University of Memphis

“Recalibrating” African Militaries: A new democratic hope for Burkina Faso after all? by Bradly Knox @ University of Memphis

From Enigma to a Stigma

A column written for Foreign Policy magazine asks, ever so frankly, Why Are Africa’s Militaries So Disappointingly Bad? A variety of explanations could be drafted to explain as to why there is a negative reaction to uniformed African soldiers among African citizens. But what exactly is giving citizens a negative image of their uniformed military? According to this specific columnist, “Such attitudes stem from the post-independence era, when the military coup became a standard method for alternating executive power.”[1] The history of Burkina Faso is rife with this standard of executive alternation via coup d’état violence. It would seem, at face value, as to why uniformed soldiers make citizens uneasy. So how might countries like Burkina Faso positively enhance the image and effectiveness of their military? The answer lies with Flintlock.

Earlier this year, U.S. and European Special Forces have conducted codenamed, “Flintlock,” (FL17) operations that trains African soldiers in counter-terrorism strategies. Flintlock started back in 2005 for the first time in Senegal, and, according to the United States Africa Command (USAC):

Exercise Flintlock is designed to foster regional cooperation to enable our African partners to stabilize regions of North and West Africa, while reducing sanctuary and support for violent extremist organizations (VEOs). FL17 provides increased interoperability, counterterrorism, and combat skills training while creating a venue for regional engagement among partner nations.[2]

Like many African countries, Burkina Faso demonstrates a type of stratocratic form of government, or, a government rule by military. For instance, political leaders such as Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo (1982), Saye Zerbo (1983), Thomas Sankara (1984), and Blaise Compaoré (1987) have all served as military officers. Historically, Burkina Faso has experienced troublesome political leadership; as a result, there is a connection worth teasing out between democracy and military. For instance, in 1982, the prime minister (at the time), Thomas Sankara had fostered relations with the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddadfi. Burkinabe president in 1983, Saye Zerbo, was threatened by the relations with Sankara and Gaddafi.[3] Situations such as this point to an unchecked power of political “military” leadership. It is within the military that problems lie, thus, it is with the military problems ought to be fixed: if perhaps we can bolster Burkinabe forces through westernizing their military through programs like Flintlock, then we might be able to foster a type of democratic growth to not prevent democratic backsliding.


Photo (above): Depicts Colonel Major TN Pale, the Burkina Faso Army Chief of Staff, salutes U.S. Special Forces during the opening ceremony of Flintlock 2017 in Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso on February 27, 2017.

Credit: Sgt. Benjamin Northcutt


Helping or Hurting Democratic Growth?

Some might ask: will this actually help or hurt democracy? I argue that westernizing militaries are not problematic as opposed to, say, democratic colonialism. When I say colonialism I mean the “colonizing” of one culture, politics, rule of law, etc. by another. For example, whom is to say policies in the U.S. will work in Afghanistan? Who do these policies benefit? It is rather problematic to think in terms of policies. So then, second, there is the problem as to meddling with local and native traditions that otherwise “washes” them out. I argue that the westernization of African militaries is not significant colonialism that negatively affects democracy. Why? Simply because it provides the native military with updated objective tools for combating terrorism and other insurgent forces that threatens democracy, and moreover, puts a great deal of responsibility of political leaders to uphold security.

Bolstering democracy on a transnational scale though U.S. military assistance has been one of the objectives of the U.S. military. However, the point of contention in the argument: whether westernizing foreign militaries are helping or hurting democracies – is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Leahy Law – a U.S. human rights law – prohibits the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense to provide military assistance to foreign countries that impede on basic human rights. While this may not act as a fail-safe mechanism that would circumvent situations where military assistance is given to war criminals.

Others argue, however, the U.S. has inadvertently trained foreign military officers that have led coups. While this does have an adverse effect, the point I am attempting to make here is about democratic growth because “Flintlock allows partner nations to build and strengthen relationships that are essential to creating lasting security and the ability to effectively respond to crisis.”[4] However, if we consider a noticeable trend regarding the Burkinabe military, we get Figure 1 below.



Figure 1: y-axis (left) denotes Burkinabe military spending; y-axis (right) denotes Amnesty International Terror scale.

