Why you should care
Though still modest by global standards, African nations’ bid to arm themselves could help fight terrorism and protect civilians. It could also fuel more violence on the continent.
Africa has its gushing oil wells to thank for the continent’s buoyant economy, which continues to outpace that of much of the world. Now those resource riches are fueling a military boomlet, too.
A newly released report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) finds that Africa, as a region, had the fastest-growing military expenditures in the world last year, up 8.3 percent from 2012.
Combined, the continent spent $45 billion in 2013, SIPRI researchers found, driven in large part by major military investment in the oil-rich countries of Algeria and Angola.
The former became the first African nation ever to spend more than $10 billion on its armed forces in a single year.
The continent’s aggregate spending is still a pittance compared to the world’s big guns, like the United States — by far the global leader, with $640 billion in military expenditures — or China, which spent nearly $190 billion on its armed forces. No African country cracks SIPRI’s list of the top 15 military spenders on the planet.
But for a continent that’s never had much in the way of conventional armed forces — and that faces a growing threat from terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb across North Africa and the Sahel — it’s striking that military spending rose in two-thirds of African countries last year.
The U.S. government mostly likes the idea. U.S. policy has encouraged African countries to police themselves, with the U.S. military providing training and aid to help professionalize the continent’s armed forces. The goal: enabling vulnerable African nations to fight their own battles against terrorists and despots.
The biggest spending jump proportionately was in Ghana, which nearly tripled its military spending between 2012 and 2013, to $306 million. The report notes that the democratic West African country is trying to modernize its armed forces while it’s “heavily involved in international peacekeeping operations.”
The biggest spenders by a mile were Algeria and Angola, neither of which are democratic societies, and both of which have benefitted from oodles of off-shore oil. Algeria is in an unstable North African neighborhood. Power vacuums in nearby Libya and Mali have made the region a breeding ground for terrorists. And then there’s the low-intensity domestic insurgency.
Angola, on Africa’s southwest coast, doesn’t face nearly the same threats, though it does share a long border with the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has fought a low-level insurgency in the Cabinda region. But Luanda has long had a militarized society, thanks to 27 years of civil war. Even after the war ended in 2002, the country maintained a robust army, in part to keep the former fighters employed. Now it has money to burn, and is feeling its oats in the region. With $6 billion last year, it’s surpassed South Africa to become sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest military spender.
The U.S. government may applaud the trend, particularly if it means contributions to African peacekeeping forces. But regional rivals, not to mention dissidents in places like Algiers and Luanda, may have a different reaction, especially if those shiny new weapons get turned on them.