Bringing stability elsewhere, taking instability home

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch08 Jun 2015Klaartje Jaspers

The repercussions for communities where peacekeepers are stationed are often debated, but the effects on countries that send troops are usually forgotten. As political scientist Maggie Dwyer argued in a public lecture ‘Anticipating the Revolt: A New View of Military Mutinies in West and Central Africa’ at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, West African peacekeepers returning to their home countries often rebel against their own national authorities.1 Dwyer suggests that peacekeeping missions in West Africa have often increased the internal instability of participating countries.

For example, after their troops took part in the ECOWAS armed monitoring group ECOMOG to increase stability in West Africa, a number of countries – including Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Benin and Burkina Faso – experienced unrest at home. Dwyer warns that, if the MINUSMA mission in Mali is anything like previous peacekeeping missions in the region, the international aim to build stability in one place could be followed by an increase in instability in countries like Chad and Nigeria, which have sent troops to participate in the international force. As the internal dynamics in these countries are unstable, this could be a potentially inflammable situation.

A sense of injustice among soldiers

Differences in salaries and working conditions within an army may lead to dissatisfaction among the lower ranks. These differences may be even more sharply defined within an international mission. As Dwyer explains, the UN is transparent about how much it pays governments to send peacekeepers in: this ranges from $1,096 to $1,399 per soldier per month, depending on their rank, regardless of where they are from. Yet many African soldiers only get a fraction of that amount from their own governments. Dwyer feels that the resulting sense of injustice is aggravated by the large differences between the ranks in many African armies. The lower ranks feel they are putting their lives at risk day in, day out, while their commanders face less direct risks but are paid higher salaries.

Mutinies: popular tools of negotiation

According to Dwyer, since the 1980s and peaking in the 1990s, mutinies seem to have become popular tools of negotiation in West Africa. She found that mutineers only partly rebel for materialistic reasons, and often have more strategic aims. She suggests that they primarily want to renegotiate their working conditions and their status as professional soldiers.

Dwyer points out that mutinies are different to coups. While a coup aims to take over political power, a mutiny is an act of collective insubordination to achieve other goals. Most governments in West Africa are established after a coup. While some scholars have suggested that mutinies are the first step towards a coup, Dwyer’s data suggests otherwise. Covering military mutinies in West and Central Africa over a 52-year period, it shows that the incidence of mutinies did not predict coups, but instead correlate with independence eras, the end of the Cold War, the prevalence of democratic sentiments and the presence of a regime that is at least somewhat ‘flexible’.

The distinction between coups and mutinies is clearer to the soldiers involved than to anybody else, Dwyer explains. During her fieldwork in Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Gambia, mutineers freely discussed their reasons for rising against their superiors, but also indicated they would never want to be accused of plotting a coup, which they regard as a much more serious offence. A mutiny – or even the threat of one – is a kind of negotiation strategy, Dwyer argues. This would explain why Nigerian soldiers participating in a peacekeeping mission did not rebel when they returned home. Although their working conditions were far worse than those of other colleagues in the mission, they knew that the Nigerian regime was far too rigid for a mutiny to be successful.

Dwyer’s research seems to suggest we need to be much more aware of the distinction between coups and mutinies, rather than looking at mutineers as soldiers who appear to have found an effective means to redistribute power within their society.


    1. See also Dwyer, Maggie (2015) ‘Peacekeeping Abroad, Trouble Making at Home: Peacekeeping-Related Mutinies in West Africa.’ African Affairs 144, no. 455: 206-225