Is China’s arms transfer fuelling conflicts in Africa?

If the Ukraine war and subsequent sanctions on Russia by the US and its western allies have benefited any country in finding a greater foothold in the arms market of Africa, it is China. It has emerged as a major source of arms supplies to Africa, especially in the sub-Saharan part of the continent. Three of the world’s top 10 arms companies are Chinese and they are supplying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), rocket launchers, fighter jets, combat helicopters, small arms and light weapons, landmines, armoured military vehicles and military vehicles to African countries.

As per Jane’s Defence Weekly, nearly 70 percent of armoured military vehicles in all 54 African countries are Chinese origin, while nearly 20 percent of all military vehicles in the continent have been supplied by China. In fact, emerging as the fourth global arms supplier, China accounted for 4.6 percent of total global arms exports between 2017 and 2021, said Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its recent report. Of this, 10 percent of its arms sales were with African countries. Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Gabon, Algeria, Namibia, Ghana, Burundi, Kenya, and Mozambique emerged as major importers of Chinese arms in the last five years.

China in Africa

Economy and strategy have been two key motives behind Beijing’s increase in the supplies of its arms to these African countries. Amid this development, there lies an unpardonable truth; sales of arms to African countries by China, the US, Russia, France, and Germany are fuelling conflicts in the continent. Almost all sub-Saharan countries are in the grip of low and high-intensity armed conflicts. According to SIPRI, out of 20 African countries, while Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mali, the DRC, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Niger fall under high-intensity armed conflicts area, Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, Uganda, Madagascar, and Kenya fall under low intensity armed conflicts area. Despite pandemic and restrictions imposed on the movement of people across Africa, it witnessed 19,325 casualties in 2021, said a report by Statista, a Germany based data company.

It is estimated that since the 1990s, millions of people have died in the conflagration of conflicts in Africa. A study published by The Lancet medical journal in 2018, however, presented a horrendous picture of conflicts in the continent. Five million children under the age of five died as a result of armed conflicts between 1995 and 2015. And of them, approximately three million were infants aged 12 months or younger, the prestigious medical journal said in its report. Conflicts and violence have also been foremost factors in forcing people out of their homes with the Sub-Saharan region of Africa bearing the brunt of mass internal displacement. According to figures published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, of the total 14.4 million people displaced across the world due to conflicts or violence in 2021, as much as 11.6 million or 80 percent of the total people were displaced in the sub-Saharan region.

Military weapons

For all this, proliferation of small arms and light weapons is held responsible. And bad governance, corruption, porous borders, poverty, deprivation, and unemployment are cited as key reasons for the proliferation. A combined study of the Geneva-based research Centre, Small Arms Survey, and the African Union in 2019 estimated that civilians, including rebel groups and militia hold more than 40 million small arms and light weapons, while government-related entities hold fewer than 11 million. The proliferation of such arms is very high in sub-Saharan Africa. Small arms and light weapons are easy to transport and hide and can be trafficked into parts to different parts of a country or countries. Experts say the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons often stems from legal trade where arms producing countries export weapons to other countries and then they disperse into illicit trade when they are deliberately sold by the corrupt government officials or army officials to individuals and extremist groups.

More than 20 years have passed since the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Lights Weapons was launched. But it has failed to prevent arms going into the hands of non-state actors like insurgents, terrorists, criminals, and gangsters in Africa. Several measures at the local levels have also been adopted like sensitizing through local communities on how such arms are taking a huge toll on peace and security across many countries in Africa. Despite this, civil strife in Ethiopia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’ Ivoire, Rwanda, Somalia, Namibia, Angola, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and other African countries is continuing.

According to a report, more than 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is presently affected by civil war, damaging their potential to grow economically strong. Experts maintain that unless corruption, poverty, unemployment, injustices, and inequalities are addressed, illicit proliferation of guns and weapons cannot be stopped in Africa. They also hold a view that unless countries like China bring a change in their approach to weapons’ transfer and place conditionalities on the sale of their arms to African countries, the menace of illegal spread of arms cannot be stopped across the continent.