African governments are spending huge sums acquiring new weaponry.
Military budgets on the continent increased 8.3 percent on average from 2012 to 2013—and a whopping 81 percent between 2004 to 2013, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
No other region, not even Asia or the Middle East, is boosting its arms spending that fast.
The growth rates look less impressive in absolute terms, as most African countries have a small economic base. But the old stereotype—Africa as a military backwater—is now hopelessly inaccurate.
The oil trade provides much of the cash for this arming-up. The motivation comes from the threat of insurgency … and the desire of some authoritarian governments to secure their grip on power.
There are 55 countries in Africa and they all have different military ambitions. But the trend is clear. All African governments save seven increased their military budgets over the last 10 years.
In some cases, the arms acquisitions are merely functions of general economic growth. As GDPs rise, African governments spend more on their militaries without increasing the military’s share of overall public spending. But a few countries are lavishing disproportionate resources on their armies.
Last year, Algeria boosted arms spending by $500 million and became the first African country to spend more than $10 billion on its armed forces. That translates to a 4.8 percent share of GDP—one of the highest worldwide.
This spending spree may be motivated by the rising threat of extremists and Algeria’s need to protect itself from the fallout of the civil wars in Libya and Mali, which both share long borders with Algeria.
But the greater concern for Pres. Abdelaziz Bouteflika may be the upcoming presidential election and his strong desire to maintain domestic political status quo. The Algerian regime relies heavily on support from the armed forces and with oil money flowing freely, the army was first in line for a bigger budget.
Angola’s situation is similar. Another authoritarian regime flush with money from fossil fuels, today Angola spends the same share of its GDP on the military as Algeria and also has more than doubled its defense spending in the last decade.
Like Algeria, Angola aspires to a greater regional role. It has a strong interest in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, a country where Angola has intervened militarily in the past. Pres. José Eduardo dos Santos could also be preparing Angola for a possible showdown with the region’s political superpower, South Africa.
After a hefty increase in 2013, Angola now spends more on its military than South Africa does on its own armed forces, even though South Africa’s economy is more than four times bigger than Angola’s. South Africa could easily boost defense spending, if it chose to.
The biggest year-on-year increase occurred in Ghana, which spent 129 percent more on its military in 2013 than it did just one year earlier. Ghana also gained access to oil funds in recent years, but in contrast to Algeria and Angola it’s a solid democracy.
Rather than trying to suppress the opposition or shore up political support from the military, Ghana is more interested in modernizing its armed forces to secure its borders against threats from unstable neighbors like Ivory Coast. Ghana is also worried about piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and wants to be able to better contribute to Africa’s many peacekeeping missions.
Bucking the trend
Some of the data are surprising. Modest spending cuts in Uganda and Nigeria are outliers—both countries are still determined to field impressive armies. But Botswana for one is going a much different route than the rest of the continent when it comes to military investment.
Like Angola, Ghana and Algeria, Botswana is resource rich, with some of the world’s largest deposits of diamonds. Despite solid economic growth, military expenditure has decreased by almost 20 percent over the last decade. Botswana now spends just $298 million on its military, equal to two percent of GDP, down from 3.1 percent in 2004.
Other countries where military expenditures have decreased—in absolute terms and as a share of GDP—include Burundi, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles and, surprisingly, Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s spending cut may reflect the end of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 2000, with the 2004 figures still bearing the influence wartime spending. Ethiopia’s 2013 military budget is a peacetime budget. The data also don’t reflect bilateral military aid. Ethiopia is an important U.S. ally and enjoys Washington’s strong financial support.
Still, the fact that at least a few countries are consciously de-emphasizing military spending is a hopeful sign. After all, Africa is becoming more peaceful. Much of the continents arms spending is clearly meant not to boost professionalism and peacekeeping, but to help quash internal dissent and project power into neighboring countries.
Medium has an app! Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here. Peter Dörrie covers resource and security politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie.