Hungry For Guns
issue 221 - July 1991
Hungry for guns
African peasants die and crop failure gets the blame. But, George Ayittey
says, we should be pointing the finger elsewhere. He explores a
cause that leaders in the rich world - and in Africa - conceal.
AMNA was grinding millet when it happened. She was six months pregnant. The other women had just come back from their day's work in the sorghum fields and were chattering and laughing. Their laughter faded as they heard the distinctive rumble of army tanks. Within minutes army troops swooped into the town, rounded up a large group of about 400 people - women, men, children - and, accusing them of collaborating with 'the enemy', the soldiers drove two tanks over the people, machine-gunning those who tried to escape.
Amna survived because she fell under the trunk of a large tree. Feigning death, she lay until nightfall among the carnage of her fellow townspeople. Five small children, covered by their parents, also survived and wandered screaming among the bodies. Amna heard soldiers arguing whether to kill the children. Finally they agreed not to waste bullets: the children would soon die of thirst anyway.
Around 80,000 people fled the town of She-eb in north-eastern Eritrea that day as the army looted and burned the shops. Soldiers also slaughtered 10,000 sheep, goats, cattle and camels, putting carcasses down the town's only well, thus polluting it for ever.
The brutalities were committed by former dictator Colonel Mengistu's Ethiopian army, which was waging civil war against the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Such events were common in Ethiopia - but by no means limited to that country. Military atrocities are rife in many African nations - like Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Somalia and Zaire, to name but a few. Civil wars and 'final offensive' campaigns give military regimes excuses to perpetrate atrocities against innocent peasants which are reminiscent of Africa's colonial past.
Naive Westerners think true freedom came to Africa after independence from colonial rule. To them a black man governing a black African nation is enough to mean the country has been liberated. They do not distinguish between peasants - the real people of Africa - and their crocodile rulers. Burdened by collective guilt over the iniquities of colonialism, these Westerners shy away from condemning atrocities meted out by 'educated' African heads of state against their own people: the slaughter of African peasants. But let a mere 100 African giraffes be killed and the whole Western world would erupt in deafening outrage.
More infuriating still are the African intellectuals who vehemently defend military rule as uniquely African, based upon African warrior tradition. This is nonsense.
Many ethnic groups did not have standing armies. In the face of imminent external threat the chief would summon young men of a certain age and present them to the king for war. After a war the army was disbanded so that the military did not drain the economy. In the Yoruba kingdom the kankafo - or military head of the war chiefs - was under strict orders never to enter the capital city and thereby stage a coup.
Only in a few African empires and kingdoms such as Dahomey and Zulu did the military play an active role in government. But three or four examples out of over 2,000 chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires in Africa's history hardly constitute 'a traditional pattern'. Even then, the Dahomean and Zulu military did not turn their guns against their own people. Those pre-colonial soldiers knew their function. Shamefully, modern soldiers in Africa are not so educated in this matter.
The modern military is a colonial institution introduced by Europeans into Africa primarily to suppress African liberation struggles. Military rule is as alien and un-African as colonial rule itself - and the military has become the scourge of Africa and the bane of its development. While public services disintegrate, African dictators squander scarce resources on the military.
The proportion of African funds going to equip and pay for armies has been steadily rising - over 40 per cent in Ethiopia, 25 per cent in Mauritania and 20 per cent in Mali. Uganda spends over half of its annual budget on defence. Some of the poorest countries spend more on their military than on health and education.
This pattern is repeated elsewhere in the developing world - with arms spending rocketing from only $1 billion in 1960 to nearly $35 billion in 1987. Three-quarters of the global arms trade involves exports to developing countries.
Who is cashing in on this? The industrialized nations, of course. During the 1980s, NATO countries supplied 31 per cent of Third World arms, France 11 per cent and the Warsaw Pact countries 58 per cent. Instead of stability these purchases have brought chaos and carnage to the very peasants whose sweat and toil earn Africa the foreign exchange to buy these weapons.
