Are Mercenaries Friends or Foes of African Governments and the UN?

Troops stand guard as Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, arrives in Mali in August 2018. (MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko)

This week, Equatorial Guinea took over as chair of the United Nations Security Council and began its tenure by hosting a high-level debate on the use and impact of mercenaries, a topic of particular relevance for the country. Just over a year ago, its government claimed to have stopped a coup attempt by some thirty armed mercenaries from Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic (CAR) against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who himself took power forty years ago in a coup.

African governments have for decades been concerned with the use and impact of mercenaries, and for good reason. Mercenaries were used throughout the decolonization period and Cold War, starting in the 1960s in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There, Irish troops part of the first UN peacekeeping operation with a significant military force, ONUC, held the Siege of Jadotville against Katanga militias led by the infamous Bob Denard. Denard went on to lead one of the longest mercenary careers during the “Françafrique” policy era of Jacques Foccart.

Mercenary use continued in the decades to follow, and expanded to include private companies. In 2004, for example, former British special forces officer Simon Mann—founder of the private military and security company (PMSC) Sandline International, and co-founder of the more famous Executive Outcomes—was arrested in Zimbabwe for planning to overthrow President Obiang (who later pardoned him).

These and other experiences explain why Africans in particular are wary of foreign mercenaries and private military companies, and why the Organization of African Unity (replaced by the African Union in 2002) was a pioneer in developing the Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa over forty years ago in 1977. 

“Friendly” Use of Mercenaries in Africa

Despite their aversion toward mercenaries, governments in Africa have also frequently used them for assistance. As early as the 1980s, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi recruited young Tuaregs from Mali and Niger—in contexts of drought and rebellion—to join his “Islamic Legion,” later disbanding them and integrating them into special units of the Libyan army after ill-fated military adventures in Lebanon, Chad, and Sudan.

In the late 1990s, President Joseph Mobutu used a number of African mercenaries, in addition to European ones, to battle against rebels supporting Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who himself had the backing of some armies in the region.

The South African PMSC Executive Outcomes first became famous for helping the Angolan government force the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) party to accept the Lusaka Protocol in 1994, and for repelling Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and bringing them to the negotiating table in Sierra Leone the following year. This with a mere 200 personnel and a single Mi-24 helicopter. A further example in West Africa is the involvement of Liberian mercenary recruits in the 2010 post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire.

The Complications

In recent years, a new generation of “guns for hire” appears to be emerging. Foremost among the reasons is that the Libyan conflict has led to the re-emergence of a regional market for cross-border combatants, attracting fighters from northern Chad and Darfur who serve as militiamen, rebels, mercenaries, traffickers, and bandits. The strongest push factor for this has been the “repeated failures of peace agreements and rebel reintegration processes in the region, the lack of economic opportunities, the absence of political alternatives in Chad, and the chronic violence in Darfur.”

In addition to the recruitment of fighters in conflict and post-conflict zones, the role of PMSCs is a murky area. PMSCs have the ability to facilitate the recruitment of mercenaries/fighters and to work with governments who allow and even sometimes facilitate transactions. Governments may indeed prefer that current and ex-combatants be far away from home rather than able to possibly support domestic rebellion. Notably, African mercenaries served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and are now being pulled in large numbers to the war in Yemen to supplement forces already officially contributed by a number of African and other armies.

This role played by some PMSCs comes with its own complications. Concerns over Executive Outcomes, for example, led the post-apartheid government in South Africa to pass the “Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act” in 1998, which dissolved the PMSC. This week’s debate also characterized some of the complications, despite diplomats using fig leaves in order not to name and shame fellow Council members.

Some Council members insisted on the importance of drawing the line between illegal mercenaries and legally-established and recognized PMSCs that operate with the consent of host countries and contribute positively to peace and security in Africa, notably by supporting national security forces. PMSCs were purposely not included in the Concept Note circulated ahead of the debate, but the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, quickly named the elephant in the room in his speech.

This line is indeed not always easy to draw, especially when some PMSCs get involved in direct combat, combat support, and, as some Council members flagged, in destabilizing activities. UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed to the challenge of the international legal definition of a mercenary being very narrow, which poses an obstacle to effective investigations and prosecutions of misconduct.

Secretary-General Guterres also chose to highlight that “only 3 current members of the Security Council” ratified the 1989 convention on mercenaries—the only international instrument that prohibits the recruitment, training, use, and financing of mercenaries—instead of lamenting that none of the permanent members of the Security Council with the greatest military forces have. Without support from the permanent members, improving accountability of PMSCs will be impossible.

What Do PMSCs Do?

While the presence of PMSCs in the management and resolution of conflicts is not a new phenomenon, their spectrum of activities has broadened, leading some to speak of the growing “privatization” of war and to raise normative and legal issues, some of which are beginning to be addressed.

