The art of war

Africa and wars: traditional weapons

The advent of the machine gun at the end of the 19th century irrevocably changed the way wars were waged in Africa

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini demonstrates the use of the .308 rifle, which has replaced the traditional spear for Zulu royal warriors, during the revival of the age-old hunting ceremony that began with King Shaka. The two-day event, revived after two decades, was held at Hluhluwe, some 350 km north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal in 2001. Photo: RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP

“Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not,” wrote Hilaire Belloc, British writer and poet, in his essay, ‘The Modern Traveller’ in 1898. He was writing at the peak of the European powers’ empire building and the Maxim, a revolutionary machine gun that could fire 600 rounds a minute, was the ultimate weapon for the “pacification” of “hostile” tribes. Just a decade later much of Africa would consist of colonies or protectorates of European powers. For centuries African weapons had been used for offence, defence and game hunting, and they had undergone transformation to suit contemporary needs – but they were no match for the Maxim gun. African weapons stood no chance against a gun that spat volleys of bullets and thundered like lightening during a tropical rainstorm.

A general assessment of weapons and war strategies on the continent before the anomie created by external influence, which took root during the slave trade and colonial conquest, depicts a continent that had wars but with comparatively few war-related deaths. Cultural factors – a lack of sophisticated arms, small populations, thick forests, vast savannas and deserts, long unnavigable rivers, and health and ecological challenges – all conspired to limit the losses warring communities could inflict on each other on the battlefield. Allan Chore, a lecturer at Kenya’s Garissa University, who is also a PhD candidate exploring the African art of war, says precolonial African weapons fell into two main categories – close combat and mid-range. Close-combat weapons, he explains, included swords, clubs, arrows, knives, daggers, axes and crowbars.

Mid-range weapons comprised of projectiles such as spears, slings, bows and arrows. Each community, he says, had a certain weapon that was associated with it. Andre DeGeorges in his 2012 article ‘African Traditional Hunters and Their Weapons’ agrees with Chore’s observation, but adds that the hand-made aspect of African weaponry also involved a degree of artistry and identity. “Weapons conveyed not just the ingenuity of their makers, but also their role and artistic abilities, which in turn brought out the ethnic identity of their makers and their users,” he argues. In terms of tactics, Chore says that war skills, terrain, the nature of war and strength of the enemy dictated the methods employed in fighting. He questions the often-repeated idea that African communities have never had war strategies.

The Maasai and Nandi of Kenya’s Rift Valley used bows and spears against the British in the 1890s-1900s because the high ground of the escarpment offered them an advantage when targeting the enemy below, for example. The Zulu, like the Maasai in Kenya, were considered “fierce fighters” by Europeans, and they mastered close quarter combat techniques, preferring a short spear known as the assegai. The Fulani of northern Nigeria, the Berbers of North Africa and communities in the Horn of Africa had cavalry when they adopted horse breeding from the Arabs, adds Chore. Osarhieme Benson Osadolor, in his study on ‘The Military System of the Benin Kingdom’ (2002), noted that iron technology led to the development of weapons that impacted on the character of war in the region.

“In West Africa, the states that rose to power in the period between 1400 and 1700 such as Benin, Nupe, Igala and Oyo dominated others partly because of the advantages in the development of iron technology,” writes Osadolor. Similar views are expressed by Chore, who adds that most communities lacked formal training for fighters, although training did take place. “Since there were no military academies, fighting skills were imparted through games, drills, physical fitness during ceremonies and also through game hunting,” he says. According to Chore, African philosophies guided the rules of warfare. So, for example, the women and children from communities that lost a war were usually not killed. Combatants and members of communities that lost a war were usually taken prisoner, and assimilated.

“What might surprise many, is that wars were also fought as a sport,” he told Africa in Fact. “Young men, especially in pastoralist communities, would raid neighbouring communities, without the blessing of elders, to acquire cattle for use as a dowry.” David Neville Masika, a peace and conflict studies lecturer at Kenya’s University of Nairobi, says African warfare was organised and guided by elders to conform to traditions. War was governed by traditional constraints, he says. Like Chore, he argues that combatants in most communities were barred from violating women and hurting children. “Fighting wasn’t supposed to take place where women and children were; no wonder it was a taboo to wage war at night,” he says. Select groups possessed the art and science of weapon making and secretly guarded their skills, says Masika.

“African weapons have always undergone transformation,” he says. “Take the case of the Zulu people, who opted for shorter spears after realising that, unlike long spears, they could be used without having to be thrown at enemies, hence minimising battlefield losses.” Other improvements included the use of poison on weapons to render them more lethal. In his 2013 article, ‘Weapons in African Art’, Andrew Keet points out that while African war was often a serious business, weapons were also an avenue for artistry and self-expression. “Weapons would be decorated with intricate designs. The handles of daggers and axes, for example, became an art form as soldiers took pride in the weaponry that would defend their land and people,” writes Keet. With the arrival of European arms on the continent, Africans were quick to note the comparative weakness of their weapons, says Chores.

As part of compensating for this, communities developed the ability to mobilise fighters quickly on a battlefield while devising ingenious methods to counter European armies. “The Zulus used the ‘horn formation’ against the British and Boer armies, while the Maasai and others in East Africa used ‘multiplicity or massing’ in the battlefield, literally overwhelming the enemy, and thus compensating for their ‘weak’ weapons by wearing down the enemy for possible retreat,” he says. John Laband, historian, retired history lecturer and author of The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation says that the type of weapons used by traditional African societies could vary enormously from one society to another and from period to period. African communities worked continuously to improve their weapons, with changes inevitably occurring over time, he told Africa in Fact.

