Four things you should know about mutinies

Soldiers guard a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, in 2015. (Lekan Oyekanmi/AP)
Soldiers guard a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria, in 2015. (Lekan Oyekanmi/AP)

As the holy month of Ramadan ended yesterday, a prominent Muslim rights group called on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to pardon 54 soldiers imprisoned for mutiny. In 2014, the soldiers refused to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, claiming they were not adequately supplied with weapons and ammunition.

The Nigerian soldiers’ grievances and subsequent mutiny are consistent with other mutinies in Africa, as detailed in this week’s book in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: “Soldiers in Revolt: Army Mutinies in Africa,” written by Maggie Dwyer, a research fellow at the Center of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews — 50 with former mutineers — and a systematic review of high-quality reporting outlets (e.g., Africa Confidential and Africa Research Bulletin), Dwyer identifies and describes what drives soldiers to mutiny.

“Soldiers in Revolt” offers an overview of mutinies in West and Central Africa between 1960 and 2014, identifying 71 mutinies that took place. Dwyer examined these mutinies for patterns in how they emerged and transpired. “Soldiers in Revolt” is the first book to look at mutinies across time in Africa. Dwyer also takes a deep dive into mutinies in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Burkina Faso, devoting a chapter to each country.

Dwyer’s short but rich volume taught me a great deal. Here are my four biggest takeaways.

There are parallels between soldier mutinies and civilian protests in West and Central Africa.

Economic grievances have been paramount in protests against the state, and this is increasingly true as more African citizens question the benefits of democracy when their bellies are still empty. As Dwyer writes, “Mutineers’ grievances … reflect wider frustrations concerning underdevelopment in the region.” (p. 175).

Like civilians, rank-and-file soldiers face challenges in trying to make ends meet. Dwyer finds the most frequent grievance in the African mutinies she studied involved pay or other material issues. Soldiers were often poorly paid, and/or their payment was often delayed. Beyond salary issues, soldiers complained about material issues, such as a lack of uniforms, or, as the Nigerian soldiers mentioned earlier, poor equipment.

Soldier mutinies also frequently expressed issues such as the rule of law and human rights, drawing significantly from the rhetoric of the democratization movement in Africa in the 1990s. Soldiers were exposed to these democratization themes through increased access to media and through social connections. Dwyer argues that soldiers probably maintained their relationships with people of the same age who were students and urban youth, of whom many were agitating for government reform (p. 72-73).

To mutiny is to live in a free country.

Almost three-quarters of the 71 mutinies in Dwyer’s study happened in free countries. More specifically, these mutinies occurred in countries ranked as either “free” or “partially free” by the independent organization Freedom House. Through her case study analysis, Dwyer found that “mutinies generally occur more frequently in countries exhibiting a higher degree of respect for political rights and civil liberties” (p. 74).

For example, Gambia had a series of soldier mutinies in the 1990s, but mutinies ceased as Gambia became increasingly authoritarian under former president Yahya Jammeh’s rule.

Dwyer explains that mutinies may be more likely in democratic rather than autocratic countries because soldiers won’t mutiny unless they believe leadership will respond to their grievances.

Mutinies aren’t spontaneous, and they tend to be nonviolent.

In describing the common actions taken by mutineers — especially early on in a mutiny — Dwyer shows how mutinies are “calculated decisions … not reckless reactions” (p. 46). These actions include taking control of an airport and making media announcements about soldier grievances; both actions require planning and coordination.

Of the 71 mutinies Dwyer studied, fewer than half involved direct acts of violence — and this is consistent with earlier studies of mutinies in other parts of the world, which show that mutinies tend to be nonviolent (p. 47). Dwyer explains the logic for why mutineers tend not to engage in violence: Violence can isolate mutineers from those who might be sympathetic to their cause; their ultimate goal is not violence but redress for their grievances.

Mutinies are not about seeking power in government so much as communicating grievances to government.

Mutiny as a form of communication is a central theme in Dwyer’s book. Her compelling argument is that soldiers use mutinies to communicate with senior leadership. If soldiers find, for example, that the junior officers leading them cannot or will not address their grievances, they use mutiny (or the threat of a mutiny) to communicate their grievances to senior officers and government officials.

Dwyer’s argument about mutiny as communication reminded me of Naunihal Singh’s book “Seizing Power,” which studies a related — but distinct — revolutionary event: the coup. (Singh’s book was featured in our 2015 summer series.) As Singh does for coups in his book, Dwyer describes in hers a mutineers’ playbook, detailing the tactics mutineers commonly use to communicate their grievances.

These are just four takeaways from “Soldiers in Revolt.” If you haven’t already read the book along with us, I highly recommend it — to learn for yourself the lessons I’ve highlighted above and the many more I omitted. In selecting “Soldiers in Revolt” for this summer’s series, I expected to read about soldiers and mutinies, but Dwyer’s well-written, accessible book was more a narrative of justice and honor.

Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries. Follow @dadakim

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