A legacy of bloodshed and corruption

The arms industry: fuelling conflict

The world’s biggest arms fair, which turned 20 in 2019, is lauded as a ‘fantastic showcase’ by its British hosts, but critics strongly disagree

A vendor uses an Armtrac 20T robot to squash a 2015 Rugby World Cup branded rugby ball as
he demonstrates its capabilities during the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition in London in September, 2015.
Photo: LEON NEAL / AFP

The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), which boasts of being the world’s largest arms fair, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The biennial event, held in London, aims to bring together the global arms industry under one roof, showcasing more than 1,700 exhibitors and 36,000 attendants from more than 50 countries. It is supported by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence and Department for International Trade, as well as BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer. Political insiders defend the country’s role as an arms exporter and the DSEI’s role in generating arms sales as sources of high-tech research and jobs. “The UK defence industry is looking to recruit more engineers, scientists and developers into 200,000 jobs and up to 10,000 apprentices within UK defence companies,” according to James Gray MP, a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, quoted in a DSEI statement. “DSEI is a fantastic showcase for defence companies where international buyers, sellers, developers, thinkers, educators and the trainers can all get together.”

Yet critics of Britain’s role in the global arms trade, and the industry as a whole, see DSEI less as a “fantastic showcase” and more as the shiny centrepiece of a globally destructive sector unrivalled by any other. The exhibition is met with protests and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called for it to end. Arms exports are estimated to contribute as much as £12 billion to the UK economy. Andrew Feinstein, a former South African MP for the ANC and author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is one such critic. “In the 20 years of its existence DSEI has, probably more than any other trade show of any sort anywhere in the world, contributed to the death and suffering of Africans,” Feinstein told Africa in Fact. “Its legacy is one of bloodshed, corruption and Britain being at the forefront of undermining good governance across the African continent.” Countries with a recent history of conflict or military suppression sent delegations to DSEI 2019, officially invited by the UK government. From Africa, they included Algeria and Nigeria, while Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara did not preclude it from an official delegation invitation.

Algeria found itself on the UK government’s list of core markets for defence and security opportunities, along with Tunisia, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Angola. Egypt was also among them – and remains a core market for UK arms exports. A delegation was officially invited by the UK government to attend DSEI last year despite appearing in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 2018 “human rights priority countries” report. According to the UK government’s report, “the human rights situation in Egypt continued to give cause for concern”. It cited new restrictions on media and online freedoms, and a government campaign against civil society, cases of torture, enforced disappearances and extended pre-trial detention. At least 250 cases of enforced disappearances were documented by lawyers, with thousands of individuals estimated to be in pre-trial detention, often in solitary confinement for extended periods.” Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the NGO Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), explains the apparent contradiction within UK policy. “There’s always been a total hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy and UK arms exports,” he told Africa in Fact.

“The FCO might deem some of these countries a concern, but the government as a whole can still deem them very close allies.” Feinstein agrees. “By any measure, Britian sells arms to whoever it wants to. The bottom line is the UK puts sales of weapons way ahead of any consideration of human rights. It puts profits ahead of people,” he says. But the DSEI does not see this as a true characterisation of its exhibition or of how it and the UK government operate. “The presence of a delegate or visitor from any country should not be taken as a presumption that the export of equipment to that country would be permitted,” a spokesman for DSEI said. “That is a matter for the UK government and their export licensing process, which operates to the highest regulatory standards.” Feinstein dismisses these assertions: “Their [DSEI] first assumption is profoundly wrong. The second, that the UK has an ethical system that guides export arms policy, is frankly a nonsense,” he argues. That Egypt and South Africa, the respective powerhouses of north and southern Africa, have been identified as core markets is no surprise due to the relative size of their economies and the different roles they fulfil.

