Small Wars Journal

US Security Force Assistance in Africa: Human Rights, Ethics Training a Must

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 3:30am

The Malian army that took over the government in the March 2012 coup was led by a US trained officer, Captain Sanogo.  The Malian military continues to exert great influence in the political process in Mali and as they try to expel insurgents that have taken over the northern part of Mali.  The Malian army, however, is also accused of human rights abuses that took place during the purge of Sanogo opponents, as well as with enemy combatants.  Besides training the leader of the coup, the US military also trained the Malian military for years through the African Contingency Operations Training Assistance program (ACOTA), its predecessor the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), and other programs.

On 24 January 2013, the US AFRICOM Commander, General Ham, acknowledged the role the US military played in training Malian forces and found the outcome worrying.  He said that the focus of US efforts was tactical training but “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos.” 

The US has trained many African militaries on the continent; notably with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) following the UN brokered Liberian peace deal that sent Charles Taylor to exile in Nigeria in 2003.  After dismissing the former Liberian military, the US vetted and recruited a new force and drew up a comprehensive training plan in 2005 that included intensive human rights, rule of law, ethics and values training.  However, in 2007, after the first class of new Liberian soldiers graduated, US trainers cut out the bulk of these training blocks due to time and cost constraints.  US trainers promised to incorporate the training at a later date but were unable to do so. 

The only test for the AFL so far was the Fall 2012 deployment under “Operation Restore Hope” to patrol the porous borders with Cote d’Ivoire.  Desertion remains a concern as over ten percent of the AFL has quit the force.  Frequent stories of AFL soldiers committing crimes are featured in the local Monrovian news, causing concern about the ethics and values of the new Liberian troops. 

Another example of a US trained soldier gone bad is President Jammeh in the Gambia, who took power in a 1994 military coup.  This has also taken place in Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, and Bolivia.  African leaders are rightfully afraid that US training can lead to regime change. 

The values and ethics training incorporated in ACOTA training has not prevented abuses by African militaries either.  Of the 25 current ACOTA partners, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Nigerian troops have been accused of atrocities. 

Upcoming budget cuts and sequestration will put greater restraints on US military spending and our capabilities in training African forces.  If the primary intent of US training is to increase the tactical capabilities in US partners on the continent it is likely that human rights, values, and ethics training will also fall by the wayside in the rapidly approaching lean years.  US leaders need to ensure that these essential training modules are reinforced in all US funded training.


The comment that "US training can lead to regime change" doesn't make much sense to me. US training may not prevent regime change, but I don't see it as a factor causing regime change. If an African military wants to take over the government, they will try to do it, whether or not they are trained by the US.

Like others here, I think it unlikely that values, ethics, and attitudes toward human rights will be significantly affected by a few training modules.


Sat, 02/09/2013 - 2:31am

Sorry won't fly... Ethics (values and morals) are not universal... And the fact the we continue to delude ourselves into thinking we can teach our point of veiw (and that's what it is, our point of veiw)is going to be time and treasure wasted. Sure cover it... But don't in anyway be suprised if they don't follow or live up to them.

"US leaders need to ensure that these essential training modules are reinforced in all US funded training."

How are US leaders (Political? Military?) expected to do this? Like the saying goes, you can bring the horse to water but you can't make him drink it.

The only effective way that I can think of to ensure these training modules are reinforced is by US forces (military? contractor?) remaining on-ground to provide direct oversight as these forces apply their training in an operational context. Not the PC answer but likely the one that will work.

George Clifford

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 12:13pm

Unfortunately (I write as one who has taught ethics in military schools), no number of ethics modules will fix the problem you describe. Instead, the best hopes are to limit the military training and equipment that the U.S. provides to unstable or oppressive regimes and to integrate an emphasis on ethics and values into all training that the U.S. provides to other militaries.


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 6:57am

I have to agree with Dave, whose values are we going to teach, because western values are not universal, despite our self-centered belief that they are. And if we do teach a separate set of values from the civilian leaders have, and we teach that ours are superior, can there be any other result than a military coup?


Wed, 02/06/2013 - 6:34am


Perhaps you detail what exactly 'values, ethics and military ethos' are in this context (SFA in Africa). I have cited in part from General ham's recent remarks.

I recall a long conversation in Namibia awhile ago, with a then senior police officer, who was adamant that Western values and ethics did not easily fit local values, let alone ethics. His argument and experience was that Africans far more readily recognised power and accommodating those who had it.

In Africa all too often "power comes from the barrel of a gun", as the USA has just noticed in Mali whilst that country is in the media limelight.

Nor should we overlook that in Mali a significant part of the US-trained army deserted, if not defected to the insurgents (see SWC thread for details) and the one formation that opposed Captain Sanogo (not a combat arms officer) the 'Red Berets' remains in-being, claiming it is ready to deploy (see press reports).

I have found nothing to explain the stance of the 'Red Berets' to the elected, civilian government - were they loyal or opposed to an upstart Captain? Perhaps the US training had more effect with them than the rest of the army involved in the coup? I suspect from a couple of news reports that the US training mission had more affinity with the 'Red Berets'.