In the past decade alone military establishments or units of military establishments in West Africa have either destabilize or threatened the state in many aspects. These units have resisted the peoples demand for change, overturned elections results or used indiscriminate force against citizens demanding more rights and freedoms. They influenced politics and left a legacy in part, which continues to shape the role of the military establishment in political transitions.

In 2008, a military junta led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara led a coup after the death of long time autocrat Lasana Conteh. Amid growing opposition, the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September 2009, sparking widespread condemnation and increasing Guinea’s international isolation. Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was shot and decapitated two months later, and a military-led transitional government paved the way for a general election in 2010. Professor Alhpa Conde was declared winner after defeating Cellou-Dalein Diallo in a run-of.  In 2010 the electoral victory of opposition candidate Alassane outara was met with resistance by elite republican guard units of president Gbagbo who rejected results of the elections. Both Ouattara and former president Gbagbo took separate oaths of office in December 2010 and remained in a standoff over the presidency until Gbagbo’s capture in 2011.

On March, 21, 2012, Malian soldiers under the leadership of Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the government of Amadou Toumani Toure and formed the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State. Following international condemnation and harsh sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), The African Union (AU), The European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN) and the United States (US), the military was forced to step down and handed over to a transitional government led by Dioncounda Traore.  In September 2015, the euphoria of the popular protest that ended the 27 year rule of Blaise Campaore was short lived when Elite Presidential Guard (RSP) units led by General Diendere, arrested transitional leaders, and declared a coup. Condemnations by ECOWAS, AU, UN, the US and the European Union, coupled with declaration by the national armed forces and its support for a restoration of the transitional process forced the RSP to step aside.

As the role of the military continually shifted from one part of the pendulum to the other, the issue of civil military relations in both the developed and developing world got considerable scholarly attention. Samuel Huntington (1957) puts civil-military relations as military security policy that is an integral part of national security; it minimizes and neutralizes efforts to weaken or destroy the state by the military. Amos Perlmutter (1977) used the concept of the praetorian state/ praetorian army as “one in which the military tends to intervene in the government and has the potential to dominate the executive”. Perlmutter further breaks the praetorian army into two types: the “arbitrator army” which limits military control and seeks to influence politics from behind the scenes; and the “ruler army” that exercises military rule for long periods. Mehran Kamrava (2000) identified three types of civil-military relations: the “autocratic officer-politician” regimes, these are regimes led by former officers turned civilian politicians; the “tribally independent monarchies,” have their armies drawn mainly from tribal lines and pays allegiance to the monarchy; and the regimes with “dual militaries” mainly regimes with dual military structures or parallel military forces in addition to the army which is based on ideology. Drawing on the experiences from all the armed forces and regime types, and how they responded to given popular political situations, Eva Bellin (2004) developed the concepts of “Institutionalized Military,” and “Patrimonial Military”. Bellin (2004) found institutionalized militaries to be ruled bound and governed by clear sets of rules, have established career paths, strong links with society and promotion based on merit and not allegiance. Institutionalized militaries are willing to disengage from politics and allows political reforms. By contrast, patrimonial military apparatus is not ruled bound, have no established career paths, weak links to society and promotion is based ideological, tribal and political loyalty. With the outbreak of the  Arab Spring, Derek Lutterbeck (2013) further argued that the degree of institutionalization of an armed force and their relationship to society at-large, generally explains the armed forces response to given political situations. Lutterbeck observed the armed forces response to protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.  Therefore it is clear that the puzzle about what constitutes an effective national armed force , to a large extent, lies on ‘what counts’  as Ebo (2005) puts it “the attitude of the military towards the civilian society, the civilian society’s perception of, and attitudes to the military, and the role of the armed forces in relation to the state”. For Naison Ngoma (2006), democratic civil –military relations implies the military‘s adherence to principles of conforming to accountable, legitimate democratic authorities, and the exercise of oversight over the military.

While the military had no doubt taken a forefront in the politics of several African countries, it is evident that the exponential growth of civil society and rising political maturity and consciousness is forcing the African military to be a part of progressive voices of reason and conscience. The abuse of power and the flagrant violation of rights by military governments in many Sub-Saharan African countries left policymakers, academics, researchers and ordinary citizens with skewed views of the military. Society have grown to mistrust the military in all aspects of politics.

Despite the conventional wisdom that military establishments are guardians of the state and her citizens, Sub-Saharan Africa is witnessing a reversal of the trend. It is the people who are “guarding” their very own “guardians”. For decades, the source of state fragility and failure in Sub-Saharan Africa has been attributed to the nature of civil-military relations and the “patrimonial” and “praetorian” nature of the military or the armed forces. When military institutions are formed on the basis of allegiance to a leader or a group, such institutions only protects its interest and not that of the state. It can disrupt and undermine the state when its interest is threatened, since it is well equipped and empowered with resources over other institutions. In Burkina Faso, the action of the Elite presidential guard (RSP) units led by General Diendere to disrupt the transitional process clearly exemplify  its entrenched nature as  both a “patrimonial unit” and a “parallel military force” in addition to the national army. Even in Ivory-Coast, where the opposition candidate emerged victorious, it was an entrenched patrimonial unit of the presidential guard and a parallel unit  (The Young Patriots) comprising of mainly youth from the late president Gbagbo’s ethnic group resisted to the last hour, when the Republican Forces or New Forces supported by French peacekeepers captured  Gbagbo. Amid the simmering tension, it was the voices of reason and conscience that prevail, upholding citizen’s aspirations for political reforms.

To better understand other dimensions of the “patrimonial” and “parallel military units” in Sub Saharan Africa, it is important to closely diagnose the 2008 military coup in Guinea, and the 2012 Coup in Mali. In both cases, it was other units of the armed forces and not the entrenched patrimonial presidential guards unit that seize power. On one hand both coups happen during periods of political uncertainty and polarization. On the other hand, it was a backlash of forming an army within an army, resentment against a well-resourced parallel unit as an elite presidential guard. Arguably, the degree of popular support for both the coups was largely linked to the people’s aspiration for change during those periods of uncertainty. However, when it was clear to the people that the military had different intentions, the “uniting clout and spread” of the coup forced out the military with a stark choice of succumbing to national, regional and transnational forces; the power of civil society. In the end the “Guardians” (the Military) were guarded by its very own people it is supposed to be guarding.

While many skeptics will use the most recent military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Guinea’s as indicators that the “no more coup” norm adopted by ECOWAS and the AU is only a “lip sinking” norm, a new form of political order has emerged across sub-Saharan Africa; a new order that is entrenched in the power of civil society. Perhaps this new order signals the end of the “praetorian”  “patrimonial” and “parallel” military establishments that has destabilized Sub-Saharan African States for so long. In sum, even when other leaders are relying on such military establishments (as in The Gambia, Equatorial Guinea), or amend their constitutions (as in Cameroon, Angola, and Burundi) to prolong their stay in power, a furtive glance at recent events shows that citizens of sub-Saharan Africans are “guarding” their very own “guardians” (The Army).