As it was, indeed, looking for profitable business, investment and trade rather than development aid, Angola, a south-central African republic, announced corporate plans to diversify its state business away from purchasing to fully-fledged manufacturing of Russian military equipment for the southern African market, and most possible other regions in Africa.
While heading a delegation for a four-day visit from April 2-5 on an invitation from the Kremlin, President João Lourenço, said in an exclusive interview with the local Russian media, Itar-TASS, that Angola is one of the principal buyers of Russian arms and his country wants, not only buy but also to produce them, - outlining the government's grandiose plan.
"As for our military and technical cooperation with Russia - it will continue and be deepened. We would like to evolve from our current state of purchasers of Russian military equipment and technologies towards becoming the manufacturers and having an assembly plant of Russian military equipment in our country," he told the news agency.
Although this was the Angolan leader's first official visit to Russia in this capacity, he has first-hand knowledge about the Russian capital, since he studied at the Military-Political Academy in 1978-1982.
Russian Defense Ministry and Rosoboronexport have made no official comment on the alleged deals, but local Russian financial newspaper Vedomosti said, in essence, such highly military deal with Angola could offer Russia a conduit to the southern region and would cement its position as a controlling super power in the weaponry market.
Over the years, Russia has made "military-technical cooperation" as an important part of its foreign policy objectives with Africa. According to Angola's Defense Minister Salviano de Jesus Sequeira, Russia has already delivered six SU-30K fighter jets to Angola this year and two more are expected by the end of May.
Besides, Sequeira said the country is interested in buying Russian S-400 air-defense systems, but there is no talks because of economic difficulties, and only adding that "Angolan armed forces are used to work with Russian weapons" because of that the military cooperation between the two countries will last forever.
According to Ministry of Defense website report, Russia agreed to supply arms and military equipment to Angola worth US$2.5 billion, including spare parts for the Soviet-made weaponry, light weapons, ammunition, tanks, artillery and multi-purpose helicopters.
In a research report titled "Angola: Russia and Angola - the Rebirth of a Strategic Partnership" that was released by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), the authors Ana Christina Alves, Alexandra Arkhangelskaya and Vladimir Shubin acknowledged that "defense remains the most solid Russia-Angolan cooperation dimension. To date, Russia is Angola's most strategic military partner."
Ana Christina Alves, a Senior Researcher at the Global Powers and Africa Programme, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), explained further to me that "the military equipment is, undoubtedly, the largest and most profitable side of Russia's trade with Africa – which the figures unfortunately don't feature in official bilateral trade data. If these were included, the bilateral trade volume would appear much more impressive. This is, perhaps, the strongest dimension of Russia's dealings in Africa at present, but because of the nature of the business very little is known outside military circles, so hard to get the actual picture."
“Of course, it is better and cheaper to have such armaments assembled in Angola than purchasing ready-made ones directly from Russia. It will enable technology transfer and improve the technical knowledge and experience of Angolans while possibly turning that country into a getaway for Russian arms and military equipment to the wider central and southern African region,” Professor Shaabani Nzori, Expert on foreign policy based in Moscow, told me in the interview discussion.
It would help Russia gain fully-fledged foothold in that market for its military industry, one of the few comparative advantages that Russia currently has over other arms’ producing countries. So, it is a win-win situation for both these two countries, he added assertively.
On the other hand, concerning trafficking and proliferation of Russian arms in Africa as a result of such cooperation between Russia and Angola, even without them at the moment, Russian, American, Chinese, European, North Korean, Iranian, Israeli arms are already in abundance in continent. But it’s expected that the Russian-Angolan deal helps to mitigate, if not exclude altogether, such a development,” Shaabani further informed.
Military-technical cooperation has long been a priority area in bilateral ties, with the Soviet Union beginning to supply weapons for guerilla units back in the 1960s, Andrei Tokarev, Head of the Center for Southern African Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Kommersant, a local Russian financial daily newspaper.
"However, with the fall of the apartheid regime in neighboring South Africa in 1994 and the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola has no potential enemies, so the need for arms supplies has dwindled. In recent years, Angola's leadership has had plans to turn the country into a base to repair Soviet equipment for African countries. For its part, South Africa had similar business ideas as well. One cannot rule out that the proposal to both purchase and produce (manufacture) weapons as an attempt to outmaneuver South Africa, but the local industry is not yet ready to manufacture its own military equipment," explained Andrei Tokarev.
Foreign experts have also expressed their concern. Professor Alex Vines, Head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, and recently served as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group to Ghana in 2016 and a UN election officer in Mozambique and Angola, in an emailed discussion acknowledged Russia's military-technical cooperation with African countries.
He wrote from London that "the Angolan military partnership with Russia has been tight for many years and a significant part of the procurement through its Simportex is with Russia. This continues as Russia delivered six SU-30K fighter jets this year and is interested in procuring a Russian S-400 air defense system. The new development is seeking a partnership with Russia for manufacturing defense equipment in Angola. Russia has a series of maintenance facilities in Africa for after sales – but this would be a significant development."
Furthermore, he said assertively that his own experience of Angola, including being a UN sanctions inspector, "is that Angolan arsenals have not been a major problem for theft, but the biggest concern was the sale of old weapons and munitions from stores to independent brokers who then sold the equipment onto sanctioned entities."
Professor David Shinn at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), wrote in an email interview that with the latest development, particularly, SU-30K aircraft purchased by Angola, one has to ask why Angola needs such a high performance fighter aircraft and who is the potential enemy?
Undoubtedly, Russia might have proposed to help Angola develop a weapon's manufacturing capacity, obviously drawing on Russian designs and weapons. If this assumption is correct, it therefore means that Angola will join a growing list of countries in Africa that have their own internal weapons manufacturing.
In this regard, Shinn added that South Africa has the most advanced capacity to produce military equipment followed by Egypt. Sudan, which received assistance from China and Iran in building its arms industry, and Nigeria, among others, also have the ability to produce military equipment. In this sense, what Angola proposed to do (that is to establish manufacturing plant) is not much different except that it would, reportedly, be assisted by the Russian Federation.
"Weapons produced by any country can and do appear in African conflict zones. There is plenty of documentation, for example, that weapons made in China, Russia, and Western countries are being used in ongoing conflicts in Darfur, the eastern Congo, and Somalia. In some cases, African governments have transferred the arms to rebel groups and many others have been purchased on the international arms market," he said.
According to Professor Shinn, the SADC countries, with the notable exception of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have avoided major conflict in recent years. As a result, the movement of arms to rebel groups has not been an issue.
Professor Shinn concluded: "Should Angola become a key producer and distributor of Russian arms, there is always the possibility some of them could eventually appear outside Angola in the SADC region. One would hope this initiative must necessarily be approved by the Angolan parliament, and be of great interest for SADC, the African Union and Security Council of the United Nations."
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The author writes frequently about Russia, Africa and the BRICS