Variations in types of weapons depended on a range of factors, including geography, the seasons and the reasons behind any war. Chris Peers, writing in his book Armies of the Nineteenth Century. East Africa: Tribal and Imperial Armies in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, 1800-1900, argues that the types of weapons used by some communities were, in themselves, deterrents to the widespread killing of combatants. Peers quotes the British explorer Joseph Thomson, who visited the Kavirondo region around Lake Victoria in the late 19th century, describing the spears of tribesmen as long with small heads and inherently less lethal. Thomson wrote that combatants also aimed at avoiding getting too close to each other.

“It’s at once seen from their weapons, that they are not warlike people, their spears being of the very poorest with small heads and handles commonly eight feet long, as if they had no desire to get into close quarter with the enemy,” said the explorer. Some African codes of war were so deeply ingrained, Peers writes, that the Karamojong of northern Uganda, who were known as fierce fighters, were were shocked at the inhumanity of African opponents using machine guns in the late 19th century. The Karamojong warriors went into battle yelling war cries based on the names of their oxen, but fell apart on encountering an enemy armed with guns. And after the battle they were less concerned at the huge human losses than they were that their enemy had not offered them a chance to perform their ritual taunting before the battle. Once guns were introduced into Africa, communities incorporated them into their battle strategies.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Chore says, African communities even started making homemade guns. But, as Masika says, no African societies had weapons of mass destruction. Communities, while at war, were forbidden from poisoning water sources out of consideration for women and children. “War atrocities were rare,” says Masika. “An exception was the era of King Shaka of the Zulus, whose philosophy of ‘revenge’ destabilised communities in southern Africa and beyond.” Yet, despite possessing the assegai, arguably a “superior weapon”, even the Zulus did not generally annihilate the communities they defeated in battle, preferring to displace or assimilate them.

Justus Wanzala is a Kenyan journalist who writes on the environment, climate change, agriculture and practical technologies as well as sustainable development and social issues. Currently, he works for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and as a freelancer/contributor for various publications across the globe.

Rivers of arms

Democratic Republic of Congo: arms flow

Despite an arms embargo, a constant flow of weapons into the DRC from around the globe ensures that peace remains elusive

A Congolese army soldier carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he walks up a road leading to the frontline on the outskirts of the provincial city of Goma in November 2008.

Since the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been categorised as a “post-conflict nation”. Yet, a low-intensity war is still raging in eastern Congo and despite a UN arms embargo the flow of weapons continues unabated. In the Kivu provinces alone, over the June 2017-June 2019 period, 1,900 civilians were killed and 3,300 others were kidnapped, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the New York University-based Congo Research Group reported in August 2019. Accordingly, some 3,000 violent incidents by more than 130 armed groups were recorded during the period. Dozens of other groups are also active in the Ituri, Upper-Uele, Tanganyika and Kasai provinces.

The main armed groups are the Ugandan led Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in addition to a myriad of Congolese Mai-Mai groups, some of which are supported by the Congolese and Burundian governments, says HRW. These groups are proliferating despite the UN arms embargo. On 28 July, 2003, UN Security Council Resolution 1493 imposed an embargo covering arms supplies and military assistance to all armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. The embargo was imposed in reaction to continued violence in Ituri and North and South Kivu after the withdrawal of foreign armies from the country the year before.

In March 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1807 lifted all restrictions on arms transfers to the DRC government but required the notification of such shipments to the Sanctions Committee, while the embargo on supplies to non-governmental forces remained in place. Such measures are currently in force. Yet, results have been limited on the ground. Despite the embargo, and after the symbolic destruction of 100,000 firearms in Kinshasa on 21 August, 2010, 300,000 small arms were still in the hands of civilians in eastern Congo, as reported at the time by the Brussels-based Information Group on Peace and Security ( GRIP).

Enforcement of the embargo is problematic because rebels from the government’s Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo/ Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) manage to buy weapons despite it, explains Jean-Jacques Wondo, an expert and analyst on DRC security issues. Criminal networks are providing ADF rebels and other groups with arms, ammunition and uniforms bought from corrupt FARDC soldiers. In 2012, according to a UN Security Council report, a network led by (FARDC) General Jean-Claude Kifwa supplied Russian-made AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades and mortars as well as Belgian MAG machine guns and ammunition to the Mai Mai Morgan, in the Province Orientale.

According to Wondo, the current FARDC Deputy Army Chief of Staff, Gen Gabriel Amisi, aka Tango Four, now under EU sanctions, is also supporting some rebel groups. It would appear that the strategy of senior officers in the region includes maintaining a certain level of conflict by arming rebels. The aim is to justify additional budgets for military operations, including danger money paid to the soldiers and fuel, which are siphoned off by these officers for their own benefit, explains Wondo. In September 2018, Gen-Major Jean-Luc Ijila Yav, then in charge of logistics for the FARDC, was jailed in Kinshasa following charges of embezzling ammunition and fuel, says Wondo.

On 1 March, 2018, Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported that ammunition used by the FARDC and the rebels sometimes came from the same stockpiles. The French radio report said that since 2013 several armed groups, including the FDLR, the Nyatura Mai Mai and the Patriots Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo, were equipped with ammunition for the AK-47 manufactured by the China North Industries Corporation (Norinco). Curiously, the radio station reported, this ammunition came from the same stockpile as the bullets fired by a policeman that killed a demonstrator on 25 February, 2018 in Mbandaka. RFI also noted the coincidence that Chinese ammunition used during the repression of demonstrations against Kabila’s third presidential mandate in January 2018 in Kinshasa belonged to the same stockpiles as those used by the ADF rebels.

