The world seems perennially at war. As you read this, someone is most likely dropping a bomb, firing a gun or running away from war.
In Syria, Yemen, Somali, Congo, Ukraine and a host of other countries, war seems like the way of life consuming communities and diverting key resources to military use. This diversion can be estimated by getting the country’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP by for instance comparing Kenya with the US and China.
Kenya and China expenditure has been flat since 2000. The US expenditure, on the other hand, surged reaching a maximum around 2010 and declining thereafter. President Trump wants to reverse this trend which has resulted into the US reduced engagement in Afghanistan and the Gulf. The absence of a surge in Kenya’s expenditure after incursion into Somali is surprising. Does it reflect external funding from UNISOM?
Some observers will quickly add that war is sometimes necessary to resolve issues that can’t be resolved in any other ways. Yet to others, war is what often forces nations to renew and rejuvenate themselves. This argument can be verified by the economic recovery in Western countries like Japan and the US after World War II. That is the romantic view of war. But to those who lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, war means something else. To them, war is closer to the heart and often inter-generational. Life, unlike tanks or guns, can’t be replaced.
Some economists could argue that war creates demand for weapons therefore creating the much needed jobs. There are communities whose jobs depend on weapon manufacturing and if you have followed the debate on the weapons the Government of Kenya want to purchase from the US, you see jobs intertwined. The debate we fear engaging in is that war is profitable, very profitable.
To start with, there is a lot of single sourcing, and most contracts are never open to public scrutiny. Ever seen a tender to supply Kenya with tanks? The more advanced technology behind weapons become, the pricier they become. How, for instance, do you make a stealth bomber that evades the radar? Restrictions on exports to some countries and on sharing technology add to profit margins. Reduce supply and prices go up
Further, research and development on weapons is a preserve of a few companies and governments which all contributes to the prohibitive prices. For example, one variant of the US most advanced fighter jet made by LockheedMartin, the F-35, goes for around $150 million (Ksh15 billion). For one plane! Consider the profit margins when exported?
It is these high profits that attract lots of under the table dealers. Arms trafficking thus becomes a huge business but causes instability in most parts of the world including Kenya.
The US defence contractors are quite clever and manipulative. They ensure the production of key weapons is spread to as many states as possible. This ensures that any cuts in defence spending is felt by as many states as possible. Politicians therefore have to oppose any cuts to preserve jobs.
This is why war will continue playing a key role in the global economy. It creates jobs through procurement and delivery of weapons, employment of soldiers and civilians and spill over effects where research done in defence labs eventually spread into commercial use.
Should Kenya join this business? We have a bullet factory in Eldoret which has not been making profits, according to the Auditor General. Why not upscale to make radars, fighter planes, tanks and so on? After all, most of the weapons made are not used but are for deterrent purposes. My interest in defence spending was prompted by a spent cartridge and a bomb found on the northern edge of the Aberdares. The small bomb, measuring about a half a foot, was dug up by farmers about 20 years. I was lucky to take its photo and The Standard published it. Experts came and detonated it. It is a remnant of bombs dropped by the Britons during the Mau Mau liberation war.
Recently, we got another spent cartridge from the same area that has the name KYNOCH and .303 at the bottom. Searching through the net, we found that Kynoch is an ammunition manufacturer. Did they make money during the Mau Mau? Who else benefitted from the emergence period in Kenya? And out of curiosity, how much would you buy this spent cartridge for if it was on sale?
Though shielded from the public, defence and its derivative war is a big business. One would have thought modernity would banish war to history. The truth is that war has accompanied us through ages, perhaps a testimony that we are human after all. Irrespective of the age we are born, we have feelings, emotions, love and hatred for others.
The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.