East Africa: Who's Buying the Biggest Guns in East Africa?

(file photo).

Kampala, Uganda — Countries in the East African region continue to spend more on strengthening their armed forces, according to latest data. Although Kenya and Tanzania are the biggest spenders because of their relatively big budgets, most attention is on Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi which are experiencing tense potential cross-border situations.

According to latest data, Uganda has made the biggest expenditure on its military at US$408 million in 2018, Rwanda follows at US$119.5 million and Burundi US$66.9 million.

Uganda has been listed among the top 15 countries in percentage increase in military expenditure globally in 2018. Burkina Faso led with 52% increase. Uganda was number 14 with 17% increase to US$408 million in 2018. For comparison, South Sudan spent US$59.4million in 2018, which was a 50% drop from 2017.

These figures are in constant 2017 dollar rates and are picked from data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which compiles them from official data of governments, UN reports, and country expenditure reports by global agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), expert analysis of country budgets, and defense journals and publications.

These numbers are significant because, generally, military expenditure in Africa fell by 8.4% in 2018. According to SIPRI, African governments spent an estimated US$40.6 billion on their armies or 2.2 per cent of global military spending. This was the largest relative annual decrease since the post-cold war peak reached in 2014. Despite four consecutive years of decreases, military expenditure in Africa was still 9.2 per cent higher in 2018 than in 2009. According to SIPRI, military expenditure does not reflect military capability and the data is incomplete for some countries.

The numbers also come at a time of increasing tension in the Great Lakes Region countries; mainly Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo but has sucked in Tanzania, Angola, and Congo.

In one illustrative case on Nov.14, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke strongly about people he said are trying to destabilise Rwanda. He said some are backed by foreign forces and that they will pay heavily for their actions.

"We are going to raise the cost on the part of anybody who wants to destabilise our security," said Kagame, who was officiating at a swearing in ceremony of new cabinet ministers and senior military officers at parliament in Kigali.

Following this, on Nov.15, rebel leader Musabimana Juvenal aka Gen. Jean-Michel Africa of the ethnic Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and four of his bodyguards were killed in a security operation in Rutshuru, in the North Kivu region of eastern DR Congo. Rwanda Special Forces are deployed there in joint operations with the DR Congo army. Uganda was asked to join them in the operations but in an Oct.25 meeting in Beni declined the offer. Instead, Uganda said it would secure its border against militia forces and only join bilateral military arrangements with DRC.

Almost simultaneously, on Nov.17, on the eastern side of Rwanda, Burundian soldiers were hit in a night attack on their base near the border with Rwanda.

Burundi's Ministry of Defense published reports of the attack in which eight Burundian soldiers were reportedly killed, including the company commander. The company is said to have had 90 soldiers. Many were injured while the rest fled in confusion. Military sources quoted by the media said it was one of the largest and deadliest attacks for several years.

Informed sources described how the assailants, wearing bullet-proof vests and night-vision goggles, pounced on the Burundian soldiers on Mount Twinyoni which is a thick forested area about 10km from the Rwanda border.

Initial reports said the attackers retreated in Rwanda and that their level of sophisticated equipment went beyond that of a rebel outfit. Burundi accuses Rwanda of backing rebels opposed to the Bujumbura government but Kigali denied involvement.

"It is not true that the attacks were made from people who came from Rwanda," Olivier Nduhungirehe, State Minister for East African Community (EAC) Affairs told AFP, "These are unfounded allegations being made from Burundi - as they have done previously for the last four years. We have other things to do."

Before that, on Nov.10, two alleged Ugandan smugglers of tobacco into Rwanda were shot dead by the Kigali security forces at Nyagatare, just a few metres from the Uganda-Rwanda border.

