Update: This article was just picked up and republished by A Peace of Conflict. You can find the (largely identical version) here, but be sure to check out the excellent “this week in conflict” reports on their page as well!
SIPRI just published a new report on arms deals and weapons flows in sub-saharan Africa (SSA). The report offers little news for those who are familiar with the weapons market in SSA, but this actually makes it only more important. I don’t want to summarize the whole report here (it has a good two page summary included), but discuss some issues in more detail that I think are crucial to the arms transfers debate in Africa.
Transparency of arms transfers
This is a main point of the report and with good reason. The SIPRI is considered the best source on arms transfers and deals which is accessible to the public, but even they can only estimate the amount and types of weapons which flow into SSA each year. The reason for this is simple: neither the delivering countries, nor the recipients have a great interest in making their transfers public.
While the report stresses that some arms transfers are legitimate and actually have the potential to improve the security situation, I think it is safe to say that most arms flows in SSA are ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. The report confirms that it is common for African countries to meddle in each others affairs by delivering arms to the government or rebel groups. Western and Eastern nations frequently use preferential arms deals as a means to gain political favors. And while the total value of the African arms market is little (only 1.5% of the global market), it remains a lucrative business to deliver arms to those places where they are actually used: the 20 or so African states that experienced conflict over the last five years.
The lack of information about arms transfers is also contributing to a lack of knowledge on how exactly fresh arms influence security in volatile regions. This makes targeted political actions close to impossible, if one tries to influence conflicts through providing or limiting arms supply. So from a policy perspective, the most important step would be to have the principle exporters (China, Russia and Ukraine) and ideally the African states sign up to a weapons transfer database. But as even the EU has difficulties providing timely data on arms deals, I have little hope that we will see progress in this quarter soon.
Effectiveness of arms control regimes
Sometimes, the UN security council actually gets its act together and issues an arms embargo against a state or individuals. This is great in theory, but these embargoes (and other arms control regimes) are often beset with so many problems, that one has to ask oneself if they are worth the paper they are written on.
Take the arms embargo against the region of Darfur for example. The SIPRI report details that it had little practical effect, as the government in Khartoum was still allowed to receive arms transfers as long as it guaranteed the sender that these arms would not be used in Darfur. I imagine this looks something like this:
Chinese/Russian/Ukrainian arms dealer: Thanks very much for your order Mr. Bashir. We will be happy to provide you with the AK-74s/MIG bombers/tanks you requested. Just one last formality; We will need some form of guarantee that you won’t be using these weapons in Darfur.
Mr. Bashir: Oh no problem. I’ll give you my word that we will only use these shiny new killing machines when parading around in our baracks and in case Egypt tries to invade us!
Arms dealer: Great! That’s settled then.
The deadliest of all good-will gifts
While a huge motivation for arms transfers is still monetary gain, the SIPRI report also points out to the frequent practice of using preferential arms deals as political gifts. This is common for the main arms exporters (think China’s interest in Sudanese oil) as well as for African states (who frequently support one party of a conflict for ideological/political reasons).
Western powers are not above using arms as a political tool as well. This is showcased by the recent support of the (former) rebels in Libya (though not SSA), as well as by the acceptance of western allies Ethiopia and Kenya arming militias in Somalia in their fight against islamists.
This aspect is probably one of the most worrying issues. The current situation in Syria shows that political patronage (in this case by Russia) can have disastrous effects on the possibility to resolve conflicts. African countries are no strangers to political maneuvering by foreign powers and African elites have repeatedly shown that staying in power through the use of guns is an option they will gladly consider, if it is made available to them.
Especially when it comes to small arms and light weapons (SALW, like AK-74s), decades-old thinking needs to be revised. We finally need a political push – probably on UN level – for a comprehensive treaty on transparency in arms transfers. This would be the first step towards more effective arms control regimes, which could reign in the use of weapons as political gifts.
For this to succeed, western nations would have to push this topic onto the international agenda. It remains to be seen if the recent experiences of the Arab Spring (where western sourced weapons were used to fire on peaceful demonstrators) provide sufficient reason for policy makers to rethink stance on arms exports. Only if the West manages to agree on ethical standarts and tight control of their arms exports, getting others to sign up to such rules will be realistic. For Africa, it would be a good development.
For those of you who want to dive deeper into the details of arms deals in Africa, you can find the main report here and various other reports, detailing the role of South Africa, Ukraine, Israel, Somalia and Zimbabwe here. If you can read German, you can find an interesting article on the German weapons company Heckler&Koch and its shady business here.