Sunday, June 13, 2004

I was astonished to read in today's SA Sunday Times that Zimbabwe is about to spend $240 million buying fighter planes from the Chinese.

'Military sources in Harare say that Zimbabwe will acquire 12 FC-1s as replacements for the Chengdu F-7s, currently based in Gweru. The FC-1, a lightweight multipurpose fighter based on Russia's MiG-33, will provide a credible answer to the challenge posed by the 28 JAS-39 Gripen multi-role fighters that the SA government has ordered from Saab, the Swedish arms manufacturer.'

I want to avoid, for the moment, discussing the morality of buying weapons when people are dying from starvation and focus instead on the reasons for the purchase. The Sunday Times suggests that the Zimbabweans are responding to South Africa's imminent purchase of Grippen fighters, but I'm afraid I don't buy it. Mugabe may be a tyrant but he's no fool and he's certainly not going to do something that risks an arms race with South Africa. Not that I believe SA would respond to such provocation even if it perceived it to be a direct challenge. However, he may well be responding to the recent arms purchases of neighbouring Botswana.

It's a little commented upon fact, but over the last decade Botswana has invested a fairly substantial sum of money in upgrading its armed forces. The two highest profile purchases were Leopard tanks from Germany and second hand F5 fighter-bombers from Canada. It's never been very clear to me what prompted the Botswanans to do this. At the time I seem to remember people suggesting that it was a veiled warning to Namibia after the spat over Sedudu Island in the Zambezi. Alternatively, the commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), Lieutenant-General Ian Khama suggested, in 1996, that, 'the BDF needed to prepare itself in order to deal with instability that might spill over into Botswana from South Africa.' He was apparently referring to fears that the situation in Kwa Zulu-Natal might have worsened or that township violence might have spiraled out of control. Whatever the reasons the build-up took Botswana from being a relative non-entity in Southern Africa's military affairs to being, along with South Africa, the most capable and technologically sophisticated.

So what does all this have to do with Zimbabwe? I'd like to say that Zimbabwe is responding in the classic manner to what it perceives to be a military threat. I say 'like' because this would corroborate all those Politics 101 theories that I've had to learn about the logic of arms races but I'm not certain that they apply here. For one thing Zimbabwe already possesses a reasonably capable military incl a still serviceable air force. For another, the timing seems a bit off. Waiting almost a decade to respond to Botswana really doesn't strike me as evidence to confirm an arms race theory. The more likely explanation is that Zimbabwe is responding out of a sense of injured pride. I don't think we should underestimate the blow to Mugabe's ego presented by South Africa's re-admittance to the international fold. Since independence Mugabe had assumed the role of chief spokesman for Southern Africa and leader of the front-line states. South Africa's return in 1994 consigned him to a relatively minor role in Southern Africa's affairs. He then had to suffer the additional ignominy of watching energised and highly successful Botswana establish itself as an important military player in the region. So those FC-1's are really Mugabe's attempt to muscle his way back into the boy's club.

But I'm not certain that this is all that is going on here. Despite some claims to the contrary I think it is still true that the Zimbabwean army gives it overwhelming support to Mugabe. And why shouldn't it? Its adventures in the Congo certainly enriched its leaders and amidst all the recent mayhem it's interesting to note that the army is one of the few branches of the state that is still being paid on time. I wouldn't be suprised therefore if the fighter-plane deal is just another smokescreen behind which various of Bob's military cronies enrich themselves. Even at the best of times there is much skullduggery associated with large arms deals and you can bet your bottom dollar that this purchase will escape what remains of parliamentary scrutiny in Zimbabwe. At the same time all those mid-ranking officers are placated with some shiny new toys on the apron and thus go on supporting the insupportable. And finally, the deal certainly won't do any harm to Mugabe's efforts to ally himself with China.

So now Zimbabwe has a squadron of flash new fighter planes to mess around with. The only remaining question is just what on Earth they're going to use them for.


At 14 June 2004 at 10:51, Blogger Richard said...

How do you think that they intend to pay for these jets? Last I heard Zimbabwe was reduced to seizing tourists money to obtain foreing currency.

At 14 June 2004 at 14:05, Blogger Andrew Black said...

Perhaps by giving the Chinese some of the land intended for 'war veterans'. This is more or less how Mugabe has been paying Qaddafi for Libyan oil recently.

At 14 June 2004 at 14:14, Blogger Vaz said...

What's next? nukes from North Korea? I wouldn't be suprised if Mugabe did.

At 15 June 2004 at 09:37, Blogger Richard said...

Ahh yes. The old "lets move a hundred thousand dissidents to Zimbabwe" strategy. Sun Tzu must be proud ;-)

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