Then Nov. 19, unknown attackers killed at least 19 people in night raids in Beni in the same North Kivu province. This area lies just over the Rwenzori Mountain from the Uganda border. Beni is the base of the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUC) which has together with Rwanda Special Forces and the DRC army recently intensified attacks against armed militia groups in the region. The attackers reportedly kidnapped many people and set a Catholic church ablaze in two separate attacks that were about 35km apart.

Initial reports in the Nov.19 attack said the killers belonged to the Islamist militia group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) that has for years been based in the DRC to fight the Kampala government of President Yoweri Museveni and generally wreak havoc in eastern DRC and the Kasese region of Uganda.

According to analysts, these incidents on Rwanda's borders with the DRC, Uganda, and Burundi point to one thing; the Great Lakes Region is a neat pile of dry grass waiting for a single match-stick to set it on fire.

Some analysts say regional leaders are building their armies and fire power for what appears to be inevitable armed clashes.

Russians versus Chinese

So far, Russia has been the biggest beneficiary in shipping arms to these countries and China is scrambling to catch up.

When some 40 African heads of state and their delegations descended on the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi this October, excitement over military cooperation and military hardware almost obscured deals in nuclear energy, oil, gas, agriculture, and diamonds.

"Give us guns; give us, we will pay later," is how one journalist reported the excited chatter from African leaders in their pitches to Russian president Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials in sideline meetings.

Russia had laid out the military hardware favoured by African countries first as model tanks inside the chambers and as full scale tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, rocket launchers, and automatic rifles on the grounds outside.

Even Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was photographed pensively eyeing model tanks.

Russia is the second largest supplier of arms in the world but, according to reliable reports, it leads in sales to Africa; supplying 39% of Africa's imported arms between 2017 and 2013.

Nigeria reportedly bought 12 helicopters and signed a deal for training and other equipment, and other countries are negotiating more deals to add to the 21 military agreements signed in the last five years between Russia and Africa.

But between 2013 and 2017, Chinese arms sales increased by 38 per cent from the previous five-year period, with Africa accounting for 21 per cent of China's arms exports, according the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The Chinese arms are picking up because they are easy to operate, effective, relatively cheap and boast similar features to the Russian weapons, according to military expert reports.

The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database shows that Uganda purchased most of its equipment from Russia, with biggest purchases happening in 2011. That is when it got the six famous SU-30mk aircraft in a US$635 million deal with accessories like guided bombs, Anti-ship missiles, and Anti-tank missiles. It also bought 32 BTR-80A Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) and 44 TS-90s tanks.

These assets have given Uganda superior airpower compared to Rwanda, DRC, Burundi, South Sudan, and Tanzania. Only Kenya boasts more air fire power. Just recently, on Nov. 7, President Museveni graduated 18 Ugandan Air Force pilot cadets at the newly upgraded Gulu Air Base. The base has new training facilities, equipment, and aircraft. The ceremony featured flight demonstrations with Cessna 172 piston trainers and L-39 jets from Bulgaria.

Rwanda has made most of its military orders from Russia, followed by Israel, Turkey and China. Rwanda's reported latest purchase of 50 Red Arrow-9 self-propelled Anti-Tank missiles from China were received in 2018. That made Rwanda the first foreign armed forces known to be equipped with China's 'Red Arrow' anti-tank missiles. In 2017 it got 30 Cobra Armoured Protected Vehicles (APV) from Turkey, and six Mi-8MT/Mi-17 helicopters from Russia.

Rwanda has Russian helicopters, Ural vehicles, small arms, and Air Defense Systems. The two agreed military and technical cooperation in 2017. But Rwanda is equally receptive to the Chinese. The military parade celebrating Rwanda's 25th Liberation Day in August was overseen by Chinese instructors from the People's Liberation Army Honor Guard.

The data indicates that military expenditure in Rwanda increased to US$119.50 million in 2018 from US$115.70 million in 2017. Rwanda's highest expenditure was US$158 million in 1991. Burundi also boasts some Russian APCs got in a 2012 deal.

