Harandane Dicko

Africa: Arms Sales, Global Geopolitics and Security Threats

There is plenty going on in Africa these days, such as regime change and repression in Sudan; violence and internal instability in Ethiopia; a deadly outbreak of Ebola across the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond; never-ending violence in Somalia, just to name a few.

In this commentary, we will discuss some important developments that should be monitored more closely, particularly regarding weapons transfers and the Sahel region.

Africa’s major weapons importers

According to the most recent data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2009-13 and 2014-18, there was a decline in arms sales to Africa by a total of 6.5%. States in sub-Saharan Africa received 25% of the total arms shipments in the aforementioned timeframes, with the top five importers being Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Cameroon, and Senegal. Data from the Small Arms Survey shows that in 2015 other countries that received major arms shipments include Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, Namibia, and Uganda.

Weapons sales do not occur in a vacuum, hence it is necessary to take into account the security situation of these countries. For example, two countries (Nigeria and Cameroon) are facing insurgencies, one (Sudan) has just recently had a long-entrenched leader removed by a military faction, and a fourth (Angola) borders a country in perpetual crisis (the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Hence, we can expect these governments to increase the procurement of weaponry in the coming years in order to face ongoing security threats.

Russian weapons sales to Africa

Similarly interesting is to keep in mind is the origin of this military equipment. Data shows that countries that are facing attacks by insurgents, including jihadists, are purchasing large quantity of arms from the usual sources, namely China, France, Israel, Russia, and the U.S. For example, SIPRI explains that “Russia accounted for 28 percent of arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa in 2014-2018, China for 24 percent, Ukraine for 8.3 percent, the U.S. for 7.1 percent and France for 6.1 percent.”

This data becomes even more relevant when we take into consideration the growing role of Russia in Africa – for example in late June Moscow hosted a massive Russia-Africa economic conference. In other words, Russia, just like the two other global powers, is developing a strategy towards Africa and is seeking to expand its influence there, via diplomatic initiatives, trade, the presence of Russian private defense contractors, and weapons sales.

Other Emerging suppliers of weapons to Africa

Moreover, there are other players to keep in mind when we think about weapons transfers to Africa. For example, according to SIPRI, a main supplier of arms to Sudan, before the ouster of President Bashir, was Belarus.

Another country that has come under scrutiny recently over its arms sales to Africa is Brazil as the Super Tucano light aircraft is currently in use in Nigeria, Mali, and Mauritania in counterinsurgency operations. However, the scrutiny against the arms industry in general for some of the equipment that has been used in conflict zones such as Yemen may give a negative impression about Brazil as a whole as a potential provider of arms and equipment. Though, to be fair, the South American nation is also teaming up with South Africa to develop the A-Darter missile, a project that has not been as controversial as other deals and initiatives between Brasilia and its partners in Africa and the Arab world.

Africa is not a sole importer of weapons as it can also produce them, specifically South Africa. According to the most recent available data, the highest valued item currently being exported from South Africa are armored vehicles. Deliveries have been made to Egypt, Angola, Botswana, Mali, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zambia. A small number of grenade launchers were exported to Ghana during this reporting period as well.

U.S. military trainer in Niger. (Zayid Ballesteros/U.S. Africa Command)

To summarize, while the first section of this commentary highlighted the role of the global powers in Africa, and the return of the narrative of great power competition, it is important to keep in mind that when it comes to weapons sales to African states, there are several players, beyond the usual suspects, that are seeking to expand their influence and profit from weapons transfers.

Flashpoints in 2019

Let us start this section with the good news, as there is some room for optimism. Over the weekend of June 22nd, 2019 the electorate of Mauritania went to the polls to elect a new president. The previous incumbent is stepping down after two terms due to term limits under the constitution. The candidate from the ruling party, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, won, hence it seems likely, on the surface at least, no major changes may take place in the direction of the country as regional threats continue to evolve.

Nevertheless, there is an interesting dynamic that does not often get mentioned in the media: Mauritania was once a key provider of weapons to the Polisario during its conflict with Morocco. However, in late 2018 the country joined other regional partners to support peace talks under the mantra of the United Nations in an effort to end the fighting. It will be important to monitor potential developments in Western Sahara and its neighbors, including Mauritania under its new president, in the coming months.

Nevertheless, Chad remains a source of concern as it has suffered attacks from Boko Haram in recent months, and it has deployed troops into Mali to assist Operation Barkhane. Moreover, there is the Libya factor to keep in mind, namely the offensive by General Haftar as he attempts to take control of Tripoli and the rest of Libya. His forces have attacked Chadian opposition forces that were based in Southern Libya. Some elements actually tried to enter Chad earlier this year prompting responses not only by Haftar’s forces but also from France as well.

Moreover, Chad has security problems with another of its neighbors: Sudan. With the current political turmoil in Khartoum that shows no sign of abatement in the near future, there are plenty of reasons to keep a keen eye on the border with Darfur, which may prompt a response from N’Djamena.