Egypt, due to its proximity to the Middle East, can serve as a political ally for the UK arms industry’s main market, Saudi Arabia, and the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has also called for the lifting of a UN arms embargo on neighbouring Libya. Under its former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was a key market for the UK government, especially after the former prime minister, Tony Blair, visited the country in 2004. Smith believes that the legitimacy conferred by the UK government is another driving factor behind the country’s large arms trade. “When a regime is buying weapons from the UK, they’re not just buying weapons; they’re also buying political support that goes with those weapons,” he argues. This applies equally to countries such as Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The UK gets money and the buying country gets both arms and tacit political support to maintain their position. Although both the UN and European Union (EU) can, and do, implement arms embargoes, these can ultimately prove ineffective due to previous deals, Smith explains.

In Egypt, for example, arms sold to former President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s were used against civilians during the Arab Spring, despite an embargo now in place. “After the coup [in Egypt], an arms embargo was brought in by Europe, but it was probably the single worst embargo in the history of arms embargoes, because it was [so] momentary [that] absolutely nobody followed it,” Smith says. Embargoes can prove ineffective because arms generally have a longer lifespan than the period of an embargo. Any arms deal signed the day before an embargo is put in place can still be completed. At the other end of the continent, South Africa is seen as the gateway to the African market, making it an attractive country to set up business in and to build links to the rest of Africa to sell arms. Feinstein outlines why the UK and Europe target this market particularly, and what advantages they have over the world’s largest arms exporter, the US. “South Africa has been involved in a number of very corrupt arms transactions so [it makes it attractive] for British and European arms companies who can’t compete with the Americans because the Americans have massive economies of scale over Europeans, or the Chinese who practically give away their weapons, so Europeans [are willing to] pay enormous bribes.”

Yet, after 20 years of DSEI few people, if any, celebrate the anniversary – other than global arms dealers and people in the corridors of a couple of UK government departments in Whitehall. “The best thing we can do, if we are truly concerned about the socio-economic development of Africa, would be to shut it [DSEI] down and to properly regulate our arms trade,” concludes Feinstein. For the moment, though, the UK and Europe will continue to sell weapons. DSEI will continue to bring together the global arms trade. And African citizens will continue to suffer the consequences. “Nobody is forced to sell weapons to anyone,” says Smith. “Not every country in Europe is a major arms dealer. But those that are, are doing tremendous damage around the world.”

Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He writes about the environment, energy and the green economy as well as politics and society for British publications, including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.

Switching on one step at a time

SDG 7: affordable and clean energy

Africa is making progress with efforts to provide people with electricity, but much more needs to be done to advance the use of cleaner cooking

The Kariba Dam on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe supplies 1,626 megawatts of electricity to parts of both countries. Photo: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA / AFP

By Joe Walsh

As a whole, Africa has struggled to make serious progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, affordable and clean energy. Of the continent’s 55 countries 39 have made less than 50% progress towards their 2030 target from their 2010 baseline, according to the 2018 Africa SDG Index, with the report calling it a big challenge that needs to be prioritised. The remaining countries had not achieved the affordable and clean energy target, but it remains possible if significant action is taken. Not one country had achieved the goal as yet, though the North African countries were significantly closer. One indicator of just how crucial access to energy is seen for the continent, the African Development Bank (AfDB) made energy its top development priority in 2016. The bank argued that the continent should strive to achieve universal access for all by 2025 – five years in advance of the 2030 deadline. To help achieve its ambitious deadline, the bank says it is revisiting the size and scope of the loans it provides. “Following that prioritisation, we have quite significantly expanded, not only the volume of lending but also the scope of areas that we try and provide solutions for, particularly new decentralised energy solutions,” Daniel Schroth, principal energy specialist in the energy, environment and climate change department at AfDB, told Africa in Fact. Certainly, the continent is starting to make progress as regards electricity provision. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa access to electricity has overtaken population growth for the first time.