Rebels have also captured weapons from the FARDC, as in October 2008 when the Rwandan-backed National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) looted a FARDC military depot in Rumangabo (North Kivu) and seized large quantities of weapons. Armed groups also obtain weapons and ammunition from neighbouring states. James Bevan from the UK-based NGO Conflict Armament Research says that the Sudanese government has supplied ammunition to the DRC, a substantial amount of which was also acquired by M23 rebels, including Russian-made 2.7 x 108 mm cartridges used by the FARDC. According to a 2012 UN Security Council report, Rwanda violated the UN arms embargo by supplying arms and ammunition to the M23 group, which also procured 12.7 mm machine guns and ammunition for AK- 47s, RPGs and mortars from the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF).

FRPI rebels in Ituri Province also bartered gold for weapons with a UPDF officer. Weapons from all sorts of origins end up in rebel hands. On 16 October, 2006, Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms found that rebels in Ituri were using sniper rifle bullets manufactured by the Federal Cartridge Company in the United States and 7.62 mm cartridges manufactured by the Pyrkal Greek Powder and Cartridge Company. The same company also exported ammunition to Sudan and Uganda, two countries that are among the sources of origin of weapons found in rebel hands. South African 5.56 mm R4 assault rifles sold to the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) before the 1994 genocide were also found in rebel hands, say UN investigators.

Serbian arms, such the 7.65 mm Zastava Model 70 self-loading pistol, were also found in Ituri in 2006, after they were delivered from Belgrade to Kigali, says Amnesty International. Prior to that, in 2004, an armed group in Bukavu were found in possession of Serbian anti-personnel mines and mortar shells, while in September 2003, the UN says, most of the weapons recovered from the UPC militia in Ituri were 3,000 Kalashnikov rifles and corresponding ammunition from China and Russia. Rebels also get supplies from other armed groups. According to the UN Security Council report of 2012, the M23 supplied weapons and ammunition to the Raia Mutomboki Mai Mai. Since the FARDC have also been accused of many human rights violations, the supply of arms to the DRC government, even if does not violate the UN embargo stricto sensu, risks stoking the fires of repression against the Congolese.

In 2016, DRC arms imports amounted to $43 million, but the amounts vary considerably from one year to another (for example, $151 million in 2010 and $2 million in 2015). According to Wondo, most of the weapons are stockpiled in the Kibomango and Mbakana camps, near Kinshasa. Only the police and the Republican Guard, which remains faithful to the former president, Joseph Kabila, have access to these weapons. The DRC has a large range of suppliers. The FARDC use Belgian-made FN FAL and FNC rifles and MAG machine guns, US-made M16s and Israeli-made Galil rifles. Russia remains one of the main suppliers with 7.62×39 mm AK-47s or the cheaper AKM-59 version, RPD light machine guns and PKM general-purpose machine guns (7.62×54 mm).

Currently, the FARDC are equipped with 20 T-54 and T-55 tanks, 48 T-62 tanks, about 100 howitzers of various calibres, 107 mm and 122 mm rocket launchers and as many mortars. Russia sold four Sukhoi SU-25 airfighters, MI-24 Hind combat helicopters and Mi-17 helicopters to the DRC as well as Zhuk patrol vessels for the Congolese navy. Besides, according to Wondo, in July 2015 the Republican Guard acquired from Russia T-80 M tanks, new-generation rocket launchers and ground-to-air S-300 missiles. According to the FARDC logistical services, in December 2017 the former chief of staff of the presidency, General François Olenga, purchased several Iliouchine 76 Candid and Antonov 124 Condor transport aircraft from Russia. These weapons were airlifted from Sebastopol in Russian Crimea to Kisangani between December 2017 and January 2018.

Other shipments were made by sea to the ports of Matadi and Boma. Moreover, on 23 May, 2018, Russia and the DRC signed a military cooperation agreement that included a weapons sales deal. According to Wondo, on several occasions weapons for the Republican Guard were supplied discreetly via the port of Banana without notifying the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO). Another important supplier is Ukraine, which, in addition to 25 T-64 tanks, has sold 50 T-55 tanks to the DRC in the past decade. In December 2015, a Congolese official delegation led by General Olenga travelled to Kiev to purchase more weapons. More recently, in early 2018, the Beltech Export company from Belarus supplied four L-39 C aircraft to the Congolese air force; prior to this the FARDC had procured Sukhoi-25K and Sukhoi-27 flanker C aircraft from Beltech.

Over the years, China has also become an important source of supply. The list includes Type 56 rifles, which are China’s version of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle RPGs, about 30 T-59 tanks and one Shanghai II patrol vessel for the Congolese navy. In 2018, the Chinese Technology Company supplied 10 Phantom DJI drones for the observation of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma. Serbian-made Zastava M92 rifles are also used by FARDC troops. The Yugoimport-SDPR company supplied Premax-39 and Nestin-class river patrol vessels at the end of 2017, which were used in an assault against the Yatkutumba Mai Mai on Lake Tanganyika in November of that year. Another company called CPR Impex Doo supplied 22,000 5;56 mm M-92 assault rifles and 120 20 mm M-55 anti-aerial guns to the Republican Guard.

In 2018, the Serbian company Privi Partizan also delivered, via the ports of Banana and Matadi, about five million cartridges for various assault rifles and for machine guns. The FARDC are also equipped with 90 AML-60 French Panhard reconnaissance armoured vehicles and 60 Panhard M3 armoured personal carriers. The air force has five Mirage 5 airfighters and Puma, Cougar and SA316 Alouette III helicopters, in addition to 12 Cessna 150 and three Cessna 310 transport aircraft. The long list of suppliers to the DRC includes Spain, which sold three Piraña patrol vessels to the Congolese navy; Brazil, which sold 19 Cascavel armoured cars; and Switzerland, which has supplied 9K32 strela-2 Rapier ground-to-air missiles. Egypt has been a provider of Misr assault rifles, used by the FARDC infantry, which are a copy of the notorious Russian AK-47, and of 20 Fahd armoured person carriers, which were delivered around 1990.

