During the past three years, action initiated or prosecuted by the military has determined the overthrow of no less than eleven African Heads of State, and has seriously endangered four further régimes. Eight of the successor régimes are headed by military men. Over the last six months, coups have proceeded at a feverish rhythm.

These interventions are spectacular; but they should not be seen in isolation from wider processes at work. Almost everywhere in Africa, the armed forces are being called upon to assume increasingly active and important functions as external contradictions remain unresolved and internal contradictions condense. Frontier clashes, protracted civil wars, sudden onslaughts on presidential palaces and royal residences are merely the most dramatic aspects of this trend. Organized violence, concentrated and unmediated, is a more and more visible determinant of political life.

Around 1960, the contemporary prominence of the military as a political factor in Africa might have appeared an unlikely prediction; especially to anyone acquainted with the general background and historical formation of the African armed forces. The case of the Sudan could have been plausibly dismissed as an exception, to be classed among Middle Eastern rather than properly African political systems.

In the first place, owing to the generally pacific historical character of the transfer of sovereignty, rather small and undistinguished armed forces had been inherited from the colonial régimes. The military estate lacked an active tradition and more pertinently, with the obvious exception of Algeria and somewhat dubiously Morocco, had acquired no distinction or privileges through its contribution to the national independence movement. This lack of historical connection with the liberation struggle clearly and initially distinguished the military establishments of the post-colonial African states from their counterparts in Latin America or Indonesia or Burma.

In the case of the French army, the organization did not pretend to be territorially based; African colonial troops were simply grouped in their own regular units within the French army and deployed as required in the terms of global strategy and commitments. The British African forces were to a greater extent regional in command structure, recruitment, deployment, etc. Recruitment into all the colonial armies tended to rely heavily on so-called ‘martial tribes’ (Sara, Hehe, Kamba, Acholi, Mossi, Azande, Batetela, etc.)

Combat experience was intermittent. Considerable mobilization took place in the World Wars. Over 370,000 men were recruited into the British army alone during the First World Warfootnote1, slightly under half of whom gained some experience outside their home territories. French colonial troops, exposed to some of the worst fighting zones during the First World War (thanks to the Clemenceau/Blaise Diagne agreement) were, of course, directly involved in the Free French Vichy struggle in Africa and were subsequently employed in Indo-China (15,000), Algeria (over 30,000), and the Suez aggression.

However, among sub-Saharan colonial armed forces, only the Sudan Defence Corps was assigned any significant external and strategic importance in addition to its internal functions. The Second World War, the loss of the Indian Empire, and Middle Eastern oil and instability gave the Sudan a quite distinct status in British overseas strategy. The Sudanese army was relatively solidly equipped, and at independence the Sudanese officer corps was the only such body to be composed entirely of nationals.