Africa and the merchants of death

It’s depressing how little seems to change when it comes to the relationship between the “great powers” and Africa.

This piece by Michael Jones in World Outline provides an alarming summary of the latest turn in this relationship:

In a strange parallel to the great 19th century’s “Scramble for Africa”, the world’s poorest continent is set once again to become the object of fierce Western competition. However, whereas Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about colonial possessions and the “White man’s burden”, today the prize takes the form of lucrative defence contracts and licenses for the local manufacture of hardware. As you might imagine, this is a very different “scramble” altogether.

Wracked by poverty, malnutrition, disease and corruption, and with millions of its inhabitants dependent on foreign aid, Africa’s leaders, it seems, can nevertheless wave the magic wand and find a few billion dollars to buy deadly toys – and the Europeans, Americans, Russians and Chinese are only too happy to oblige. As Jones says,

Africa, which accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s landmass and approximately 15 per cent of its population, is expected to spend over 20 billion dollars on defence projects over the next decade. As the European defence market becomes ever more bereft of big spenders and Asian markets face strong competition from China, Africa’s 54 states will constitute the last major geopolitical frontier for defence companies…

At the end of last month, Defense News reported that… South Africa has been a pioneer during this new wave of interest, and has allegedly negotiated licensing deals with “Swiss, US, Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian and French companies”. Local rifle producer Truvelo has partnered with Colt Defense, the famed American arms manufacturer, to produce sniper rifles that meet increased “police and military” demand. A similar deal was penned between South African aerospace company Denel and Swiss firm B&T “paving the way [for the production of] small arms ranging from sub-machineguns to grenade launchers”.

In other regional deals, Algeria is interested in purchasing armoured vehicles from Turkish company Otokar, whilst last year the Serbian Military Technology Institute negotiated with the Kenyan government for armoured vehicles and artillery. Ammunition factories are to be established in Libya and Egypt, and other deals for hardware with Sudan and Somalia are in the pipeline…

It is concerning that so much government money will be invested into arms deals when the UN has warned that 22 of the 24 lowest Human Development Index nations are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in some instances GDP per capita is less than 200 dollars a year…

It goes without saying that African states need to defend themselves from external threats and, more to the point, threats from national and transnational terrorist and criminal groups – the insurgencies in Mali and the Al-Qaeda attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria are cases in point. But who will guarantee that African governments will not allow their purchases to fall into the hands of armed groups? The pattern so far is not encouraging. You have only to look at Libya.

As Jones concludes,

The West’s “burden” has become an unforgiving exercise in addressing Africa’s chronic deficiencies, whilst also providing it with the tools to foster instability. It is, of course, naive to think that disarmament is either realistic or desirable, but the situation in Africa is a complex web of security, poverty and exploitation. Perhaps the UN’s adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty this year after 20 long years of deliberation will go some way towards reversing the problem. It sets out to “prohibit states from transferring conventional weapons to countries when they know those weapons would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity”.

Perhaps the UN Arms Trade Treaty will do the trick. However, the trend towards local manufacturing of weapons, be it on licence or otherwise, will make the treaty all the more difficult to enforce. One only has to look at the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to see how things might develop.

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