It’s a Good Time to Be a Dictator Again

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There was a brief period of time when it looked like openly fraternizing with authoritarian rulers might go out of style, especially in Africa.

The Cold War’s end suddenly obviated the West’s need to prop up local allies — and Russia simply didn’t have the means anymore to do the same thing. The brutal civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s brought the deadly consequences of dictatorship to the fore, and a new crop of African rulers promised to usher in multi-party democracy.

In stark contrast to the situation in the Middle East, most African countries weren’t strategically significant. To top it all off, the Arab Spring discredited Western foreign policy in North Africa — specifically, the hemisphere’s dealings with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Western governments promised to have seen the error of their ways and solemnly swore to really push for democracy in Africa, and without foul compromises this time around.

Well, those feelings were short-lived. With right-wing populists breathing down the necks of European governments due to the migrant crisis and defense companies in dire need of sales after the financial crisis massacred Western defense budgets, any autocrat who has something to offer is back in the game.

Read the rest on War is Boring!

Ethiopia’s Authoritarian Regime Cracks Down, Kills Dozens of Protesters – The government heavily restricts dissent in what’s effectively a one-party state

Ethiopian security forces killed more than 80 people during a month of protests against an ambitious urban development plan, according to representatives of the Oromo ethnic group which led the protests. Both the demonstrations and government violence reflect the increasingly authoritarian relationship between the Ethiopian state, a key U.S. military ally, and its population.

Beginning in mid-November, Oromo youths and farmers began protesting government plans to extend the urban development of the capital, Addis Ababa, into the surrounding Oromia federal region. …

Read more on War is Boring.

Return to the Source #1 – The first Edition

This is the transcription of the first edition of Return to the Source, my new podcast on excellent writing about Africa. You can of course also listen to it, or subscribe to it in your podcast app of choice!

Hello and welcome to the first edition of the “Return to the Source” podcast. My name is Peter Dörrie, I’m a freelance journalist focused on security and resource politics on the African continent and I will host this show on a weekly basis.
There is a ton of excellent writing about Africa, but too often, it drowns in a sea of mainstream mediocracy. The goal of this podcast will be to highlight outstanding pieces of analysis, interesting op-eds, documentaries and important historical writings about politics, society and culture across Africa. Each show will feature and discuss two to three pieces, give you the gist of them, as well as discuss their context and provide additional information or another perspective, where I think it is needed.

So let’s get started! This week I’ll be covering three excellent pieces about the looming commodity debt crisis in Africa, the recent elections in Ethiopia and Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s attempts to change the constitution in Congo-Brazzaville.
I’ll start of with an interesting piece published by Quartz titled “It’s time to treat commodity-backed loans to African countries the same way we treat equity”. The author, Grieve Chelwa – I should apologize in advance for probably butchering every last name from now on – is an economics PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.

In this piece he makes the interesting observation that some African countries are facing a new debt crisis, largely because of their reliance on commodity backed loans.

“The writing off of debt under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) and Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) initiatives in the last decade,” Chelwa writes, “which improved the financial standing of most countries, has ironically led to an accumulation of new debt, this time from private creditors. […] By 2013, the cumulative total of sovereign bonds issued on the continent had grown to at least $10 billion. [And] much of the dollar denominated credit to African governments is implicitly backed by commodities, a straight forward consequence of the continent’s reliance on primary commodity exports.”

Unfortunately for Africa’s resource rich governments, commodity prices and especially the oil price have slumped in recent months. Chad, Zambia and other countries which had based their repayment schedules on more optimistic price forecasts are now forced to seek rescheduling of debts. If the lenders are uncooperative, Chelwa notes, this might lead to severe social spending cuts. He cites a study that finds that “the share of the national budget allocated to education and health can decline by as much as one-third in response to an increase in the debt burden.”

But Chelwa also has a solution up his sleeve: “One option,” he writes, “would be to structure the contracts so that they are more like equity.” In that case, lenders would share the risk of depressed commodity prices because the principal of a loan would be adjusted accordingly. In return, investors would also receive a higher payout in case prices rise.

Chelwa hopes that the increased risk would let lenders pick their investments more carefully and force them to monitor the behaviour of the government. And social spending would be under a lesser threat of budgetary cuts.

