Militaries Are Traditionally Secretive, and That’s Good News for Weapons Traffickers

A lack of transparency enables corrupt officials worldwide to continue in lucrative racketeering of state assets. A new initiative aims to establish set of global standards for defense governance.

Coffins are seen draped in Malian flags at a funeral for 17 soldiers who were killed last month in Segou, Mali.
Mamadou Camara/Reuters

In the summer of 2015, Lt. Col. Elie Tarpaga was commanding a battalion of Burkina Fasan peacekeepers in Timbuktu, the gateway to Mali’s vast northern desert. It was a tense time: With 850 men and minimal logistical support, he was responsible for protecting a disparate civilian population from raging banditry and rival armed groups with a limited regard for a recently signed truce.

In spite of his difficulties, Tarpaga had an affable and jocular manner. But his broad smile quickly disappeared when asked how he felt about such a large proportion of Burkina Faso’s army being sent abroad. “How do you know it is such a large proportion?” he asked.

The Burkinan Army is estimated to consist of around 6,500 men, of whom three battalions are trained for peacekeeping and are regularly deployed. Last summer, two were in Mali but Tarpaga shook his head. “You may think you know how many soldiers we have, but no one would tell you the exact numbers. And if they said they did, they would be lying. It’s sensitive information.”

He was reflecting an attitude that is common across many militaries: Defense spending, and the size of units, are important national secrets – because a potential enemy shouldn’t know your hand in the event of war.

In Africa, 40 percent of countries publish no official figures on defense spending, and the rest rarely publish any budget breakdowns. With upward of $40 billion spent annually on defense across the continent, oversight remains minimal.

Far from improving security, however, there are many reasons to believe that a lack of transparency makes states more susceptible to corruption, organized crime and state failure.

“A lack of accountability in the security sector and the growth of secretive defense spending is a major risk to international stability,” said Katherine Dixon, director of Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme.

Mali is an excellent case in point. In the wake of a rebellion by Tuareg separatists in 2012, and an incursion of extremist groups in the country’s north, Mali has become a significant recipient of security aid, but doesn’t publish its defense spending or require competitive tenders for defense procurement.

French and Malian soldiers wait for an armored car to be dug out of sand in Inat, Mali, May 2016.
Media Coulibaly/Reuters

In addition, the military is not subject to independent auditing and parliamentary scrutiny of its activities is minimal.

The irony is that, far from improving security, this culture of secrecy – and corresponding poor governance – was directly threatening the lives of Tarpaga’s men.

Earlier in the week, militants from Le Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Allies (GATIA), a pro-government militia hostile to Tuareg independence, had ignored cease-fire lines agreed in early June and risked a firefight with separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Had fighting erupted, the peacekeepers would have scrambled to intervene – as has occurred on numerous occasions. Twenty-four soldiers from MINUSMA (the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali) were killed in the first six months of 2016.

“GATIA was armed by the government,” a senior MINUSMA officer, formerly responsible for operations in Kidal where the infraction took place, told Haaretz. “GATIA has heavy weapons. The MNLA, too, with 120mm. mortars, 107mm. recoilless rifles.” Mortars have been used to shell UN compounds.

“There is seepage of weapons from the government stockpiles to traffickers, but we don’t know how much,” the UN officer continued. “The armed groups all have connections with smugglers.”

This seepage to non-state actors is facilitated by the lack of transparency in procurement and budget secrecy in the Malian state. Arsenals are not subject to independent auditing, meaning the UN cannot establish the volume of arms moving out of government hands.

The lack of independent scrutiny enables corrupt officials to continue in lucrative racketeering of state assets, and allows shoddy record-keeping to go unnoticed and unpunished.

In one of the most egregious incidents, the Malian Armed Forces signed off on a contract after being invoiced for 500 percent of the budgeted cost.

MINUSMA Director of Communications Radhia Achouri notes that “there are many people who do not want a stable country” profiting from smuggling made possible by insecurity, and by a lack of transparency or governance, which sees heavy weapons flow into a smuggling route connecting Libya to the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Confronting corruption in the face of defense secrecy depends upon reshaping the attitudes of officers like Lt. Col. Tarpaga. Fortunately, a new initiative is seeking to do just that. According to Transparency International UK, over a dozen states – including major economies, arms exporters and regional powers – have expressed an interest in establishing a set of global standards for defense governance, aimed at strengthening oversight and security.

Although the terms of this agreement are yet to be set, at their core they will encourage states to publish defense budgets and set up procedures for independent oversight of procurement and expenditure, in line with national defense strategies.

The initiative is still at a very early stage, but there are many reasons for states to support it. From the point of view of Mali’s benefactors, ensuring their aid is well spent is a key interest. With the spread of terrorism, governance and the management of arms is a growing security interest, while corruption and the weakening of state institutions provides opportunities for non-state actors to thrive. Meanwhile, for those states rapidly increasing their defense spending, ensuring that they have a national strategy against which they can judge the utility of military programs, ensures greater value for their investment.

Jeff Kaye chairs Transparency International UK’s Defence and Security Programme and was a former director at British defense firm Marconi. “Large Western nations should be receptive to such standards,” he said, “as governments of the 21st century nation-state should be eager to show that their fundamental responsibility to ensure peace, safety and security for [their] citizens cannot be delivered without transparency and accountability.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Raymond in Mali.)