Images of African officials in Russia testing and gazing at sophisticated weapons, with visible exhilaration, have been circulating online. This was happening on the margins of the Russia–Africa Summit held in Sochi on 23–24 October 2019.
Even though countries have the sovereign right to buy arms for national defence purposes, the pictures raise several legitimate concerns. These centre on the implications of bringing more arms to a continent already awash with weapons, caught in the grip of armed violence and instability in many of its regions, and that is trying to ‘silence the guns’ by 2020.
It also brings into question Africa’s priorities. Should arms sales play such an important part in Africa’s relations with Russia and its other partners across the world, if at all?
Clearly, there is a need for greater continental action when it comes to arms control and management. There is also a need for transparency in the decision-making process on military expenditure, particularly the process through which national governments decide to purchase weapons.
Arms sales and militarism in the world and in Africa
Historically, the so-called military-industrial complex – military contractors and lobbyists said to be perpetuating conflict – consolidated in the late 20th century in the United States (US) and the West more generally. It has since supplied arms the world over, legally and illegally.
In 1961 US president Dwight Eisenhower warned of the increasing power of the military-industrial complex and said that it was escaping the government and the public’s control. Since then Russia, China and other smaller countries have joined the list of advanced arms producers.
It is evident that the weapons industry is big business. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global military expenditure in 2018 was estimated at US$1 822 billion, with the US accounting for 60% (US$649 billion) of this, followed by China, Saudi Arabia, India and France. Military expenditure in Africa stood at around US$40.2 billion in 2018, with North Africa spending US$22.2 billion and sub-Saharan Africa US$18.8 billion.
These figures – and the number of arms in circulation on the continent – may be grossly understated, given the prominence of arms trafficking in Africa, which also feeds global and regional criminal networks. This spending on arms, the full extent of which is unknown, contrasts with the persistent poverty in and fragility of many countries on the continent, coupled with expanding human security challenges.
Compounding this is the fact that the military is at the heart of the conception of the modern state. This is why the practice globally has been to ensure that the military is placed under civilian control. However, in Africa power is often deeply entrenched in the military or the military is the most dominant – if not the sole viable – political actor. In some countries it can be argued that the military is a state within the state.
This is exacerbated by the dominant ‘securitism’ paradigm, which approaches security from a purely militaristic or police perspective, leading to ill-adapted responses to Africa’s main challenges.
Africa’s arms and (in)security landscape
From 2014–2018 the top arms suppliers to the continent included Russia, China, Ukraine, Germany and France, while the biggest recipients/buyers of arms in Africa were Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, according to the SIPRI study.
While most of the weapons in Africa are imported, 22 African countries manufacture different kinds of small arms and light weapons (SALW). These include some current members of the Peace and Security Council, namely Algeria, Angola, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Artisanal production of arms is also prevalent on the continent, with those weapons reported to fuel criminality in many countries.
The proliferation of SALW is an important contributing factor to conflict in Africa. An Oxfam study shows that there is an estimated 100 million uncontrolled SALW in circulation on the continent, mainly concentrated in crisis and fragile areas, fuelling conflict and causing countries to remain trapped in a cycle of armed violence.
Meanwhile, the manufacturing of military equipment in Africa is not always done by local companies. Examples include South African companies manufacturing arms in Kenya, a Russian company in Egypt, and a German and an Emirati (UAE) company in Algeria.
Lack of oversight
The question of oversight and transparency in the management of armed and security forces also arises. This includes, for example, strategic decisions on the merits of what appears to be the continuous and never-ending purchase of armaments or the often-disproportionate budgets allocated to the defence sector in several African countries .
Linked to that is the question of the management of national arms stocks, which run the risk of being diverted and ending up in the hands of armed groups or bandits. Armed groups and criminals already benefit from arms trafficking, and at times from the misplacement of peacekeeping missions’ arms stocks. The other category of actor escaping public oversight is foreign military bases and soldiers on the continent. Their presence and the nature of their activities (including the kind and amount of equipment they have) are difficult to track.
Disappointingly, oftentimes security sector reform (SSR) policies aimed at democratising security institutions are poorly implemented, if at all, and fail to address the issue of security sector oversight.
The lack of democratic oversight of the security sector is intrinsically linked to the general lack of transparent governance in many countries, especially in situations where the military has been central to state formation. State institutions that are meant to take up this task, such as national parliaments, tend to play a mere rubber-stamping role to decisions made by the executive branch.
All of the above explains, in large part, the strong reactions observed on the continent at the sight of African officials admiring Russian arms in Sochi. The fact is that the continent is facing enormous socio-economic challenges that the procurement of more arms will not resolve.
Need for continental action
It is far easier for Africa to manage the legal purchase of arms than their illegal trafficking and flows on the continent, which is much harder to curtail. African countries can manage the purchase of legal SALW without compromising their national military security priorities. This begins with assessing the actual need for additional purchases, which obviously entails democratising the management of security institutions.
It is also necessary to reflect on the scrutiny and transparency of activities conducted by foreign military bases and soldiers operating on the continent.
Finally, along with properly implementing SSR policies and democratic oversight of the security sector, Africa could increasingly benefit from a continental moratorium similar to the ECOWAS Moratorium on the Importation, Exportation and Manufacture of Light Weapons. This could serve as a model for similar initiatives on a continental level.