I think that not only the looming African debt crisis Chelwa describes, but also the example of Greece are perfect examples for the need of greater risk sharing in the case of government debt. Private lenders currently have little to fear, because states essentially can’t go bankrupt – in the worst case the IMF steps in and the population has to carry the weight of the budgetary spending cuts that come as a condition for receiving international bailouts.

Another option I would add to Chelwa’s suggestion, though, is that African countries themselves take measures to better manage their commodity incomes. In my opinion, too much is currently used for consumption and purposes like backing foreign loans. Instead, governments should commit to use a sizeable share of their commodity revenue to invest themselves, ideally in their domestic economy. That would certainly delay some of the benefits of commodity incomes, after all you could only spend money you have already made, in contrast to loans which are taken against expected future production. But this would be a much more sustainable way to go about it.

If you are interested in this kind of discussion, be sure to read the article in its entirety. The author has included a ton of interesting links and – as per usual for Quartz – there are some interesting graphics. Grieve Chelwa also has an interesting looking twitter feed. You can find him at @gchelwa, that is g c h e l w a.

So let’s go to the second piece for this week. This one is by one of my favourite authors on African Affairs, South African journalist Simon Allison. Simon is the Daily Maverick’s Africa correspondent and his piece is titled “As Ethiopia votes, human rights are not the real story.”

This is more of an opinion piece in my mind, but Simon makes some good points which will be a bit controversial. The article was published before the results of Ethiopia’s parliamentary election were in, but he rightly predicted the sweeping victory of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front: it has won all of the 442 seats that have been declared so far and looks set to win most of the 105 which will be counted until the final results are announced on June 22.

If the EPRDF will beat its 2010 margin of victory of astonishing 99.6 per cent is unclear, but irrelevant – Ethiopia will remain a de facto one party state.
Ethiopia’s regime has a less than stellar human rights track record and its overwhelming electoral victory is largely based on intimidation and oppression of the opposition. But, and this is Simon Allison’s main point, this is not the story we should focus on. He chastises NGO’s like the Freedom house for quote “missing the point”, when they criticize the Ethiopian government.

“No matter what their political dispensation,” Allison writes, “there are few governments in Africa with a shining human rights record, and Ethiopia is certainly not amongst them. However, there are even fewer who are delivering widespread and sustainable development to their people – and in this category, Ethiopia leads the pack. This is the real story.”

He goes on to applaud the Ethiopian government for its good use of aid money, the economic growth and reduction of poverty it has fostered in recent years. And he points out that this development is build on the foundation of a unique model, an ideology of development that has for a change not be derived from quote “the standard western approach [that] has usually failed to deliver.”

And I agree, this is the most fascinating and interesting aspect of Ethiopia’s younger history. After the civil war, the country’s leadership under the late Meles Zenawi developed a self confident vision in a way that few other African countries have managed. Ethiopia has chosen the quote “other option”, its own model for development and has fared well with it. Other African countries and the international community should definitely take note.

But I disagree with Simon when it comes to the other part of his argument that we should not focus on the faults of the system. First of all, I doubt that any self-respecting NGO would not at least mention Ethiopia’s successes when criticizing the government for human rights abuses. And indeed, the Freedom House op-ed that Allison cites so disapprovingly notes many of the same success stories that Allison himself does.

But more importantly, I think that the “Ethiopian model”, let’s call it that, of an autocratic government focused on delivering economic growth and fighting poverty while securing the political status quo can still be perfected. Allison rightly notes that democracy is not automatically followed by prosperity. But an autocracy or benevolent dictatorship is also no guarantee for success. Why not make the third option, broad poverty reduction and simultaneous respect for basic human rights and a participatory government the “African model”?

Nonetheless, Allison’s essay is an interesting read and it makes some important points. You should definitely check it out, just as his other stuff. You can also find him on Twitter at @simonallison. The links to all the articles and the authors will of course also be in the show notes, which you can find in the app that you are using to listen to this podcast, or on the website return to the source dot co.

Now, let’s turn to the last article I want to highlight this week. Like in the case of Simon Allison, I’ve known the author of this one for some time, it’s the great Kamissa Camara. In her day job she is the senior programme officer for west and central Africa at the U.S. organization National Endowment for Democracy, but she regularly publishes articles in her own capacity.

This one was commissioned by the Good Governance Africa initiative and I should note that I have myself an upcoming article with them, so stay tuned for that. But Kamissa’s piece is called “Kaka Nguesso”, lingala for “Nguesso one more time,” as she explains later in the article.

