The guns of Africa: Violence-wracked nations are dumping grounds for world's arsenals

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Billions of dollars' worth of rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers and pistols have flooded the continent, fueling the wars that have killed millions of Africans and impoverished hundreds of millions more over the past decade. The irony is that much of this carnage is the bitter fruit of peace blossoming elsewhere in the world, as surplus weaponry from the Cold War finds a new market.

(First of two parts)

BENI, Congo — Grace Ikombi's gun is much like 35 million other Kalashnikov rifles in circulation around the world.

It is an oddly toylike weapon. Brute simple, with only nine moving parts, it weighs just 10-1/2 pounds. Yet it can empty a 30-round magazine in three seconds and is powerful enough to punch holes through a man's chest from 1,000 yards away.

Ikombi's gun was built for use against NATO troops in Europe. But like countless other items of Cold War surplus, it has turned up here, at the end of a long and ruinous pipeline of cheap arms that fuels the unquenchable wars of Africa. The gun, a model AKM-47, was assembled in a factory in distant Romania. Ikombi killed his first man with it in August 2000.

"I didn't want to shoot him," the Congolese rebel with the shaved head said of the government soldier he cut down on the banks of the Ubangi River. "I am a Christian."

Over the next few days, he would not mention God again. Instead, he would boast how he had shot three more soldiers with his gun. And, smiling slyly, he later would describe gunning down two village women. Their crime: having sex with the enemy.

Rootless, with a past mutilated by war and a future reduced to a hungry blank, there are a million Grace Ikombis in Africa.

The world's poorest continent has become a vast and murderous dumping ground for the unwanted arsenals of the world.

Billions of dollars' worth of rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers and pistols have flooded Africa in recent years. And while this destructive trade may be small on a global scale — perhaps as little as 2 percent of the world's $36 billion annual market in conventional weapons — the impact on the region's weak nations has been shattering.

According to London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, of the 100,000 people killed directly by warfare in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, 60 percent perished in Africa, where only a tenth of the world's population lives. Millions more Africans have died in wars over the last decade. And the World Bank estimates that almost half the continent's inhabitants, or at least 250 million people, are kept in poverty by chronic fighting in the region.

Today, five major wars, four low-grade rebellions and dozens of smaller ethnic, religious and land-rights skirmishes bleed Africa — half of all the armed conflicts on the globe. Many Africa-watchers rank the proliferation of guns alongside the AIDS epidemic as one of the most crippling obstacles to the continent's development.

The irony, of course, is that much of this violence is the bitter fruit of peace blossoming elsewhere in the world.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989, a torrent of surplus weaponry has poured south, adding to the huge piles of guns accumulated in Africa during years of proxy battles between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Top suppliers: Russia and China

Today, Russia and China are the leading arms suppliers to Africa. They are followed by cash-strapped Eastern European nations whose aging arsenals are being hawked to the highest bidder — governments, rebels or criminal warlords.

A handful of middlemen have reaped millions in profits from gunrunning — such as Victor Bout, a shadowy, high-living former Soviet airman who last week became a fugitive on a Belgian international warrant.

Western nations contribute relatively few of their expensive guns to this burgeoning African weapons trade. Still, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States — collectively bank hundreds of millions of dollars a year in weapons sales to an impoverished continent that frequently must be rescued by U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Simply put, Africa is awash in guns.

Oxfam, the humanitarian organization, puts their number at 100 million, or one weapon for every six Africans.

Made in Romania

This is the story of just one, wielded by a small player in Africa's modern agonies.

Military and forensic experts traced Grace Ikombi's AKM-47, serial number DA 0889 1995, to an obscure arms factory in the foothills of Romania's Transylvanian Alps.

Romanian export documents suggest that it followed the route of 20,000 identical assault rifles shipped out of the same weapons plant in May, bound for neighboring Uganda, one of seven countries that have meddled in Congo's brutal civil war.

Arms worker Hotea Suciu has never heard of the Congo Liberation Front, Ikombi's obscure rebel movement.

Suciu, 45, has more immediate worries — such as the price of corn oil. At 20,000 Romanian lei a bottle — or about 75 cents — he can no longer afford the cooking staple. Trudging home one recent afternoon past his aging Dacia car, now idled by the cost of fuel, he wondered aloud how he would continue to feed his family on the $103 a month he earns as an engineer at Cugir, S.A., the defense plant that built Ikombi's gun.

Suciu's plump, doll-like hands have grown callused from hoeing a patch of potatoes. This is a novel humiliation in Africa's gun trade: Once the domain of jealous superpowers, it has become a case of the poor arming the poorer.

One last hope, switching to NATO arms production, may yet save Suciu's ailing factory town. Romania could be eligible to join the Western alliance next year. But security analysts warn that, once more, Africa will bear the brunt of this military conversion.

"It's way more expensive to melt down an old Soviet-style tank than to just dump it quietly for a few thousand dollars in places like Chad," said Jakkie Potgieter, an analyst at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies. "NATO's expansion actually accelerates the migration of old East Bloc stockpiles to Africa."

Romania is by no means a major arms dealer to Africa. Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Bulgaria and other former Warsaw Pact countries have exported far more.

But the harshness of life in Cugir symbolizes the decay of Eastern Europe's once-mighty defense industry and shows how the meltdown of the Soviet empire has stoked the killing in faraway Africa.

Two-thirds of Romania's 200,000 arms workers have lost their jobs since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and shot in a popular revolt in 1989. Since then, the country's arms exports have plummeted along with demand, down from $1 billion to a paltry $37 million a year. The implications are chilling.

"We have only two choices to stay alive," said Dan Mocanescu, the embittered secretary-general of the Avram Iancu defense workers union. "We can sell our cheap, Soviet-style products to poorer countries, or we can switch over to NATO-type armaments."

