Arms race hots up in East Africa

A Kenya Army helicopter patrolling the airspace in Kwale District on May 3, 2011.

What you need to know:

  • Uganda’s budget for military spending now surpasses Kenya’s expenditure for the first time, says new global arms report

Competition for military superiority in the East African Community has seen Uganda’s arms expenditure surpass Kenya’s for the first time this year, a new global arms report shows.

Kampala spent US$1.02 billion (Sh83 billion) — much more than Kenya’s US$735 million (Sh61 billion), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) says. The institute does research into conflict and arms control.

The most advanced

In particular, Uganda’s acquisition of six SU-30MK Russian jets is said to have elevated its air force to one of the most advanced in East and Central Africa.

The reasons for the increased budget, according to the report, include competition for regional military superiority, especially with Kenya, and the threat of a spillover from potential conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Others included the operation in Somalia against Al-Shabaab where the region’s armies, including Kenya’s, are fighting under the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and against Joseph Kony’s rebels in the DR Congo are quoted as reasons for Uganda’s ballooning military expenditure.

The friction with Kenya over Migingo Island almost sparked a confrontation and this is also cited as justification for more military spending by Kampala.

Kenya’s military expenditure has also been going up in the last decade. The country spent only Sh14 billion on the military in 2000 compared to more than Sh60 billion today.

Both Kenya and Uganda have seen imports in military hardware increase significantly in 2002-2006 and 2007-11.

Kenya did not import major arms in 2002-2006 but in 2007-11 it received 15 second-hand F-5E combat aircraft from Jordan, 32 WZ 551 APCs and four Z-9WA helicopters from China, three Mi-171 helicopters from Russia and 35 Puma M-26 APCs from South Africa.

In 2011, Kenya used some of the recently acquired weapons in its campaign in Somalia. Uganda’s imports increased by over 300 per cent, mainly due to the delivery of four Su-30MK combat aircraft and associated guided weapons from Russia in 2011.

To compile details of the arms purchases, Sipri researcher Pieter Wezeman said the organisation gets information from several open sources and focuses on major arms deals.

He said the information is not complete and that there are deals they might miss. Of the small arms and light weapons, assault rifles and submachine guns transferred in sub-Saharan Africa in the last four years, Uganda received 17 per cent and Kenya, which remains the biggest military spender in the region took 23 per cent.

Kenya is reported to have procured 51,500 while Uganda got 38,000 of the arms.

In Uganda’s case, it noted, President Yoweri Museveni has always wanted to be seen as the military giant of the region. “He has wanted a well-equipped army ever since his government formulated its security policy in 2001.”

Relatively peaceful

The report questioned such heavy military expenditure given that his country is relatively peaceful and, most importantly, in the economic doldrums.

According to The Independent of Uganda, Kampala’s arms appetite is said to have been whetted by its oil discovery with the world’s weapons manufacturers increasingly seeing it as a potential buyer.

High military spending is synonymous with Africa’s top oil producers from Angola, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and even mineral-rich South Africa which, despite not having any wars, is Africa’s biggest military spender.

President Museveni, it reports, defended the purchases, saying they would help fight insurgents, especially the Lord’s Resistance Army.

He said Uganda had paid heavily for delays in acquiring high quality equipment.

“We suffered a lot fighting the LRA because of poor equipment. The UPDF was on foot just like the rebels and it became hard to flush them out,” he said. “The jets are meant for bad elements that want to destabilise peace in Uganda.”

In final efforts to wipe out the LRA, including the group’s leader, Kony, who has terrorised the region with frequent attacks over the past two decades, Uganda, Central African Republic, South Sudan and DR Congo have put together a 5,000-strong force backed by the United Nations and African Union.

“It is likely that more weapons and ammunition have been imported into the region from countries that do not report on their arms exports in sufficient detail or at all,” the report notes.

Additional reporting by The Independent of Uganda


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