African Intelligence Services: Early Postcolonial and Contemporary Challenges

  • Published

African Intelligence Services: Early Postcolonial and Contemporary Challenges edited by Ryan Shaffer. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, 302 pp.

African Intelligence Services: Early Postcolonial and Contemporary Challenges is a collection of essays edited by Ryan Shaffer and written by international scholars. The anthology discusses how different intelligence services affected the development of specific African nations, offering unparalleled insight into the role these institutions played during postcolonial, Cold War, and modern times.

Shaffer has worked as an academic historian focused on security issues within the context of politically motivated violence. African Intelligence Services is one of three of his contributions to the Security and Professional Intelligence Education Series, which include his Handbook of Asian Intelligence (2022) and Handbook of African Intelligence (2017). He has written for multiple international magazines and research journals as well.

African Intelligence Services examines the “the importance of exploring Africa’s intelligence services with historical and contemporary perspectives to recognize their trajectories, strengths, weaknesses, targets, and customers” (4). The 11 chapters each focus on different countries, including Kenya, Zanzibar and Tanganyika, Mozambique and Angola, Rhodesia, Rwanda, Liberia, and Nigeria. Essays range from a discussion of Kenya’s Special Branch during the postcolonial period to a contemporary analysis of the National Intelligence and Security Service in Sudan (now the General Intelligence Service).

One of the stated objectives of this book is to avoid seeing Africa as a mere playground for foreign actors. Often African institutions are painted as extensions of American, European, Soviet, or Chinese influences rather than as independent agents with their own desires and incentives. While racism and academic imperialism may drive a portion of this problem, Shaffer correctly points to the relative lack of sources on African intelligence services compared to more established ones. As Shaffer notes, “[M]any countries do not have the declassification, oversight, transparency, and freedom of information laws that many European and North American countries have” (5). It is easier to search under the lamp where the light is brightest.

This anthology strikes a balance such that when foreign powers are discussed, it maintains Africa as the focal point. Sometimes it is accurate to place more emphasis on outside interference, as when British colonialism created Kenyan institutions for the express purpose of promoting imperialism. Yet as can be seen in Simon Graham’s analysis of Zanzibar and Tanganyika, African agents also acted in ways that showed real initiative, ingenuity, and at times cruelty when dealing with the legacy of domination. This book focuses on how African decisionmakers impacted African affairs, at times influenced by foreign powers.

While every essay does an excellent job illuminating the conditions and ideas relevant to the specific region, an essay worth discussing in depth is “Intelligence and Political Power in Neo-Patrimonial Systems: Theory and Evidence from Liberia” by Benjamin J. Spatz and Alex Bolfrass. The authors argue that neo-patrimonialism present in Liberia is fundamentally different from the two other systems most observed in the intelligence literature: the liberal security service and the one-party state. In traditional research, there are two types of politicization. First, the intelligence service might be explicitly mandated to defend the party, not the broader national interest. Second, there is politicization in nominally apolitical intelligence services. Politicians attempt to pressure the institution to act in specific ways, or the intelligence service attempts to affect political matters. Liberia serves as an excellent case study because it has experienced many types of governments: from single party to military dictatorship to authoritarian but democratically elected and finally to mostly democratic and peaceful. The analysis leads to several key conclusions, with perhaps the most important being that the system of neo-patrimonialism is not simply a middle ground between autocracy and democracy. It is subject to a unique set of incentives which make it a distinct category. For example, unlike the autocratic state, the ruling elites are not able to fully dominate the bureaucracy since they are not as unified as their one-party state peers. Unlike liberal systems, these intelligence services almost always are implicitly or explicitly designed to protect the rulers, not the nation. Attempting to superimpose theoretical frameworks for different systems on these unique structures will lead to inaccurate analyses.  

The collection might have benefitted from the addition of more essays offering a comparative view of the African nations, directly contrasting individual countries against each other. While there were tangential references to different nations discussed in other chapters, most essays did not involve a systematic comparison between nations. The final essay, Christopher E. Bailey’s “Meeting the Needs of the State: Intelligence, Security, and Police Legal Frameworks in East Africa,” is the only one to directly compare three states with similar colonial histories: Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. This chapter avoids the mistake seen in some comparative studies of lumping together all of Africa and instead provides meaningful analysis. For example, Kenya’s political delineation of authority is narrower with more restrictions on government officials as well as more systems to declassify documents. This results in a more constrained state, relative to Uganda and Tanzania with consequences for how the institutions behave. As Bailey points out, Kenya’s security apparatus has a long way to go given the brutal crackdowns seen after the 2017 elections, but this type of comparative analysis is an excellent addition to the collection. By choosing countries close to each other and with similar histories, Bailey creates a clear contrast between the intelligence services. The anthology would have been even more interesting if more chapters engaged in this comparative approach.

African Intelligence Services assumes a reasonable level of familiarity with African postcolonial history among its readers. After all, trying to capture the entire history of Africa in one volume would have made the endeavor unfocused. For this reason, readers not versed in African history may find it helpful to have the internet available while reading this book. There are many names which, while heavily influential in the respective country, are not as well known outside the region. A true novice to African history may gain the most even if they will need to use outside resources to look up individuals referenced in the analysis. Regional experts in specific countries would gain much from being able to compare their region to others across the continent. Intelligence professionals would also be able to see intelligence organizations with unique structures and histories.

Overall, African Intelligence Services does justice to the origins and impacts of African security agencies, a topic that desperately deserves more attention.  

Vivek Thangam

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."