Africa’s thin grey line between private military security and mercenaries

Recent reports indicate the presence of the Russian Wagner Group in Africa, particularly in the Central African Republic (CAR), and talk is of its imminent arrival in Mali. This raises questions about the resurgence of private military and security companies (PMSCs) activities on the continent.

Wagner’s role in conflicts and its alleged human rights and humanitarian law violations in countries such as CAR are concerning for the continent’s peace and stability. Criticism has come from countries around Mali and that country’s partners, causing a diplomatic spat between Malian transitional authorities and France.

Beyond the Wagner Group, however, the use of PMSCs and mercenaries in Africa should be addressed comprehensively. States’ outsourcing of their security prerogatives to these private entities or to individual security operators presents a serious challenge for Africa’s peace and security.

At times, security privatisation has also blurred the lines between PMSCs as ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ providers and mercenarism as a primarily subversive and lucrative activity. Both groups are paid for services rendered. Furthermore, some PMSCs recruits were mercenaries, while the activities of certain PMSCs also amount, by definition, to mercenarism.

A longstanding concern

From the former Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Liberia and Sierra Leone, through Angola and Mozambique, mercenarism has long been a concern. It began in the 1960s and 1970s, when many nascent post-independence African states and governments were targets of mostly external, but also internal, destabilisation attempts. Mercenarism was still rife throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with well-known participants including former French soldier Bob Denard and companies such as Executive Outcomes, which operated in several African countries.

Security privatisation has blurred lines between ‘legitimate’ providers and subversive and lucrative activities

According to the United Nations (UN) working group on the use of mercenaries, the nature of contemporary conflicts and PMSCs involvement have undermined the implementation of existing norms. These include the African Union (AU) Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism and the UN International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. The latter has not been signed nor ratified by any of the five permanent UN Security Council members (United States, France, Russia, China and United Kingdom). 

Far-reaching tentacles

PMSCs provide services to numerous actors, including states, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and private companies, particularly in the extractive industries. Thus, PMSCs operate on a spectrum, from acting as combatants alongside a national or regular state army, to providing security services to humanitarian missions, to securing private corporation mining operations.

The working group on mercenaries notes that PMSCs escape the usual accountability and responsibilities that typically apply to a country’s regular armed forces. They also do not fall specifically and easily within the ambit of international criminal procedures.

A recent Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report on foreign intervention in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province shows how the government used private military companies' troops and equipment to combat terrorism, including the Wagner Group and South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group.

It appears that Wagner wanted to bomb what it believed were identified insurgent bases, but the Mozambican army opposed the move. This seeming difference in military doctrine illustrates how PMSCs can threaten the safety and security of civilians, as has been seen by Wagner violations in CAR. Mozambican state security forces have also been ‘implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture, use of excessive force against unarmed civilians, intimidation and extrajudicial executions’.

PMSCs avert accountability and responsibilities that typically apply to a country’s regular armed forces

The Mozambique case also illustrates the inadequate preparedness and, therefore, the inability of many national security forces to deal with a domestic insurgency. Hence their resorting to external security and military services, which leads to potential humanitarian and human rights laws violations with little possibility of justice for victims.

The same is true of PMSCs in humanitarian situations and acting as private security contractors for UN peacekeeping missions. The working group notes that the use of PMSCs by humanitarian actors creates potential for human rights and international humanitarian law abuses, or ordinary criminal offences.

Transfering civilian tasks to these companies, it stresses, embodies risks, as they lack training in gender, race, ethnic and class equality promotion in social goods and humanitarian aid distribution. This should be particularly concerning to Africa, which hosts six of the world’s 12 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions and a large humanitarian presence

PMSCs in peace operations, the working group points out, are market-driven and ongoing instability sustains the industry, which raises questions about their interests in peace process outcomes.

PMSCs also provide security for private corporations in the extractive industries, particularly in unstable regions of the continent. Thus, they operate in environments with weak or no state (security) presence, leaving civilians to cope with whatever private security multinationals deploy to protect their financial interests.

Even where state security is present, the use of force mandate conferred to PMSCs is not always clear or, at least, not always applied with a strict respect for human rights. This can be exacerbated when PMSCs work alongside state security forces that themselves behave outside the law. Incidentally, the deployment of private military companies in Mozambique went hand-in-hand with the building of huge liquid natural gas infrastructure that is being threatened by the violent extremist groups.

Distinct actors or birds of a feather?

Although they are considered to be distinct actors, there is a strong commonality among PMSCs, armed groups and mercenaries in that they often form part of what are commonly considered ‘soldiers for hire’. Often, PMSCs are regarded as mercenaries or as engaging in mercenary-like activities simply because of the transactional nature of their business.

PMSCs are market-driven, raising questions about their use in peace operations and interest in sustaining peace

Former mercenaries or those who have conducted mercenary-like activities may also be recruited by PMSCs. The porosity of the borders among PMSCs, armed groups and mercenaries add to the challenge of dealing with the pervasiveness of armed individuals who contribute to instability.

A current, emblematic case of this murky situation is in Libya, where thousands of mercenaries for the different warring factions have become a major obstacle to returning to peace.

Plugging governance gaps is key

Beyond the headlines that tend to focus on particular PMSCs, African countries need to address the existing gaps in their national and continental security. From a purely ‘hard’ security standpoint, this entails strengthening national public security systems, including capacitating national security forces to deal with less traditional security threats. States resorting to private security providers, particularly when threatened, should not become the norm.

National and continental (and international) norms around PMSCs (and mercenaries) should be reviewed to fit with existing realities. The use of PMSCs must be considered not only in direct classical combat, but in the extractive industry and in humanitarian efforts where violations have also taken place. Legislation should be tightened to prevent mercenarism on the continent.

Some African states have cracked down on mercenarism by using their laws against mercenaries. South Africa did so when its citizens were hired by the Nigerian state to go into combat with Boko Haram. However, it did little to prosecute or even reprimand DAG in Mozambique.

Prevention being better than cure, plugging governance gaps in human security and the security sector will yield better results than having to deal with instability and insecurity stemming from governance deficits. 

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