War is Boring: Africa Roundup (Congo, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau)

Fighters of the MNLA in Mali. Photo via Maghrebia on Flickr.

The latest installment of my regular Africa conflict roundup for warisboring.com

Congo

A large-scale mutiny-come-rebellion rocks the eastern part of the Democratic Replublic of Congo since Easter. Never the most peaceful of places, the situation in the Kivu provinces bordering Rwanda escalated, when army general Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda decided to defect from his position.

Ntaganda is searched for by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity. (The ICC recently sentenced Ntaganda’s former superior Thomas Lubanga in a related case.) A military commander of a powerful rebel group, the CNDP, Ntaganda protected himself from prosecution by leading an internal coup against CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and bringing the CNDP into the fold of the government. This deal — in which Rwanda played an important part — gave Ntaganda the highest army command in the Kivus and didn’t touch the CNDP structures, which persisted in parrallel to the normal chain of command. […]

Read more on the current situation in the DR Congo, Mali, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau here.

ThinkBrigade: Hunger, rebellion, coup: Mali’s crisis has its history

I’m part of the new project ThinkBrigade, which brings together reporters and citizen journalists from around the world to experiment with new forms of collaborative and interactive journalism. This is my first piece for the project, but others will follow:

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, about two times the size of France. It is dominated by vast expanses of sparsely inhabited desert and the fertile surroundings of the Niger river. In historical times, the area was home to powerful empires and the ancient city of Timbuktu, with its architectural wonders, still tells of this era.

Mali is again in the news these days, but not favourably. There are no stories about enthusiastic tourists or cultural richness. Instead, Mali currently lives through a triple crisis: After a devastating drought,potentially millions of people face a hunger crisis. At the same time, a rebellion led by Tuareg fighters has engulfed the North of the country. And if this wouldn’t be enough, a coup d’état has brought a military junta into power in the capital and resulted in harsh sanctions by neighboring states. […]

Read the rest on ThinkBrigade!

Arms deals in Africa

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.

A Ugandan soldier trains with his foreign supplied assault rifle. Photo by Flickr user US Army Africa, CC-BY

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.

Conclusion

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.

Well done everybody! Al Shabaab is now part of al Qaida

Al Shabaab fighters. Photo by Christian Science Monitor.

So the Somali islamist movement al Shabaab has now sworn allegiance to al Qaida. Several officials in the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya and in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia will have silently thanked their deity at this news, as it makes it much easier to justify the ongoing invasion of Somalia and the frequent targeted assassinations against radicals on Somali soil.

But this view is short sighted. It disregards the direct responsibility of U.S. anti-terrorism strategy for the ever-increasing radicalisation of fighters in Somalia. In a way Somalia and al Shabaab is the best example how the mantra of a militarized anti-terrorism campaign has been successful at nothing, except at creating its own enemies.

It may be hard to remember (it happened over five years ago), but al Shabaab was once part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – it’s youth movement to be precise. While the ICU was certainly no progressive, freedom-loving organisation, it was the first institution to return something resembling order and a functioning (albeit archaic) legal framework to large parts of Somalia, after years of often chaotic inter-tribal and militia fighting.

This of course ended abruptly when Ethiopia decided to invade Somalia in 2006. The Ethiopian government was suspicious of the islamist rhetoric of the ICU and was supported in this stance by the U.S. government, who saw every “islamic” movement as a potential safe haven for al Qaida terrorists (no matter that at this point no evidence suggested a link between the two groups).

The ICU proved to be unable to resist the technologically advanced Ethiopian army. After suffering a series of defeats, the ICU officially switched sides and today its former leader, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, is the President of the TFG.

But the grievances that gave rise to the ICU did not go away when the Ethiopian army invaded. So the most hard-core part of the ICU – al Shabaab – decided to keep fighting, but with a change of tactics. Suicide bombings against Ethiopian and TFG troops became frequent. I spoke to many people on my recent visit to Ethiopia who said that in these times you could here the cries of mourning of family members every day, when they received the news of the death of their son, brother or husband via SMS (!) from the army.

The new way of fighting proved to be successful and in 2009, Ethiopian troops began to withdraw from Somalia without adequate alternative troops being in place. The result was simple: soon, al Shabaab was in possession of much of the territory of southern Somalia, exactly the area that was ruled by the ICU before the Ethiopian intervention. Of course the laws and regulations enforced by al Shabaab reflected their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and it is safe to say that many Somalis and also the neighboring states preferred the ICU in hindsight.

Not so the military strategists. They just saw al Shabaab as a new and even greater threat to “security and stability” and reacted in the usual way: targeted assassinations through U.S. drones, warplanes, special forces and even bombardment by U.S. Destroyers instead of negotiation.

This “strategy” culminated in 2011 with a renewed invasion of Somalia – this time Kenya made the start and Ethiopia joined after some deliberation (or persuasion by the U.S.?). History repeats itself as the troops of various African nations with U.S. support manage to use their technological superiority to achieve military victories (though so far this has not translated into territorial dominance yet).

With enough time, money and life spend, this campaign may defeat al Shabaab as we know it today. But it will not make anybody more “secure” – not the average Somali, nor Kenyans, Ethiopians or Westerners. Al Shabaab may cease to exist, but the proclaimed merger between the group and al Qaida points to the inevitable consequence: the most motivated and radical elements of al Shabaab will keep on fighting, one campaign richer in experience and many lost comrades less likely to ever consider a peaceful solution for their grievances.