Private military companies: Threat to continental security

Lovemore Ranga Mataire
Analysts have warned that the proliferation of private military companies (PMC) on the African continent pose a serious security threat to the survival of some states teetering on the brink of civil strife.
The analysts have called for a concerted effort in curtailing and containing PMCs’ operations on the continent and the SADC region as a way of ensuring lasting continental peace and stability.
University of Zimbabwe history department chairperson and senior lecturer in War and Strategic Studies Dr Wesley Mutwara said PMCs were undesirable entities in the maintenance of peace and security in Africa
Dr Mutwara said the post-cold war period has witnessed a proliferation of private security armies and that these must be differentiated from private armies that are usually under the leadership of some warlords or criminal gangs. He said a host of such outfits led by warlords were found in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, DRC, Somalia and Rwanda.
“It is important to state that the proliferation of both private security companies (mercenaries) and ragtag military outfits in Africa can be traced back to the power vacuum occasioned by the end of the cold war. There were many failed democratic transitions that were usually followed by a period of anarchy,” said Dr Mutwara.
He said by 1997, there were about 90 PMCs whose activities could be traced to the time when the UN and the US abandoned Somalia after military incursion failures. Dr Mutwara said it was at that time that a number of private military companies found themselves in that country at short notice and for a competitive price.
“For instance in 2003 Executive Outcomes – a South African PMC charged Sierra Leone $35 million for 21 months while the UN peacekeepers would have cost $48 million for a similar period,” Dr Mutwara said.
Dr Mutwara said some of the conflicts on the continent were actually fuelled by the private military companies, which indirectly unmasked the myth of the nation-state monopolising power in the exercise of military violence. He said Africa attracted a large number of PMCs because of the prevalence of weaker states and the absence of regional and international arrangements to combat conflict.
“Usually, these mercenaries are viewed negatively, as they are often connected to some of the worst violence that this continent has faced. Yet it is important to underscore that these have often served at hard pressed governments seeking to retain the levers of power of rebel movements seeking to topple democratically elected president,” Dr Mutwara said.
Prominent South African academic Professor Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, a lecturer in the department of Development Studies at the University of South Africa, concurred with Dr Mutwara saying in a bid to outwit their rivals leaders of weaker states have wilfully transformed their nations into regimes that serve as agents of foreign interests by engaging in “imperialism by invitation” by openly inviting powerful private military companies (PMC) to help them deal with local rivals, who in turn have their own foreign connections and backing.
“In weak states, sovereignty is highly contested given that the state is an arena for local and global actors. The danger posed by these PMCs is that they operate beyond the realm of legal accountability and public oversight thereby threatening the state within which they operate, as its citizens. Because these private forces sell their services to whoever can afford them, they constitute a serious security risk to Africa,” said Prof Gatsheni.
Prof Gatsheni suggested two remedies in dealing with the menace posed by PMCs. First, he said there is a need for effective regulation of the private security companies, a move that must be preceded by a research into the survival strategies of leaders of the weak states.
The second is to ensure that rulers of weak states move away from regarding private security sector as something that can prop them up rather than a danger to their power. The rulers of weak states must get regional or continental assurances of security in order for them to cooperate with efforts to regulate the sector.
Writing in ‘The Making of the Africa-Nation’ (2003) edited by Mammo Muchie, sociologist and political scientist at Copenhagen Business School, Professor Anna Leander argues that most conflicts in Africa are a result of PMCs.
She says PMCs are increasingly present on the continent and that their presence is largely accepted and that this situation is likely to remain part of the picture of how violence is regulated in Africa for the foreseeable future.
“The expansion of PMC activities has profound implications for states. It affects their role in the regulation of violence and hence one of the basic features of statehood. It does so both via its impact on the direct regulation of violence and via its effect on the foundation of state. So the bottom line is that the commodification of security tied to expansion of PMCs is bound to reinforce the particularity of many African states,” writes Prof Leander.
Prof Leader says although it is difficult to have authoritative and comprehensive information concerning the sale of private military and security services, given the sensitivity of the issue, the PMCs play a central role in how violence is regulated among most African states.
Most specialists according to Prof Leander are generally agreed that there has been an increase in mercenary involvement in armed conflict during the 1990s. She says this consensus stems from the compilations of available information on “mercenary activity” in Africa from 1950s onwards.
One such compilation shows 15 entries for the 40 years spanning 1950-1989 and 65 for the period 1990-98. Similarly, the 2002 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Greenpaper also show 15 entries for the period 1950-1989 and 80 for the period 1990 onwards.
“There is not only more private security; the sellers are increasingly international or transnational. The conventional image of private security services as being sold mainly by local gang leaders, mafias or warlords and by (foreign) individuals or mercenaries is obsolete. Of course, these sellers continue to exist and arguably play a growing role in contexts where the policing and judiciary systems have either broken down or were never established. But to this image was has to add a new business component: the PMCs”, Prof Leader says.
A reality that came out of the post-cold war era and regime changes in Russia and South Africa resulted in the profound restructuring of the military in the direction of privatising and diminishing the rile of the state. This period also led to the commercialization of defence by making publicly owned and/or controlled entities compete for contracts on international markets. There was also a global decreased budgetary priority on defence including the number of men recruited in the armed forces dropping from 28 million to 21 million between 1985 and 1999.
This decreased recruitment of defence personnel meant that a large chunk of professional military officers were left redundant leaving them in search of alternative or lucrative work.
But in the words of Prof Leander, it would be misleading to deduce that the PMCs are a mere branch of the national armed forces of their country of origin as many of them are not. She says even when they are set up and staffed by former militaries they can still operate as genuinely private companies.
“The group of PMCs, which has attracted the greatest attention, is that where the firm is part of a large diversified corporate group; no doubt because of the many obvious parallels between the operations of these companies and the grand style colonial companies. The most frequently cited (but by no means only) examples are Executive Outcomes (closed in 1998) and Sandline. They are part of the Brach Heritage Oil and Gas group, which covers a wide range of mining, extractive, military support and logistics and financial activities.”
Prof Leander says unlike in the 18 century when piracy, privateering and mercenaries were outlawed, it seems some states now have grown to accept the prominent role played by private business interests in the regulation of violence and use it themselves and allow or encourage others (NGOs, firms and international organisations) to do the same.
While some UN bodies have occasionally used private security companies in the provision of security for humanitarian purposes, Prof Leander argues that the role of PMCs remain problematic.
First, she says the reliance on PMCs makes it increasingly hard for states to control that their decision-making authority can actually be translated into actual military operations. There is always the risk that the private firms will not fulfil their contracts or not do so fully. A typical example happened in Sierra Leone when the Gurka fled Sierra Leone when their commander had been killed and also the fact that the PMCs can turn against their employers if offered more lucrative contracts by the other side.
Second, the reliance on PMCs alters the capacity of states to decide who is entitled to use what kind of force. Indeed, by definition private firms are in business to make a profit. There is always the danger that these PMCs can sell their services to non-state organisations including rebel groups, extractive firms, or outright organized crime involved in drug trading, human trafficking or trade in illegally extracted diamonds.
The third reason why PMCs are undesirable is the kind of depoliticisation of the regulation of violence to the extent that the checks and balances provided by formal national armed forces won’t be available and state actors can act with impunity when using private military entities.
Prof Leander ends her argument by quoting Tolstoy: “War is not polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war.” She says states need to critically review whom they grant authority to go to war to be able to control the means of war.

March 2016
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