Military observers have said that a large proportion of the tanks, vessels and aircraft are not operational. One of the most controversial DRC deals has been North Korea’s secret supply in 2014 of pistols to the FARDC and to the Congolese National Police. According to an official UN document seen by Reuters news agency, North Korea also sent instructors to provide training for the Presidential Guard. This deal violated the arms embargo imposed on North Korea by UN Security Council Resolution 1874 of 2009. It also violated the arms embargo on the DRC, which requires member states to notify the Security Council Sanctions Committee of arms sales or training to the Congolese army, as stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1807.

Finally, the FARDC has also received domestic supplies from local manufacturer Afridex in Likasi (upper Lualaba Province), which produces AK-47 rifles and ammunition with the technical assistance of the Chinese company Norinco. According to Wondo, who claims to have accessed a confidential army report from the FARDC army chief of staff in 2016, some of the Afridex weapons and ammunition were diverted by military officers to supply local armed groups such as the Bakata Katanga militias.

François Misser is a Brussels-based journalist. He has covered central Africa and Rwanda since 1981 for the BBC, Afrique Asie magazine, New African, and the German daily Tageszeitung. He is the author of several books on the DRC, including Géopolitique du Congo (2006) and Le Congo de A à Z (2010).

A war of words

Cameroon: the deadly cycle

A steady flow of weapons is fuelling the vicious conflict between Cameroon’s Anglophone regions and the government

People protest against Cameroon President Paul Biya on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House in October 2018. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Over the past four years, Cameroon has descended into violence. The central African nation is presently in the throes of the worst internal armed conflict since independence in 1961. A raging conflict in Cameroon’s English speaking regions has left President Paul Biya, 86 – who has been in power since 1982, long before 60% of the country’s 24 million people were born – in a fix. Biya’s government has yet to take measures to stop the deadly conflict. Rather, by using its armed forces, it has escalated it. The conflict in the English-speaking North West and South West regions of Cameroon snowballed into violence in late 2017, but the origins of the conflict can be traced back to colonial power dealings in the 19th century involving Britain and France and, at one point, Germany.

Modern day Cameroon was born out of Kamerun, which Germany annexed on 5 July, 1884. Following Germany’s defeat in the first world war, three quarters of the territory went to France, which was called French Cameroun, while the rest became two separate regions, British Southern Cameroons and British Northern Cameroons. The 1919 partition was the beginning of trouble and marked the semipermanent divide among Cameroonians today. Following independence in 1960/1, Cameroon maintained the French and English systems inherited from its two respective colonisers. The country was split from the onset, based on colonial heritages. As a result, it has been running two separate systems – be it legal, educational, governmental, or other spheres of national life.

According to Verkijika G Fanso, a history professor at the University of Yaounde I, the prevailing animosity is essentially between English-speaking Cameroonians and the government, led and dominated by French-speaking Cameroonians. “They have ruled the country in an authoritarian way since the unification of the two former United Nations (UN) trusteeship territories – French Cameroun and British Southern Cameroons – in 1961. The dignity and statehood of Anglophones was silently destroyed,” Fanso told The Conversation in October 2017. A Francophone majority changed the constitution to a unitary state in a 1972 referendum. The name of the country was also changed in 1984 by a presidential decree from the United Republic of Cameroon (adopted in 1972) to the Republic of Cameroon – the initial name of former French Cameroon at independence.

These developments, among others, have increasingly pushed Anglophones to the wall. From time to time, they have sought autonomy – buttressed by an April 1961 UN resolution, which outlines the unification of the two territories as a federation of two states of equal status and autonomy. Fast forward to late 2016, when English speaking lawyers opposed the appointment of French-educated judges, trained in civil law, to their courts. They complained that the judges had not mastered the English language or the English legal system, which is based on common law. The aggrieved lawyers also wanted certain legal instruments translated into English, particularly the Uniform Act adopted by the Organisation for the Harmonisation of Business Law in Africa, which has 17 member states in west and central Africa and regulates corporate business between them. English teachers then joined the protest.

One of their grievances was the government’s “harmonisation” of the Anglophone and Francophone sub-systems of education, which has seen French teachers with little or no appropriate language competencies transferred to English schools. Lawyers and teachers in the English speaking regions declared an indefinite work stoppage, in an attempt to force the government to yield to their demands. But the government responded with force. Modest demonstrations spiralled into mass protests, which were met with mass arrests by security forces. Between December 2016 and January 2017, government engaged the lawyers and teachers in talks, but with no result. Leaders were arrested and thrown in jail, while others went into exile. The region’s internet was also switched off for 230 days between January 2017 and March 2018.

These actions led many moderates in the Anglophone community to support more radical measures, such as greater autonomy, federalism and even secession. The government has not continued negotiations, and does not appear to want an end to the conflict. On 1 October, 2017 the newly created Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front, consisting of several separatist movements, declared the independence of the former West Cameroon, naming it the Federal Republic of Ambazonia (Southern Cameroons). But the Cameroon government brutally crushed protests held to mark the day, in what the UN described as “excessive use of force”. This, in turn, fanned the emergence of small armed resistance groups, which later gained popularity and manpower. By the end of the year, Biya had reiterated his intent to act against resistance groups.

Since then running battles between the heavily equipped regular army and increasingly bold armed separatists have left a trail of destruction. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 42,610 refugees fleeing violence in the English-speaking regions were registered in Nigeria by August 2018 – some 53% of them women. The past three years have been a particularly difficult one for women and girls in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. Violent clashes between the two warring parties have left women even more vulnerable as soft targets for soldiers, armed separatist fighters and criminal gangs. Many women and girls are the victims of sexual abuse, but many rape cases go unreported, with victims either killed or too frightened to denounce their attackers. In July 2018, in one of the most notorious cases, a government soldier, Arthur Mbida, raped a 17-year-old lactating mother at a military check point in broad daylight.

