Russia has long been the biggest exporter of arms to sub-Saharan Africa, but a new study indicates Western sanctions are making it harder for Moscow to sell weapons, opening the door for more Chinese-made arms.
Even before the Ukraine war, China had increased its sales of weapons to sub-Saharan Africa, exporting almost three times as many arms to the region between 2017 and 2020 as the United States, according to a report this month by the Atlantic Council. The lion’s share went to just five African countries where China has invested heavily in its key infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative.
For example, in 2021, Nigeria — which is fighting an Islamist insurgency and spent $4.5 billion on its military that year — purchased 34.4% of its arms from China, with Russia accounting for more than 6% and the U.S. — while still by far the largest arms exporter globally – just over 2%.
The Atlantic Council researchers say this trend will likely continue.
“Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine may open additional opportunities for Chinese military influence in Nigeria. International sanctions in the wake of that invasion may limit the benefits of Nigeria’s 2021 agreement with Moscow for military equipment and training—and could mean an increase in Nigeria’s arms imports from China,” the report said.
“U.S. sanctions of many Russian defense contractors are forcing Nigeria to consider alternatives: China is clearly the default option as the growing relationship between China and Nigeria in the past few years has also made China the top arms exporter to Nigeria, surpassing Russia in arms exports for two consecutive years,” it found.
China, Russia exporting arms to Africa
The Atlantic Council estimated that between 2010 and 2021, Russia accounted for 24% of all arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa, China for 22% and the U.S. for 5%. China's arms exports peaked in 2013, the year the Belt and Road Initiative was launched.
Oluwole Ojewale, a Nigerian researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, told VOA there were two reasons behind Nigeria and other African nations turning to China for arms. One, he said, is the fact that China is Africa’s largest trade partner generally. The other is that sales of Chinese arms — unlike U.S. arms exports which are governed by International Traffic in Arms regulations — don’t come with strings attached.
“It’s lax on the part of China, on the part of Russia, some of these autocratic countries, compared to the U.S.,” he said, noting that in the past Nigeria has turned to Russia for arms in its fight against Boko Haram because the U.S. was concerned their weapons could be used in abuses.
Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said the Atlantic Council data showed a “big jump” in recent Chinese arms sales compared to previous data.
“I believe that the sanctions that have been incurred by Russia, by the Russian government, by Russian defense companies is obviously a boon for China… China really stands to benefit,” he said, adding that “strategically speaking China and Russia are actually competitors when it comes to weaponry on the African continent.”
“I think one also has to mention the fact that African countries have been quite disappointed at what they’ve seen in how Russian hardware, especially tanks and heavy weapons have fared in Ukraine,” Nantulya said. “They’ve not fared very well.”
In terms of what exactly African countries are buying, Nantulya said that early on, Rwanda purchased China’s “Red Arrow” missile system, and Namibia procured patrol craft and attack vessels from China, as has Algeria. China has always had a monopoly on weapons and training in Tanzania, he said, and in Cameroon, the country’s naval assets have been fitted with high caliber Chinese guns.
The Atlantic Council said China also has graduated from selling mainly small arms to selling heavier weaponry to Africa, and Nantulya noted that “unmanned aerial vehicles have become a very popular defense article among African militaries.”
Selling drones, shopping for jets
This year, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is fighting a rebel movement in the east, purchased nine Chinese attack drones.
The DRC is also reportedly looking to buy fighter jets and, just last week, a high-level delegation from the China-Africa Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation based in Beijing was in Kinshasa along with People’s Liberation Army officials to discuss a deal.
Thomas Newdick, a defense journalist at the U.S.-based War Zone defense technology website, told VOA that Russia does not have anything to offer comparable to China’s drones. Armed drones, he said, are good for insurgency-like situations — which abound in Africa — and countries are turning to China to purchase them because “the U.S. export guidelines for armed drones in particular are extremely strict.”
China also is selling more aircraft, where Russia used to dominate, he said.
“The Chinese footprint in terms of arms sales has been expanding rapidly, even before the war in Ukraine,” said Newdick, noting that now however, because of the war, “the Russian arms industry is struggling even to meet its domestic requirements.”
Asked for comment on its increasing arms exports to Africa, the Chinese Embassy in Washington referred questions to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, which did not respond. The Chinese Mission to the African Union also failed to respond to request for comment, as did an A.U. spokeswoman.
As well as military hardware, China also provides regular training for African forces, as does the U.S.
“For decades, the United States demonstrated this commitment through sustained efforts to build defense capacity, particularly through professional military education, grant assistance, security agreements, joint exercises, training, and military exchanges,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told VOA.
Regardless of where they buy their weapons, analysts say both Western-supplied weapons and Chinese weapons can fall into the wrong hands or be used in human rights abuses.
The U.S. sells billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, an autocratic regime that has been accused of rights abuses in the war in Yemen.
“It matters less where governments of African countries choose to buy arms. What we need to underscore is that irrespective of the source, arms can still fall into the hands of organized criminal groups” including terrorists, said Ojewale.
With African governments increasingly turning to more sophisticated weapons like attack drones and missile systems, analysts expect insurgent and terrorist groups to upgrade their weapons to keep pace.