U.S. Military Aid to Presidential Guards a Risky Venture


This article was originally published in Lobeblog.

“We have seen what has happened, that the people were not in favor of it [coup d’état]. That is why we gave it up.” This was Gen. Gilbert Diendéré’s ad-libbed apology for the coup d’état he recently instigated in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

According to Diendéré, the Burkinabe people (there are nearly 17 million of them) were at the forefront of his mind when overthrowing a transitional government that was, at the time, planning democratic elections for the next month. The massive civil activism movement that has sprung up in opposition to Diendéré begs to differ.

Diendéré, in fact, gleaned his support not from the masses, but from a close-knit, elite military unit established to protect the former president of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore. On at least two occasions, Diendéré also received U.S. military training from the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). In 2010, he even assumed a leadership position during a training exercise at Flintlock, an annual event where AFRICOM commanders dole out operational and tactical training to their African pupils.gilbert diendere burkina faso

Distinct Units

Diendéré’s Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), or more broadly termed “presidential guards” or “republican guards,” are distinct from the mainstream military. They are tasked (on paper, at least) with the more-or-less straightforward duty of protecting a given country’s presidency.

But in reality, they’re a far cry from U.S. Secret-Service-like security details. African presidential guards have instead ballooned into ranks that number in the hundreds or even thousands. Pre-coup, the RSP had a force of 1,200. At one point, the Chad president’s guard had swelled to include 5,000 soldiers.

African guards like the RSP often function as a kind of rewards club for those most loyal to a state leader. Those expressing exceptional fealty are inducted, receiving better treatment, higher pay, enhanced training, and more sophisticated equipment while the military rank-and-file looks on.

Like all cliques, African guards usually become both highly cohesive and highly politicized. And understandably, this “sub-state identity,” as some experts call it, is detrimental to the national unity, strengthening party or ethnic loyalties at the expense of society as a whole. Providing these already highly decorated factions with additional combat knowledge and resources, as the U.S. does, can have unintended, but highly problematic, consequences.

These presidential guards can usually do whatever they want. Depending on the circumstance, they will sometimes assist a leader to whom they have fidelity cling to power, squelch dissent, and silence opposition. In this scenario, human rights violations are ubiquitous. However, if certain guard members have the right mix of confidence and greed, they will attempt power grabs, much like Diendéré’s futile subversion in Burkina.

Despite the trouble these guards can spell for democracy and human rights, the use of them is more the norm than the exception. The list of crises exacerbated by power-hungry guards—or by reactionary military non-elites—is long, and one can pinpoint their effects within some of Africa’s most violence-ridden states.

For instance, a military backlash against the formation of a de facto presidential guard contributed to the restart of violence in Sierra Leone in 1997. Members of François Bozizé’s presidential guard in the Central African Republic helped bring him to power in a 2003 coup. Bozizé was later accused of “appallingly egregious” crimes against humanity by the rebel government that deposed him in 2013. Many guard members joined the Seleka-affiliated rebel coalition. In January, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Kabila’s guard was implicated in the deaths of protesters.

Along with anecdotal evidence, quantitative data links African guards to African instability. Erica de Bruin found a positive, statistically significant relationship between what she calls “security fractionalization” (the splitting of militaries into multiple units) and “coup-related deaths” (the likelihood that coups will escalate into broader conflict and/or civil war).

U.S. Assistance

In the midst of these challenges, the U.S. military, as recently as the last two years, has continued to train and equip African presidential security personnel in countries such as Cameroon, Comoros, DjiboutiRwanda, and Senegal in what they view as an appropriately apolitical, capacity-building model.

Diendéré is only the most recent example of a U.S.-trained presidential guard taking advantage of a precarious political situation at home. In The Gambia, the president accused the former head of the presidential guard, Lieutenant-Colonel Lamin Sanneh, of leading a small, failed coup. Sanneh had been educated by the U.S. military, earning a Master’s Degree at the National Defense University.

In Mauritania, the U.S. military continues to partner with President Ould Abdel Aziz on counterterrorism operations, despite the glaring fact that he is a former chief of the official guard who deposed the democratically elected President Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (Abdel Aziz was elected the current president in 2009 in what his opponents deemed an “electoral coup”).

Perhaps most infamous of example is the 2012 Mali uprising. Gen. Amadou Haya Sanogo of the “Green Beret” main faction of the army overthrew President Touré and clashed with his elite guard of “Red Berets.” Sanogo had received “extensive” military training in the United States from 2004-2010. Sanogo and his loyalists were also implicated in a variety of abuses, including torture. Shortly after his arrest, a mass grave of Red Berets was found.

Mali is emblematic of the oft-doomed U.S. notion that military assistance will have the perfectly aligned result of increasing a military’s capability, while leaving the political structure of the recipient government untouched. Unfortunately, offering training while ignoring disproportional structures—such as Green Beret-Red Beret imbalance—or the underlying motivations of the security force often has disastrous outcomes.

As Stephen Watts argues, “The informal, intuitive approach to risk identification and monitoring” currently used by the United States is “insufficient.” There is little evaluation of existing military structures and minimal monitoring of military training recipients’ behavior.

presidential guards africa

Rigorous Risk Assessment

Granted, Diendéré’s coup was not hugely catastrophic by African standards. The democratic transitional government was restored within a week, and as of last week, Diendéré has turned himself in to the authorities. Yet the protests and military response did result in the deaths of at least 10 and the injuries of 100.

Had the U.S. military operated with effective risk assessments, had they not overlooked the highly politicized structure of the Burkina force before they welcomed Diendéré into their training camps and bolstered his prestige and capabilities —would the events have happened differently? We can’t say for sure, but it’s clear the U.S. government’s support of him didn’t promote an apolitical military beholden to its citizens.

As the United States continues to train military personnel from Presidential Guards, it must conduct rigorous risk assessments of this assistance. If we continue to rely on intuition, we will continue to undermine the very security and legitimate governance we are trying to promote.

Alexis Kedo is a Research Intern at the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) focusing on African security issues. Colby Goodman is the Acting Director of SAM and was the former Deputy Director of the African regional office of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.