10 things you need to know about arms sales to Africa - and why Algeria and Uganda are big buyers

The battlefield losses by Boko Haram are not by chance, new data on the global weapons trade shows.

IN September 2014 South African authorities seized $9.3 million stashed in three suitcases on a private Nigerian jet, sparking a fallout between the two countries, which have in recent years maintained an uneasy relationship.

Nigerian authorities said the cash, all in $100 bills, was meant for legitimate arms purchases, as it sought to turn the tide following criticism over its fumbled handling of the Boko Haram insurgency.

The militants have been active since 2009, but it is only in recent weeks that a regional multinational force has gained an undisputed battlefield advantage over the group, which is blamed for nearly 15,000 deaths mainly in north-eastern Nigeria.

Those gains are not by chance—Nigeria and Cameroon have in recent months been recipients of several arms deliveries, new data on international arms transfers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows.

In an interview last week, president Goodluck Jonathan blamed the military’s inability to put down the rebellion previously to a lack of weapons and resources, which have now come through.  

It is in keeping with global trends showing an upward swing in arms exports, with the volumes in 2010-2014 some 16% higher than in the preceding five years. The US, Russia, China, Germany and France are the five biggest exporters, while India, Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE and Pakistan took most deliveries globally.

We looked at the arms transfer sales  data on Africa, ahead of the release of military expenditure figures by the Sweden-based research institution next month. 

1: Africa received 9% of all global arms deliveries between 2010-14, the least of all the regions, but still a 45% increase over 2005-2009. SIPRI uses a five-year moving average due to yearly fluctuations in arms sales numbers. 

2: States in sub-Saharan Africa received 42% of all imports into the continent, led by rivals Sudan and Uganda as the largest importers, at 15% and 14% of the subregional total respectively. Sudan is battling rebels internally, while Uganda has in recent years assumed the role of regional policeman, seen in intervention in countries such as South Sudan, DR Congo (with disastrous consequences), Central African Republic, and its on-going participation in peacekeeping operations such as in Somalia.

3: Despite these figures, understanding the impact of arms sales to Africa can be a bit like groping in the dark. In many cases they fuel conflict, in others they are used legitimately for defence or peacekeeping operations. These grey areas are why it is so difficult to get accurate data on the continent—while countries in the region regularly express support for conventional arms control initiatives, their low level of participation in the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA)—the key intergovernmental reporting instrument on conventional arms—casts doubts on their willingness to actively control arms. Just seven African countries  have ratified the Arms Trade Treaty which came into force in December for example.

4: With China, the US and Russia among the biggest suppliers to Africa, their motives are diverse—from direct financial gain to “strengthening strengthening political influence in sub-Saharan Africa in order to gain access to natural resources and to further the security interest of the supplier,” SIPRI notes in a policy  paper on the region. The outcome is a different interpretation of rules such as UN embargoes, more often not contributing to conflict in the region.

5: The three largest importers in the continent 2010-14 were Algeria which is in conflict with rebel groups and which took 30% of imports into the region, Morocco (26%) and Sudan, which took stock of 6% of arms. 

6: The US restarted deliveries to Egypt in 2014, which it had restrained following the military coup in the country in 2013. SIPRI says the most notable delivery was for 10 combat helicopters, considered key in Egypt’s military campaign against Sinai rebels.

7: Neighbours Morocco and Algeria appear to be involved in an arms race of sorts—the latter increased deliveries by 3% between 2005-09 and 2010-14, buying its stock from Italy, Russia and China. Morocco saw imports increased elevenfold over the same period. Algiers appears to have the last laugh—it has a raft of outstanding orders, unlike its rival.

8: Several suppliers sent weapons to Nigeria and Cameroon to fulfill their urgent need for equipment to fight militant group Boko Haram, widely blamed for the terrorists’ longevity, despite the former spending twice as much on defence as on education. Both countries last year ordered and received choppers from China and Russia, and armoured vehicles from China, South Africa, Ukraine and Czech Republic.

9: African independent companies have also taken advantage of the war against the Islamic State. Ivor Ichikowitz, the founder of Africa’s biggest privately owned arms company Paramount Group, recently won an order to sell 50 armoured vehicles worth more than $1 million each to Jordan. He expects more business to follow with Middle Eastern governments looking to bolster their defences.

10: Despite this, no African company features among SIPRI’s list (pdf) of the world’s 100 largest arms-producing and military services companies, which in 2013 saw combined sales of $402 billion—or a fifth of Africa’s GDP. Two thirds of the firms are headquartered either in the US or Western Europe. The last entry on the list made $770 million in sales in that year.

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