How Uganda got tangled with Russian arms dealer
What you need to know:
- Mr Viktor Bout, who was recently released in a prisoner exchange for the American basketball star Brittney Griner, was the mastermind of one of the most prolific arms trafficking operations in Africa. In this explainer, Robert Madoi details how the Russian arms dealer’s dark arts dovetailed with those of state actors from Uganda.
Who is Viktor Bout?
Until his arrest in a US sting operation in 2008 in Thailand, Mr Bout was famed for being the McDonald’s of arms trafficking. Born to Russian parents in Tajikistan on January 13, 1967, Mr Bout became fluent in half a dozen languages either through living out of a suitcase, as he once told The New York Times, or through attending the Soviet Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow, Russia.
After training in a Russian military college, he spent time in a military aviation regiment until 1991. This included a couple of years spent in Mozambique as the country’s civil war ground to a halt.
How did he end up becoming one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers?
It appears he used his airfreight expertise to devastating effect. A year after leaving the military aviation regiment, Mr Bout, then aged 25, shelled out $120,000 on three Antonov cargo planes and oversaw wet and dry leasing arrangements for long-haul flights out of Moscow.
By 1996, he was running 160 air cargo companies in Saudi Arabia’s biggest emirate of Sharjah. He also had a little more than 1,000 air and land crew members at his disposal. Sharjah had at the time gained notoriety for being the preferred “pitstop” for planes registered in strife-torn countries such as Liberia and the Central African Republic.
Soon his tentacles stretched to South Africa, then Ukraine, and Ostend—a port on the North Sea coast of north-western Belgium. He had earned himself a reputation in the arms-trafficking underworld as someone who could ably move and sell weapons. For profit.
What’s the backstory to his links with Uganda?
Mr Bout counted Mobutu Sese Seko and Jean-Pierre Bemba among his personal friends and customers. The latter was a key figure in the second Congo War that started in August of 1998 before ending in a military stalemate on July 18, 2003.
Uganda and Rwanda were some of the foreign state actors in the war, having ostensibly been drawn into the conflict by militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and the Interahamwe, among others.
The findings of a 2002 United Nations (UN) probe established that Mr Bout used Entebbe International Airport to traffic arms that buttressed belligerents in the war. The final report of the panel of experts into the plundering of Congolese natural resources states thus: “The panel is in possession of a list of outbound flights from 1998 to the beginning of 2002 from Entebbe International Airport, which confirms the operational activities of Mr Bout’s aircraft from Ugandan territory.”
How did the arms trafficking play out?
The US’s National Security Council (NSC) authorised electronic surveillance of government and militia leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1999. A triangulation of British spies’ on-the-ground field reports, American satellite and eavesdropped telephone conversations confirmed that Mr Bout’s planes made stopovers in, among others, Congolese jungle airstrips.
The planes that ranged from Antonovs to Ilyushins were essentially built to land on and escape from almost any surface. The covert photographs shot showed militiamen helping themselves to crates of weapons out of the planes’ yawning bellies.
What was Mr Bout’s defence?
Uganda, along with Moldova and Slovakia, was among the countries where arms shipments directly traceable to Mr Bout were interdicted. The Russian, however, always said he was innocent. Mr Bout once claimed to have a soft spot for the jungles in eastern DRC because he was bitten by a “photographing wildlife” bug. He also reportedly had a passion for studying isolated tribes in the dense jungles.
Was any Ugandan proven to be in cahoots with Mr Bout?
The 2002 final report of the panel of experts drew a neat link between Mr Bout’s dark arts and shenanigans with Salim Saleh’s wife, Jovia Akandwanaho.
It stated thus: “Currently, Mr Bout’s aircraft share the flight times and destinations (slots) with Planet Air, which is owned by the wife of Lt General Salim Saleh and which facilitates the activities of Mr Bout by filing flight plans for his aircraft.”
In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Uganda to pay $325 million to the DRC for plundering its natural resources between 1998 and 2003. Kampala paid $65 million in the first instalment of the fine on September 1.