Air transport development programmes in Africa – focusing on air traffic control, airfield ownership and aircraft safety – have the potential to significantly improve security and governance in regions affected by conflict and transnational organised crime.
That is the view of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in new research paper titled “Building Air Transport Capacity in Africa: Options for Improving Security and Governance.
The report, penned by SIPRI arms transfers researcher Hugh Griffiths, finds that air transportation has played a key role in prolonging the wars that have devastated parts of Africa in recent years.
“Not only is air transportation instrumental in the transfer of small arms and light weapons (SALW) to war zones, it is also essential for the extraction and transport of minerals, precious metals and hydrocarbons from war-affected countries and in facilitating illicit flows of narcotics and tobacco.”
He adds this is because many African conflict zones are only accessible by air – being far from the sea and navigable rivers and roads being largely absent.
But unlike arms brokers, drug cartels and commodity smugglers, air transporters are required to operate overtly: their aircraft must be registered and their companies formally constituted.
“Air transportation thus represents a potential ‘choke point’ at which destabilising or illicit commodities can be detected and intercepted,” the SIPRI researcher argues.
Griffiths notes that although the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), through the 1944
Convention on International Civil Aviation (aka the Chicago Convention), requires nation states to establish effective civil aviation regimes, this is not the case in many African countries where conflict, corruption or a lack of resources have prevented their establishment.
“Air transportation companies, together with the individuals and trading networks associated with them, have exploited this situation to evade detection or control. Successive reports of United
Nations Groups of Experts investigating illicit flows of weapons and other goods by air in Africa have recommended the establishment of air traffic control, monitoring and surveillance systems to better identify, disrupt and diminish illicit flows by air.
“Recent research by SIPRI has shown also that the rigorous enforcement of air safety regulations can complement such measures, as companies involved in destabilising transfers tend to have poor
Griffiths asserts that the establishment of proper air traffic control over conflict zones, along with state authorities taking proper charge of airfields and air safety specialists grounding unsafe aircraft will greatly hamper smugglers, insurgents and the illegal economy.
“While air transport development programmes require seemingly high levels of capital expenditure and technological investment, the resulting improvements in security, regional trade and infrastructure development could be significant.
“Moreover, the cross-cutting nature of these programmes means that funds targeting transnational organised crime, security, infrastructure and peacekeeping should be available. In addition, air transport development programmes should deliver a range of results over the short, medium and long term and prove relatively inexpensive when compared to short-term security sector reform (SSR), disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), or democratisation projects,
such as elections. It would also place money in state coffers.
Where states lack the ability to impliment effective air traffic control, peacekeepers could step into the breach, Griffiths avers, perhaps deploying ground radar and “smaller airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft capable of operating from shorter runways”.
He adds that models for use in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and elsewhere in Africa could include the creation in particularly sensitive zones of a “notification or ‘N’ area—similar to that established in northern Sweden during the cold war—where aircraft would be required to notify air traffic control of their presence and intended route or face an operating ban upon discovery.
“This radar- and radio-based air traffic control system could be supported by an air safety enforcement programme which would profile aircraft for ramp inspection based on the data submitted in the flight plan or through airborne notification. In addition to promoting air safety and grounding or banning the worst offenders, standard air safety ramp inspections—similar to the EU’s SAFA programme—include a document check (of the cargo manifest, certificates of registration and airworthiness, filed flight plan and pilot licence) and inspection to check the integrity of the cargo hold.
“While these checks are not a substitute for a customs inspection, they could prevent the delivery of destabilising SALW or non-taxed or illicitly taxed imports or exports.
“Airstrips in eastern DRC could be subject to a certification process with parameters that addressed civilian monitoring and control of the airstrip as well as basic air safety concerns.
“A blacklist of banned carriers which failed to participate in the notification scheme or engaged in
illicit flows could be enforced—through the seizure of their assets—with the support of special police units present at the main airports.”
Expertise and technology sharing could also be sought from a range of African regional and subregional organisations such as the Dakar-based Agence pour la sécurité de la Navigation
aérienne en Afrique et à Madagascar (ASECNA, Agency for the Security of Aerial Navigation in Africa and Madagascar), Griffiths notes.
“The AU is already playing a continent-wide role in developing aviation standards together with the European Commission through a common strategic framework and action plan for African–European cooperation in air transport.
“Given the transnational dimension inherent in air transport development, Africa’s regional economic communities (e.g. the East Africa Community) and the Regional Center on Small Arms and Light Weapons (RECSA) may have a role to play together with UN institutions such as the ICAO, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) or MONUC’s Aviation Section, which is currently geared to servicing the needs of the temporary peacekeeping mission.