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Interview on African Intelligence with Philani Dhlamini

This interview covers a relevant topic: African intelligence! As an intelligence researcher, I’m always interested in discovering new aspects, stories, and histories of something I studied so much. Philani Dhlamini helped me in discovering more about intelligence in Africa. In addition, I strongly support the diversity of experiences inside a field usually dominated by the US and UK, and, more broadly, by the Anglosaxon world. This is not an accusation because the story of the discipline per se deserves a full appreciation. In addition, and after all, the US and UK especially are at the forefront of the intelligence evolution since the dawn of intelligence as state institution and, now, even in the private sector. That said, it is time to move on, trying to bring different perspectives on intelligence in both theory and history. This is true inside the already consolidated literature. It should be true even beyond it. And then, when Philani agreed to be interviewed by me on this specific topic, I was sure I would have had a glimpse into a new universe. And I hope this will be the same experience the reader will feel and live. Then, it is with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet, is one of the leading philosophical blogs in Italy with a unique series of books, and more than ten years of experience. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Dr. Giangiuseppe Pili, Philani: thank you!

1. Hi Philani Dhlamini, let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the Italian readers and to Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?

I am a Zimbabwean national, primarily trained in Political-Economic Risk Analysis with subject matter expertise on the Sub-Saharan Africa region. I worked in the private sector, delivering analysis and assessments of political and economic landscapes in East and Southern Africa for over 3 years. Currently I am obligated as an International Security Consultant delivering projects focused on the education and training of security professionals in support of Multilateral Intelligence Cooperation and the early warning dimension of the African Union’s Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). In addition to this I am engaged in intelligence studies scholarship where I am the project lead for an African Intelligence Studies Collective that is currently being assembled. I concurrently function as an OSINT instructor who contributes to the instructional delivery of the Intelligence Practitioner’s Immersion Program and also have, more recently, been honored with an invitation to be a Guest Editor at the Journal of European and American Intelligence Studies (JEAIS) for a forthcoming special issue.

2. Africa is a big continent with different cultures, languages, and countries. Are there any common features in what I expect remarkably diverse intelligence cultures within the continent? What are the main intelligence cultures?

This question is quite loaded because of the variety of angles it can be approached from, but the basis here must rely on a detailed look into the history – and a “continental history” cannot be singular because of its broad encompass. I issue this disclaimer because a search for “common features” can sometimes trap us into seeking an understanding that is simplified by homogeneity – glossing over peculiarities in this manner can lead to a huge loss of context.

You are correct in making an educated guess that as a result of the plurality of socio-cultural diversity, that by extension this has been replicated in intelligence cultures across the continent. There is however, two instances in which common features have appeared. The first similarity stems from colonial heritage which offers a break down of main intelligence cultures, in their bureaucratized manifestation, according to English, French or Portuguese influences. For example, the former “anglophone” colonies are quite peculiar in the way the intelligence function emerged from the policing structures that were instituted to protect the colonial interest. Despite the wave of independence, these institutions have been somewhat regurgitated and subsequently assumed by a populace that was previously subservient to that mode of law enforcement and its “special branches”. As a result it can often be found that some countries’ intelligence agencies function more aptly as secret police because of their “power of arrest” – a characteristic already well emphasized by scholars like Sandy Africa in “Changing Intelligence Dynamics in Africa”.

The Francophone context evolves in an altogether varied and separate manner, primarily because of the French approach to colonization which centralized colonial bureaucracy in Paris. This definitely meant that the localized bureaucratic build-up witnessed elsewhere in other colonies was not established in the same manner for West and Central Africa and consequently molded how intelligence organizations could manifest in the post-colonial era. But outside those confines of colonialism we witness even more differentiation when we also consider the cases of Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa with their unique political experiences throughout and after the colonial era. From this two-pronged perspective we can observe some loosely arranged blocks of similarity in features and to some extent the modus operandi (bureaucratic procedure invariably informs cultural practice by way of structural containment).

The second commonality stems from the more recent establishment of a continental intelligence cooperation framework, particularly the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA). Such multilateral projects often emerge out of common necessity and this organization consisting of up to 51 intelligence agencies out of 54 African countries is driven by the Common African Defence and Security Policy (CADSP) of the African Union. The mere fact that on a yearly basis, this organization has to produce a Continental Intelligence Estimate (CIE) is extremely significant because of the need for convergence, despite varying intelligence collection and organization philosophies, which demands some negotiated uniformity of intelligence production to enable the kind of aggregation required for a joint estimate with this scope. Therefore some common features are presently being installed and reinforced by the need to meet cooperation benchmarks.

3. What are the countries which are historically more active in the intelligence field, and what is their way to intelligence?

Even though I make observations here, I base these opinions on the history of international relations and diplomacy rather than on comparing the domestic activities of all Intel services, which I can not definitively quantify. I will pick two nominal centers for intelligence activity but by no means implying that they were the most active, instead I select them for what is openly discernible on account of the international context they had to contend with. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is one particular locus on account of their claim to not being colonized and thus their subsequent hosting of the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1963. At this particular time the organization was a collective of anti-colonial revolutionaries and their movements, the host country subsequently became very important for information sharing beyond the leaders who would attend the summits. Ethiopia as a host nation had to contend with the influx of numerous international leaders with ‘independence’ from colonial rule being an issue of high international political importance, as such the country’s capacity for intelligence cooperation was indeed bolstered because of the high amount of diplomatic interaction (which was of course held on the assurance of expected confidentialities).