Little is known about the outcome of his trial. With most schools in the restive regions closed for the past three years, educational prospects for young women and girls are bleak. Those unable to move elsewhere to continue their schooling easily find themselves forcibly recruited into the ranks of armed groups, pushed into early marriages and experiencing unwanted pregnancies, or they may find themselves offering their bodies in return for protection and/or money. In parts of the north-western region, where customs and traditions are still held sacred, women have had to break age-old taboos, digging graves to bury abandoned corpses left behind by men who have fled for safety. The crisis has also seen a rise in kidnappings for ransom, arrests and detentions, torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. In October 2019, Ayafor Florence, a wardress, was intercepted by armed men on her way to Bamenda.

She was sexually violated and decapitated, her head paraded on the streets. Before that incident, a video appeared online purporting to record a woman buried alive in Guzang. Neola Lyonga, CEO and founder of the Neola Lyonga Foundation, which focuses on volunteerism, told Africa in Fact that she has seen some of the worst forms of human rights abuses – against both women and men. She blames the severity and extent of the crisis on the flow of arms to the country. The relatively untrammelled arms trade appears to take advantage of loopholes in Cameroon’s arms legislation, which dates back to 1973. Efforts have been made to ratify sub-regional instruments on small arms and light weapons, but Cameroon has yet to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), effectively weakening the country’s ability to control the proliferation of small arms, according to Dr Ndi Richard Tanto, a US-based peace and governance expert.

“The crisis has worsened because of access to illicit arms by Anglophone separatist groups,” Tanto told Africa in Fact. A cache of weapons and ammunition the army seized last year during raids on separatist fighters’ camps consisted of hundreds of Danish guns, artisanal pistols and sophisticated firearms grabbed from regular forces. The seized weapons were displayed to Minister of Defence Joseph Beti Assomo on a visit to the North West region on 7 June, 2019. Included among the weapons were US and German-made small arms not used by the Cameroon armed forces. The cache also included home-made cannons, cartridges, knives, machetes, bullets, and artifacts believed to possess magical powers. Where do the separatists get their weapons? An ex-combatant – who has yet to give himself up to a government-run disarmament centre – disclosed to Africa in Fact that the bulk of the weapons come from Nigeria, which shares a porous border of over 1,500 km with Cameroon.

The money to pay for them is raised from community contributions and kidnap ransoms. “General Opopo in Muyenge used to supply us with ‘sticks’ [Danish guns],” he said. “When there were new supplies, he would bring them to our camp in Muyuka. By the time I deserted the camp in late 2018, General Opopo was selling one Danish gun for about FCFA 900,000 [$1,526].” General Opopo is affiliated to the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces, one of the tens of armed separatist groups operating in the North West and South West regions. It is easy to buy arms in Cameroon, says Tapang Ivo Tanku, a US-based spokesperson for separatist group Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF). “We are well-coordinated, especially those of us in the diaspora. We regularly raise funds for weapons. We also do a lot of lobbying with international partners, who I will not identify further.

In addition, we take advantage of the very weak political system, which has been a hallmark of La Republique [du Cameroun] and allows for the fluid movement of arms,” Tanku told Africa in Fact. Government soldiers who provide rebels with guns and bullets are prepared to do the trade because “they are very broke”, he says. The claim cannot be entirely ruled out. In May 2018, a police inspector in charge of the armory of the Mutengene Police College was suspended on charges that he was selling bullets to armed separatists. Tanku insisted the ADF had a right to carry arms. “We don’t see any crime carrying guns to protect our women and children,” he said. The ADF would acquire tanks, rocket propelled grenades and explosives to ramp up its offensive against the Biya regime, he said, adding that the ADF would try to respect the Geneva Convention.

The emergence of arms other than those used by the Cameroon armed forces does suggest that separatists are importing weapons themselves, rather than taking them from government forces. Moreover, some of the parts found in captured arsenals suggest that fighters may be making their own weapons. All these developments indicate uncertain times may lie ahead for Cameroon. Government officials, including Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji, have repeatedly insisted that the form of the state is non-negotiable. The government appears to be determined not to grant concessions on significant structural change, the key demand of the activists. Both the separatists and the government forces are acquiring more arms, and recruitment into the Cameroon army is increasing, says Tanto. He predicts that other regions will seek to change their status or are preparing for armed struggle.

“With the failure of the national dialogue initiated by government, and its refusal to discuss changing the form of the state to give special status to English speaking regions, the future of Cameroon is doomed,” he says.

Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian print and multimedia journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism (local category). He works for independent regional and international outlets, including for Quartz, Thompson Reuters Foundation News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.

An uncomfortable truth

South Africa and weapons: a dirty history

There is evidence that the motives for the murder of three prominent antiapartheid activists were much more complex than official narratives suggest

Protesters gather in front of the South African
Embassy in Paris on 29 March, 1988 to protest
against the assassination that day of Dulcie
September, the African National Congress
representative in France. Photo: YVES SIEUR / AFP

It is 29 March, 2018 in Arcueil, a grey suburb of Paris, France. About a hundred people have gathered under a white tent in front of a grey apartment building. It is raining and the recently scrubbed street under the tent roof smells heavily of Lysol (a cleaning and disinfecting product). Near the wall of the apartment building flowers are placed under a large portrait of Dulcie September. “Here lived Dulcie September, who was killed by apartheid,” reads a plaque on the same wall. In a few hours the mayor of Arcueil, an organising committee, and a representative from the South African embassy will highlight the misdeeds of the apartheid regime and the principled bravery of the late September, freedom fighter and representative of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). Thirty years ago, on 29 March, 1988, so the narrative goes, September was murdered by a racist death squad at the service of the aforementioned regime.