I’ve chosen the article primarily because I find it to be an excellent and timely companion to current events in Burundi. I don’t want to imply that Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville have a lot in common, but the basic issue in both countries is the same: the strong man in power wants to stay in power and is or may be happy to game the constitution to reach his goal.

Changing the constitution to allow additional terms is all the rage among Africa’s self-assumed presidents for life at the moment, but the case of Nguesso is especially interesting for a few reasons, as Kamissa points out.

First of all, there is the usual two term limit and also an age limit of 70 for presidential candidates in the 2002 constitution. Nguesso, says Kamara, would be ineligible on both counts.

But the constitution also has article 185, which quote “prohibits revising the restrictions on presidential terms. The only way to remove the term limits is to scrap the constitution entirely.” end quote.

This would be a much more substantial and surely more divisive project than what other presidents have attempted, more or less successfully, in either changing individual articles or just exploiting apparent loopholes in their constitutions. And it will require Nguesso to take a clear stand on the question rather soon, because presidential elections are scheduled for July 2016. Of course he could choose to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Kabila of neighbouring Congo-Kinshasa and play for time, trying to find reasons to postpone the elections and thereby remain in power without a clear mandate.

This is an excellent article on a country that receives little attention in the media normally, so be sure to check it out. If only to be prepared when something like in Burundi goes down.

That’s it for this week’s “Return to the Source”. If you liked what you heard, please share this podcast with your colleagues and friends.

As I’ve mentioned you can find the shownotes with the links to all the pieces I’ve covered in your podcast app of choice, or on the website: return to the source dot co. You can find me on Twitter at @peterdoerrie, that is spelled p e t e r d o e r r i e and you can send me suggestions and feedback there or via email to peter.doerrie@gmail.com.

I hope you tune in next week as well, when I return with a new collection of outstanding writing about Africa. Thanks and Goodbye.

Ethiopia’s election is coming up

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And Africa is a Country gives a good roundup of the issues at stake:

This year’s election comes at a crucial juncture for the Horn of Africa nation of 94 million people. Touting the country’s improved economic fortunes, the ruling party is all but certain to continue with its “winning” streak. To the party’s credit, once a country with extreme famine, poverty and underdevelopment and a subject of Bob Geldof’s live-aid concerts, under EPRDF’s rule Ethiopia has seen relative economic gains and improved access to basic education and basic health care in rural areas.

[…]

This is however an incomplete, not to mention a clichéd, picture of Ethiopia. Even if one acknowledges modest economic gains, the beneficiaries have not crossed the narrow circle of the well-connected upper business class and associates of the ruling party. Beneath the headlines about massive investment in infrastructure and mega hydroelectric dams financed by the government and rosy forecasts by multinational financial institutions lies a burgeoning and increasingly repressive police state.

That’s not all. Unemployment among urban youth hovers above 50 percent. In a country where 60 percent of the population is aged 30 and below, it is no wonder that the regime is intolerant of any form of dissent, imprisoning journalists and bloggers, including for comments on social media. One of the top ten worst jailers of journalists in the world, along with China, Iran and North Korea, Ethiopia has locked up, forced into exile, or cowed nearly all of the country’s independent journalists into silence using a sweeping anti-terrorism law widely being used to muzzle the press.

Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating countries on the continent. I have no doubt that the ruling party will dominate the elections. The question is not if, but how and under what circumstances the EPRDF wins.

Source: What’s at stake when Ethiopians vote next month? | Africa is a Country

Brookings on the limits of the new “Nile Agreement”

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Nice recap of the issues at hand.

The Khartoum declaration, which was signed by the heads of state of the three countries—Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), and Halemariam Desalegn (Ethiopia), has been referred to  as a “Nile Agreement,” and one that helps resolve conflicts over the sharing of the waters of the Nile River. However, this view is misleading because the agreement, as far we know, only deals with the Blue Nile’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERDP) and does not tackle the broader, still contentious issues of sharing of the Nile River waters among all riparian states. Thus, the new agreement does leave the conflict over the equitable, fair, and reasonable allocation and utilization of the waters of the Nile River unresolved.

