The publication last year of Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World: inside the global arms trade provided the RAS with a neat opportunity to invite the author to SOAS to speak about the Africa-related elements in the book. After his early experience (and subsequent book After the Party) serving as an increasingly disillusioned ANC MP in South Africa, Feinstein has now crafted himself a niche as a writer, commentator and campaigner against the global arms trade. The Shadow World is a massive but eminently readable tome with content ranging from a history of the major players in the development of the industry, to a case-by-case study of the role of the trade in Africa – from the vast deals between arms manufacturers and governments, to the impact the trade has in perpetuating and intensifying African conflicts.
Also speaking was Richard Alderman – Head of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) – whose recent work has included investigating the actions of British company BAE systems over the sale of a vastly expensive military air traffic control system to the Tanzanian government in 2001. A deal that former Secreatary of State for International Development, Clare Short, described as “squalid.”
Whilst he gains credit for speaking at a public forum in a university noted for its anti-establishment tendencies, Alderman’s presentation and interventions might reasonably be described as ‘defensive’. This was seemingly in anticipation of criticism related to the BAE Systems case, which last year resulted in the company paying a fine of £30 million – £26 million of which has gone to the Tanzanian government to be spent on education. Alderman described this as “a pretty good deal”, and whilst it must be said that this is better than nothing, and he should be congratulated that this fine did not go straight into the coffers of the UK Treasury, it does seem to miss the point somewhat. A court case has never taken place, those who paid and received bribes (in both the UK and Tanzania) have not been brought to account. If, as Feinstein’s book describes so eloquently, we are analysing a global system of corruption, where the arms trade is the means by which the beast is fed, then fining BAE does little to strike at the heart of the problem.
Feinstein himself resigned as an MP in South Africa after the ANC refused to launch an investigation in to the corruption allegations associated with the country’s 1999 arms deal – a deal that BAE was partner to, after being put on the short list at a late stage by South African Defence Minister Joe Modise. Allegations surrounding the deal continue to dog senior members of the ANC including current President Jacob Zuma, Feinstein arguing that it was engineered primarily to enrich politicians and their business allies while defrauding ordinary South Africans.
Africa lies very much at the heart of the book, and Feinstein clearly cares about victims of war across the continent – demonstrated in a style that can sometimes verge on emotional fixation with specific examples of brutality (hands cuts off by the RUF in Sierra Leone, drugged child soldiers in Liberia etc). Whilst it is hard to argue with the horror of such events, descriptions of ‘an orgy of killing and destruction’ in Sierra Leone, facilitated by arms transfers from notorious gun-runner Leonid Minin, sit slightly uncomfortably next to the more sober analysis of deals made by companies like BAE systems, which illustrate a systematic abuse of economic and political power.
As BBC World Service Africa Editor Martin Plaut suggested in an intervention at the discussion event, “death is cheap in Africa,” and “lots of money doesn’t necessarily mean lots of death.” Whilst Paul Holden, a researcher on the book and panellist, argued convincingly that arms proliferation in, for example, the Rwandan civil war, created a ‘force multiplier’ effect, enabling extremist elements in the Hutu regime to carry out the subsequent genocide, it is also notable that the majority of deaths were carried out systematically with machetes, knives and blunt instruments.
The major correlation between lives lost and the arms trade should be looked for in the diversion of budget expenditure in African countries away from healthcare or education, and towards unnecessary weapons systems. This is coupled with the corrupting influence of the trade, seen most clearly in the South African case. This is a point Feinstein himself makes strongly, but I would have liked to have seen this analysis applied more systematically with regards to countries like Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Somalia, where he concentrates on illustrating the actual violence, rather than convincingly demonstrating a causal link between the arms trade and the state collapse that lies at the heart of the violence.
However, this does not detract greatly from what is a carefully constructed book written with real passion. There is no space here to go in to detail on its other chapters such as those on the ‘al-Yamamah’ deal with Saudi Arabia, or the US government’s use of dealers like Minin and the charismatic Joseph der Hovsepian, during the war in Iraq – illustrating the ‘grey’ areas of the trade, where leading figures switch between legal and illegal activities with seeming impunity. The vast sums of money and resources available to traders to avoid prosecution make it extremely difficult, as Richard Alderman argued, to pursue those guilty of corruption, or other illegal practises, associated with it. Difficulties, he added, that were not always appreciated by commentators on the SFO’s work.
Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Arguments Online