In 2016, the number of people without access to electricity in the region fell for the first time by 28.5 million, according to the 2018 Energy Progress Report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Bank, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Yet there is still some way to go. Across the continent, only 43% of the population has access to electricity, leaving approximately 566.8 million people with none. There is, however, near total coverage in the North Africa region. Kenya and Ethiopia are countries that have made strong progress towards achieving electricity access, expanding access to their populations by more than five percentage points per annum from 2014-16. Tanzania’s energy access grew from 19% to 33% over the same period. Schroth puts this down to the political will of those countries, which have prioritised access to electricity and followed through with plans to make it happen. This includes governments putting in place appropriate enabling environments for the private sector. However, access to electricity and the introduction of policies to address it are very uneven across the continent. Central Africa, for example, has seen very little progress, as it is starting from a low base and has very little infrastructure already in place. With solar prices falling due to demand in the West and rising supply in China, there is great potential for diversified grids across Africa to help address SDG 7. This is particularly the case in rural communities that have never enjoyed the benefits of national grid infrastructure. Basically, diversified grids eliminate the need to depend on an extensive, centralised national grid. New companies are emerging, bringing with them new ways of paying for electricity.

For example, US-based start-up Zola Electric installs solar systems in homes across several African countries on a payment model that allows customers to pay on a monthly basis. By eliminating the upfront cost of solar, Zola Electric has been able to provide a clean, affordable, more widely useful and therefore popular alternative fuel source to kerosene, a widely used source of light in Africa. The company is getting lights on in more than 50,000 new homes each month in Tanzania, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. Other start-ups backed by US venture capital – companies like M-Kopa, d.light, Solar Now, Andela Fenix and Black Star among them – are operating on a similar model (in addition, Black Star constructs mini-grids). The start-ups are also attracting considerable investor attention from western venture capitalists, with Andela raising $100 million from Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management earlier this year, for example. This development is seeing the private sector moving to address infrastructure provision that was traditionally believed to be a responsibility of government. Electrifying rural Africa may not need to be as costly as building centralised national grid infrastructures. These new technologies and finance models available didn’t exist when the countries of the West developed their own public utilities, says John Tcakic, head of energy information and analytics at clean energy financing organisation Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). Africa, in effect, will benefit from these more diversified power options. “There’s the potential to leapfrog the West as Africa did with the telecoms system and skipped the expensive landline infrastructure step,” he told Africa in Fact.

However, increasing access to clean energy and improving the renewable energy mix are only two of the four sub-goals of SDG 7. The SDG also envisages doubling the rate of energy efficiency and advancing the use of cleaner cooking fuels. Significantly less progress has been made in addressing these two items, particularly with regard to cleaner cooking fuels, Schroth notes. Between 2014 and 2016, population growth outstripped the number of people gaining access to clean cooking technologies by four to one, according to the 2018 Energy Progress report. In Chad, Mauritania and Madagascar access to clean cooking is actually falling. And Tanzania’s rate of access to clean cooking fuels has remained steady at 2% of the population, despite the country’s progress on clean energy access, perhaps highlighting how this aspect of SDG 7 is less of a political priority there. The challenges of addressing the need for clean cooking has also not attracted ambitious start-ups, as is the case with electricity provision. While some initiatives are underway, clean cooking has simply not been getting the political attention that it deserves, says Schroth. “The AfDB has now started looking at those issues, but the private sector companies to finance them aren’t there.” Energy efficiency is another area that does not appear to attract the same political attention as in other parts of the world, where the cost savings element of energy efficiency has galvanised efforts, according to Schroth. “Energy efficiency is an opportunity that has not been fully seized,” he adds. But despite the challenges, there is progress towards meeting SDG 7 on the continent. The Africa 2018 SDG report notes that seven countries are on target to meet the 2030 access to electricity goal, while a further five are already there.

A further 11 are making moderate progress on this indicator, just not enough to reach the target, while only three are moving in the wrong direction for energy access. “We need to do more… to meet all SDG 7 targets. I am particularly concerned by the dramatic lack of access to reliable, modern and sustainable energy… in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where we need to really concentrate our efforts,” says Dr Fatih Birol, executive director at the IEA, highlighting the need for action and the organisation’s desire to realise that. This is matched by the AfDB’s decision to elevate energy to its top priority.

Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.