Africa at the mercy of private security companies

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With meager grips in the Middle East following a Western withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa is the new feeding ground for private military and security companies (PMSCs). And despite the negative consequences for the inhabitants, the mercenary trade 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 deaths reported. Deaths have increased in all categories of political violence, including areas of conflict, violence against civilians and mob violence.

In their efforts to contain rebellions and conflicts, African leaders are turning to groups of mercenaries. But in doing so, they exposed themselves to the worst and most predatory practices of Western and Russian capitalism.

Legacy of profiteers

One of the most infamous examples of this type of organization, the late Blackwater, is best known for her role in the US-led war in Iraq. Subsequently pardoned by former president donald trump, four Blackwater security personnel attached to a convoy became notorious after grossly excessive and unprovoked use of force against civilians.

The massacre of 17 unarmed people, including two children, sparked an international outcry. FBI investigators who attended the scene described it as the “My Lai Massacre in Iraq,” a reference to the most shocking illustration of violence against civilians by members of the US military during Vietnam War.

Before being pardoned, one man was serving a life sentence, while the other three were serving 30 years. The episode was one of many incidents that led the Iraqi government to unsuccessfully attempt to revoke Blackwater’s license to operate in the country. Due to the chaotic legal context, this turned out to be impossible. After years of increasing government budgets, Blackwater was finally forced to rebrand. Twice. It now works like Academi.

“Even before Nisour Square,” reported The New York Times in 2014, “Blackwater security guards had gained a reputation among Iraqis and US military personnel for their boast and recklessness, but their complaints … not resulted in serious action on the part of the United States or the Iraqi government.

Chaotic and confusing environments are where PMSCs work best. The infamous Blackwater founder Erik Prince was even recently involved in a failed arms trafficking plot involving a warlord in Libya. Prince has not been charged; the FBI investigation is ongoing.

Syrian refugees like this child are escaping war zones fought by stateless actors.

The private armies of the oligarchs

The era of privatized war has come full circle. But now nations are using PMSCs to dispense hard power with plausible deniability. Blurring the lines between healthy competition and open conflict, modern Hybrid Warfare uses private entrepreneurs as a blunt instrument in the machinations of African oligarchs and dictators.

The government of Central African Republic was recently urged by the United Nations to end its relations with the private security collective on Wagner Group. The war-torn nation is one of many currently being contested by mercenaries – groups the United Nations has implied in potential war crimes.

The Russian Wagner group, named explicitly in the UN report, is a network of private military companies with obvious but undefined ties to the Kremlin. The company’s contractors were first deployed in the Ukrainian conflict and later in Syria. Now its services are provided to African leaders, from Mozambique, Madagascar, Sudan, to Libya. Recently, the group worked with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic, reversing rebel advances.

Wagner offers the Russian government the opportunity to reaffirm itself militarily without the burden of responsibility. And indeed, lack of accountability is what causes appalling crimes to continue unchecked.

Wagner’s mercenaries were accused of raping, killing and torturing civilians, as well as creating an environment in which humanitarian workers and journalists in the conflict zone are equally dangerous. Death threats have become commonplace for journalists, while some are missing. Wagner’s presence on the ground also, perhaps on purpose, gave him control of the country’s gold and diamond mines. It was speculated that this was a form of payment to Wagner from the local president.

“They completely changed the equation on the ground”, according to to a Financial Times source in Bangui. “The operating environment is just ideal for them, there is no real state and you have a pretty toothless government that was really looking for a way out and found it in these mercenaries.”

A relentless business world

While some security companies go a little harder to promote a positive brand image, it’s important to remember that working as a mercenary is inherently and ethically problematic, regardless of the lens. Here, the Canadian private security company GardaWorld is no exception.

The group may be best known for their cash transit operations, but they have also recently moved to Africa. When it acquired two Rwandan security companies in 2019, GardaWorld took the opportunity to gain positive press in financing of a sports field and a playground, offering them to a local school in the Gasabo district of Kigali, Rwanda. Unfortunately, that was not enough to banish the smell of the French police. search of the Belgian offices of the company that same month; apparently it was part of a corruption investigation – one in which GardaWorld says she is not involved.

The company made its ambitions known this year with an attempt to take over the world’s leading security group G4S. Although it has failed to convince potential shareholders, GardaWorld is probably considering buying some of the G4S African operations. Such acquisitions would certainly give the company a better position to dine on African soil.

One of the disturbing fallout from all this Western and Russian mercenary adventurism is that it is preparing the ground for China to follow suit.

With the huge scale and expanse of China Belt and Road Initiative, especially in Africa, there have never been so many sites and areas of infrastructure linked to Chinese investments. And, inevitably, these foreign projects require protection that local governments struggle to provide; this creates the perfect rationale for deployment and expansion on the Chinese local PMSC activity abroad.

Unlike large, world-famous Western operations, Chinese PMSCs are small, young, and largely unknown. Most companies are a little over a decade old. However, some companies are gaining notoriety, including China Security and Protection Group, Frontier Services Group, China Overseas Security Group and HXZA.

“[Chinese] The PSCs are gaining in importance and in number and now, with the evolution of the global scenario, their role will only grow ”, according to to an industry analyst. “So it’s important to understand the structure of these companies.

Clearly, the PMSC market is showing no signs of slowing down. While mercenaries aren’t new to the world stage, the growing role they play in muddying the waters and wreaking havoc could be. Without greater willingness on the part of world leaders to engage on the subject, not only may the practice of using mercenaries not improve, it could even get worse.

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