Last year in Sudan, for example, the ruling Moslem North deliberately blocked supplies to the hungry South and even bombed relief sites. Then, unbelievably, the Bashir regime exported 300,000 tons of sorghum - a staple food - to Libya and Iraq in order to buy more arms to use against rebels in the south.
As wars rage, food production per head has fallen consistently in Africa over the past 30 years, and Africa's exports have steadily declined, reducing the continent's share of world trade by more than half what it was in 1960.
In the words of Ghanaian peasant Amoafo Yaw:
'The weapons used to butcher the people all come from the farmers' cocoa and coffee money. This has been going on since the days of the colonial masters... and our own governments have continued the system... But the farmers have unconsciously decided they will no longer increase cocoa and coffee production and other items which the State depends on for foreign exchange.'
But the military fufu-heads can always find the resources to purchase weapons and rain bullets on the people. Even the World Bank, not renowned for its humanitarian policies, is beginning to express concern at the level of military spending by African governments.
And West Africa magazine, which historically avoided criticizing African governments, has also begun to complain: '...one million dollars could provide 1,000 classrooms for 30,000 children, and yet it is the cost of a modern tank,' it points out. 'The price of a single helicopter is equivalent to the salary of 12,000 schoolteachers. The policy choice of more tanks means fewer classrooms, with inevitable consequences for economic growth and social development...'
Even some military officers are speaking out and making the links between their countries' economic crisis and soaring military expenditure. For example former Nigerian Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, recently came out with this statement:
'The military intervention in politics in 1966 started a chain of reaction whose deleterious effects are still relevant in our national life today... .The military should not get itself involved in politics. The sooner they leave the stage the better, or else the people may rise up against them.'
Various appeals have been made to industrialized nations to staunch the flow of arms to Africa. If Western governments and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would stop giving loans to dictators in the Third World, they would not be able to terrorize their nations - let alone extend their actions into the international arena.
But do Western governments and the IMF listen? For years they have propped up African regimes that savagely repress their own people - as in countries like Liberia, Kenya and Somalia.
In the words of one Kenyan: 'I see the aid that the US is giving President Daniel arap Moi as a weapon to fight the people of Kenya'. Aid, he went on to say, should be tied to human rights and should be given on condition that the country at least observe its own constitution.
When the World Bank and the IMF insisted on making a $70 million loan to the brutal Barré dictatorship in Somalia during 1989, Somali exiles in Washington were outraged. They staged demonstrations outside the grey offices of the IMF and the World Bank.
'It is immoral madness!' exclaimed one furious demonstrator. 'How can we be expected to pay back the money and interest on what will at once be side-tracked to subsidize the murder of our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters?'
It has now become abundantly clear that appeals, exhortations and preaching aren't going to end the slaughter in Africa. Nor are destructive civil wars like those in Ethiopia or Liberia or Sudan.
The West is being fooled - and is colluding in the deceit. It knows of the billions kept in Swiss banks by the kleptocrats. 'Every franc we send impoverished Africa comes back to France or is smuggled into Switzerland and even Japan,' wrote the Paris daily Le Monde in March 1990.
So what can be done? There is, I believe, only one solution. Support for military regimes has to be removed - both inside and outside the country. A military regime does not depend only upon loyal armed forces but also upon the co-operation of civil servants and intellectuals. By going on strike civil servants may withdraw that support and bring down the regime. It happened twice in Ghana - in 1978 and 1979 - and in Benin in 1989.
But removing support from within the country is not enough, as long as rich foreign arms-selling and aid-donating nations continue giving support from outside.
Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the experience of Bangladesh, where main opposition parties warned donor countries and agencies that any money loaned during the rule of President Hossain Mohammad Ershad would not be paid back.
The money had been hoarded by Ershad and his cronies, but the people, warned Begum Khaleda Zia, would 'not bear the pressure of paying back the debt'. Aid donors responded by withholding funds and two weeks later the military government of President Ershad collapsed.
So it can be done. The question is when will the industrialized world stop propping up dictators, selling them arms and feeding the militarism that is costing the lives of millions of African peasants?
Ghanaian George Ayittey is visiting professor of economics at The American University, Washington DC.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.