African Militaries Are Working To Bolster Their 'Backbone,' The NCOs

Malawi's Gen. Vincent Thom Nundew, left, and Ghana's Lt. Gen. Obed Boamah Akwa, center, look on as Liberia's Maj. Gen. Prince Charles Johnson III, right, speaks during a panel discussion on the importance of empowering non-commissioned officers at a conference U.S. Africa Command hosted for African senior enlisted leaders at the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Tuesday, August 13, 2019. Image: Chad Garland


— High-ranking enlisted troops in Africa aren’t always proud of their rank, one senior non-commissioned officer confessed to a roomful of his peers from nearly 30 African countries and the U.S., who had gathered in this Bavarian resort town.

“It’s hard to keep motivation up,” the man said during a panel discussion about NCO empowerment here last week. But, he added: “I’m proud to be here.”

The senior enlisted leader’s identity was withheld so he could speak freely during a portion of the third annual African senior enlisted leader conference Stars and Stripes attended. Organized by and for NCOs, the event sought to advance a U.S. Africa Command-backed strategy to bolster enlisted ranks — the military’s “backbone” — throughout the continent.

Designed to be African-led, the plan is aligned with the African Union’s “Agenda 2063,” which outlines aspirations for a continentwide “renaissance,” including goals for good governance, democracy, respect for human rights and more, AFRICOM officials said.

Strengthening military professionalism across Africa can help stabilize the region and contain violent extremism, they said.

The idea is to “work ourselves out of a job,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeremiah Inman, U.S. Army Africa’s top enlisted soldier, and to reduce the likelihood of deploying U.S. combat troops to the region.

The U.S. mission in Africa has gained wider attention since an October 2017 ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead and two wounded, following a failed mission to kill or capture a regional Islamic State leader.

Since then, AFRICOM has announced plans to cut about 10% of the roughly 7,000 U.S. troops deployed to the continent — mainly special operations troops — as it shifts focus from tactical assistance to advice, training and intelligence support.

But the unnamed African NCO’s comments, and others at the conference last week, illustrate the challenges officials face in some African militaries, where senior enlisted ranks don’t have the same status as in the U.S. military.

Officers are sometimes wary of them and opportunities for professional development are rare, officials said.

Another African senior NCO, one of more than 60 in attendance, said the event was the first conference he’d ever attended for enlisted leaders in more than 30 years of service.

Ghana’s defense chief, Lt. Gen. Obed Akwa, told Stars and Stripes it was the first time he’d had such frank interactions with enlisted personnel. Ghana was one of four African countries, along with Malawi, Botswana and Liberia, that sent senior generals and senior enlisted advisers to speak on panels.

All four had been selected last year as the first tranche of countries implementing the U.S.-backed plan — which focuses on Africans training Africans — to create regional training hubs over three years to hone enlisted leaders’ skills and improve regional cooperation.

They discussed other plans meant to reshape their military cultures, such as enacting minimum education requirements for enlisted troops and training them in skills besides “the way of the gun,” such as automotive repair and other trades they can take into the civilian world after service.

This week, in partnership with AFRICOM, Ghana is hosting representatives of the African Union and other organizations from across Africa, Europe, South America and the U.S. for a leadership symposium that will focus on training and workforce development, including enlisted development.

The U.S. is assisting the four-country group with trainers, curriculum development and other aid, but each country is defining its own approach, officials said.

“Anything ... that will be good for our people will be taken onboard,” said Chief Warrant Officer Barker Kwame Ramous, Ghana’s forces sergeant major.

Malawi’s military in 2014 was inspired by the Army’s Sergeants Major Academy to establish an academy of its own. With U.S. help, the school now has several instructors teaching NCOs from a dozen African countries, said Warrant Officer George Bisalomu, the country’s senior enlisted leader.

In a keynote address, the Pentagon’s top enlisted soldier touted the importance of enlisted professionalization through training, education and other experiences, which lets commanders entrust NCOs with greater responsibilities, decentralizing command and giving them reach across the battlefield.

The U.S. military’s approach to empowering its people is its greatest competitive edge, Command Sgt. Maj. John W. Troxell said, and the Pentagon seeks to export such advantages to its allies and partners. In Africa, the U.S. is trying to win more partners as it competes with China and Russia for influence.

But Troxell and other officials also urged patience, stressing that the Defense Department’s efforts have spanned decades since the 1970s.

“This is a culmination of almost 40 years,” Troxell said.

Still, small changes could go a long way to sending the message that NCOs are valued, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Mpho Mophuting, a high-ranking member of Botswana’s military, planned to invite senior enlisted leaders on his next annual tour of his country’s military bases, he said, something he’d previously done only with staff officers.

“I think we can do better,” Mophuting said.