[…]

Over the years, especially as the populations of the other countries of the Nile River Basin have increased, and these countries have developed the capacity to more effectively harvest the waters of the Nile River for national development, disagreements have arisen over the fact that Egypt has insisted that the water rights it acquired through the 1929 and 1959 agreements (collectively referred to as the Nile Waters Agreements) be honored and that no construction project be undertaken on the Nile River or any of its tributaries without prior approval from Cairo. In fact, various Egyptian leaders have threatened to go to war to protect these so-called “acquired rights.” Upstream riparian states such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia, have argued that they are not bound by these agreements because they were never parties to them.

The spectre of a “water war” is regularly bandied around the international media, but the possibility of it happening are actually really slim, both for military and political reasons. That is not to say that the issue of the Nile is not taken dead seriously by countries like Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. With all of the riparian states still in their economic infancy, this will remain a hot button issue for some time to come.

Source: The limits of the new “Nile Agreement” | Brookings Institution

Rich Links: Gas Revenues in Tanzania

  • “With the gas industry expected to be the largest player in Tanzania’s economy, the Tanzanian government could face substantial losses if they do not act to curb bad policies and practices.  Here are three major issues Tanzania needs to tackle in order to ensure they capitalize on upcoming gas revenues:”

  • “Mining prospectors will be able to apply for licences online and get feedback within 90 days, according to new amendments to the Mining Bill.”

  • “By the evidence of South Sudan’s budget, presented to parliament in late June, the country’s finance ministry has lost its mind.”

  • The Norwegian Ambassador to Ghana, Mrs. Hege Hertzberg, has urged the Ghana government to use the oil resource to transform the country’s economy from import dependent, to become a leading exporter on the African continent.

  • “Built by a consortium led by British company Globeleq, the 138 megawatt (MW) wind farm is one of Africa’s biggest – larger than the 120 MW Ashegoda windfarm that was unveiled by Ethiopia in October 2013, though not as big as the Tarfaya wind farm in south-western Morocco, which started producing energy in April and will eventually generate up to 300 MW of electricity.”

  • “Some neighbouring countries are less upbeat about the project. Citing two treaties, dating from 1929 and 1959, Egypt claims a historic right over the Nile. It fears that the dam will restrict the flow of water. […] “These treaties are now obsolete. We are entitled to build the dam,” says Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopia’s minister of water, energy and irrigation. “For a long time we derived no benefit from our river.”

  • “Unfortunately, Tullow could not repeat its African success story in Ethiopia. […] Sources told The Reporter that executives of Tullow decided to suspend drilling operation in Ethiopia. “They will pull out their drilling crew out of Ethiopia. They will take out their core staff to other projects in other countries and lay off the rest of the staff in their Ethiopia office.”

  • “Zimbabwe’s cotton industry will remain under pressure as international lint prices continue to wane with China’s imports expected to decline in the 2014/2015 season as the Asian nation shifts to domestic cotton for national reserves.”

  • “The duration of license now depends on the size and nature of mineral deposits, as well as the size of investment to be injected in a concession. This will be shown through a feasibility study conducted by the investor.”

Ethiopia’s bid to become a renewable energy powerhouse

Ethiopia is set to become Africa’s main producer of renewable energy, betting that its vast hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind power generating potential will not only allow it to become energy self-sufficient, but also export substantial amounts of electricity to its power-hungry neighbours.

In many ways, renewable energy is one of Ethiopia’s most important strategic assets and essential for the government’s internal and regional politics. Ethiopia has only very limited traditional energy sources available and now imports most of its fuels via the seaport of Djibouti. This is expensive and creates political dependencies, which the regime despises.

It also limits economic development, with energy prices higher than they need to be. Especially the establishment of a sizeable manufacturing industry (with shoe production showing a lot of promise in this particular case) relies on the availability of cheap and reliable electricity. To that end, the Ethiopian government has grand plans:

Africa’s second most populous country – plagued by frequent blackouts – plans to boost generating capacity from 2,000 MW to 10,000 MW within the next three to five years. – Al Jazeera

Centrepiece of this strategy is the Renaissance Dam, a massive project on the Blue Nile close to the Sudanese border, which will provide a massive 6,000 MW once finished. In terms of electricity generating capacity, the Renaissance Dam will be the largest on the continent and rank among the top 15 worldwide. But this is by far not the end of the story:

Experts put Ethiopia’s hydropower potential at around 45,000 MW and geothermal at 5,000 MW, while its wind power potential is believed to be Africa’s third-largest behind Egypt and Morocco. – Al Jazeera

Recently, the Ethiopian government announced plans to develop a 1,000 MW geothermal plant in the country’s south and it just inaugurated the continent’s largest wind farm, with 84 turbines churning out 120 MW.

