In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.
In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.
Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.
There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.
His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.
OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.
Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)
Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.
Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.[/vc_column_text][vc_tta_accordion style=”modern” shape=”square” color=”chino” active_section=”1″ collapsible_all=”true”][vc_tta_section title=”The Saudi Connection” tab_id=”1614345509270-ae0ccea1-acf8″][vc_column_text]The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.
Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.
OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.
Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.[/vc_column_text][/vc_tta_section][/vc_tta_accordion][vc_column_text]Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.
“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”
A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.
Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso
The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.
The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.
The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.
In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.
“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.
The Pool Offensive
The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.
In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.
One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.
After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.
The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.
“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”
The Baku-Brazzaville Connection
Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.
Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.
Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.
Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.
But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.
[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Braced for a Crackdown
As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.
Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.
In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”
Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.
Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.
And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.
“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.
“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”
Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]