In many ways, the Angola of today – with its booming natural-resource-driven economic growth and relative stability – is a far cry from the war-torn and ravaged country of the Cold War era. In that period, it was the subject of a protracted and bloody civil war in which the country also become the site of various geopolitical proxy wars involving the likes of the Soviet Union, US, South Africa and Cuba. International powers backed the freedom movement of their choice and supplied it with arms and funding, intensifying and perpetuating the brutal conflict.
By contrast, Angola today has been at peace for over a decade, the militant groups have become political parties, and the country is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. However, some things, it seems, never change.
Last month, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, embarked on three-day tour of Angola in a bid to strengthen relations with its old friend, and arguably the most significant deal that came out of it was a $1 billion contract for arms. Under this new deal, Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms dealer, will supply Angola with equipment such as 18 Su-30 fighter jets, Mi-17 transport helicopters, tanks and artillery, build an ammunition plant, and provide maintenance services.
Despite the weakening of ties between Angola and Russia since the end of the Cold War and the end of Angola’s Civil War in 2002, some experts say that the importance of the Russian-Angolan arms trade remained strong.
In a new report titled ‘Angola: Russia and Angola – the Rebirth of a Strategic Partnership?’, the authors claim that “defence remains the most solid Russia-Angola cooperation dimension” and that “to date, Russia is Angola’s most strategic military partner.”
Ana Christina Alves, senior researcher at the Global Powers and Africa Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and co-author of the report, explains: “Military equipment is undoubtedly the largest and most profitable side of Russia’s trade with Africa though the figures [for arms] unfortunately don’t feature in official bilateral trade data. If these were included, the bilateral trade volume would appear much more impressive.”
Irina Filatova, Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and a professor at the National Research University, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, explains why Russia is keen to keep up this trade.
“Much of Russia’s exports to Africa consist of military equipment,” she says, “and Russia has not found a market for many of its other exports in Africa. Military equipment is obviously a solid source of funds for Rosoboronexport and ultimately for Russia’s budget.”
Furthermore, the benefits of African arms deals to Russia can seem all the clearer when delving into the actual equipment being traded. According to reports, for example, Russia had been hoping to offload the 18 Su-30 fighter jets to be sent to Angola as part of the recent $1 billion deal ever since India returned them in 2007. They were first sold to India in the late 1990s, and as the country upgraded its military hardware, it used the older Su-30s in part-exchange deals. It is from these returned jets that Angola will acquire its “new” equipment, but this kind of arrangement is far from unique.
"It is not the first time Russia has sold less-advanced, outdated, or even below standard military equipment and arms to Africa," says Shaabani Nzori, graduate of the Gubkin Oil and Gas University and independent analyst based in Moscow. “Russia and its leaders always try to offload their useless, outmoded and obsolete machinery and equipment to Africa, and surprisingly, the Angolan leadership is accepting this.”
Nzori continues, “Of course, Africa should not stop buying Russian arms, but what is really needed is for African governments to be more demanding that they get the right modern arms, and military equipment and not accept to be a waste bin and dumping grounds for Russian obsolete machinery.”
Indeed, many experts are unsure of why African governments continue to purchase outdated Russian military equipment and why Angola has struck this new deal.
“From my point of view, this is not a very good allocation of funds by African counties,” says Filatova. Meanwhile, David Shinn, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and former US ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), identifies a number of unanswered questions surrounding Angola’s recent agreement.
"One has to ask why Angola needs such a high performance fighter aircraft and who is the potential enemy?” he says. “Angola is an oil-rich country and can afford this purchase but it seems the money could be put to better use. There is also the question of who will fly and maintain the aircraft. Does Angola have pilots trained to fly SU-30s? I doubt it. Until Angolan pilots can be trained, will foreign pilots be hired? If so, what is the point?”
“In all fairness to Angola,” he continues, “a couple of other African countries have also purchased or plan to purchase SU-30s from Russia. Uganda has taken delivery of six and expressed interest in another six, and I would raise the same questions about Uganda’s purchase as I did about Angola.”
The exact reasons behind Angola’s $1 billion deal with Russia – as well as those behind other African countries’ ongoing military agreements with Russia – thus remain somewhat uncertain. However, what does seem clear is that despite changed circumstances, the end of the Cold War, and cessation of conflict in many countries, arms deals remain a critical component of African-Russian relations. And if the recent agreements are anything to go by, that fact is unlikely to change any time soon.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Arms Deals with Africa: From Russia With Love||The Arms Trade Treaty: In Search of a Silver Bullet||Bringing Russia in from the Cold?|