Today, ankle deep in puddles of rainwater mixed with Lysol, we are staying with that narrative. But it wasn’t “apartheid” that killed her, at least not in the way the accepted narrative suggests. September was killed to prevent her from publicly exposing information about – in the words of her then superior in the ANC, Aziz Pahad – “nuclear issues” involving France and South Africa. Before she was murdered she had been frantically calling on both the ANC head office in London and the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa, saying to the latter that she had information, and the former that they needed to come to Paris to help her confront a “sensitive matter”. It would take me seven years to find out that there were in fact nuclear issues, and quite a bit longer to come close to understanding how literally explosive these issues were.

My investigation into the nuclear trail began when a South African journalist told me, some time in 1989 or 1990, about advanced nuclear cooperation between France and South Africa. The nuclear collaboration itself wasn’t shocking – everyone knew France had helped build South Africa’s Koeberg nuclear reactor and was also routinely breaking arms sanctions. But a journalist at The Star newspaper, James Tomlins, told me about something very different: “The South Africans developed a small nuclear warhead,” he said. “It could fit on a missile and completely obliterate a relatively small area like a black township. The French wanted that, though I don’t know why. They were acquiring it in 1987.” Then, I doubted what he said, even if he was reputed to be very well informed. If true, it would mean that the nuclear military help the pariah nation received from France was frighteningly extensive, since South Africa would not have developed such things in isolation.

Had France and other western governments perhaps seen the police state as a friendly nuclear playground, with Pelindaba – South Africa’s main nuclear research facility – a place where one white power happily worked with the other for mutual benefit, far away from activists? I had hesitated to accept what Tomlins said – he was the only source for this. But Pahad’s statement, in 1995, when he told me Dulcie had “stumbled on nuclear issues”, confirmed it somewhat. As did a 1995 newspaper article in the South African Sunday Times that quoted “disgruntled Pelindaba scientists” who felt they were being abandoned by the government after having, they said, developed “modern thermonuclear” technology. This assertion was later also confirmed – albeit in extremely careful wording – in a book written, by the “godfathers” of South Africa’s nuclear programme, Hannes Steyn, Jan van Loggerenberg and Richardt van der Walt.

The small warhead Tomlins had spoken about fitted the description the scientists gave. I never found out how much September actually knew about these developments, but that she knew something is clear from Pahad’s comments. At the time, South Africa was a country under international sanctions; activists were even up in arms about Danish lumpfish caviar sales to the country. Imagine the fallout if Francois Mitterrand’s France had been exposed, then, as a partner and client of the pariah regime in the development of one of the most modern nuclear weapons in the world. It was in that context that my colleagues and I came to understand why rational individuals, from the French government and officials in the London ANC office to a new government in charge in Pretoria, needed to stick with the script: September was an ANC activist killed by an apartheid death squad. It’s nice, when in need of a cover up, to have a simple narrative at hand.

Even more so when it’s a simple “good versus bad” narrative. Which is probably why it took me so long to realise that what Tomlins had told me was very probably the truth. It would be at least another year before I was forced to admit that since no other struggle activist had ever been killed by an “apartheid death squad” in western Europe, they were either singularly ineffective or they were not there. The case of Anton Lubowski, the late lawyer and South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) activist and freedom fighter, has similarly been simplified. On 12 September, 1989 Lubowski was murdered after getting entangled – though he was largely unaware of this, I believe – in a web of shady contracts and intelligence services, which included the Sicilian mafioso Vito Palazzolo, the French secret service and the South African Directorate of Covert Collection. One of the last things he was overheard saying was that he “did not want to do all that these people (involved with diamond mining and casinos) asked of him”.

But those elements have, except from in my work, been removed from every single other narrative about his murder. His story remains tied, just like Dulcie September’s case, to an apartheid death squad with a one-dimensional motive. As a country, South Africa also sticks to the comfortable narrative that legendary ANC guerrilla commander Chris Hani was murdered on 10 April, 1993 by a white supremacist of Polish origin called Janusz Waluś, simply because he was a communist and black. A month after the rainy ceremony in Arcueil, in April 2018 – it was the 25th anniversary of the Hani assassination – South African newspapers reported that Waluś had once again been denied parole, reverting, also once again, to the lone white supremacist killer narrative.

Not even a week before, the same newspapers had published reviews of my book Incorruptible, which highlighted that Waluś’s address book had been full of secret service and arms trade contacts; that a second perpetrator was seen at the murder scene; that the area had been buzzing with military intelligence activity just before and after the murder and that the “eye witness” the state had relied on to pin the murder on Waluś had not even been there at the time. The context of the murder, which took place in the midst of the “buying up” of the erstwhile ANC army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), by arms companies, British Aerospace in particular, had also been widely published by then. My book quoted fellow former MK soldiers who were convinced Hani had stood in the way of this “selling out” and that was why he was murdered.

Important ANC and MK leaders – notably later Minister of Defence Joe Modise – had been preparing a R60 billion (then $6 billion) arms deal at the time, with the lion’s share of this deal going to British Aerospace. The newspapers disputed none of this. Yet, in one week, the dominant narrative had snapped back again: Waluś was the sole Hani killer and we were now discussing the denial of his parole. The rest was forgotten. The narrative snaps back, again and again. It has happened in all three cases, and repeatedly, in the past three decades. State, or state-aligned institutions, don’t like to rock the boat when there are powerful interests to protect. For example, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in the mid 90s and meant to unravel the legacy of apartheid atrocities, fired Swedish investigator Jan Ǻke Kjellberg after his work (which I assisted) on the September and Lubowski murders brought him close to people in the French government.

