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“Not your grandfather’s militaries:” Researching new models of civil-military relations in Africa

Will_Reno_callout.jpgDepartment of Political Science faculty member Will Reno presents the research he and Matisek collaborated on.

Jahara “Franky” Matisek is not your average graduate student. An active duty Air Force officer, Matisek is earning his doctorate at Northwestern University through a special program that enables officers from the U.S. Military to learn and live as civilians under a 3-year fellowship from the U.S. Air Force. The officers then take that experience back with them into the military education system as professors, strategists or senior leaders.

Matisek studies Middle Eastern politics with interests in military interventions, African politics, insurgency and counterinsurgency and institutions. More specifically, he studies the effects of new war fighting tactics on insurgent organizational and operational behavior. His research is funded by the Social Science Research Council's Dissertation Development Program, the Buffett Institute, the Program of African Studies and Department of Political Science at Northwestern.

Will Reno, political science professor and director of the program of African studies, serves as the perfect candidate to help Matisek obtain his full research potential, with intersecting interests on political violence in Africa, behaviors of insurgent groups and the politics of authoritarian regimes. Reno’s research is also funded by the Buffett Institute as well as the Research Council of Norway.

Together, Reno and Matisek study Africa’s new models of civil-military relations, testing the impact of professional experience in shaping how individuals define “professional” and how professional experience affects the socialization of individuals beyond the armed service. Reno works on his research project while Matisek works on his dissertation, but the two come together after their separate research to collaborate on related projects.

“We think that military assistance has impacts on African societies, and we think we need to investigate this with field research,” Reno said at a presentation he and Matisek gave on their research at the Program of African Studies weekly lunch lecture on January 31.

“One of the most interesting aspects of the project is that it’s also reciprocal in what it says about our own army,” Reno said.

Reno and Matisek’s research argues against a static definition of “professional,” meaning they argue against the notion that a professional military in Africa should look like the U.S. Army -- a disengaged, non-political military that focuses on technical skills.

They look at the origins of the military’s institutions (conservative or revolutionary) and regime coalitions (open or closed) in order to gather evidence for their claim. Their separate research involves trips to African countries to conduct field studies and face-to-face interviews.

Through summer field research, Matisek worked within the confines of the political/military system to interview militaries of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. Separately, over multiple trips to Africa, Reno interviewed and interacted with military officials from diverse countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda.

During their respective field studies, one of the biggest challenges Reno and Matisek faced was getting African military officers to open up to them as U.S. citizens. This was especially prevalent in Ethiopia, where Matisek found that people there believed Americans don’t understand Ethiopian military developments and therefore don’t know how to talk to or train Ethiopian soldiers.

“The average [U.S.] journalist or military officer doesn't know the difference between the average [Ethiopian] police officer or army,” Matisek said.

However, Matisek’s similar military background allowed people to be more open with him.  

“I’m a civilian, university professor; I’m in my fifties, white guy, not from Africa, I show up: what do these people think? Should they talk to me, what do they think I want to talk about, how seriously do they take me,” Reno said. “It’s a different story than when a guy comes and says, ‘Hey, I’m a major in the U.S. Air Force and I’m working on my Ph.D.’ Maybe they have more shared experience.”

Through their research, Reno and Matisek are finding that Africa is at a crossroads as a continent that’s becoming more diverse, and militaries are playing a more important role in institutionalization.

“Studying professionalization in militaries and where militaries fit in their political systems is a really good way to study how their political systems are changing,” Reno said. “So, one of our suspicions is that we’re moving from a system where, in the past, you had the big man leader and this was sort of like a giant-patron client system. Now, militaries are playing, in some countries, a much bigger role in building bureaucracies, building infrastructure -- other kinds of economic activities that the government supports.”

Reno and Matisek aim to reach civil military practitioners and a policy audience with their research, with the hopes of publishing their findings in an article for the academic publication “Armed Forces & Society.”

One of Reno’s key takeaways at the weekly lunch lecture was to focus on the bigger picture when conducting research and field studies. “Research gives you a window through which you can look at some of these bigger questions,” Reno said.

One of the most beneficial parts of Reno’s research has been having Matisek to share it with. While Reno has the opportunity to collaborate on his research project with Matisek, Matisek gains different viewpoints and approaches to research questions as a graduate student working on his dissertation.

“I think that that’s something that’s very good for our military,” Reno said. “That leaders in our military should have a much better understanding of what the rest of American society’s days are like, what kind of things they’re interested in.”

Once Matisek completes his doctoral studies, he will return to the U.S. Air Force Academy to teach military and strategic studies.

“He’ll have the opportunity to shape the experience of future Air Force officers, and Northwestern University will play an important role in that, so I think that that’s a very positive thing,” Reno said.