Monday 10 September 2012

What is the only thing every history professor believes in common? That history doesn’t repeat itself. Which is about the biggest higher education whopper of them all—just a fraction ahead of chemistry-will-actually-be-useful-to-you-someday.

Of course history repeats itself—constantly. Only, every once in a while the players change. Then these players, the big boys of history you might say, do exactly what their antecedents (many of them old enemies) used to do, or still do, or would like to do more of.

Take, for example, the front-page story from Sunday’s Washington Post indicating that China is “using its clout within the Security Council” to sell, without retribution, lots of arms to Africa. This is basically nothing new. For years now, China has been selling arms to tyrants in Zimbabwe and the Sudan and, naturally, the US is very upset about the whole thing because (a) those happen to be the tyrants the US doesn’t support and (b) why should China have all the luck?

However, Africa has always been the playing field—trampling ground is actually more appropriate—for the world’s big powers. During the Cold War days, it was the US and the Soviet Union that battled for supremacy: it was a fight ignited as far back as 1955 when Nikita Khrushchev, two years after succeeding Stalin, decided that an arms transfer to Nasser’s Egypt might be considered an endearing move by the Egyptian leader. (It was.)

By 1961, representatives from Sudan, Morocco, Libya, Ghana, Mali, and Algeria were all invited to Moscow to attend the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (They all went.)

By the 1970s, Angola, Benin, and Ethiopia all had wrested their independence with the help of the Soviet Union, and they were grateful.

Who else was considered perhaps over-interested in the fate of certain African nations? Well, in 2004 there was Mark Thatcher, son of the onetime British prime minister. He was hauled into a South African court on charges that he helped fund a coup in Equatorial Guinea—a crime for which he could have received plenty of jail time (15 years, in fact). Instead, a year later he was let off with a $500,000 fine. There may have been crimes, in other words, but as usual in instances where Africa and violence is concerned, there is no punishment.

And what of the US? During the Cold War, the United States sold $1.5 billion worth of weaponry to Africa, meaning that until 1989 its top arms clients were Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). All these nations fomented and endured years of brutality, massacres, tyranny, and corruption, thanks to US arms. They fostered and prolonged the bitter rule of Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. And according to the authoritative World Policy Institute, “US special forces have trained military personnel from at least 34 of Africa’s 53 nations … from Rwanda to Uganda to Zimbabwe and Namibia.”

Indeed, by 2000 the US “ranked number one in global weapons exports.” On the other hand, its development aid to sub-Saharan Africa dropped to just $700 million, according to the institute.

So what are we to make of China’s ventures in Africa, where Sudan, Somalia, and, yes, as ever, the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among the 16 nations that are beneficiaries of a thriving arms trade? What are we to make of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s prediction that China may have to watch its purse because, when it comes to arms sales to African nations, Russia and the Ukraine “are likely to force China out of the top ranking in 2012”?

That nothing, nothing at all except the players, ever changes in history.


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