There was probably also a good reason why the TRC’s Chris Hani investigation was delegated to a singularly incompetent policeman from KwaZulu-Natal (Wilson Magadhla, who made no impression whatsoever other than in one of his reports, creating the immortal sentence, “The solution to these cases will only be found when these cases are solved”). If I have learnt any lesson in the past 30 years, it is that if an uncomfortable truth is not in an influencer’s interest to pursue, it will not be pursued. It may, therefore, be entirely up to those who associate ourselves with the fight for social justice and human rights to stop being satisfied with simple narratives that place us on the side of the good and give us an identifiable enemy at which to rage. Amilcar Cabral’s “claim no easy victories, tell no lies” may mean that we sometimes have to deal with an “enemy within”, as Dulcie September wrote in her last letter to her family.

Maybe society’s public debate bodies – the media predominantly among them, but also research institutes and scholars – should sit upright when evidence is unearthed that shows the complexity of power, of expensive projects, trade deals, corrupt states and failing governments. I am thinking of development aid here; I am thinking of Bill Gates and the African Union. Like stacks of dirty dishes in a neglected sink, you can ignore uncomfortable truths for a long time. And then you can, of course, bring out the Lysol when the cockroaches start crawling all over everything.

Investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink has spent 30 years on the quest to find out the truth behind the assassinations of Dulcie September, Anton Lubowski, Chris Hani and other southern African freedom fighters.

The following links provide pointers to some useful additional reading: Disarmament-Africas-Nuclear-Experience/ dp/0595356656)

Incorruptible: Incorruptible-Murders-Dulcie-September-Lubowski/dp/0639926800 chronicle-0/9-dulcie-hani-lubowski-a-storythat- could-not-be-told

Evelyn Groenink is an investigative journalist, editor and author based in South Africa. She has published several books, most recently Incorruptible, on the murders of anti-apartheid activists Dulcie September, Anton Lubowski and Chris Hani. Her journalistic and editing work can be seen on

Distress and deep uncertainty

South Africa: tough at the top

Much of the country’s private defence sector has enjoyed strong growth since 1994, but the state-owned flagship, Denel, is in serious trouble

A Russian air force Tupolev Tu-160 makes a brief stopover at Waterkloof air base near Pretoria in South Africa on October 23 last year. The aircraft’s brief visit to the country was timed to coincide with President Vladimir Putin’s Africa Summit in Sochi, where African leaders concluded several billion dollars worth of arms deals with his government. Photo: EMMANUEL CROSET / AFP

Since sanctions were lifted with the 1994 political settlement, South Africa’s defence exports have surged. In the five years to the end of 2018, South Africa was the world’s 20th largest weapons exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. That position is well above its GDP per capita ranking and shows SA punches well above its weight in this field. In the face of a border war, extensive internal unrest, and international arms sanctions, the apartheid government built a sizeable and technologically advanced defence industry to ensure the greatest possible self-sufficiency in its supply of weapons. Today, however, South Africa’s defence industry is a fraction of the size it was in the dying days of apartheid in the early 1990s. The industry faces tougher international competition, as technological capabilities are now far more widely spread.

It also now threatened by an own goal in the form of mismanagement of the government-owned defence giant, Denel, which is in distress. Denel is the core of the industry and it has historically been innovative. The company has immense expertise, employs highly-experienced engineers, and draws on many local suppliers. Now, thanks to mismanagement, it is most unlikely that it will survive in its current form or size, despite government’s bailout. Sell-offs and re-organisations are likely to be key to a turnaround, impacting its work force and suppliers. South Africa has a diversified and high technology defence sector, manufacturing various types of ammunition, assault and sniper rifles, fuses, armoured vehicles, radars, sophisticated optics, aircraft parts, unmanned aerial vehicles, sophisticated missiles, and much else.

The sector consists of the giant, Denel, but also a number of medium-sized companies such as Paramount, Tellumat, Reunert, and a large number of small companies, many of them entirely reliant on exports. Its companies are dependent on imports for parts and sub-systems, but it contributes significant added value and export revenue to the economy through design, integration and manufacturing. Much of the country’s private defence sector has enjoyed strong growth since 1994, despite the limited domestic market. The smaller technology firms have few overheads but need to export to survive. As they do no or little business with the South African government, they do not need to meet black economic empowerment requirements, allowing owners to retain greater control.

Paramount, with 3,000 employees, sells protected vehicles, aviation products, and security services across the world and manufactures in a number of countries. Milkor, formed in 1980, makes a 40 mm Multiple Grenade Launcher, which, it says, is used in 67 countries. It is also involved in armoured vehicle production, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development, naval systems, and cyber security. RapidM is a small Pretoria-based company that designs and manufactures high-end military radios. Among the bigger defence companies is Reutech, a stock exchange listed company, which develops and manufactures radars, remote control weapon systems, and electronic fuses. Tellumat is also a diversified defence and security company with a large variety of solutions, including unmanned aerial vehicles. South Africa’s defence industry came off its peak in the early 1990s, soon after the 1994 settlement.

According to a survey conducted two years ago by the South African Aerospace Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD), there were about 15,000 people employed in the industry, compared to 130,000 in the early 1990s. The purchase in the mid 90s of new naval corvettes and frigates, Saab Gripen fighters, BAE Hawk lead-in jet trainers, flight trainers and helicopters gave local industry a boost. But spending to re-equip the navy and air force was mainly offshore. Local offset agreements with German, British, Swedish and other suppliers – which would have seen some manufacturing and supply contracts going to local firms – were not as large or as long-lasting as promised. Since the post-1994 arms deals, there have been no acquisition projects on that scale, forcing companies to look offshore for business. Even full delivery on a Denel project for new Patria Infantry Fighting Vehicles, for which there was a budget, has been delayed by many years.

