Who is Viktor Bout, and why should Africa care?
This man is believed to be the biggest illegal arms dealer in history, and his largest market is Africa. Arrested and held in Thailand, will he spill the beans?
By NATION Reporter
Posted Thursday, November 4 2010 at 17:43
The Merchant of Death is just one of the labels given to Viktor Bout, the man on the left who is believed to be the biggest illegal arms dealer in history.
A dissident who has been second on the US intelligence agencies most-wanted list after Osama Bin Laden Bout had a weapons smuggling empire which lasted at least a decade and spanned three continents, including in Africas most murderous hot spots.
At only 43, he is believed to have provided weapons to every major armed conflict in the last decade, and even inspired the blockbuster movie Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage (Bout was not too impressed).
Viktor has been in a Thai prison since 2008 and may be extradited to the United States for trial, something he has been doggedly appealing, and which some African politicians and generals have been equally hoping it doesnt happen, given the information he has stockpiled on his dealings with them.
In the 1090s, regional and local conflict was rampant throughout many parts of western and central Africa. Americas National Security Council eventually decided to set-up electronic surveillance in war zones such as northeast Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1999. A common factor kept cropping up: Viktor Bout.
He was allegedly capable of arranging deliveries of weapons to the guerrillas that enabled them to greatly enhance their military capabilities. In Angolas case, he even supplied weapons to both sides. Many of Africas wars may not have been possible, let alone sustainable, without his help.
He was associated with three areas in particular; weapon shipments, airplanes and diamond transport. It was the last of these that contributed to his undoing. In 2002, Sanjivan Ruprah, a Kenyan diamond mine owner, offered details about business dealings between Al Qaeda and the arms trade run by Bout.
There has been a great deal of hesitancy by legitimate dealers to do business with Africa. Most of this was born out of fear of loss of investment due to insecurity or bad infrastructure, not for Bout. He even earned himself the tag of Sanctions Buster for violating UN arms embargoes in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the DRC.
In the mid-90s, the CIA circulated photographs showing Russian cargo aircraft, Antonovs and Ilyushins which are built to land on almost any surface and said these were part of Bouts operation in Africa. He was criss-crossing the continent, transporting everything from frozen chicken to diamonds and helicopters.
Bout was doing deals whose existence was reliant on an unstable environment. And he was fortunate, in many ways, in his attempts to stay a step ahead of the authorities. International law does not target those who broker arms deals, and governments have had a hard time locating him, let alone building strong cases against him.
He was also fortunate to call many African leaders his friends. These included; Angolan rebel leader Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, Mobutu Sese Seko and Jean-Pierre Bemba who were respectively former president and vice-president to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberias notorious former president, Charles Taylor.
His explanations bordered on the ridiculous he, for example, said of the photographs taken of him in Africa next to cargo planes being off-loaded by militia that they were simple shots of him taken after he accompanied one of his flower cargoes to the continent, and that he was simply admiring the landscape. Bout was born in 1967 to Russian parents in Tajikistan.
He has a strong military connection, having attended the Soviet Military Institute for Foreign Languages in Moscow and then going on to earn an economics degree from a Russian military college. He was also part of a military aviation regiment until 1991, spending two years in Mozambique during this time.
The most intriguing thing about this man was his ability to publicly live his life as one of the worlds most wanted. He claims to be someone who has found his success in the international transport business, as well as a father and husband. Bout began his career in air transport following the fall of the USSR, using abandoned military planes from the Soviet era.
His career, however, became difficult to maintain when, in 2002, Belgian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. He subsequently went underground and hopped from capital to capital using aliases. In 2006, the US froze his assets but, interestingly, found that there was no law based on which he could be persecuted.
He was eventually caught in a sting operation in Bangkok, Thailand, when he and US agents posing as Colombian rebels discussed shipments of arms to Colombia. Thai authorities took him in him shortly afterward. Even if Bout does fail the appeal, it will be a tricky process putting him on trial.
It may also bring more bad than good, considering the dossiers he has on not only many African governments, but also on western governments as well. If that doesnt make it a diplomatically difficult paradigm, then fears that this case has the ability to unlock the secrets to many African wars and, potentially, the ability to cause many more certainly will.
What is certain is that Africa will be watching the unfolding developments raptly.
Daily Nation:*- DN2*|Who is Viktor Bout, and why should Africa care?