Sahel attracts ‘private armies’
Private security companies are spreading their wings in the Sahel belt of Africa. Mercenaries are not new to Africa.
During the Congo crisis of 1960-68, which began with national independence from Belgium and ended with Joseph Mobutu seizing power, the Irishman “Mad” Mike Hoare and the Frenchman Bob Denard were recruited by the private company Union Miniere, to defend its interests and the secession from Congo of the province of Katanga. Their exploits informed movies such as the “The Wild Geese” (1978) and the “The Dogs of War,” (1980) based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel.
Denard fought in many African countries, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Gabon and the Comoros Islands where he participated in four coups.
In the 1970s, the United Nations formally proscribed mercenaries in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. The South African government outlawed mercenaries in 1998 but the end of the Cold War produced market conditions that forged a new private military industry.
As the world became unstable, the United States was downsizing its massive military by 40% to reap a peace dividend. When it entered office, in 1993, the Clinton administration reduced the armed forces from 2.2 million to 1.4 million and lessened troops stationed overseas from approximately 600,000 to 250,000.
The US Army conducted ten operational events outside normal alliance commitments from 1960-91 and 26 from 1991-98. Mission creep led the US State Department to contract DynCorp International to provide peace verifiers in Kosovo, train Haitian police and eradicate coca plants as part of Plan Colombia. Mission creep was given a boost by live coverage on CNN of US troops being killed in Somalia, which led to Western governments committing to foreign conflicts.
Private security companies prospered because NGOs, such as Save the Children and Caritas, hired them as did multilateral corporations. In 1960, these numbered 3,500 with a stock value of $68 billion. By 2000 there were 64,000, worth $7.1 trillion, accounting for 33% of world output and 80% of the international investment.
In the Sahel, state actors, be they African or European, are faced with international terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and their local franchises, cocaine trans-shipments in West Africa ten years ago amounted to 60-250 tonnes, yielding revenues of $3 billion-$14 billion. European and Asian investors are keen to protect their mining operations involving uranium and other metals.
Into all these steps the US military, whose remit it is to fight terrorism in Africa. A botched US military operation in western Niger on October 17, 2017, led to a Pentagon investigation. This report, Algerian security expert Akram Kharieff said, revealed the names of three private American security companies active in Niger, including Erickson Incorporated and Berry Aviation Incorporation. He said 21 private American security companies are working in the Sahel.
This militarisation of US foreign policy is not new and is increasing by the day. The activities of private US security companies are inspiring others. It is hardly surprising that the Russians and Ukrainians have latched onto the game.
The Wagner Group, which is active in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria, recently took a lease on the residence of the former head of state of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Wagner, it appears, is protecting the main diamond mine in the country and its activities appear to have spread to Sudan.