A number of national armies have used PMSCs for logistics, protection of personnel and equipment, training and advising local forces, maintenance of weapons systems, but also sometimes to combat armed groups. While discernible as far back as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, it is in Afghanistan and Iraq that tasks traditionally performed by the armed forces were outsourced to private companies in a widespread manner. A telling recent example is the October 2017 ambush of United States special forces in Niger, where an investigation revealed the involvement of three PMSCs.

One of the best-known PMSCs is the American company Blackwater (dissolved in 2009), some of whose leaders and employees were convicted in 2014 for unlawful acts and human rights abuses in Iraq. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a former US Navy Seal, recently proposed to the White House that US soldiers in Afghanistan be fully replaced with PMSC employees. The number of armed contractors there has already increased more than 65 percent since 2017. Prince’s companies have also provided some of the African mercenaries for the war in Yemen and previously attempted to build a private air force for the government of South Sudan during the country’s 2013 civil war.

Another PMSC that has attracted attention is the Russian Wagner Group, created in 2014 by Dmitry Utkin. Wagner played a critical role in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and has also been in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, where they are suspected of having helped the government quash recent protests. Mercenaries are illegal under Russian law, but Russian President Vladimir Putin himself acknowledged back in 2011 that “such companies are a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state.”

The UN and PMSCs

UN peacekeeping, the most visible tool of the Security Council for the maintenance of peace and security, also makes use of PMSCs—a topic that was not raised at this week’s debate either. The issue of the “privatization of peace” indeed remains a bit taboo at the UN.

In the mid-1990s, when then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to convince member states to send peacekeepers to Rwanda, he briefly considered hiring a PMSC to help separate combatants from refugees in the refugee camps. Until recently, the use of PMSCs by the UN has been largely limited to logistics and support activities, and some security functions. But this is changing.

From the end of the 2000s, with the UN operating in increasingly risky environments, the organization considered using PMSCs to secure its sites and personnel. In 2013, the UN General Assembly finally determined that the use of PMSCs should be a last resort only after other alternatives were explored, including protection by the host country (and its security forces), by a member state, or by the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). The General Assembly also stressed the importance of taking measures to avoid the legal and reputational risks that could result from using PMSCs.

The model favored by the UN since that time has been that of “guard units” made available by member states on the basis of a memorandum of understanding and reimbursement, similar to blue helmets. The first unit of this type was set up in 2004 in Iraq, and in 2013 three new guard units were authorized to protect political missions in CAR, Somalia, and Libya, after the option to use a PMSC was rejected in the latter case.

Situations like Mali, where the majority of the UN mission’s military resources are dedicated to the protection of logistical convoys and camps, have raised questions on whether some functions could be outsourced so that UN peacekeepers can focus on mandate implementation, including protecting civilians.

Part of the attempts by UN peacekeeping to adapt to environments like Mali involve using a number of private companies to train contingents on the dangers of mines and improvised explosive devices, or to fill gaps in capabilities offered by troop-contributing countries (TCCs). For instance, the UN uses commercial companies to supply transport helicopters with advanced capabilities including machine guns, night flying, and the ability to carry out medical evacuations in hostile environments. Very few military helicopters provided by UN TCCs offer these capabilities. Moreover, the pressure exerted by big financial contributors to cut costs tends to push the UN towards commercial options for air assets, as they are a more flexible budget arrangement than TCC reimbursements.

These dynamics naturally blur the distinction between peacekeepers and PMSCs, as does the support provided to parallel offensive/counterterrorism forces. In Somalia, for example, the PMSC Bancroft trains and mentors UN-supported African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali troops in the field. In Mali, WILD Foundation—with support from the UN mission—has successfully trained and mentored a Malian anti-poaching unit in operations using former African soldiers.

Moving Forward

PMSCs are surely not a miracle solution to the complex operational, financial, security, and political challenges of contemporary conflicts, and outsourcing raises new challenges, particularly for UN peacekeeping. For the UN, the logic of profit that motivates private companies does not seem very compatible with the principles of peace operations, which are first and foremost political, operate on the basis of a mandate issued by the Security Council, and derive their legitimacy from the multinational character conferred upon them by more than 124 troop- and police-contributing countries.

However, the subject of outsourcing in peace operations deserves to be revisited today in light of two major evolutions: the need for modernizing and adapting to more complex environments; and the strengthening of partnerships with African forces and regional organizations that necessitate original support solutions. But revisiting should be done on the condition of clearly delineating the parameters for the use of PMSCs in the context of peace operations, especially when they may be required to use force.

Arthur Boutellis is the author of the forthcoming “Vers une privatisation des opérations de maintien de la paix?” in “Vers une africanisation des opérations de maintien de la paix”, by Peer de Jong (L’Harmattan, Collection Stratégies africaines de sécurité).