At little above 1% of GDP, which is low by international standards, and low economic growth, the defence budget is constrained. In real 2017 US dollar terms, the defence budget grew only 7.5% from 1994 to 2018, according to SIPRI. This has left little in the budget for much beyond limited operations and salaries. Without new domestic acquisition projects, there is little chance of a return to the sector’s heyday. However, the industry still has the capabilities to generate new technologies. Having developed its own version of a military-industrial complex, South Africa’s defence industry became a world technology leader in some areas. This was based on tight cooperation between the military; its procurement agency, Armscor (which did research and development, production, and procurement); the government’s technology think tank, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); various parastatals; private industry and university engineering departments.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid government’s war with insurgency movements based in Angola made necessity the mother of invention. In the fight against the South West African People’s Liberation Organisation (SWAPO) and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), military personnel carriers with V-shaped hulls capable of dispersing mine explosions were developed, for example. South Africa became an early leader in the design and production of protected military vehicles. The G5 and G6 long-range 155 mm artillery systems were developed in response to the South African Air Force’s loss of air superiority over Angola. Its inability to fly missions deep into Angola due to the presence of sophisticated Soviet and Cuban anti-aircraft systems generated a requirement for long-range artillery. Local industry also developed an early expertise in UAVs, electronic warfare and military radios with frequency hopping to avoid interception.

With external help, the government also produced nuclear weapons, which it gave up on the eve of the handover to the ANC government. The Rooivalk attack helicopter showed considerable expertise in both project management and technology development, but was never a commercial success due to the limited local market for the product and the market advantages of the Boeing-made Apache within NATO. Since 1994, the country has continued to build on these developments. Notable has been the international success of the RG- 31 Nyala and other South African-designed and built protected troop carriers. In the 25 years since 1994, the US has been South Africa’s largest defence product export market, with its purchase of the RG-31 and other protected troop carriers for use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Denel Dynamics has developed a fifth-generation wing-tip mounted air-to-air missile, the A-Darter, which locks onto a target after launch, and which has been bought by the South African and Brazilian air forces.

In a major coup, Denel sold its Umkhonto vertical launch surface-to-air missile to the Finnish navy. Another product shows that the South African industry remains highly capable in product development: three years ago a new locally developed and manufactured widearea surveillance system was launched in the Kruger National Park. Known as Meerkat, the device uses a radar system developed by Reunert, and an electro-optical system to detect, classify and monitor humans in the park with the aim of fighting poaching. But Denel’s current problems are similar in nature to those of other South African public enterprises. As with other state owned enterprises (SOEs), its failings are due to bad management, poor procurement controls and alleged fraud linked to the activities of the Gupta family – a family of immigrants from India who are said to have enjoyed unparalleled influence over the Zuma administration.

The Auditor General, a government office with credibility, has given a “disclaimer of opinion” for two successive years on Denel’s annual financial statements, saying they do not include enough information to conduct a proper audit. Corruption involving the Guptas may have played a large role in Denel’s demise. City Press newspaper has reported that Denel could have lost about R30 billion in business, including deals with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait, after an executive allegedly insisted that kickback contracts be signed with a Gupta associate. Denel has also lost contracts, such as one with Chad to supply 250 protected troop carriers, and has had to give up others, including one linked to the Airbus A400M military transporter. Liquidity problems have meant delays in paying suppliers and an inability to fully meet its payroll on time. This has damaged morale and meant the loss of engineering skills.

Meanwhile, technology capabilities have proliferated, and today there are more manufacturers of protected vehicles and long-range artillery systems around the world. Government has provided a R1.8 billion bailout, which is slightly in excess of Denel’s loss in the company’s last financial year, and is committed to providing an additional R1 billion. But the government is bailing out other failing SOEs, such as Eskom, the national power utility, and national carrier South African Airways. Large cash injections to SOEs are unsustainable in the face of a growing fiscal deficit. The most likely course will be to downsize Denel and find a “strategic equity partner” for either the whole or parts of the business. Finding a partner will be tricky, as political acceptability will be paramount. A Saudi offer was rejected.

Given the rhetoric of the ruling ANC, meanwhile, companies from western countries would be an unlikely choice. At the recent Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, a defence official said his country signalled a keenness to enter into a weapons production deal with South Africa. Closer ties between the two countries were also demonstrated by a brief visit in October of two Russian Air Force TU-160 long-range bombers, which landed at Waterkloof air force base. But a Russian or Chinese partner could compromise South Africa’s position as a weapons supplier that is independent of the major powers and alliances. South Africa lacks the muscle to put together deals that are part of larger political and aid packages that could greatly open the African market. Such financial packages have long been a big part of global weapon sales. Another hurdle is that the country is not part of any military alliance, which could help open markets.

Unlike major powers, South Africa rarely restricts the use of its equipment, but there is still tough competition. As the sector seeks to export more, there will be mounting pressure to relocate manufacturing and other activities to client countries, which could in time shrink South Africa’s domestic defence manufacturing base. Other international defence contractors, including some in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have employed some of SA’s experienced engineering talent in this area. In recent months, South African defence exports have suffered a heavy blow in a dispute over the country’s right to inspect foreign military facilities as part of an enduser certification process to ensure weapons are not transferred to third parties.

Large sales by Denel and Rheinmetall Denel Munition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been blocked by the South African government’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, the agency which approves defence exports, because these countries were not prepared to sign end-user certificates, which allow for inspection. But it is Denel’s problems – the absence of large domestic military acquisition projects, the current low confidence levels in the local business environment, and the loss of engineering talent – that are hurting the sector the most. All in all, longer-term growth for the sector could now be difficult.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a freelance journalist specialising in defence issues. He has written extensively for DefenceWeb, a South African defence news site and was International Affairs Editor and Economics Editor at Business Day. He holds an MA in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Jonathan has also worked as a management consultant and for the World Bank.
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