Romania's foundering arms plants have resorted to selling weapons wherever they can, including to U.N.-embargoed nations. In 1998, Romanian rocket components slipped into Iraq. Last year, the country's guns and ammunition made it into the hands of die-hard rebels in Angola, where one of Africa's longest civil wars has killed at least 500,000 people.

"We sell only to legitimate governments," declared Gen. Decebal Ilina, the deputy minister of industry and resources, which oversees defense production.

Ilina admitted that rifles such as Ikombi's may have come from the factory at Cugir, but he insisted angrily that Uganda was Romania's only African customer this year. What happened after the guns arrived there, he said, was beyond his control.

One of scores of secret defense centers in the old Soviet sphere, Cugir is a haunted place. About 11,000 of its 19,000 workers are unemployed, and they wander the drab, shabby streets at dusk. Some of the best weapons machinists and draftsmen in Eastern Europe now toil on surrounding farms. The mayor's proudest achievement: snagging a U.S. economic grant for a soup kitchen.

Suciu and his wife, Mariana, alternate shifts at a walled maze of warehouses and smokestacks. Mariana, who tends noxious vats of molten chrome, considers herself lucky to still have work. The couple's teenage children, Andra and Bogdan, raise themselves.

"I want to go abroad," said 16-year-old Andra, an honors student who has learned English from watching television. "Staying here would be a nightmare. I will never work at the factory. Never." Bogdan, 14, nods in agreement.

Scraping together every last lei, Suciu wants to send his children to Germany.

"Is there sorrow? Of course there is sorrow," he said. "But there is no future here. So they must leave."

Dead litter Beni's streets

A raw trading town hacked from the Central African rain forest, impoverished Beni has seen fighting as recently as June. Squabbling rebel factions shot up the dirt streets, leaving their dead to be picked up, like garbage, by soldiers in pickups.

In 1999, the carnage was worse. Stripped naked, local Mai Mai warriors attacked Ugandan troops entrenched at the Congolese town's sawmill. The Mai Mai believed the bullets would magically bounce off their skin. Residents say children as young as 10 were found among the piles of their dead after the battle.

Since the fall of its notoriously corrupt strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997, Congo has plunged into a string of complex wars and rebellions that have shredded the gigantic, rich country into rival camps.

Grace Ikombi's 20,000-strong rebel group, the Congo Liberation Front, controls the jungle northeast and is led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, a dour businessman. Uganda is Bemba's patron, and that country's trucks — creaking under loads of bananas and plundered teak — roll down Beni's potholed main street, past shops that open and close according to the day's gunfire.

At a muddy airstrip, Soviet-era cargo planes flown by Russian mercenaries are poised to haul out more valuables such as gold or diamonds. They ferry in medical supplies. And more guns.

Ikombi, 22, patrols this Wild West tableau with his Romanian rifle along with other members of his unit.

There is Cmdr. Jose Ewale, a former Catholic seminarian armed with a Belgian-made Uzi submachine gun, and scar-faced Sgt. Balinda Vangu, who has changed sides three times in the latest phase of the fighting, toting a Chinese AK-47. Others in the platoon carry Russian light machine guns and Chinese RPG-7 grenade launchers.

Orphaned by war and disease at age 18, Ikombi fled his decaying rural town to Kinshasa, the crumbling capital, after his mother was dragged out of a hospital and shot dead for tending the wounded troops of dictator Mobutu. His father, a farmer, died of malaria for want of $2 worth of medicine.

"I will become an accountant when peace comes," he said, and then laughs bitterly. Annual university fees are an outrageous $250, or roughly the value of his AKM rifle.

"I heard that the rebels at least were eating," Ikombi said with a shrug. "So I joined them."

African insurgents such as Ikombi make up the world's biggest market for illicit gun sales, arms experts say.

In a study published this year, the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies calculated that Africa, home to about 200,000 rebels, guerrillas and other "nonstate actors," was blighted by more irregular forces than the rest of the planet combined.

Yet if much of the misery on the continent can be pegged to illicit arms sales to these militias, billions of dollars' worth of perfectly legal weapons transfers are often as harmful.

"It's easy to condemn the arming of nasty rebels," said Joost Hiltermann, an expert on gun smuggling with Human Rights Watch. "But what about those lucrative sales to oppressive African regimes? In the end, which type of arms deals — to states or their rebels — cause more suffering?"

Culture of roadblocks

Take, as a case in point, Africa's wretched culture of roadblocks.

Erected as a means of control, of intimidation and of taxation by ill-trained national armies and corrupt rulers, they are where the vast majority of ordinary Africans confront the power of the gun.

In supposedly peaceful Burkina Faso, for example, AK-carrying police officers man roadside shacks made of corrugated tin, guarding nothing from nothing. They exist only to strong-arm "gifts" from passing buses. At a checkpoint in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, families frantically roll up car windows to avoid being robbed by uniformed thieves. Elsewhere on the continent it is simply a dirty string drawn across a road, and a shirtless boy with a Kalashnikov.

Herein lies the true secret of the bonanza called the African arms trade.

Even so-called peaceful African regimes thirst for guns. Guns bolster the continent's autocratic regimes.

France armed the extremist Hutu armies of Rwanda up until the day — and some say even after — that regime began the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. "You cannot deal with Africa," a French official asserted, "without getting your hands dirty."

Today, Russia, China and Ukraine have few scruples about hawking old hardware — tanks, helicopters, millions of rounds of ammunition — to questionable customers such as Angola, Zimbabwe and Algeria.

As for the United States, its weapons are generally too pricey for most African buyers. But in the late 1990s, it was spending up to $20 million a year to train and equip the armies of six of the seven nations blamed for ruthlessly carving up Congo.

Tomorrow: The secret empire of Victor Bout.