By Firmain Eric Mbadinga
The Parliament of Mozambique, a country that has braved multiple terrorist attacks over the past few years, passed a bill recently to increase the minimum length of compulsory military service from two to five years.
The Mozambican government justifies this law by its need to optimise the armed forces' effectiveness in its fight against terrorism.
In 2021, Burkina Faso instituted the "National Service for Development" system that requires civil servants aged between 18 and 30 to undergo mandatory military training for three months.
Morocco introduced the same service through a law passed in 2019, while in DR Congo, where terrorist attacks are frequent, the option of compulsory military service was considered by the authorities in December 2022 to create a bulwark against terrorism.
The choice of military service as a means to boost the effectiveness of armies, both quantitatively and qualitatively, is viewed from different angles in Africa, where terrorists claim tens of thousands of lives every year.
From Nigeria to Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, hardly any country has been spared the ravages of terrorism.
"It is more necessary than ever to do our utmost, to use all possible means to fight terrorism," says Thibault Mayombo Nzengué, a management controller in Gabon, where military service has been made compulsory by the new regime.
Nzengué believes that mandatory military service is useful in guaranteeing security for all.
"Our armies, especially African armies, are experiencing human-resource challenges. Having reservists or ordinary citizens able to respond in the event of a call-up, or during any mass mobilisation, would be a major asset," he tells TRT Afrika.
Dr Arnaud Houénou from Benin, who has a doctorate in political science and specialises in African security and defence issues, says introducing compulsory military service — whatever the justification — must be governed by a legal framework.
"Recourse to compulsory military service on the pretext of fighting terrorism or defending territorial integrity should be a democratic measure that respects individual freedom," he explains.
Dr Houénou suggests that compulsory military service should be a legal obligation, which means that before it is adopted, the service must be the subject of a law defended and passed by Parliament, which then applies to everyone.
An age bracket can be defined based on the country's demography. "If a country does not respect this process, the people may question the legality of compulsory military service," says Dr Houénou.
Regarding the duration of this compulsory measure, the onus is on Parliament to set the limits, taking into account the threat.
'"The notion of pretext loses its substance when the reality of terrorism is objective," says Georges Ngoma, a Congolese sociologist based in Canada.
While the principle of compulsory military service seems to be unanimously accepted, as is the method of its adoption, Ngoma points out that a few exceptions need to be made in its enforcement.
"Some categories of people, such as those working in certain occupations and the sick or disabled, are excused (exempted) from compulsory military service. However, the practice of conscription, i.e., calling up young people to serve in the armed forces for the country's defence, is far from being a consensual practice," says the sociologist.
The loss of conscripts during army confrontations with internal and external enemies exposes this practice to heavy criticism.
Souleymane Ouedraogo, who is in charge of partnerships within the coordination of a civil society movement in Burkina Faso, says it is imperative for the authorities in his country and beyond not to use this measure to silence civil society players or opponents.
There also seems to be a consensus on its usefulness and effectiveness, with some players insisting that it remains just one option among many.
Test of effectiveness
Dr Houénou believes compulsory military service can have a qualitative and strategic impact in tackling this threat. "Having a competent reserve of arms is always useful," he says.
Military service was made compulsory in many countries in the 1900s because of wars or territorial tensions, albeit with significant effects. The measure was in force in the US, for example, during the Cold War, when men aged between 18 and 25 were trained to swell the army ranks if needed. This was also the practice during the two world wars.
Algeria, which gained independence from France after the 1954-1962 War, introduced compulsory military service in 1968.
In 2023, with more peaceful environments, compulsory military service has been abandoned by many countries.
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