NAIROBI, Kenya — Viktor Bout who has just been convicted of illegal arms dealing was not the only gunrunner to bust wide open the arms embargos on almost every African war of the 1990s and early part of this century.
But he was the biggest, best and most brazen of them using his fleet of aging Russian cargo planes to hop between warzones, often selling his Soviet-era weaponry to both sides.
The stories about Bout are legion and often exaggerated leading to Nicolas Cage basing his character Yuri Orlov in the 2005 film ‘Lord of War’ partly on Bout and his escapades.
Bout would land an Antonov full of weapons into the middle of a conflict, offload guns and missiles, fill up with whatever resources were on offer – timber, raw minerals, gems, tobacco, cocoa, even fish – and fly out again.
Alex Vines of London’s Chatham House who spent years chasing Bout as a UN investigator says that Bout’s mistake was becoming too big, too high profile. “He was a brand, the McDonald’s of sanctions-busting,” says Vines.
“Viktor Bout was the poster boy of illegal arms,” agrees Hugh Griffiths at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “but he served a conflict market that has changed.”
There are still men like Bout out there – mostly Armenians and Central Asians – but they are fewer in number and lower profile. “The pool of Bout-like operators has shrunk, it hasn’t dried up,” says Griffiths.
Arms embargoes remain in place in Congo, Somalia and Sudan (as well as Liberia) but the scale of the wars and the volumes of arms required to fight them have fallen triggering a change in the illegal arms trade.
Sometimes it happens on a smaller, more local scale. For example a skiff packed with AK47s and RPGs motors across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen to Somalia, or an army general in eastern Congo sells his stockpile of government weapons to a rebel leader.
Sometimes it is state-to-state. For example, Beijing selling military hardware to Khartoum in flagrant and indifferent violation of the arms embargo, or Kenya arming clan militias in southern Somalia.
But the big change has been the legitimizing of the arms trade. “The new thing is pseudo-legal businessmen negotiating arms imports to African states,” says Guy Lamb at the Institute of Security Studies in Cape Town.
The arms trade may have shifted above board but it retains a thick streak of grey with kickbacks paid from offshore accounts ensuring deals go through between state-backed manufacturers and corruptible officials.
“These state to state deals mean the arms trade has become less illegal but at the same time more opaque,” said Griffiths.