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Arms transfers to the Horn of Africa- a snapshot

Large parts of the Horn of Africa have suffered from prolonged conflicts. With thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced in recent years as a consequence of armed violence, civilians pay the highest price.

The abundance of weapons perpetuates violence and is a barrier to solving the various problems in the region. Also, good governance[1] is the exception rather than the rule, feeding a general sense of insecurity, aggravated by the use of weapons by both states and non-state actors. Military expenditures often displace social investments. In the Horn, conflicts often have a regional dimension, with neighbouring countries militarily involved in Somalia and South Sudan. It is therefore key that arms transfers to the region fulfill preconditions, as outlined e.g. under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to ensure that they will not undermine peace and security. While it is clear how devastating weapons in non-state hands continue to be[2], this article analyses transfers of major conventional weapons to governments in the Horn of Africa.

Military spending

The level of military spending by a government is often a good predictor of the level of arms imported, especially when domestic military production is limited, as is the case for the Horn of Africa, with the exception of Sudan and possibly Ethiopia, two of Africa’s few arms producing states. A significant constraint, especially in the Horn, is the lack of reliable, publicly available data.[3] While SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) maintains what is probably the most comprehensive public database on military spending, it has been unable to make credible estimates for Eritrea and Somalia for the whole period from 2005-2015. Also, data for Djibouti and Sudan are lacking for the last number of years (see table 1).

Table 1: Military spending in the Horn of Africa

table 1

xxx: not yet existing as autonomous/independent State for full year

..: data unavailable

*: SIPRI estimate

Source: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 2015,

Where data are available, patterns are quite different among countries. Ethiopia, for example has steadily decreased its military spending, both in constant (i.e. corrected for inflation) dollar values, as well as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At 0.6% it is among the lowest in Africa. By way of comparison: global military spending is estimated at 2.3% of global GDP.[4]

At the other end of the spectrum is South Sudan, where civil war has imploded the oil-dependent economy and relatively stable levels of military spending have significantly increased as a proportion of its GDP. At 13.8% for 2015, only Saudi Arabia and Oman spent similar parts of their GDP on the armed forces.

Uganda’s data show a huge two-year spending spike for 2010-11, more than twice of what was spent quite steadily in either previous years, or in the years 2012-2015.

Kenya, finally, shows a steady and significant growth of its military budget, which appears to be balanced by similar levels of economic growth, since relative levels of military spending have fluctuated between 1.3-1.9% of GDP for the past twenty years.

Arms transfers to the Horn

Most of a military budget is spent on personnel (incl. salaries and pensions) and military equipment (incl. purchases, operational costs, maintenance). Therefore, it is revealing to see whether changes in expenditure are reflected in the volume of weapons imported.

Again, SIPRI’s arms transfers database is widely considered the most comprehensive public source of information. For its database SIPRI covers what it terms ‘major (conventional) weapons’, excluding for example military trucks or small arms, “since publicly available information is inadequate for the tracking of all weapons and other military equipment”.[5]

None of the states in the Horn are among the top global importers of weapons among the 179 recipients identified by SIPRI for the period 2005-2015. Sudan is the biggest, at number 50, followed by Uganda (59), whereas Djibouti (131) and Somalia (164) have very few reported arms imports.

Table 2: Position on SIPRI’s top list of global arms importers

table 2
* However for that period Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which ruled significant parts of the country until 2006, was ranked 158…: no data

Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database:

While arms transfers to the Horn of Africa are minor compared to top ten importers such as India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, they are certainly significant, particularly within the African continent. States ranked at the level between Sudan and Uganda (numbers 51-58) include Austria, Denmark, Kazakhstan and Romania. Also Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is in that range.

Comparing 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 datasets (table 2), the higher positions of Ethiopia (due to a few major purchases, despite decreased military spending) and Uganda (in line with its 2010-11 spending spike) stand out. To a lesser extent Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti appear to have increased their arms purchases. Sudan has steadily kept the highest position of Horn of Africa countries, ranked at around 50.

Looking at individual countries’ arms imports for the 2010-2015 period only, the following are among the most noteworthy:[6]

Djibouti’s low rank is directly related to its size, with less than one million inhabitants. At the same time it is a highly militarised country with significant US, French and recently also Chinese military presence. Most of Djibouti’s imports have been second-hand, often in the form of military aid, including seven armoured vehicles and ten self-propelled guns from Italy and (up to) 25 US armoured vehicles and two transport aircraft.

