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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The current crisis in command many African armies are faced with can be traced back to the manner in which current and future commanders are identified and prepared for their missions and roles. Commanding and leading soldiers—including airmen and sailors—in both peacetime and conflict is not a game to be played for personal gain.

When it comes to the national security of a country, difficult choices need to be made. When it comes to appointing those who are charged with maintaining the security of the state, even more difficult choices are called for.

The old adage ‘There are no bad soldiers, only bad commanders’ certainly holds true for many African armed forces. Soldiers can only do what they are trained and equipped to do—if they are correctly commanded and led. When command and leadership is lacking, soldiers become confused and lacking in direction and discipline, morale is negatively impacted, orders are questioned and disobeyed, and the combat efficiency of the armed forces rapidly deteriorates.

But command leadership is not ‘business management’.

Whereas ‘command’ ought to be emphasized in the armed forces, I have met commanders who are, sadly, unable to exercise effective command. Not because they don’t have the ability or personality to do so but rather because they have been appointed by a system that is failing them, the armed forces and the country. Their inability is then amplified by being taught ‘management techniques’ and thereby softening the already failing approach to command. This ‘business’ approach to military operations has resulted in some spectacular failures across the continent. It has also added to a deepening sense of self-delusion that needs to be exposed.

 On-going education remains important at all times

The armed forces cannot be equated to a business enterprise where management techniques hold relevance. Commanders are faced with vastly different situations and decisions than managers of business enterprises.

Whereas ‘command’ gives those who are entrusted with it the opportunity to use power for the good of the state, many use this as an opportunity to abuse power for personal gain and satisfaction. Abuse of power thus becomes entrenched and junior officers and NCOs follow the example and trend of abusing their power while ignoring their responsibilities.

Commanders need to realise that they command at the behest of the state and not for themselves. Commanding for themselves has resulted in numerous moral failures that include personal enrichment, corruption, and the misuse of state assets, to name but a few. This immoral view of command permeates through to the lower ranks encouraging moral failures amongst junior officers and NCOs. After all, this is the example their senior commanders are setting for them.

Command has also increasingly become synonymous with bullying.

Impacting severely on the current crisis in command many African armed forces face is the lack of selection, training, further education, and competence of commanders. To rectify this troubling situation, more promotions take place adding to an already top-heavy command structure. As and when the command structure, ie the officer corps, exceeds more than 10% of the force level, command problems are dramatically increased. (This has historical been proven on numerous occasions).

Whereas promotions ought to serve as an incentive based on competence and results, command positions are instead given to political appointees where tribal, race, language, religious or ethnic considerations are valued over competence. Thus when defence cuts are implemented, or budgets constrained, the command element remains in position, at all costs and instead, troop levels are cut, training neglected or critical equipment left to rot. Budget cuts also often see the command element increasing at the expense of combat readiness.

Without effective, disciplined command that follows the National Military Strategy and for the good of the nation and its people, an armed force has the potential to become a leaderless group of armed men. 

This, in itself, poses numerous grave dangers to the state and its citizens.

Regardless of thoughts to the contrary, African armed forces are currently facing a crisis in command that needs to be rapidly rectified. If not, our armies will continue to remain at a disadvantage.


Hilton Naish said...

So true. Well written Eeben.

Leonard A. Duro-Emanuel said...

As always Eeben, I am in complete agreement with your take. Speaking as a civilian with sympathies and respect for the Military as an Insitution of Statehood, I can only point to the limits of the Military Man: A sworn duty to obey lawful civilian command in defense of the state. Too many of our Command Authority Principals are either Retired Military Men with outdated philosophies and worldviews, or Political Neophytes with a dread for the Myth of the Military Deep State. I have tried for years now to push an idea: there needs to be more structure between the way the Military and Civilian Command System works. you need greater trust: The Military must trust that not only does the Political Class understand the constrains and obligations of what they order, but that it is able to follow through that command with sustained commitment and partnership. In the way the armed forces are structured, maintained and utilised, and in the way Military and Civilian strengths combine for more a effective common operational picture. Where the innovation of the private sector can be leveraged to improve, moderna=ise and optimise the way the military serves the state, then it becomes clear what the command structure should be that is mosteffective in terms of cost, efficiency and most importantly, esprit de corps. too often, at least in My African Country, Command means different things to the Military and Politicians, and even within each camp there are differing ideas of How to Effect Command. the only thing they tend to agree upon is "Business As Usual". A very bad business at that. I still see some fruit being borne by my efforts at a lower level, especially with the increasing professionalisation and academic focus of the new officer crop these days. Perhaps in these crises where there are no easy ways out for anyone in government or the military, there will be a greater openness to cross-talk between civilian-military entities and professionals towards available or feasible changes to improve outcomes (essentially the core function of #Command). There is a slow osmosis, especially with civilians and military personnel mixing in our universities, and the many technical fields of study and research such as communications, technology, financial forensics and such. the more they collide and have to work together, the more they will push for a command structure that makes sense in terms of a sustainable command structure, profile and force size that actually makes sense and delivers results in a modern African context. Leadership cannot really be taught unless there is a desire to learn it.

Brendan Naef said...
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Herbert said...


If African countries could overcome the "crisis in command" problem you so well describe, they would not only pull themselves out of a self-induced quagmire, but they would put themselves into a unique position amongst world military services. I'm just pointing out that the problem exists to varying degrees in many countries worldwide. I accept your thesis and qualification to judge that the problem is particularly egregious in Africa.

