What is Behind Africa’s Illegal Gun-Running?

By: Gary K. Busch, Ph.D

Many international arms dealers are operating from Africa. How and why?

Arms dealer Viktor Bout was sentenced to 25 years by a US federal court earlier this April.

Widely known as the ‘merchant of death’, the 45-year-old Russian has delivered weapons and arms to a wide range of presidents, insurgents and rebels in Africa and the Middle East including the likes of Charles Taylor in Liberia and Jonas Savimbi in Angola. He was caught in a US sting in which his services were solicited for the supply of weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels.

His companies have also in the past also delivered weapons, fuel and artillery pieces to supply US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Practicality not Politics

While there is a great deal of moral posturing about the activities of Viktor Bout there is very little discussion or understanding of why entrepreneurs like Bout are hired and thrive. And the answers do not lie in questions of politics and morality but derive primarily from practical concerns.

Military aircraft usually fly from military bases, and the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War and after had few military bases in Africa.

To deliver cargoes of weapons, ammunition, armour and supplies to African governments or insurgents therefore, they needed to use civil aviation.

It became necessary to contract with either their own barely-disguised proprietary airlines or set up proxies to distance themselves from the deliveries of weapons, especially to countries or movements subject to international sanctions such as UNITA in Angola. This required them to operate under different rules. To understand this business it is necessary to know how aviation works.

Aviation

The passage of airplanes across the world’s skies is highly regulated. Each aircraft has to be registered in a jurisdiction whose civil aviation inspection procedures are recognised and accepted, and each aircraft must follow a rigorous schedule of maintenance.

Before aircrafts can take off with cargo or passengers, there is a mountain of paperwork and preparation which must be completed. The airspaces of the world belong to the country below it. Before one can fly into an airspace, local aviation authorities must give permission and be paid for ‘overflight’ or ‘landing’ rights.

There are particularly strict rules governing the passage of military aircraft, both in wartime and in the peaceful transit of neutral states, and it is usually very difficult to get permission for the military overflight of non-combatant states.

This is a powerful impetus to use civil aircraft for the transport of military and humanitarian goods instead of military aircraft. However, the landing and take-off rights of civil aircraft are also bound numerous rigorous procedures and regulations.

That is why air companies like those used by Viktor Bout were registered in relatively obscure jurisdictions such as Liberia and the Central African Republic. There they could take advantage of the intra-African treaties which allowed the free passage of ‘African’ aircraft within the continent and a lax system of aircraft inspection.

Fueling War

Many of Africa’s wars paralysing socio-economic development, producing huge numbers of refugees, and building the foundations for chronic poverty, would have been difficult to wage or sustain without the participation of international criminals and arms dealers.

According to investigations by Le Soir of Belgium and Le Corrierre de Serra of Italy in 2001, “The Russian mafia has opened lanes for arms trafficking between Eastern Europe and Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The mafia has also furnished arms to the Ivoirian regime of General Guei when he had doubts of a favourable outcome to the September elections.”

There were several companies supplying the same weapons. Each had their own transport system. Many were in competition with each other. Viktor Bout was one of those who were able to get assistance in leasing aircraft to use in civil aviation in Africa. There were a number of white Zimbabweans who had flown for the Biafrans and UNITA in companies like Air Trans-Africa. There was even a Sierra Leonean entrepreneur flying from Britain or, most often, from the wide-open hub of Ostende in Belgium.

Most of these airplanes and their pilots and crew were employed by the air companies which owned the planes. They were not owned by people like Bout. They were chartered aircraft where an hourly rate was agreed. The actual owners were the Russian Air Force (through a web of subsidiaries) or the UCA (Ukrainian Cargo Airline) or analogous subsidiaries. There was a premium price paid for flying in war zones to allow for a higher insurance premium.

This was the way that the Russians and the Ukrainians found a way to supply their weapons and ammunition to Africa. They were already doing it in the Balkans and Afghanistan, often with the support of NATO. A key factor in this is that NATO countries, with the exception of the US and partially the UK and Canada, have virtually no cargo-carrying capacity of their own.

