MWANGI: In the face of grinding poverty, who needs attack helicopters?

Military helicopters crash in congo
Military helicopters crash in eastern Congo, four crew missing. Two helicopters crashed while pursuing fighters from former Congolese rebel group M23. Photo/Courtsey

Countries that are integrating cannot possibly be considering going to war against each other, right? Then why is there an arms race in East Africa? Why would countries that have enjoyed relative peace be seeking every possible opportunity to flex their muscle and prove to the world that they are no pushover? Are East Africans tired of peace, really?

The latest news about military spending in the region is nothing to boast about. The United States has approved a deal for Kenya to acquire military helicopters and other equipment worth $253 million. The country has East Africa’s highest defence budget at $933 million, followed by Tanzania at $544 million. These are colossal amounts, with other countries in the region also spending significantly on modernizing their armed forces.

Yet, we are talking about countries that can hardly afford this luxury to please the Western military-industrial complex. Despite having rich natural resources in their midst, the people of East Africa remain dirt-poor rural folk and urban workers – thanks to a history of slavery, colonialism and modern imperialism. While many of the social, political and economic problems being faced can be traced to factors beyond the region, it is unfortunate that leaders have opted not to do even the little that is within their power to improve the lot of their people.

Instead, in a desperate attempt to cling to power at all costs, many of them have done everything within they could to subvert the will of the people, weaken checks and balances, destroy democratic institutions, and bring down all who may oppose them.

A significant aspect of these efforts to establish personal rule has involved the armed forces. Rulers are increasingly resorting to using the security agencies – including the military – to control their own populations and repress any dissent. This has necessitated maintaining a tight grip on these agencies and diverting more and more resources toward arming and maintaining them.

While security agencies no doubt play a critical role in ensuring peace and order internally as well as guarding against external enemies, it must also be acknowledged that they are not a productive sector of the economy. At an individual level, no sane person – even driven by vanity – spends half of his income on personal security; the same logic should no doubt apply at the national level. The tragedy is that it doesn’t.

East African countries are unable to sponsor enough young men and women to study medicine at university despite the acute need for doctors. There is a serious shortage of teachers and lecturers in our schools, colleges and universities. Farmers do not have the wherewithal to improve productivity on their farms, and neither do they enjoy good roads for easy market access. And while the region’s industrial base is growing, we still have to import most of our requirements.

Even worse, drought and floods are a constant menace to a significant proportion of the region’s citizenry. Girls are unable to attend school regularly for lack of sanitary towels. The numbers of slum dwellers and homeless people have kept growing, driven into desperation by the poor policies and ineptitude of their own governments.

But alas, all these problems seem to be of little importance to political leaders and decision makers in the region. Rather than apply energy and resources into dealing with these significant issues, they have opted to insulate themselves from the sea of poverty around them using the disciplined forces.

The excuse for increasing military budgets and buying sophisticated equipment, of course, is to increase a country’s capacity to counter potential threats from outside its borders. The so-called war on terror has provided an excellent cover for this. Yet, this excuse can hardly stand serious scrutiny: Some countries have hardly suffered any terrorist attacks; others, such as Kenya, have seen the number of attacks increase despite higher military spending, meaning that the military option is no solution.

Indeed, the weapons acquired have more often than not ended up being used against local populations. Rwenzururu, Laikipia, Bujumbura and Juba essentially offer different scripts of the same story: The destruction of local aspirations in favour of foreign interests perpetrated by puppet regimes; the misuse of taxes to purchase weaponry for use against local populations; and pain, displacement, and poverty occasioned by attempts by ruling cliques to stifle all dissent.

If we are to effectively tackle poverty and bring the citizenry together through integration, we cannot at the same time engage in a worthless arms race against our neighbours, while sending our soldiers to fight in foreign-instigated wars in the region. Far from such military adventurism, our people have more basic needs.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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