The second candidate I would point to is South Africa which, during the apartheid era became involved with the anti-colonial struggles in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe quite intensively. The international exertion by the South African apartheid state in Angola and Namibia was encouraged and accelerated by the Global Cold War – their interventions often being guided by the proxies of communism versus capitalism. The internal security dynamics of South Africa as it begun to experience global attention for the human rights injustice of the apartheid system (1980-1994 roughly) saw both the apartheid state and the liberation forces such as the African National Congress (ANC) heighten intelligence activities as part of this contestation.

4. How crucial was the Cold War in the evolution of intelligence in the continent?

The Cold War is an important factor in the evolution of intelligence, especially because it concurrently occurred during the era of anti-colonial revolution and struggle. What this does is steep the history of numerous intelligence agencies existing today in the politico-military proxies that were witnessed then. The training of revolutionaries according to proxy delineation is so important even so far as understanding how current governments maintain their relations with China and Russia, because there is a history of sponsorship of security-related activities. For example, in the case of Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia) government of white-minority rule developed its own Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) to contend with the armed struggle (Rhodesian Bush War) being waged by the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) whose guerrilla warfare was enthused and sponsored by China, as well as the Zimbabwe People’s Revolution Army (ZIPRA) which followed Soviet Marxist principle and was thus supported by the Soviet Union. Upon attaining independence, there was a process in which the security sector in the newly independent country was unified and this included the intelligence services – both guerrilla groups and the former Rhodesian forces combined (bar the exodus of hardliners). Therefore, in the Central Intelligence Organization that was to emerge, it was prone to division along those very lines and as such these very dynamics inform the evolution of the organization to date. Those competing ethos from all parties seeking unification needed to be reconciled and the hybridized formations that coalesced are profound basis for current manifestations of the entity as it performs the function of intelligence production.

5. What are the critical areas in which the African countries are working today in the intelligence realm?

Regional and Continental security issues have been important in creating situations which demand cooperation of states in Africa. The African Union is the regional bloc based on a pan-Africanism that is somewhat similar to the multilateral pan-European cause ascribed to by the European Union. However the key difference here is the conflict resolution tangent that the AU undertook as its initial path to development and as such, the essence of common security outlooks was more prominent than necessity for economic union to start with. This is the very reason why the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) along with the African Centre for the Study and Research of Terrorism (ACSRT) have emerged in the manner in which they have. Intelligence operations in Africa have largely been historically devoted to regime security and more recently counter-terrorism efforts. In the post-colonial era intelligence activity has been necessary for maintaining newly formed governments after colonial rule was overcome – this has been widely criticized in later years as the democratic principle of those activities and the politicization of secret state functions has been highlighted by the growth of civil society. Towards counter-terrorism however, intelligence activities have been driven by international engagements which demanded multidimensional forms of cooperation along with the development of specialized capacities – this is largely exemplified by the G5 Sahel group and the MNJTF (Multinational Joint Task Force).

6. We still have the international scientific intelligence studies literature heavily grounded in the US and UK. Though perfectly comprehensible, this had created a biased unbalance in the literature. Is there a pan-African intelligence studies literature? If so, what are the main journals? Where can the reader find interesting information about African intelligence?

Pan-African intelligence literature does exist, although there are presently no journals explicitly dedicated to intelligence studies. Most articles that delve into intelligence affairs are found in a broad array of other journals on specific subject areas such as Political Science, Peace and Security or International Relations, not to mention History. The most widely acknowledged publication was the book published by the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) titled: Changing Intelligence Dynamics in Africa”. Literature does exist by extension in the historical domain, however its framing within the context of a specialized focus of intelligence affairs is limited. Having a journal dedicated to African Intelligence affairs and studies is actually a project I am pursuing in collaboration with a selection of African scholars and institutions to fill this gap.

7. How do you see the future of the African(s) way to intelligence?

African countries are currently grappling with the political operationalization of social media and therefore the ambit of digital surveillance and capacity for Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) has been in prime focus. Technological competence has come into stern focus here and Internet shutdowns as a form of population control have exposed a preference to conceal lack of dynamic capacities in this area by absolute disconnection. The key concern moving forward for these countries will be the integration of technology into the practice of intelligence, moving forward, especially since very few countries manufacture their technological infrastructure locally – on this basis alone we see a higher need to import from elsewhere the hardware, software and knowledge components. The Corona Virus pandemic has particularly highlighted this issue as the need for lockdown imposed new restrictions on entities that have primarily priced themselves on human intelligence, most especially the non-virtual kind requiring physical proximity.

8. What is the best way we have to engage this important though neglected topic?

Academic journals always offer an opportunity for epistemic commune to convene, on condition that those efforts are met with a supportive amount of scholarly enthusiasm. That is why I stand and drive behind efforts to create a special journal which invites input from multiple disciplines and in its production is an interdisciplinary publication. Over time the African intelligence studies domain will be consolidated in its own particular uniqueness after the state of the Art is firmly established.

9. How can our readers follow you?

Although maintained in a very minimalistic format, I am available on LinkedIn as “P. Dhlamini”. Forthcoming academic publications will also be an alternative avenue through which to track my analysis of African intelligence affairs.

10. Five keywords that represent you?

Watchful, Persistent, Meticulous, Diplomatic, Principled.

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