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How Senegal built a culture of military professionalism (Part 1)

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Senegal’s culture of military professionalism has been the outcome of a deliberate and long-term effort to inculcate values of service, meritocracy, and respect for democratic values.

The Senegalese Armed Forces are recognised for their professionalism, their ethical culture, and their apolitical posture. But how did this culture emerge? How is professionalism maintained? How significant are professional military education (PME) institutions in this process, and how do they help to maintain professionalism? What are obstacles to sustaining military professionalism? What lessons can be drawn from Senegal’s experience?

To answer these questions, the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies spoke with several Senegalese officers with firsthand experience building this professional culture and the institutions to support it. They include: General Birame Diop, Military Adviser to the United Nations Department of Peace Operations and former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Senegal and General (ret) Talla Niang, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Senegal and a Senegalese colonel with significant experience in PMEs, who asked to remain anonymous to maintain objectivity.

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How did a culture of military professionalism emerge in Senegal?

General Diop: “Discussing military professionalism in Senegal always requires mentioning a happy political coincidence. On the one hand, we had a president, a great intellectual, who was a man of dialogue and peace, Leopold Senghor. At the same time, we had a chief of the armed forces, Jean-Alfred Diallo, also a man of peace, who, because of his training as an engineer, loved to build and believed that the army could play a central role in the country’s development. Therefore, the men who commanded the security sector, and the ones who oversaw these services, benefited very early on from respectful and apolitical relations.

General Niang: “From our elders to now and on to younger generations, we have constantly shared and improved this conception of the army. Moreover, the culture of professionalism in the Senegalese Army comes from its very origins. It was created from soldiers who previously served in the French Army. They were relatively strong because they had held all ranks, up to colonel. Many of them had attended Saint Cyr, the French military academy, and had fought in the wars in Indochina and Algeria. These people, upon independence, were given a choice: those who wished to remain in the French Army did, while those who wished to go home to their newly independent country became the initial core of the Senegalese Army. These first leaders created an extremely important concept, that of the armée-nation. It’s a concept that holds that the army’s role is to serve the nation, its development, and its security.”

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How do you define the army’s role? How do you ensure democratic control of the army?

General Diop: “Defining the army’s role requires normative documents. The National Security Strategy (NSS) is the mother document, but after that you need concepts of employment, doctrine, general strategies for different ministries to support the NSS, and sectoral strategies. This is the arsenal of normative documents that must be developed. It’s also necessary to have the capacity to review them regularly to update them. It’s also necessary to possess a good mechanism for democratic control of the military by democratically elected authorities. For uniformed personnel to accept political leaders, they must believe that their leaders were elected in a transparent and political fashion.”

Anonymous Colonel: “The armée-nation is a concept that holds that the army’s role is to serve the nation, its development, and its security. There has been an effort, particularly among young cadres at our officer schools, to institutionalise the idea that the role of the army is to serve. This issue of transmitting values is essential to how officers view their role. This transmission of values also happens through the example of leadership. There’s another aspect that we don’t discuss as much when we talk about military professionalism—that’s the role of civilians and of civil authorities. We can’t emphasise enough soldiers understanding their role and place in society and of respect for civil authority. But civil authority also has a very important role in realising military professionalism. Military professionalism must be balanced by civilian professionalism on the other side of the scale.”

What is the role of politicians in this balancing act?

Anonymous Colonel: General Mbaye Cissé, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Senegal underlined that democratic values must be learned and must not be considered as a given. Another important aspect in Africa, is what politicians do. The temptation to bring the army into politics is extremely dangerous. What the military does, how militaries conceive their role, and how a culture of professionalism emerges, is very important. Equally so, is the understanding political authorities have of the army’s role. This interaction is crucial. Senegal’s army and its leaders have always been very firm about the fact that soldiers do not endorse any particular affiliation, be it political, religious, or confessional. Military leaders constantly say, ‘We aren’t involved in these issues’. The times we live in, however, show that nothing is irreversible. Thus, an ongoing effort is made to institutionalise this view, not just in officer schools, but also for non-commissioned officers (NCO), soldiers, and at all levels.

In what ways is the composition of the Senegalese Army important to military professionalism?

General Niang: “The Senegalese Army benefits from the particularity that its troops mirror the country’s ethnic and regional composition. There is a key or registry that shows this composition. So, if we say that this ethnic group represents 2 percent of the population, we will find those 2 percent in the Army. The Senegalese Army, therefore, is like a microcosm of Senegal itself.”

General Diop: “An army cannot be professional if it doesn’t provide adequate work and living conditions. This is the very basis of professionalism. If you take care of your soldiers, they will do their work and take care of you. To be professional, an army requires leaders who don’t think of themselves but who think of their subordinates. The army must work as a team, as a family. Nothing is irreversible. Thus, an ongoing effort is made to institutionalise… at all levels.

Senegal does not have a presidential guard or special forces units, which is another particularity that contributes to its professionalism.”

A Senegalese soldier practices shooting with an M4 rifle during training in Dodji. Photo DVIDS

General Niang: “In Senegal, the gendarmes statutorily guard the institutions of the republic. Some of these gendarmes are assigned to a presidential group and will serve two or three years. Then they are sent elsewhere. No one can make a career there. That means that those who guard the president—he doesn’t choose them, he doesn’t know them. The presidency is an institution. The president does not choose the head of the presidential guard. It’s the chief of the gendarmerie that chooses that officer. A decree is issued to name him—in exactly the same way as for other service chiefs. Members of the presidential guard serve in the same way that they serve in other gendarmerie units. The presidential guard cannot launch a coup in Senegal, they are less equipped, do not have sufficient numbers, and aren’t strong enough.”

To be continued tomorrow.

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