At home, these ambitious plans will increase service delivery to Ethiopian communities and create much-needed jobs. This is important for the government, because given its authoritarian style and allegations of ethnic monopolization of high offices and the army by members of the Tigray ethnic group, the government needs to provide results to limit discontent. Also, energy independence will remove possible leverage from other powers who may want to limit Ethiopia’s ambition as a regional and continental power.

Externally, transforming itself from an importer of fossil fuels to the region’s powerhouse could prove to be pivotal for the governments regional ambitions. Already, the promise of access to Ethiopian electricity has helped to forge an East African coalition against Egypt’s claim over the sole right to decide over the partition of the Nile’s water. The Ethiopian government knows that electricity (or the lack thereof) is one of the most potent political leverage in Africa. Providing substantial amounts of electricity to e.g. Kenya or the relatively young nation of South Sudan would make Ethiopia instantly a partner to be respected and potentially feared as well.

Overall, Ethiopia’s renewable energy strategy shows that this type of energy production has firmly entered the domain of power politics traditionally reserved for oil and gas. Governments, donors, NGO’s and the civil society around the world will need to take note.

Rich Links: Nile politics and geothermal power

Some reading material for the weekend:

Egypt is the looser of a new era of Nile politics

Amid internal commotion and regional power shifts, Egypt’s historical dominance over the politics of the Nile catchment area has diminished. New King of the hill is Ethiopia, which has secured an alliance of upstream countries against the ‘colonial era’ treaties that govern the Nile’s waters. Monde Diplomatique

Exploitation of Western Sahara’s resources

The value of its resources are one of the main reasons for Morocco’s continued occupation of Western Sahara. The main piece of the puzzle is phosphate, with Western Sahara being the world’s largest producer of this essential mineral. Think Africa Press

Ethiopia’s geothermal plans

The East African country plans to become the major power exporter in the region, with work starting on a 1 GW geothermal plant, to the first stage of 20 MW going online in 2015. This in addition to the 6 GW Renaissance hydroelectric dam on the Nile river, which will also be finished around that date. Jeune Afrique (French)

Congo basin states sign agreement to protect timber

Six Central and West African states have signed the Brazzaville Declaration, a legally not binding agreement to take concerted action against illegal logging and smuggling of timber. Logging is one of the main economic activities in the Congo basin (the second largest rainforest system in the world) and illegal activities deprive the states of substantial income. Voice of America

Other stuff

  • The U.S. has expressed interest in taking part in the Congolese Inga 3 hydroelectric project on the Congo river: Jeune Afrique (French)
  • Nigeria has launched the Nigerian Geological Service Agency to further the diversification of its resource industry: African Mining Brief
  • Kenya will start giving out new mining licences in November: African Mining Brief
  • Decreased rainfall has led to a higher risk of conflicts over access to water in Tanzania: afrika.info (German)
  • Angola and the Congo (DR) are looking to extend the railway network between the two countries for the benefit of mineral exports: Jeune Afrique (French)

World Politics Review: In Ethiopia, Post-Zenawi Void Could Create Opening for Reform

My latest piece over at World Politics Review on the continuing absence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:

For 20 years, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been the undisputed ruler of Ethiopia. Zenawi was the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which in concert with its sister rebel group from Eritrea toppled the Moscow-aligned dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. He led his country in the 1998-2000 war against his former Eritrean allies and oversaw multiple Ethiopian military interventions into neighboring Somalia. An active and outspoken leader, Zenawi is also credited with a pragmatic approach to economic development despite his Marxist roots, resulting in an average of 9 percent GDP growth over the past 10 years.

Now the strong man of the Horn of Africa has disappeared — literally: For almost two months, Zenawi has not appeared in public. Nor has he given any interviews and or any other indication that he is still alive, despite a high-profile summit of the African Union currently taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has confirmed that medical issues are the reason for Zenawi’s “leave of absence,” but insists that he is recovering well and will resume working in September. But even if he does, Zenawi’s absence is a useful reminder for the governments of Ethiopia’s neighbors and its Western allies that, for the first time in two decades, they would do well to think about a post-Zenawi Ethiopia. […]

Read the rest on World Politics Review!

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.