Data credit:

Importance of Military “Recalibration”

Thus far, I have argued for a type of military recalibration: the westernization of African militaries to bolster democracy. The graph above illustrates a very interesting relationship when we compare it to Burkinabe military spending (% of GDP) and anecdotal evidence of democracy in Burkina Faso. First, note the years where sharp increases in the red data occurs (2007, 2010, and 2012 roughly). The 2008 increase depicts results from Freedom House’s report on the October 2007 events of military protest demanding “further improvements in military living standards.”[5] The 2010 increase demonstrates the military mutineer against Compaoré due to unpaid allowances. The 2012 increase following mass protests and army mutinies that occurred on and off since 2010 (up until Compaoré’s forced resignation).

In sum, political terror has seen oscillation primarily due to military events of protest, mutineering, or coups.[6] More importantly, is how military events are closely tied with political terror scores. In a world of increasing dangers, in particular, political strife by authoritarianism, westernizing foreign militaries shares the wealth of knowledge that everyone can benefit from – with none of the colonialism. Flintlock is the answer.
























[1] Michela Wrong, “Why Are Africa’s Militaries So Disappointingly Bad?,” June 6, 2014, (accessed November 17, 2017).

[2] United States Africa Command (“USAC”), “Flintlock,” n.d., (accessed November 17, 2017).

[3] Note that Gaddafi wanted to meet with Sankara and not with Zerbo. This caused political tensions between Sankara and Zerbo, which led to Sankara’s imprisonment in 1983.

[4] Defense Video Imagery Distribution System (“DVIDS”), “Flintlock 2017 opens in Burkina Faso,” February 28, 2017, (accessed November 17, 2017).

[5] Freedom House, “Burkina Faso,” (accessed November 17, 2017).

[6] Coups are not shown in the graph.


  1. Amalia Perez

    December 4, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    You are right to point out that there is a deeply negative reaction amongst Africans to their militaries. You are also right to point out that there is a lot of good reason for this.

    This is, in other words, a poverty of trust amongst Africans in their militaries. This lack of trust amongst Africans in their government institutions — especially the military — has multifaceted roots. In some countries, it is a history of state violence and state-sanctioned violence. In others, blame lies in the political geography of a central city physically removed from the people it ostensibly governs. In many, a failure of justice systems and public safety institutions to protect marginalized groups in society continuously foments distrust in all arms of governments. In almost all African states, colonial borders arbitrarily cut across profound ethno-linguistic lines, institutionalizing distrust in a government claiming ownership over an already self-governing people.

    In most countries, it is a lethal combination of these, and many more. Burkina Faso is one of those cases.

    The task, then, of improving African militaries is really a task of rebuilding trust and accountability.

    While westernizing the military may be the lesser of two evils relative to westernizing an entire people/culture/society, it is not enough to target the root problems perpetuating civilian distrust in the government. We need to target the lack of trust by reforming institutions through community building, supporting domestic security capacity through public/inclusive processes, and mitigating the effects of the aforementioned causes of distrust. Distrust is an obstacle to democracy that necessitates a solution as deep-seeded and localized as the nature of the problem itself.

  2. Rachel Risoleo

    December 5, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    Bradley – this was a great read, and is a very interesting take on a fairly complex and controversial issue. You argue that the “westernization” of African militaries (specifically, that of Burkina Faso) could be beneficial to democracy because it may change citizens’ perceptions of the military. Your example of the Flintlock training operation as a double-edged sword is equally intriguing: does it strengthen developing militaries in a what that might ultimately harm their democracy, or does it promote democratic values and allyship between the US and developing nations?

    Your argument for Flintlock as a potential harbinger of democracy essentially supposes that the US has been successful in spreading democracy through military training. I propose an additional question, however: what if there is a barrier to democracy hidden within the Flintlock scheme that you have not yet addressed? It is certainly true that increased military aid and training threatens to incite military coups, and this may, as you argue, be offset by the democratic benefits of US intervention. However, it is worth noting that you pointed out the correlation between political terror and military protests and coups – is it not still possible that US military training could magnify the effects of such events?

    Regardless, the primary question that arose for me while reading this post had to do with the “negative image” you suppose citizens have of their military in Burkina Faso. Perhaps this attitude does stem from the history of military coups in the country’s post-independence era. However, perhaps it is equally plausible that the very presence of US (or other international) military forces and influence create an equally negative perception of the military. While you aptly described the potential consequences of US military aid with respect to military strength, I believe it is also imperative to consider the impact that US military training has one the public’s perception of its military.

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