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The danger of supplementing aid to Africa with weapons

Illicit firearms and small weapons recovered during security operations being destroyed in Nairobi. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

During the recent G-20 meeting in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel floated the idea that African countries should be given weapons as part of development aid so that they could be more effective in combating militant groups.

This was a bold departure from the traditional emphasis on economic aid as the bedrock of development efforts in African countries. To many, and for most African states, her statement sounded like a contradiction in terms because spending on arms can divert funds from vital areas such as food security, health care and education.

Over the past 20 years Africa has been transitioning from a focus on economic integration to one on security. Until the late 1990s the emphasis in many regions was on economic integration. This was clear from the consolidation of a number of regional economic integration communities like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

But since the turn of the century, there has been a much bigger focus on security and fighting radical Jihadist groups typically affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. As of May 2015, there were nine UN Peacekeeping missions in Africa. The big shift towards security started in 2002 when the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was formed. This was followed by a security partnership being agreed between the African Union and the EU. And then there are sub-regional security forces like Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group and the Sahel G5 states’ counter-terrorism force.

As a result of the growing threat from terror groups, a number of countries, with the help of major powers, have boosted their military capabilities. These include Mali, Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire to name a few.

Merkel’s statement was made in the context of many African countries experiencing economic growth while, at the same time, battling militant and terrorist groups.

The view seems to be that by helping Africa contain instability, growth rates will be enhanced, and Europe relieved of mass migrations.

Increase military capability

Increased securitisation – the emphasis on a militarily strong state at the expense of basic human needs and a strong civil society – started after the 1998 Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These led to the creation of AFRICOM which included putting active American troops on the continent. Djibouti serves as a forward base for AFRICOM. It also included a commitment from the US to train and advise African countries that request it. Current key beneficiaries of US military assistance are Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda Chad, Cameroon, and Mauritania.

In addition, French troops have become more active in Africa. In Mali they are helping the government contain Jihadist organisations in the north of the country.

There are also regional international efforts, such as the security partnership between the European Union the African Union, and the UN Mission established to contain terrorist attacks in the Sahel region. Known as the G5 Sahel force, it includes troop contributions from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

France and the US are also active in the Sahel region providing training and equipment to the militaries of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Naiger and Mauritania, and engaging in joint exercises with the G5 forces.

Merkel’s proposal is aimed at taking these engagements even further. What’s she’s put on the table is a compact with Africa and the G20 which includes weapons transfer as development aid.


Merkel’s suggestion would mean more weapons on a continent that is already awash with small arms and light weapons. It can’t be denied that Africa as a secure continent would benefit Europe. But weapons as development aid sounds like a contradiction. Do weapon transfers in fact contribute to development?

There are studies that show that the acquisition of weapons by developing countries doesn’t contribute to development.

I believe that more weapons on the continent would have the opposite effect. The African continent already has a great deal of weapons which exacerbate civil strife. Evidence points to the fact that weapons transfers are responsible for conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Somalia, among others.

More weapons and an increased military presence for incumbent African regimes could have negative consequences.

Firstly, it could lead to even more violations of the rule of law as incumbent regimes become militarily stronger.

Secondly, it would improve the changes of regimes surviving longer. They would have the wherewithall to violate human rights even more, as well as suppress opposition voices. And finally, weapons could be diverted to rebel groups through political corruption or for personal selfish objectives.

In conclusion the G20 Compact with Africa is very encouraging. But when it comes to the transfer of more weapons, donors and investors should make sure that this is done under strict rules and regulations. Conditions for receiving aid should also be based on strict adherence to the rule of law, and in particular democratic processes.

In the end the biggest emphasis should be on private investments – as set out in the compact – which will generate millions of jobs for the unemployed.

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