Africa at the Mercy of Private Security Companies
With slim pickings in the Middle East after a Western withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa is the new feeding ground for private military and security companies (PMSC). And despite the negative consequences for locals, the mercenary business is booming.
Africa was the only continent where political violence increased in 2020. Last year, more than 17,200 events of political violence were recorded, resulting in over 37,600 reported deaths. Deaths increased across all categories of political violence, including conflict zones, violence against civilians, and mob violence.
In their efforts to rein in rebellions and conflicts, African leaders are turning to mercenary groups. But in doing so, they have exposed themselves to the worst and most predatory practices of Western and Russian capitalism.
Legacy of profiteering
One of the most infamous examples of this kind of organization, the now-defunct Blackwater, is best known for its role in the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Subsequently pardoned by former President Donald Trump, four Blackwater security personnel attached to a convoy became notorious after an unprovoked, grossly excessive use of force against civilians.
The massacre of 17 unarmed people, including two children, led to an international outcry. FBI investigators who visited the scene described it as the “My Lai massacre of Iraq,” — a reference to the most shocking illustration of violence against civilians by members of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Prior to being pardoned, one man was serving a life sentence, while the other three were serving 30-year sentences. The episode was one of many incidents that led the Iraqi government to attempt in vain to revoke Blackwater’s license to operate in the country. Due to the chaotic legal context, this turned out not to be possible. After years of increasing government budgets, eventually Blackwater was forced to rebrand. Twice. It now operates as Academi.
“Even before Nisour Square,” the New York Times reported in 2014, “Blackwater’s security guards had acquired a reputation among Iraqis and American military personnel for swagger and recklessness, but their complaints…typically did not result in serious action by the United States or the Iraqi government.”
Chaotic, muddled settings are where PMSCs operate best. The infamous founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, was recently even implicated in a failed weapons trafficking plot involving a warlord in Libya. Prince has not been charged; the FBI investigation is ongoing.
The private armies of oligarchs
The era of privatized war has come full circle. But now nations are using PMSC to dispense hard power with plausible deniability. Blurring the lines between healthy competition and open conflict, modern hybrid warfare deploys private contractors as a blunt instrument in the machinations of oligarchs and African dictators.
The government of the Central African Republic was recently urged by the United Nations to cease its relationship with the private security collective the Wagner Group. The war-torn nation is one, among many, presently contested by mercenaries — groups that the United Nations has implicated in potential war crimes.
Russia’s Wagner Group, named explicitly in the UN report, is a network of private military companies with self-evident yet undefined links to the Kremlin. The company’s contractors were first deployed in the Ukrainian conflict, then later in Syria. Now its services are being provided to African rulers, from Mozambique, Madagascar, Sudan, to Libya. Recently, the group has been working with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic, quashing rebel advances.
Wagner provides the Russian government an opportunity to reassert itself militarily without the burden of accountability. And indeed, the lack of accountability is what is causing appalling crimes to continue unchecked.
Wagner mercenaries have been accused of raping, killing, and torturing civilians, as well as having created an environment in which aid workers and journalists in the conflict zone are equally unsafe. Death threats have become commonplace for journalists, while some have gone missing. Wagner’s presence on the ground has also, perhaps by design, given it control over gold and diamond mines in the country. It has been speculated that this is a form of payment to Wagner from the local president.
“They have completely changed the equation on the ground,” according to a Financial Times source in Bangui. “The operating environment is just ideal for them, there is no real state and you have quite a toothless government that was really looking for a way out and found it in these mercenaries.”
A cutthroat corporate world
While some security firms try a little harder to foster a positive brand image, it is important to remember mercenary work is fundamentally and ethically problematic, regardless of the optics. Here, the Canadian private security company GardaWorld is no exception.
The group is perhaps better known for cash transit operations, but recently it too has been making moves in Africa. When it acquired two Rwandan security firms in 2019, GardaWorld took the opportunity for some positive press by funding a sports field and playground, gifting them to a local school in the Gasabo district of Rwanda’s Kigali. Unfortunately, this was not enough to banish the scent of French police raiding the company’s Belgian offices that same month; apparently this was part of a corruption investigation — one in which, GardaWorld claims, it is not implicated.
The company made its ambitions known this year with an attempted purchase of the world’s largest security group G4S. Though failing to convince prospective shareholders, GardaWorld likely has its eyes on purchasing some of G4S’ African operations. Any such acquisitions would certainly give the company a better position from which to dine on African soil.
One troubling fallout from all this Western and Russian mercenary adventurism is that it is setting the stage for China to follow suit.
With the enormous scale and breadth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, particularly in Africa, there have never been so many sites and stretches of infrastructure with ties to Chinese investment. And, inevitably, these foreign projects require protection that local governments struggle to provide; this creates the perfect justification for deploying and expanding upon the activity of Chinese home-grown PMSCs abroad.
Unlike large globally renowned Western operations, Chinese PMSCs are small, young, and largely unknown. Most companies are little more than a decade old. Some companies are gaining notoriety, however, including China Security and Protection Group, Frontier Services Group, China Overseas Security Group, and HXZA.
“[Chinese] PSCs are growing in importance and numbers and now with the changing global scenario, their role will only get magnified,” according to an industry analyst. “It is therefore important to understand the structure of these companies.”
Clearly, the PMSC market shows no signs of slowing down. While mercenaries are not a new feature on the world stage, the increasing role they are playing in blurring lines and wreaking havoc might be. Without a greater willingness from global leaders to engage on the subject, not only might the practice of using mercenaries not improve, but it might even get worse.