No imports for Eritrea have been recorded by SIPRI since 2010, suggesting that the arms embargo against the country is effective. In December 2009 Security Council Resolution 1907 established sanctions against Eritrea including an embargo on the supply of arms and military equipment to and from Eritrea. “The sanctions were imposed in reaction to the findings by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia that Eritrea had provided political, financial and logistical support to armed groups in Somalia and to the Eritrean refusal to withdraw its forces from disputed territory on the border with Djibouti and engage in diplomatic dialogue about this issue.”[7]

Ethiopia’s main arms imports come from former Eastern Bloc inventories, such as twelve Mi-24V/35 combat helicopters from Hungary and 64 towed guns from Serbia. Probably its largest import has been a $100 million dollar deal with Ukraine from 2011, which included 211 T-72 tanks and accompanying anti-tank weapons. There are also unconfirmed reports of thirty armoured vehicles supplied by China.

Kenya’s air force reportedly bought fifteen F-5 (modernised) fighter aircraft from Jordan surplus stocks for $38 million. At least five armed helicopters were bought from China and up to 67 armoured personnel vehicles from South Africa. Particularly controversial, a $60 million deal with a Spanish shipyard for a patrol vessel was delayed for years because of corruption investigations.

Somalia received, often as aid, up to 31 British and UAE armoured vehicles. Thirteen French vehicles – paid by the US – are supposed to be delivered over 2016. A deal for six Dutch patrol vessels is reported as coast guard aid under a 2013 contract, although their delivery is unknown.

The US has reportedly transferred three second-hand light aircraft to Puntland’s maritime police, and South Africa sent one Alouette helicopter.

In 1992 UN Security Council Resolution 733 established an arms embargo on Somalia in reaction to the ongoing conflict and deteriorating humanitarian situation; in 2007 it was amended to allow arms supplies to Somali Government Forces.[8]

Between 2012-14 South Sudan reportedly bought 25 Typhoon and 20 Cougar armoured vehicles from Canadian company Streit from its UAE production line. In 2011 9 Mi-17 transport helicopters were delivered from Russia, as well as ten South African armoured personnel carriers. China is also an important source of weapons, including 1200 Red Arrow anti-tank missiles and 100 missile launchers supplied in 2014 – in the midst of the civil war.

In late 2015, the Government had at least three operational Mi-24 attack helicopters, and was awaiting the delivery of a fourth, procured from a private Ukrainian company, Motor Sich, for $42.8 million. Under a contract with Bosasy Logistics, based in Uganda, another four attack helicopters have been purchased for $35.7 million. Both attack helicopter deals were mentioned in the January 2016 report of the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan.[9]

The European Union’s 1994 arms embargo on Sudan was amended in 2011, to prohibit arms transfers to newly independent South Sudan as well. The South Sudan embargo has been extended since.[10]

Apart from that EU embargo[11], Sudan has also faced a partial UN embargo since 2004, prohibiting any arms transfers to Darfur. The embargo has been extended from non-governmental groups to all parties to the N’djamena Ceasefire Agreement, which includes the Sudanese government. However, the embargo allows the provision of arms and military equipment to the government of Sudan outside Darfur.

That provision has allowed Sudan to be the largest arms importer in the Horn. Its main suppliers are Russia, China, Ukraine and Belarus. Recent deliveries included fifteen Su-25 and four Su-24 ground attack aircraft as well as four Mi-24V/35 combat helicopters from Belarusian surplus stocks. Ukraine has supplied 190 tanks, fifty infantry fighting vehicles, 46 self-propelled guns and thirty of the notorious Grad multiple rocket launchers, amongst others. China has both exported weapons and supplied production technology, which Sudan uses to assemble rocket launchers, infantry fighting vehicles and tanks.

In its January 2015 report, the UN ‘Panel of Experts on the Sudan’ highlight a number of air-delivered and ground-launched munitions used in Darfur, including for example Soviet-developed S-8DM 80mm air to ground rockets. According to the UN the rockets had been legally delivered by an unspecified state to Sudan “conditional on their non-use in Darfur”, while Sudan’s transfer of the missiles to Darfur has been a breach of the embargo.[12] The UN panel mentions use of these missiles in an attack in Darfur, almost certainly carried out by Su-25 aircraft.

