West Africa: Awash in First World Weapons

MEND weapons turned over in Nigeria

Nigeria announced this week that it had seized all the makings of an ammunition factory that was being smuggled into a Lagos container shipping Port from the United States.  This as the Niger Delta MEND leaders are turning over shiny Ukrainian made arms in great numbers and Guinean armed forces are using French, South African, and US weapons to terrorize their own population.

One side effect of the end of the cold war has been a rise, not a diminution, in the number of small arms and ammunition shipped by rich countries to poor countries.  In 2004 there were an estimated 8 Million small arms in West Africa alone, and more have poured in since then.  Guinea Bissau was estimated to have 25,000 illegal small arms and Nigeria was believed to have at least a million.  2007 figures have raised the estimate to 10 million weapons in all of West Africa, and 3 million in Nigeria alone. While both nations were largely at peace (the Niger Delta conflict being the exception), all these weapons of war were in the hands of militias, criminals, drug runners supplying European markets, and local political leaders.

The number put into perspective the 3 thousand or so weapons tuned over to the Nigerian government in the recent Niger Delta amnesty program.

The Ukrainians, Russians, and other from the former east bloc may be the most high profile.  The ubiquity of AK-47s and eastern European piloted mercenary MIG helicopters  in the war zones of poor nations see to that.  But the French continue to supply former colonies in huge amounts, and the United States and its former cold war proxy states of South Africa and Israel ship tons of weapons to buyers throughout Africa. The United States, with its lax gun laws, has an added advantage as a marketplace for weapons.  The average US “Gun Show” — in reality unregulated arms bazaars — contains enough firepower to supply a good sized insurgency.  This alone makes the United States a major terrorist threat to much of the world.

In the wake of the brutality on 28 September in Conakry, the French government, with a self righteous flourish cut off arms supplies to the military dictatorship which had ruled there over the last year.  That the mass murder of protesters is an almost carbon copy of the mass killings perpetrated by Guinea’s military and paramilitary police in January  2007, February 2007, and June 2006 makes one think French foreign policy is not as helpful as they would have you believe.

South Africa too has continued to supply munitions and military vehicles to the Coup government, even after being criticized when their supplies were used in the military butchery of 2007.

The United States cut off Military supplies to the Guinean government when the brutal Conté dictatorship was replaced with the CNDD coup at the end of 2008.  But prior to that, even after 20 years of dictatorship and well documented terror and murder, the US military was sending $100 Million in “aid” (in 2006 alone) to an army that was using it to murder its own citizens.

In part this aid resulted from Guinea’s role as a proxy for the US and others in the Liberian and Sierra Leoneian Civil Wars of the 1990s.  US diplomats famously reported that US supplied mortars were falling in the US Embassy compound — which at the time was full of civilians — when the Guinean trained and armed LURD forces trying to take the city from the equally brutal Charles Taylor in July 2003.

Part of this is big-power politics, setting weak nations against one another as proxies to gain control over markets.  Some of it is purchasing the support of dictators for business interests.  United States aluminum giant Alcoa, for instance, has a huge investment in Guinea, and Alcoa was famously close to the Bush White House.

But much of this problem comes from the creation of huge state sponsored arms industries  during the cold war.  In East, West, and their privileged client states, the developed world has seen over the last 60 years the burgeoning of giant military supply corporations.  As most are dependent on their government for the bulk of their sales, they have infiltrated every level of policy and military governance. What better way to ensure markets that “Military Aid”: a process by which the US government gives a foreign nation either purchases a supply of weapons and delivers them, or simply gives the poor nation cash with the stipulation that it be used to purchase US made military supplies. For the defense contractors, its like printing money.

Isn’t there some irony to the fact that some of the only state of the art tools delivered to West African nations by the west are guns and ammunition?

Africans themselves may miss the joke.  A recent report for the UN found that large portions of prime farmland northern Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest nations in the world, remain inaccessible due to the presence of hundreds of thousand of landmines and unexploded shells left by the Portuguese colonial forces, driven out in 1974.

Meanwhile, there are fears in both Nigeria and Kenya that political leaders are arming local militias to prepare for elections over the next two years.

For Africans, every dollar a first world arms contractor makes selling weapons in their nation is a tiny landmine, waiting to go off.

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