The Guns of Darfur

John R. Matchim

The conflict in Darfur has been fuelled by a decades long influx of foreign weaponry, ranging from small arms to helicopter gunships. China and the Russian Federation have been the most prominent suppliers of weaponry, but there are and were many other sources, some unknown. This entry will provide some basic background regarding Darfur’s weapons importers and highlight the international nature of the conflict, with both national governments and hidden gunrunners vying for a share of the slaughter's profits. The plethora of actors and factors involved in the arming of the region highlight the futility of international intervention without real negotiations between the warring factions.

The People’s Republic of China

Though Africa contains some of the largest proven reserves of oil in the world, its fields have been largely ignored by Western companies. China has recognized the potential of African oil to satisfy the demands of its growing economy, and has made some of its most significant investments in Sudan. In exchange for oil, China has offered Sudan large quantities of small arms as well as some its most sophisticated military equipment. The arrangement is doubly beneficial to Beijing as it provides a rare opportunity for its inefficient and poor-quality arms industry to manufacture for the export market. Because Sudan has no significant arms industry of its own, equipment received from China outfits a large number of military units, and also provides China additional opportunities to provide maintenance and operational training. While the Sudanese army has been the recipient of most of the heavy equipment, small arms have been supplied to the Janjaweed. Chinese manufactured Fantan ground attack aircraft have also been photographed operating from El-Fasher.

The Russian Federation

The Russian state-owned arms industry is another major source of military equipment for the armed forces and militias of Sudan. After oil and natural gas, arms are one of Russia’s most lucrative exports. Because Moscow considers an independent (not reliant on foreign technology) and sophisticated defence-industrial complex vital to its national security interests, it is eager to export weapons wherever the opportunity arises. In 2002 Russia signed a military-technical cooperation agreement with Sudan and forced through the sale of MiG-29 combat aircraft despite opposition from human rights groups. The infamous helicopter gunships that have shaped public imagination are also of Russian origin. Like China, Russia is interested in expanding its central African influence and developing untapped oil and gas fields.

Libya, Sudan and Small Arms

The government militias and fractured rebel groups of Darfur have never found themselves for want of weapons. While some of that weaponry has been supplied by China, there are many other sources of assault rifles, heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and light mortars. Many of those weapons were transferred by the government of Sudan decades ago, arming villages and groups considered loyal to the Khartoum regime at a time of increasing environmental tension. The government, wanting to remain clear of societal stresses, chose to flood the region with weapons and let the problem sort itself out. During the 1980’s Muammar Gadaffi of Libya also funneled small arms into Darfur as part of a larger effort to establish a pro-Libyan sphere of influence throughout the North African region. Most recently, instability in neighboring Chad has left government arsenals vulnerable to attack by rebels, with many of the seized weapons easily finding their way across the vast and undefended border of Darfur.
Iran, Belarus, Egypt and the United Arab Emirate are other major suppliers of Sudanese weaponry. However, arming Darfur is not limited to state governments alone, and the profit potential of Darfur is no less significant than that of any other conflict. Indeed, because of the official United Nations arms embargo, gun running is a very lucrative venture. In September of 2007 a United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts estimated that between September 2006 and July 2007 private cargo companies transported a combined capacity of 13,000 tons of equipment and supplies into Darfur, much of it military.

The multitude of actors, vital interests, vast and porous borders, regional instability and the profit motive have left Darfur awash in weaponry. Any United Nations arms embargo, no matter how tough, would be difficult or impossible to enforce without a significant military presence. However, easy access to weaponry practically makes armed resistance to such an effort inevitable. The problems of Darfur perhaps complicate and transcend the potential of armed international intervention, with a renewed emphasis on negotiations the best alternative. After all, if the causes of conflict are resolved, the demand for weapons will gradually disappear.

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