21 February 2013

Kenya: African States Should Control Chinese Arms


Much is being written and said in the media and academic circles about China's increasing engagement with Africa on many economic and other fronts.

Some see this as benefiting Africa; others as detrimental to the real needs of African countries and peoples. Some critics have used phrases like "the second scramble for Africa" and "re-colonization of Africa" to describe the new development. The debate goes on.

Yet, there is one subject that has not received the serious attention it urgently deserves. The subject is arms transfers and sales, both legal and illegal, to Africa by the Chinese government, military-industrial complex and seemingly independent private businesses.

This is not at all the intent in this short article to ignore similar practices by many other arms manufacturers and traders--the United States, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Israel, and others--but to focus attention on one country for the time being and keep the narrative within a manageable scope. A larger and more comprehensive expose about all arms transfers and sales to Africa by everyone else is certainly needed urgently.

The first thing to know and remember is that there are no reliable and comprehensive data currently available about Chinese arms transfers and sales to Africa, nor is there any transparency about them on the part of the Chinese government, military establishment and businesses.

This is primarily because of China's consistent denial about the nature and magnitude of such operations, and her refusal to provide the needed data despite several international agreements that make it mandatory for all countries to make the information available to the international community, represented at the highest level by the United Nations and its agencies.

This is despite or because of China being a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, along with the other major arms suppliers in this highly troubled world of ours.

China also does not abide by any arms embargo mandated by the UN. For example, despite UN embargos on the transfer and sale of arms to Zimbabwe and Sudan, there is ample documented evidence that China has been doing so mainly in exchange for oil and precious minerals.

Among the supplied weapons and systems are small arms and light weapons, more sophisticated and lethal weapons, helicopter gunships, and military aircraft. In the case of Sudan, UN observers and investigators have found such weapons having been used in the Darfur region where the worst kind of atrocities have been committed over a long period of time.

In another case, a ship loaded with China made arms meant for Zimbabwe during the violent election in 2008 is reported to have landed at a port in South Africa.

After the dock-workers there refused to unload the ship, it is reported to have turned around to be unloaded at an Angolan port and the arms transported over land to unknown destinations.

Not only in these two countries but some others as well, national leaders, powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers are alleged to have exchanged unreported and unaccounted for minerals produced within their countries for Chinese arms.

Who all these arms have been transferred and sold to subsequently is not fully known. According to considerable anecdotal evidence, such illegal arms have definitely fuelled highly violent rebellions and human rights abuses in several locales in Africa. Rocket-propelled grenades from China have been seen in Somalia. Chinese rifles have been discovered in the Ivory Coast.

According to a highly reputable think-tank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China is now the largest arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa, ahead of any other country engaged in similar practices.

At the Africa Aerospace and Defense exhibition held in Johannesburg, South Africa in September last year, the large Chinese pavilion was surpassed in size only by the host-country and United States, the largest manufacturer and seller of all sorts of arms around the world. The Chinese pavilion displayed all sorts of arms, from small arms to highly sophisticated weapons and systems available for sale.

So what can be done in such a dire situation? First and foremost, public and civil society awareness about such going-ons in Africa has to be substantially raised at all levels through print and electronic media campaigns and other means.

This must be followed by substantial domestic and international support for the civil society advocacy activities as well as the activities of humanitarian and human rights agencies to persuade and cajole all African governments, parliaments, legal experts, regional organizations, such as the African Union and the African Development Bank to develop tight arms control legislations, effective monitoring and control mechanisms and active databases to ensure that not only China but all the arms suppliers to Africa comply with Africa's arms control legislations, proclamations and declarations, as well as genuine and agreed to peace and security needs. Africa must also insist on full transparency from everyone engaged in the transfer and sales of all arms to the continent.

Arun P Elhance is a writer and social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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