Cartoon: The Fetishization of Guns

Cartoon: The Fetishization of Guns

African Wars and the Need for Bouts

What no one is discussing in these international arms deals is just who is actually paying for the goods and the transport. In some areas, like in Angola, some of the costs could be defrayed by diamonds. In most cases the payment is arranged by political figures. For example, some of the weapons that poured into West African wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast were paid for by Jacques Chirac and Muammar Gaddafi and delivered thorough the local efforts of Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso. Mercenary soldiers were paid for the same way.

This type of crime goes unpunished. And this profession will not come to an end, because there is a ready market for the goods that are being sold. Africa is gradually becoming the last place where wars are fought with small arms. As other nations move towards heavy artillery, missiles, rockets and fighter aircraft, Africa is only gradually moving towards that level of sophistication. The basic truths of African warfare have not changed much.

Firstly, African warfare is ‘expeditionary’ warfare. This means there is no real use of mass troop formations since opposing forces are rarely of equal size to fight. Instead, troops pass through jungles, deserts, mangrove swamps and hostile terrain to get to the enemy, often under heavy fire from the bush. African insurgents are usually bands and groups of, often, irregular soldiers. Large-scale troop concentrations can sit in a city or town and maintain order, but they rarely can take the battle to the enemy.

Secondly, African armies have little equipment geared towards expeditionary warfare. This is a war of helicopters; an in and out movement of troops to jungle clearings or remote landing zones or the shooting up of ground formations by helicopter gunships when they can be located. But except for rented helicopters leased from the Ukraine and Russia, most of Africa is bereft of air mobile equipment. They are certainly bereft of African pilots (other than South Africans).

Thirdly, there are very few military aircraft in Africa capable of fighting or sustaining either air-to-air combat or performing logistics missions. There are very few airbases in the bush which allow cargo planes to land safely now that every rebel group has its share of RPGs and mortars. There are no fuel reserves at the airports outside most African capitals and there are no repair facilities. There is no air-to-air refuelling. Indeed, except for Denel in South Africa and an airbase in Ethiopia there are no places on the continent which perform aircraft maintenance. This lack of transport is critical to moving out the wounded. This takes its toll on the soldiers.

Fourthly, sustained African warfare (with some exceptions like Angola) is largely carried out on the ground with machetes, axes or some small arms. It does not always start off that way but the pressures of logistic resupply often means that ammunition runs out, mortar shells are expended and the only thing left is traditional weapons. Food has to be foraged or stolen as resupply is not always regular or sufficient. This makes for a chaotic type of combat with heavy civilian casualties. Fighting up close and personal with a machete on a village by village basis is much more dangerous to a civilian concentration.

Fifthly, this is mirrored in the lack of effective battlefield communications. In Africa the landline phone system doesn’t work in peacetime; why should it work during war? Sending orders and receiving information between the central staff and outlying units is a ‘sometimes’ process. It sometimes takes days to contact units operating far from command headquarters.

The realities of African warfare mean that the key to success or failure is the logistics chain. This is why the US is so keen to have a coherent and reliable transport policy even when the political niceties do not allow it to set up bases. It is also why men like Viktor Bout and his colleagues will always be there as they provide a service which is critically needed by combatants and their international supporters. They may be on the ‘wrong side’ much of the time but occasionally they are useful to all sides.

About the author: Dr. Gary K. Busch has had a varied career, wherein he has worked as an international trade unionist, an academician, a businessman and a political affairs specialist for over 45 years. Dr. Busch has served as Chairman and CEO of International Bulk Trade, Transport Logistics, Transport Africa and TheNorth Pacific Lines. He has helped set up transport and logistics systems for the Russian aluminium industry and operated transport and port facilities across Russia as well as cargo airlines in Africa. Apart from that, Dr. Busch has also served as a Professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii. He has authored six books and fifty-eight specialist studies and his articles have appeared in theEconomist Intelligence Unit, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. Dr. Busch is also the Editor of a web-based news journal named Ocnus.net and is currently serving as the Chairman of both Transport Logistics and Chunguza Associates.

Related