A country can’t really qualify as a democracy without civilian control of its own security forces, but the logic that makes that statement true also makes civilian control hard to achieve, as events in Burkina Faso are currently reminding us.
The essential principle of democracy is popular sovereignty. Civilian control is fundamental to democracy because popular sovereignty requires that elected officials rule, but leaders of security forces—military and police—are not elected. Neither are the leaders of many other influential organizations, of course, but security forces occupy a special status in national affairs by virtue of their particular skills. To perform their designated roles, national rulers must determine and try to implement policies involving the collection of revenue and the production of public goods, including security. To do that, rulers need to wield the threat of coercion, and security forces supply that threat.
That necessity creates a dependency, and that dependency conveys power. In principle—and, historically, often in practice—leaders of security forces can use that dependency as leverage to bargain for bigger budgets or other policies they prefer for parochial reasons. Because those leaders are not held accountable to the public through elections, strong versions of that bargaining contravene the principle of popular sovereignty. Of course, security forces’ specific skills also make them uniquely capable of claiming political authority for themselves at any time. Military leaders rarely flex that muscle, but the threat of a coup only enhances their bargaining power with elected rulers, and thus further constrains popular sovereignty.
This logic implies that democracy only really obtains when state security forces reliably subordinate themselves to the authority of those elected civilian rulers. That arrangement seems clear in principle, but it turns out to be hard to achieve in practice. The problem is that the transition to civilian control demands that security forces concede their power. Organizations of all kinds are rarely excited about doing that, but it is especially hard for rulers to compel security forces to do it, because those forces are the stick those rulers would normally wield in that act of compellence. When pushed, military and police leaders can ask “Or what?” and civilian rulers will rarely have a strong answer. Under those circumstances, attempts to force the issue may have the opposite of their intended effect, provoking security forces into seizing power for themselves as a way to dispatch the civilian threat to their established position.
In short, the problem of getting to civilian control confronts civilian rulers with a dilemma: assert their authority and risk provoking a hard coup, or tolerate security forces’ continuing political power and accept what amounts to a perpetual soft coup.
This dilemma is bedeviling politics in Burkina Faso right now. Last fall, mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso triggered a military coup that toppled longtime autocratic ruler Blaise Compaoré. Under domestic and international pressure, the ensuing junta established a transitional process that is supposed to lead to democratic civilian rule after general elections on October 11, 2015.
On paper, a civilian now rules Burkina Faso as interim president, but attempts to clarify the extent of the interim government’s power, and to circumscribe the role of certain security organs in Burkinabe politics, are generating the expected friction and heat. Here is how Alex Thurston described the situation on his Sahel Blog:
In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).
The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.
These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.
In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group (ICG) surveyed that landscape and argued in favor of deferring any clear decisions on the RSP’s status until after the elections. Thurston sympathizes with ICG’s view but worries that deferral of those decisions will produce “an atmosphere of impunity.” History says that Thurston is right to worry, but so is ICG. In other words, there are no obvious ways to climb down from the horns of this dilemma.