Debates on global drone proliferation tend to assume that adoption and adaptation of drones follow a universal logic and that the drone industry is a singular thing, geographically concentrated in the Global North. In this blog post I argue that these assumptions make it difficult to critically assess the growth in drone use across Africa. I suggest that one way to think about African drone proliferation is by considering the way drones and Africa are being construed as solutions to each other’s problems: drones are seen as a game changer for development and security, while in return Africa inspire new and innovative use of drones. The perception of Africa as being in need of external drone intervention dovetails with the drone industry’s efforts to identify and promote good uses for drones — efforts that are central to increasing the legitimacy of drones in the eyes of a skeptical global public. Here I want to highlight three key issues related to drone proliferation in Africa.
First, that there is an unbroken link from colonial use of airpower in Africa and the legacy of technological imperialism to today’s discussion of unmanned technology and its perceived capacities. The first use of airpower in Africa occurred more than a century ago, during the Italian-Turkish War fought in Libya in 1911–1912. In their conquest of Morocco in 1912– 1914, the French used aircraft for reconnaissance and bombing. British use of airpower to enforce civil control in sub-Saharan Africa began in 1916 in British Somaliland. The use of surveillance drones in Africa initially emerged as a part of this colonial apparatus: According to Darren Oliver, the first known drone prototype developed in Africa, the Champion, was developed by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1977 and delivered to the South African Air Force in 1978. Some of the Champions were supplied to Rhodesia for use in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle (1964– 1979), also known as the Rhodesian Bush War. Unbeknownst to almost everyone today, a fleet of South African and Israeli drones “saw extensive combat duty across the southern African theatre between 1980 and 1987, operating from Mozambique to Angola.”
Second, that drones reshape the use of force on the African continent. A central concern in the global debate on armed drones is that such drones may drive military action and lower the threshold for the use of lethal force: the scope of operations is determined by the number of designated individuals drones can target for elimination. In 2007 the first known drone strike on African soil occurred in Somalia. Today, the numbers of targeted drone killings are continuously expanding: The United States, the United Kingdom (UK), and France have bases for surveillance and combat drones in Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Somalia. African militaries are also embracing surveillance and combat drones. A non-exhaustive inventory finds that more than fifteen African states have purchased drones, and at least six can manufacture their own. This includes armed drones: In 2015, the South African company Denel Dynamics introduced the Snyper, an armed version of its Seeker 400 drone. The market for Israeli military drones continues to grow across Africa. China, meanwhile, has exported five armed drones to Nigeria, to boost that country’s efforts to fight Boko Haram.
The third point worth noting is the manner in which the drone industry construes an image of “Africa” as an appropriate testing ground for development of “good” drones suited to solve the continent’s “problems”. Globally, drones have a bad name: in addition to the controversies surrounding the drone wars, drones are generally perceived as technologies that are subject to a range of risks, from pilot error to mechanical failure, cyber-attacks, and bad weather. The result is very limited access to civil airspace. Thus the drone industry has a significant unmet need to test and improve the technology by increasing flight hours and trial applications. The African continent’s lack of infrastructure — including power lines, airspace control, and commercial flights — is attractive to the drone industry: African airspace has been described as “less cluttered with flights that have slowed the adoption of commercial drones in North America and Europe.”
Africa is also a place where drones can obtain legitimacy as a “good” technology. Peacekeeping missions and wildlife conservation are examples of drone use intended to address specifically “African” problems. By allowing practices with high degrees of legitimacy — like peacekeeping and the African War on Poaching — to be juxtaposed with drone uses that, in other contexts, may be viewed as more controversial, the African context provides opportunities to strengthen the notion of drones as “good” technology.
In 2015, a UN Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping called for drones to be integrated into all UN peacekeeping missions, missions that are increasingly set to enforcing peace with military means. Of the sixteen ongoing UN peacekeeping missions, nine are located in Africa. The first mission to acquire a drone capability was MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nongovernmental organizations operating in and around Goma, for example, have voiced strong concerns that such peacekeeping drones are blurring the line between military and humanitarian action. This concerns the actual uses of the drones as well as community perceptions.
In the intensifying African War on Poaching, drones are currently being used to combat poaching on elephant and rhino in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. According to the Game Rangers’ Association of Africa, the massive market demand for illegal game has meant that rangers are increasingly likely to find themselves in combat situations. Conservationists might argue that drones are merely visual aids for rangers to gain an advantage over the poachers. However, when conservation is reframed as a “war on poaching”, this approach is modelled on the war on terror and relies on military-grade weapons. In 2014, in Kruger National Park, South Africa, one poacher was killed by a ranger who was acting on information provided by a drone. Using drones to monitor animals and to target poachers are qualitatively and morally different activities.
In conclusion, the ‘African drone’ has become a vehicle for the production and distribution of norms, resources, and forms of legitimacy that have implications for drone proliferation, both within and outside Africa. By contributing to further militarization and lowering the threshold for the use of force, drones transform the ways in which security operations, peacekeeping and conservation work are carried out across the continent. At the same time, by affiliating drones strongly with these types of projects, the perceptions of African and Northern audiences change with respect to the respectability and utility of drones. As academics, it is our job to try to keep track of these developments; both in the local context and in a broader pan-African perspective.
This post is based on Kristin Bergtora Sandviks article African Drone Stories, which was an output of the Dynamics of State Failure and Violence Project. Sandvik is a senior researcher at PRIO and a founder and director of the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School, and has published on a wide range of issues relating to humanitarian action, military technology and gender in Africa. Sandvik is also the co-editor of “The Good Drone”, released by Ashgate in 2016.