The arms trade is, however, highly secretive. At one time it was revealed that the Israel-based agricultural company Green Horizon was a front for retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv's security company CST who were supplying arms to South Sudan.

And, although there a several sources that claim to rank countries based on their military strength, such as Global Fire Power, some countries like Rwanda and Burundi are rarely explored. Generally, however; among countries in the Great Lakes region, Ethiopia is considered to have the highest firepower, followed by Kenya, and Uganda.

But Kenya and Uganda are far behind countries like Angola, which is playing a significant role in the current Great Lakes region tension.

Rising tension

Tension has been high at the Uganda-Rwanda borders since Feb.27 when Kigali stopped allowing travellers and vehicles from Uganda to cross the joint border at Gatuna.

President Museveni and his Rwanda counterpart, Paul Kagame have blocked open public discussion on the issues and allowed the public to debate only unlikely causes such as the alleged holding of Rwandans in detention in Uganda and alleged repairs on the Gatuna border roads and Uganda's alleged welcoming of anti-Kagame dissidents of the Rwanda National Congress.

Tension on the Rwanda-Burundi border has lasted longer; since 2017 when Burundi banned the export of fruit and vegetables to Rwanda and direct travel between the two countries ceased. President Pierre Nkurunziza accuses Kagame of being the mastermind of a 2015 coup attempt in Bujumbura. Kigali denies the charge but, in turn, accuses Bujumbura of sheltering camps of the FDLR rebels on its territory.

The open hostility between Rwanda and Uganda is newer but it has a longer history of mutual suspicion and tension obscured by a coating of cordial ties among the Rwandan Tutsi and Ugandan Hima ethnic groups.

Museveni and Kagame are former comrades in arms. With Museveni as leader and Kagame as his lieutenant, they commanded wars that toppled governments in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC between 1980 and 1997.

But since becoming president, Kagame has sought to break away from being seen as Museveni's lieutenant and his country as an extension of the Kampala government. As The Independent has reported before, the two now view each other with suspicion.

According to an International Crisis Group (ICG) report titled 'Rwanda/Uganda: A Dangerous War of Nerves' of December 2001, "in many aspects, the Rwanda-Uganda quarrel looks indeed like an irrational and emotional family feud".

According to the ICG: "Their intimate twenty-year collaboration means that they know all of each other's secrets. This feeds paranoia within the top leaderships and tendencies to see previously close associates as possible enemies.

"The Rwanda leadership now views Museveni as domineering and patronising. He is known for his belief in negotiations as a war strategy that he used in both the struggle against the military junta in Uganda in 1986 and in 1994 in Rwanda on behalf of the RPF. This makes it difficult for the leadership in Kigali to trust Museveni's commitment to any agreement. In return, the Ugandan leadership views Kagame as resilient, driven by the need for recognition as a fighter, arrogant and unwilling to listen to advice."

The Daily Monitor newspaper in Kampala in December 2018 quoted Kagame saying Rwanda does not take lightly threats of invasions from neighbouring countries.

"Those challenges have been changing forms but they remained in substance a security threat. When it comes to us, our history, we don't take any security challenge lightly. They say once bitten, twice shy. We have had our taste of it, we wouldn't want to be found wanting in terms of taking care of our security. Big or small, we will take care of it. We have people around us in the region, others far away, disguised as political activists. There are those who help them directly, others who hide it and call it helping people involved in political struggles. We have to remind them that is not their business, because if they think it is their business then the question is 'are they inviting us to make it our business to get involved in their politics?'" he reportedly said.

This attitude shows that Kagame feels that his government and his country face constant threats of elimination. The feeling is compounded by history of oppression and reality of defending a geographically small country in a hostile environment. In military terms, Rwanda lacks "strategic depth", meaning that any attack cannot be easily absorbed and a counter attack launched. To survive, Rwanda must strike first. That is why its army appears to be constantly on high alert, without room for error of omission.

More From: Independent (Kampala)

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