In the military services of the United States there are "clubs" (my word--nothing official) that form around a "sponsoring" general officer who will look after his "boys and gals." They morph into de facto "tribes". Of course, the general officer and his "tribe" are convinced that they constitute the best and brightest on the ability scale. How could the chief possibly choose otherwise? After all, his own success renders the question moot, in his and his tribe's mind. And the junior officer's attraction to the general obviously shows his intelligence. Of course, loyalty to the chief and the tribe constitute the ultimate scale. Sadly and predictably, one's school, religion, adherence to some theory, and the like seep into the game. The chiefs all maneuver and manipulate to ensure representation on all promotion boards, hoping to increase the footprint of their tribe and influence on the overall armed force--not to mention the power of the chief. It becomes a nasty business.

It is sad to see majors and lieutenant colonels who realize too late that they belong to no tribe and the fix is in. Too late indeed. Their careers are essentially over. Certainly, along with some bad officers some very good officers are produced from the tribe system; however, some that may be better never have a chance.

I use the US as an example because it is the model with which I am most familiar. I have spoken and served with officers of other armies who describe similar schemes. I suppose it is inevitable. I shall never forget the remark of a good friend of mine who was at that time a very successful and decorated colonel in the British army. Knowing that he was up for brigadier, I asked how he viewed his chances. He replied, "Absolutely none. I have the wrong accent." I said, "What"? He added very sincerely, "Can't you tell? I'm from Yorkshire, wrong school and all." For whatever reason he retired a colonel.

No doubt the situation I have described does not compare with the deadly game being played out in many African countries, but it remains invidious. If only African leadership could find a way to rise above it, so many other problems would go away. I recognize that if you lose your life if you don't master the dark game, you can hardly institute change. I leave it to you and other wiser Africans to tackle the problem.

Oh yes, while traveling to and from Europe last week I read Composite Warfare. Splendid piece of work. Bless you for saying things like Clausewitz is not always biblical. Impressively complete. I can't imagine the hours you must have put into its creation. I expect it to be a textbook in war colleges.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for your comment Leonard.
It is especially the 'business as usual' approach that, in my opinion, has resulted in what we see unfolding in command structures...Sad.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Hi Brendon,
Neither I nor STTEP have worked in Puntland so I am afraid I will not be of much value to your research.
I also no longer spend my time working with students as too many expected me to do their work for them. And when I declined, they got all snarky. Sorry about that, but that is the approach I now take.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you Hilton!

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Hi Herbert,
Yes, I am told that the problem exists in many armies. The 'tribe' forming around a specific senior officer has so many negative implications. But, despite knowing it (I would expect the senior officer would be aware of that!) they continue to do it. Perhaps it is ego related?
I can sympathize with the British friend of yours...and again, I suspect that the way we speak or say things, can add to the tribe-inclusion or rejection. Often, the ability to command or lead is of little relevance.

Brendan Naef said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You welcome Brendan. Sorry about that.
Good luck with your studies/research.

David Phelan said...


You hit it on the head there and as true as it is, it is extremely sad when you see a band of brothers (& sisters) who are willing and able to lay down their lives for their homeland "managed" by incompetent leaders.

regards Dave P

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It is very sad indeed Dave. I just hope the wake up call comes before it is too late.

Alena Marucchi said...

As the former Ground Director for operations in Africa. I have found that military is being run like hierarchy. Personal interests and go along to get along mentality being employed. Structure, rules and actual ability are no longer. Tactically sound technicians to plot a way forward a rare and valuable asset. Thank you for your blog. I enjoyed your post and thank you for sharing it. Kind Regards Craig Marucchi

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Sadly you are spot on with your summation Alena. Knowledge, ability, skill, and tactical, operational and strategic prowess have given way to political pandering and a lot of nepotism, not to mention future political careers.

Darren said...

Hi wrote this been thinking about it please would be nice to have feed back ;-d

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I think it is a good piece Darren.
Any comment I give is purely my own opinion—and my opinion is only shaped by conflicts and wars in Africa, and not elsewhere. We also shy away from trying to use mathematical and scientific models to give some credence to—or understanding—of the ‘bad guys.
So, in brief, here goes:
1. We do not consider conflicts as ‘asymmetrical’ or indeed even as ‘conventional’ or ‘unconventional’ as both the latter type contain elements of the other. Besides, when we label a war or a conflict, people tend to view it with a blinkered approach. We view the conflicts in Africa as ‘armed anti-government uprisings’ and their causes are numerous. See my book ‘Composite Warfare’ P 23 – 36
2. Within South Africa, it is the ‘African National Congress’ (ANC) and not the ‘African National Council’. The ANC enjoyed support from both the East and the West
3. The infrastructure in Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world. The armed anti-government forces (AGFs) that utilise mobility are therefore mainly restricted to the existing infrastructure or very close to it. Very few AGFs actually have a good cross-country capability. Any force with a decent ISR capability will quickly identify AGF movements and mobility
4. All AGFs rely on the media (mainstream and social) to propagate their cause(s). Intelligence in all its guises allows identification of their supporters. But, allowing it to happen, allows them to gain the initiative in the informational environment and influence potential followers.
5. Countering any AGF strategy (terrorism, etc are merely tactics) requires timely, verifiable and accurate intelligence as intelligence drives both strategy and operational design. Without intelligence, we are blind to the enemy and his intentions
6. In your para beginning “Whatever the name of this functional tool for intelligence…”, you are referring to Essential Elements of Information (EEIs).EEI’s originate with the commanders, planners and strategists as ‘intelligence questions’ and are developed into EEIs by the intelligence analysts and passed to the various agents, assets, sources and resources for answering.
7. Although I cannot comment on your view re ISIL and Mosul et al as we have never worked there and must thus base my comments on what I have read and heard. I assume there were many factors at play: Lack of political and military will, a lack of or poor C4I, substandard training, incorrectly structured forces, incorrect doctrine, inability to coordinate fire support, inadequate equipment, etc. This all boils down to poor force preparation and overestimating the abilities of own forces.