full amount paid to the governments. The difference is supposed to cover expenses such as medical screening, training, uniforms, equipment, etc., which are needed for the deployment. But mutinying soldiers are often unaware and suspicious of the way their governments allocate the money. The U.N.’s transparency is in contrast to the secretive nature of national defense spending in many states.
Peacekeeping missions also provide an opportunity for soldiers to compare their pay and conditions with soldiers from other states in the region. Since each country pays its own soldiers, salaries differ among soldiers on the same mission. At times, peacekeepers appear to revise their view of their situation when exposed to the pay and conditions of other troops.  Mutinying Burkinabé troops in 1999 specifically claimed that Malian troops were earning nearly three times what they were for participation in ECOMOG. In a response to similar grievances by Sierra Leone soldiers participating in AMISOM, the minister of defense addressed the differences in pay between contingents.  He also asked the media to stop reporting on it for fear that soldiers would become further demoralized and “go on a rampage.”
Underlying the pay or other material grievances is a sense of injustice. For peacekeeping mutineers, the injustice is often linked to the risks they endured on a mission. Interviewees and public statements by mutineers highlighted their sacrifice and suggested that inadequate pay or equipment is particularly offensive in light of their veteran status. The complaints about pay often hint at deep-rooted discontent about their leadership. Over and over again,  rank-and-file interviewees in West Africa made the same claims: “The senior officers were robbing us”… “the top brass got the deployment money and sliced it” … “they [officers] cheated us.” Regardless of the specific complaint (pay, equipment, etc.) from the rank-and-file soldiers’ perspective, senior officers were to blame. This suspicion towards the senior hierarchy is related to a larger pattern of military disobedience in many African states. Many military officers have used strong-arm tactics to land themselves a privileged place in which they are amongst the elite of the country. However, there has long been resentment at the sharp class divisions within militaries and accusations that senior ranks benefit at the expense of junior ranks. These ongoing tensions often seem to be reignited or perpetuated with new income opportunities associated with peacekeeping missions.
The pattern of mutinies following peacekeeping missions does not suggest that countries contributing troops should brace for a revolt upon their return home. Mutinies still remain relatively rare, but their negative implications for military and state instability should not be underestimated. Many mutinies turn violent, leading to both military and civilian casualties.  Two peacekeeping-related mutinies in Gambia intensified military divisions and contributed to a coup in 1994. The Nigerian army acknowledged that a peacekeeping mutiny in 2008 continued to have “negative implications on the morale and disposition” of the military ranks “towards one another” even after years had passed. Peacekeeping-related mutinies are occurring at the same time that many African states and their foreign partners are placing much energy and resources into professionalizing African militaries. Planners should take heed of the grievances expressed in mutinies, which threaten to perpetuate many of the divisions that professionalization efforts aim to resolve.
Maggie Dwyer teaches courses related to politics and security in Africa at University of St. Andrews and University of Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter at @MagDwyer