This week, at the kickoff of the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Obama will hear from young people, women, civil society leaders, change agents, stakeholders, heads of state—and one rather-opinionated defense contractor.
For that arms maker, Ivor Ichikowitz, the message is simple: Give war a chance. Ichikowitz is the executive chairman of Paramount Group, the largest privately-owned defense contractor on the African continent. He says he is attending the summit in Washington to make the case to the Obama administration that African countries should be encouraged to build up their own intelligence services, militaries, and national police to combat the continent’s rogues, insurgents, and fanatics.
Needless to say, human rights groups are not exactly thrilled about the proposal, which just so happens to dovetail rather nicely with Ichikowitz’s business interests. They don’t even need to mention his rather tangled relationships with some of Africa’s leaders, past and present.
The West, according to the South African defense entrepreneur, discourages governments from creating their security infrastructures. And that’s a problem, in the age of Boko Haram and al Shabab, he said. “The message from the U.S. and other countries is: ‘We will give you aid if you don’t use budgets to create armies and intelligence services.’”
To illustrate this point, Ichikowitz talks about a recent conversation he had with Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. “I have met with the president and he told me that he has no capacity to be able to afford the solutions they require because of limitations imposed by the international community on how they use their budget,” Ichikowitz said.
According to Ichikowitz, the International Monetary Fund told Keita that Mali could not use money provided by the fund for its budget for advanced weapons. “As a result, the government of Mali is forced to be reliant on the charity of the French and the United States, they are forced to be reliant on third parties to resolve a domestic problem,” he said. French forces and some U.S. support have fought a rising Islamist insurgency in northern Mali that emerged after the fall of the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi. Of course, the IMF has its reasons for wanting to keep money out of the hands of the Malian military. During a 2013 offensive to retake the northern part of the country from militants, “Malian soldiers were [i]mplicated in serious abuses…including 26 extrajudicial executions, 11 enforced disappearances, and over 70 cases of torture or ill-treatment of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators,” according to a March 2014 letter from Human Rights Watch to Keita.
“There is a formidable threat to almost every single African democracy. Unfortunately, the West has not given African governments the capability to create sophisticated capabilities to counter these threats.”
But that wasn’t the IMF’s only beef with the Keita regime. In May, the IMF delayed payment to Mali of a $46 million loan after allegations arose that the president spent $40 million of earlier poverty relief on a private jet.
Ichikowitz acknowledged in the interview that the African continent is awash in weapons, particularly small arms. “The Cold War resulted in the introduction of millions of small arms into the continent over the years,” he said. “A lot of this equipment has fallen into the hands of thugs, of fundamentalist organizations. As a result there is a formidable threat to almost every single African democracy. Unfortunately, the West has not necessarily given African governments the capability to create sophisticated, world-class capabilities to counter these threats.”
Needless to say, Ichikowitz’s vision for Africa is not shared by human rights advocates. Daniel Bekele, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, told The Daily Beast, “It is shortsighted to focus only on building the security capabilities of governments.”
He added, “Very often we investigate abuses from security forces that receive this kind of support. Unless we have a security approach, a long-term approach for rule of law, we might risk giving this capacity to abusive forces.”
It’s also worth noting that the United States military has long-standing partnerships with many African militaries. But those partnerships often do not allow these states to acquire the kinds of advanced technologies provided by companies like Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group.
Paramount makes a full range of armored vehicles and also produces surveillance drones with the kind of sophisticated sensors that can sniff out wireless communications from a discreet geographic area. Paramount also upgrades the electronics and avionics systems for Soviet-era helicopters, many of which are still used by African militaries.
Ichikowitz acknowledges that he runs a for-profit business that would stand to benefit from looser restrictions on how poorer African states could spend aid money on weapons. He stressed in the interview also that his company will not do business with any country that is under a United Nations embargo, is at war with its neighbors or opposes other sovereign democratic governments.
But he also said he believes it’s time to arm countries like Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda with the kinds of drones, surveillance systems and weaponry that will give them an edge against the insurgencies and rogues that threaten their survival.
“Today in Africa this is about outlaws versus governments,” he said. “It’s time to trust the governments and give them the capability to defend their democracies.”
Toward the end of the interview, Ichikowitz also stressed how the African wars today were personal for him. Ichikowitz said he served between 1992 and 1994 as a glorified gofer for the African National Congress. He said he considered himself honored to have worked in the orbit of the late Nelson Mandela and considered him a mentor.
“I am a born and bred African,” he said. “The fact that I am a white African doesn’t make me any less African.”
Sometimes, however, the relationships with heads of state have grown a little too personal. Ichikowitz and his brother Eric have been marred before by corruption scandals. In 2013, The Telegraph reported that the Ichikowitz Family Foundation was paying for a public relations firm to represent Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, just as the IMF recommended the country slash its budget and focus on social welfare programs. Paramount had sold armed interceptor boats to Malawi and through another private equity group signed fuel and agricultural contracts with its government.
When asked about this, Ichikowitz said, “Our family foundation is absolutely involved in assisting governments to build democracies in Africa through capacity building and training and assisting governments. This is done openly and transparently and has nothing to do with Paramount’s activities.”
He added, “Were we involved in capacity building in Malawi? Absolutely we were. The business was incidental. If my foundation didn’t work where Paramount was doing business, we would not be able to do work in Africa.”
Ichikowitz also enjoys close ties with South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, who has been accused of various corruption scandals in his time in high office. In 2009, the Mail and Guardian reported that Ichikowitz allowed Zuma to fly his private jet to Kazakhstan for an African National Congress fundraiser.
“I’ve been a strong supporter of the African National Congress all my life,” Ichikowitz said. “I was a strong supporter of Zuma when he replaced Thabo Mbeki. Our support has manifested itself in a number of ways, including allowing them to use our aircraft.”
But Ichikowitz claimed his trip to Washington was less about money and influence and more about preserving fragile African countries. “In order to avoid the perpetuation of violence and conflict in Africa, African governments need to be allowed to create deterrence and the way to create deterrence is by encouraging and facilitating the creation of a strong domestic defense capability.”