Also in its February 2014 report it notes that “the Panel received various reports mentioning the use of attack/close air support aircraft in air strikes on civilian targets.” In addition, “all munitions observed at El Fasher and Nyala forward operating bases during the mandate are of the air-to-surface type and typical for the Su-25 aircraft: FAB-250, bombs, FAB-500 bombs, RBK-500 cluster bombs, B-8M1 rocket launcher pods and S-24 air-to-surface rockets.”[13]

Finally, Uganda received substantial amounts of weapons since 2010, including the remarkable purchase of six highly advanced Su-30MK fighter-bomber jets, received in 2012 under a $635 million deal with Russia, from which it also bought 44 T-90 tanks. From second hand stocks it got 42 South African Casspir armoured vehicles and one Belarusian Mi-35 combat helicopter. It also got 25 military vehicles and two Cessna aircraft from the US, some of which specifically for use with the AMISOM mission in Somalia. The UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan asserts that, according to independent sources, “there is a standing unwritten agreement to supply the Government of South Sudan with arms and ammunition through Uganda”, including the previously mentioned attack helicopters.[14]


Clearly, the availability and quality of data on military expenditure and arms transfers, especially in the Horn of Africa, is limited at best. Despite that constraint, a few conclusions can be drawn.

First, some UN sanctions appear effective in terms of bringing major arms supplies to a near stop (Eritrea), or being tightly controlled (Somalia).

Conversely, the UN embargo on Darfur appears to be marginally effective and difficult to enforce. Moreover, it does not cover South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, Sudan’s other continuing internal conflicts.

Regional embargos, such as the EU embargos against South Sudan and Sudan, do indeed stop arms transfers from that region, but can be circumvented fairly easily, since some non-EU states appear to have less qualms. For that reason, civil society organisations have called for a UN embargo against South Sudan.[15]

Where no embargos prevail the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) could make a difference, if implemented strictly – and provided that supplying states are parties to the treaty (or at least adhere to its norms). However, major suppliers to the Horn, such as Russia, China, Ukraine and Belarus, have not acceded to the ATT.[16] In the medium-term, changing their calculations regarding arms transfers to the region will be essential to diminish the flow of arms into the Horn.

Compliance remains a serious issue, as recent UK (an ATT member state) arms transfers to Saudi Arabia have shown. Despite a seemingly clear and “overriding risk” they “could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law” in Yemen, arms exports have been allowed.[17] Hopefully, adherence to the budding international norm will soon become commonplace, and such transfers – as with many that exacerbate violence in the Horn of Africa – will become a thing of the past.

Frank Slijper leads the arms trade project at Dutch peace organisation PAX. He holds a Master’s degree in General Economics/International Economic Relations from the University of Groningen and has (co-)authored numerous books, reports and articles on arms trade and export control related issues since 1993. He can be reached at


[1] Using it here as “the process whereby public institutions conduct public affairs, manage public resources and guarantee the realization of human rights in a manner essentially free of abuse and corruption, and with due regard for the rule of law” (see:

[2] See e.g.: ‘Evolving Traditional Practices: Managing Small Arms in the Horn of Africa and Karamoja Cluster’, Small Arms Survey ‘Issue Brief’, June 2014 (; Claudio Gramizzi, ‘Tackling illicit small arms and light weapons and ammunition in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa’, Africa-China-EU Expert Working Group on conventional arms, June 2014 ( or Jonah Leff and Emile LeBrun, ‘Following the Thread: Arms and Ammunition Tracing in Sudan and South Sudan’, Small Arms Survey HSBA Working Paper 32, May 2014 (

[3] see also: Pieter D. Wezeman, Siemon T. Wezeman and Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, ‘Arms Flows to Sub-Saharan Africa’, SIPRI Policy paper 30, December 2011, p.25.

[4] Sam Perlo-Freeman, Aude Fleurant, Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman, ‘Trends in world military expenditure, 2015’, SIPRI Fact Sheet, April 2016 (

[5] For more information on the methodolody:

[6] Based on data from SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Database (, unless other sources are referenced.



[9] Final Report of the panel of Experts on South Sudan established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2206 (2015), 22 January 2016.

[10] Council Decisions 2011/423/CFSP (18 July 2011) and 2014/449/CFSP (10 July 2014)


[12] ‘Report of the Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005)’, UNSC, January 2015, p.19.

[13] ‘Report of the Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005)’, UNSC, February 2014, p.36.

[14] Final Report of the panel of Experts on South Sudan established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2206 (2015), 22 January 2016, p.28-29.


[16] While Ukraine has signed but not ratified the ATT.

[17] article 7 of the ATT.

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