Released from US prison, ‘merchant of death’ Viktor Bout behind bloodbath in Congo eyes second coming to Africa

Released from US prison, ‘merchant of death’ Viktor Bout behind bloodbath in Congo eyes second coming to Africa


After spending more than a decade in prison following his conviction in the United States, Viktor Bout is once again a free man in Russia, following the December prisoner exchange with incarcerated American basketball star Brittney Griner. As he restarts his life and business interests, Bout has cast his eyes back on Africa.

When asked about his future plans, Bout told defenceWeb, during an exclusive interview in Moscow, that as his background is centred around logistics and infrastructure, and since the Russian government wishes to enhance economic cooperation with Africa, “I’d like to apply my expertise in this field. Africa is developing very quickly, not just in terms of supplying minerals and raw materials, but also the human potential of the continent’s people. I believe that after poverty alleviation is achieved, Africa will soon take her rightful place on the world stage as the lungs of the planet and be a powerhouse towards the future enhancement of humanity on the whole.”

Bout is aiming to form a bridge between Russian companies and Africa, particularly in the fields of energy (including oil and gas), infrastructure (rail, locomotives and support systems) and agriculture (grain, fertiliser etc). He is already working on several ventures in Russia and Africa, having recently attended the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg as a delegate, where he engaged with visiting African role players.

With the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit kicking off in Johannesburg on August 22, Bout sees growing interest in the bloc as a tectonic shift in the geopolitical world order. BRICS countries are, amongst others, pushing for a new currency and looking at expanding membership as they seek to neutralise Western dominance.

“The BRICS alliance is spearheading that change as is evident by more and more countries requesting membership,” Bout said. “The scales are tipping and critical mass is shifting to the side with new ideas and fresh approaches to the challenges of the future, which will no longer be orchestrated by Anglo-Saxon domination that’s hindered true development unjustly for so long.”

“What the world at large needs is to move away from the US dollar as reserve currency and to facilitate trade on a fairer and more balanced basis,” he added. Academic think-tanks advising Russian government policy have emphasised that access to alternative funding mechanisms is sorely needed to finance critical infrastructure as the key to unlocking Africa’s potential, since traditional institutions like the IMF are too rigid, often turning developing and third world applicants down.

Bout advised African leaders to act in the best interests of their own countries, especially in the face of economic and military pressures being exerted on them by former colonial powers. “Truth to one’s convictions is always the most powerful force and as long as any leader remains true to his people, this will inevitably overcome the dangers of engineered insurgencies. Just as no empire has ever been able to survive a grassroots rebellion, no rebellion (or insurgency framed as a rebellion by outside actors) can be successful against a leader who is sincerely acting in the best interests of his country,” he said.

Personally, Bout believes in following his heart, as this “is what brought me success in the first place.” He added that, “life is a learning curve and so we’ll always incorporate lessons learnt. Overall, I’m grateful for what I achieved.”

Born in 1967 in Tajikistan, Bout entered the Soviet military’s Institute of Foreign Languages before being sent to Mozambique in 1987. He developed a passion for the continent and identified opportunities that weren’t visible to many others while the dust was settling on the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he stepped in to fill the gap left by the USSR’s departure from Africa. He understood that countries would still need spare parts and replacements for all the Soviet equipment they’d acquired over previous decades and set about sourcing whatever countries needed.

Bout found his niche as offering a wide product range with delivery to every customer’s doorstep, particularly in volatile corners of the continent where conventional freight companies feared to go.

Providing services without any political strings attached made his offerings especially attractive for African countries. Bout’s philosophy was to never fly empty and this, together with the view that no-one should shoot the postman, were some of the reasons for his successful airline ventures, along with his gift for languages. He was someone who would fly anything, anywhere, by any means.

Apart from defence equipment, this included tilapia fish from Africa to Europe, frozen chickens to Nigeria, peacekeepers into conflict zones and aid into areas of unrest. In 1997 Bout’s aircraft were flying refugees around the Congo and aid for the UN World Food Programme, while at the same time flying weapons around that very country – his aircraft were very busy during the Second Congo War.

“I am not an arms trader per se”, Bout has said in a previous interview. “It’s possible that I have transported arms but I’m a businessman, I have many planes and I don’t care what clients ask me to transport because that’s not my responsibility.”

At the peak of his operations, Bout had around 60 aircraft active in his fleet. “By 1996 my charter operation in Sharja, UAE, was the second largest after Lufthansa. Other airlines would often outsource their deliveries to my planes – especially in servicing regions that were hard to reach,” he told defenceWeb.

In addition to aircraft, “during the time before my incarceration, I had several forwarding companies involving air and sea freight. I tried trucking too but found it not to be my forte, so preferred to partner with other companies that specialised in moving goods over land whenever the need arose.”

  • A Tell / Defenceweb report
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