Flashpoint: The Greater Sahel

Looking forward, one area that has morphed into a flashpoint for terrorist activity is the Sahel region; for example, Burkina Faso experienced a string of deadly attacks in April, in which more than 65 people lost their lives. As a consequence of these threats, the five nations from the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania — have created their own multinational force to deal with the rising attacks.

One additional objective of this partnership would be to create a common, united front when these governments request extra-regional assistance in certain capitals. The most senior diplomat from these countries may speak on behalf of all five nations under certain specific circumstances.

It has been argued that one of the root causes for the security situation in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin area is the collapse of Libya after the removal of Qadaffi. The argument goes as follows: whenever there is a spike in operations in Libya against the jihadists, there appears to be a concurrent rise in attacks in neighboring states. For example, the offensive by General Haftar this past spring against the UN-backed government in Tripoli appears to be a factor in the rising violence that is taking place in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Hence, as long as competing governments exist in Libya the security threats to the Sahel remain in place.

History is also important: the Algerian military infamously annulled the results of the 1992 presidential election, triggering a violent insurgency. One of the groups that emerged from that insurgency was the GPSC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). Over the last two decades, the group has grown in stature and changed its name to something that most everyone is aware of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb). In its two decades of existence, the group has moved its presence out of Algeria and nowadays, AQIM is one of the groups that is responsible for some of the activities in Mali and the other Sahelian states.

Moreover, recent analyses suggests that there could be a developing linkage between the security threats in both the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea regions. This linkage will provide an interesting security challenge not only to governments but also to military and intelligence professionals as they try to determine how serious this emerging threat really is. After the ambush of four members of U.S. Special Forces in Niger in 2017, the U.S. accomplished what turns out to be an interesting and strategically important move. As a consequence of the incident, the U.S. realized that it did not have an adequate footprint in Africa. Therefore a deal was signed with Ghana which would allow for the U.S. to not only train with the Ghanaian military but also grant access to the country’s communications and airfields. It appears that Ghana may be seeking improved communications equipment as well to coordinate not only with U.S. forces but potentially also with its neighbors.

There is another reason to be concerned. During a recent interview, the president of Togo told a reporter that jihadis were starting to cross the border from Burkina Faso and Mali into both Ghana and Togo. During the interview, it was revealed that the Togolese have placed a formal request with the British government to train Togolese forces to deal with this emerging threat. When pressed for comment on the success of French forces currently operating in the region, the president replied that he could not see that they are containing these terrorist groups because they now operate in Burkina Faso and also threaten Togo.

There is evidence that showcases the concerns mentioned by the Togolese president. Earlier this spring two French tourists and their guide were kidnapped in the Pendjari National Park in Benin. A multinational military operation was carried out to locate and find them, and “two French special forces officers were killed Friday in a military operation in the West African nation of Burkina Faso that freed four people from the United States, France, and South Korea who had been kidnapped,” the Voice of America explained. Hence, defense analysts should increase their attention to developments in this group of nations. The situation becomes even more problematic when we take into account that, over the last year, the aforementioned Benin and Togo have experienced demonstrations launched by local political opposition movements. Hence, we should be concerned that jihadist movements may be looking for an opportunity to spread their ideology among disenchanted masses.

The U.S. and France in the Sahel

The United States is linked with Sahel nations via the TSCTI (Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership). One of the hallmarks of this effort is Operation Flintlock which is an annual military exercise the U.S. conducts with its African partners. Another avenue for cooperation appeared in early 2019 when Washington reached a deal to accept Burkina Faso into the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. This is a program which pairs countries with U.S. National Guard units instead of front line combat units. This method is considered to be more cost-effective than having regular units conduct the training. Whether or not this program is expanded to the other states in the region is yet to be determined.

As for other military deployments, the United States also maintains a military presence, which includes unmanned aerial vehicles, in Niger. There are also small detachments of U.S. Special Forces in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. According to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, there were at least 1,000 troops in Nigeria, Niger, and Mali during his tenure in office. Nevertheless, there are concerns that the Trump administration may decide to reduce its presence in this region in order to divert troops elsewhere to deal with other emerging threats.

Moreover, as these states are also former French colonies, they have close ties with Paris as well. France commenced its military activities in the region via Operation Barkhane in 2014, and according to the BBC, there are approximately 4,500 French troops in the region, helping Sahel troops and the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Final Thoughts

Africa is a dynamic continent where, tragically, there is a long list of security threats that affect and torment local populations. For every positive story, such as Eritrea and Ethiopia improving bilateral ties, we hear about new security challenges, which are lately focused on the Sahel region (not that violence and the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is any less tragic). In this scenario, extra-regional actors, from the U.S. to China, to a former colonial power like France, continue to have an active presence in Africa. The Russian Federation is a relative newcomer to this region, the USSR’s ties with Africa during the Cold War notwithstanding. However, Moscow is making up lost ground by increasing weapons sales, deploying private defense companies and also organizing a major economic summit to promote trade and investment.

Out of this conglomerate of geopolitical and domestic factors, extra-regional actors and ongoing challenges, whether they be security-related or political, analysts should pay particular attention to the Sahel region, particularly Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, as these governments are bearing the brunt of the consequences of instability in Libya and elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.