Africa and the Soldiers of Misfortune
The worrying rise of mercenaries and what must be done.
Since the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BCE to contemporary conflicts in countries like Yemen, Ukraine, and Iraq, mercenaries have been a recurring feature of human warfare. For post-colonial Africa, that story started in the newly independent Congo in 1960, where a mixed bag of mercenaries aided the Katanga province’s (failed) attempt at secession. It continues today with the deployments of the private Russian security organisation the Wagner Group in several African countries.
While the use of mercenaries may be nothing new, the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries recently warned: “We are witnessing the ever-increasing presence of mercenaries and mercenary-related actors in contemporary armed conflicts and the ever-mounting risk of grave human rights abuses and war crimes.”
So who are these soldiers of fortune? A generation ago, many mercenaries were former soldiers who had fought in colonial-era conflicts in Indo-China, Algeria and Southern Africa, and former Yugoslavia. Some had close contacts with national intelligence agencies that wanted to keep their interventions hidden; mercenaries afforded their paymasters a shroud of deniability.
Today, the mercenary profile is more complex. Although individual mercenaries still operate, there has been a proliferation of private military and security contractors (PMSCs). These contractors are taking on a range of security-related tasks on behalf of governments in conflict zones around the world.
Some governments have used PMSCs to reinforce or replace their own unreliable or incompetent armed forces. Sierra Leone, for example, contracted Executive Outcomes, a South African security company, to fight the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the 1990s. More recently, Mozambique has hired mercenaries to protect oil and gas installations.
There have even been calls for PMSC interventions to end atrocities against civilians. At the height of the Darfur crisis in 2008, when the UN and African Union (AU) were struggling to field peacekeeping forces, the actress Mia Farrow proposed the use of PMSCs, arguing: “The people in the camps would say ‘we don’t care whether it’s Blackwater, any-water, as long as they help us”. Blackwater, an American PMSC, was later implicated in serious human rights violations in Iraq.
Intermittent efforts have been made to suppress or regulate mercenary activity. In 1989, for instance, the UN adopted an international convention on mercenaries, though only a quarter of UN member states – and none of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – have adopted and ratified it.
In 1977, the Organisation of African Unity (now the AU) adopted what is still the only regional instrument on mercenaries, the Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism. It became effective in 1985, but it has not stopped African governments from hiring mercenaries, and the AU has yet to make a commitment to deal with PMSCs. There is some political will to do so, at least judging by a February 2022 remark of the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, who expressed his desire to “completely exclude mercenaries from our continent”. But will that happen? And will African governments that hire mercenaries be brought to account by their peers?
One difficulty is that unregulated PMSCs present a more complicated challenge than the mercenary adventurers of old. Two Swiss-led initiatives (the 2008 Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies and the 2010 International Code of Conduct), were important steps towards regulation of PMSCs. But these are voluntary initiatives, and they have not prevented the diversification of PMSC clientele, their sectors of activity, and the types of services provided.
Four troubling issues
This laisser-faire approach raises several troubling issues.
The first and foremost is accountability. Wagner operatives, for example, have been hired through complex legal schemes by the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. In theory, they are accountable to those governments, but will a government that is dependent on irregular forces to maintain power be ready to hold them accountable for serious transgressions? It seems unlikely.
As Jelena Aparac, former Chairperson of the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries points out, there is a general view that presumes corporations do not have any direct obligations under international law. She cautions, however, that this is not the case when they operate in armed conflicts, in which they must abide by international humanitarian law. Shamefully, former US President Donald Trump muddied the waters – and set an appalling example – when he pardoned Blackwater operatives, who US authorities had successfully prosecuted for the massacre they committed in Iraq in 2007.
A second concern relates to the interaction between UN peacekeeping forces and private military contractors. A decade ago, when I was the UN Special Representative in the Congo, the UN instituted a due diligence policy related to contact and collaboration between peacekeepers and national security forces. We did so because of well-justified qualms about the abusive behaviour of Congolese forces. Given UN peacekeepers’ responsibilities for civilian protection and human rights, a similar policy should apply to their relationship with PMSCs, which in the case of Mali is already creating tensions.
When separate military forces are active in the same theatre of operations there is always a risk of confusion and unintended consequences. In Mali, following the withdrawal of French forces, the government is likely to rely more heavily on Wagner units even though UN peacekeeping forces will continue their operations in the country.
A third worry stems from the use of natural resource concessions to pay for the services of PMSCs, as seems to be the case in Mali and the CAR. In effect, these governments are mortgaging their country’s economic future to foreign groups that, ironically, thrive on instability as a source of demand for their services. We have seen similar resource deals in the past in Angola, the DRC and Liberia, where diamonds, minerals, and even forests, were traded for military aid from private companies and other states.
A last concern relates to the effectiveness of mercenary services. The Wagner and PMSC interventions in Africa and beyond may enjoy a short-term impact, but if history is any guide, sooner or later there will be a falling out between the mercenaries and their patrons. This may be provoked by a default in the payment for services rendered; or an international outcry over the abuse of civilians; or even hostility from state forces, which may come to resent the privileged position of the foreigners.
What can be done?
What can be done to inhibit the use of mercenaries, whether as individuals or as companies?
First, more states need to sign on to the UN convention. Those states that have already done so (including 15 African states), must ensure that they abide by its terms.
Second, the flawed state of regulation of PMSCs must be rectified. The current code of conduct is a voluntary instrument, and clearly the worst offenders do not participate. Formal international regulation is needed. Hopefully, UN negotiations underway, chaired by South Africa, on regulating PMSCs will produce a legally binding framework
Pending international agreement, governments should press PMSCs in their jurisdiction to adopt and abide by the voluntary code and ensure that their own relationships with mercenaries are fully transparent and carefully monitored.
Finally, African and other governments should recognise that mercenaries are not the answer to state weaknesses. Quite the opposite: they are antithetical to state building because they do not contribute in a sustainable manner to enhancing state capacity. Governments that rely on mercenaries or PMSCs (sometimes as a part of dubious arms deals) to shore up their national security are likely to remain vulnerable to instability.
Mercenaries and PMSCs cannot redress ineffectual national governance; they are an augury of institutional failure rather than a reliable corrective. They provide, at best, a temporary palliative to the security challenges that governments have not been able to satisfactorily manage or resolve. In countries like Mali, the CAR, Libya and Mozambique, they are a symptom of failing security institutions. This is why these soldiers of fortune, wherever they ply their trade, are in reality the soldiers of misfortune.