It is common knowledge that warfare has greatly evolved in our times: from the strategic to the operational and tactical levels, from training and equipment to mission statements and structure. Indeed, literally every facet of warfare has seen close to a complete doctrinal overhaul.

A good number of countries across the globe have firsthand experienced the effects of this military evolution. Since the end of WWII, military engagements have grown smaller in scope; they have also become more rapid. International humanitarian law, the body of law that governs war, has also become stricter. The resultant atmosphere has created a world that trembles at the mention of an interstate military confrontation.

Individual military operations, save for those sanctioned by the UN, have striven to great lengths to keep a low engagement profile. Nations have opted to greatly minimize the size of their fighting units and accelerate the development and capabilities of the individual soldier — both in equipment and skill. Effective battle units have become smaller and more versatile. They have acquired delicate battlefield maneuverability and the ability to maintain a zero trace signature.

And the name that we give to these small fighting units, whose respective nations have invested in and greatly developed, is Special Operations Forces.

A member of the Kenyan Army 40th Ranger Strike Force.

Africa has been lagging behind in the development of Special Operations Forces, compared to the rest of the world. However, in the last few decades, this is drastically changing due to mutating threat matrices. Al-Qaeda affiliated extremism and terrorism, coupled with a number of sociopolitical related skirmishes, has caused an accelerated demand for specialist security personnel to deal with them.

This article will delve into the state of Special Operations Forces in Africa. It will look at their funding, training, operations and accomplishments.

SOF units in Africa have been around for close to 40 years. Starting in the 1970s some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa took the initiative to invest in Special Ops development.

Of late, other African countries have found themselves developing SOF capabilities. In some countries SOF capabilities have grown greatly. Other countries are still trying to figure out the basics, from funding and training to areas of application.

I have taken time to do some digging on the state of SOF development of some Sub-Saharan African countries. I have seen and experienced first hand the capabilities and wide applications of Special Operations. I have come to stand in awe of the smallest of details — perhaps the reason I’m always championing for their development — particularly in Africa. This article will hopefully draw a perfect portrait of the current situation.

In the three regional economic centers of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, Special Operations have received a deeper appreciation. In the South African Military (SADF), the Kenyan Military (KDF), and the Nigerian Military (NAF), SOF establishments have seen accelerated development in the last two decades: Good funding, world-class training, real-life operations and experiences, honorable accomplishments (some classified others available from open sources), robust growth in numbers and related equipment, etc. It has been quite a ride for the SOF establishments of these three countries.

SOF development in most other Sub-Saharan African countries is yet to achieve notable growth in almost all areas, when compared to the three aforementioned countries. In some cases this is because of a relative lack of applicable areas for SOF development, except as security details of the ruling political elites; in others it is because of varying military doctrines and related service definitions.

In some of these countries, SOF establishments exist in a very basic form. Their tactical training is slightly more robust than the average military academy’s basic training, for example, it may include some elements of Ranger School and Airborne School. Special Operations troops get a basic understanding of Special Reconnaissance (SR), Counterinsurgency (COIN), Close Quarters Combat (CQC), Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion (SERE), and tactical first aid.

Some countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Botswana, Uganda, Angola, Mali, and Zimbabwe, have some impressive, but elementary, formations with superb tactical capabilities and considerable maneuverability. They act as well-kitted infantry force-multipliers. The majority have seen action mostly in home-grown skirmishes. Some have had impressive campaigns, others have not been so lucky.

The majority of these countries’ “Special Units” are bred from their militaries’ respective Armies. Apparently it is cheaper, in terms of resources and equipment, to raise a Special Unit within a military’s Army in Africa.

On the other hand, building a naval or an air force Special Unit comes with its limitations due to the unavailability of mission-specific equipment in most of the navies and air forces of Sub-Saharan countries. Although some, like the Ghanaian military, have managed to build a tactical unit in its Navy, they remain elementary. They can never come anywhere close to the doctrinal definitions of the British Special Boat Service (SBS) or the Nigerian Navy’s SBS.

In the next part, I’ll talk about the Special Ops establishments of the militaries of the South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. I will look at their training, operations, and perhaps a glimpse of what the future looks like for them.

Editor’s note: This article was written by Roberts Mwenda, a Military, Defense and Security Consultant specializing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mwenda has a degree in International Relations & Diplomacy from the University of Nairobi.