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In defence of mercenaries


John Stupart is Daily Maverick's newsletter editor and author of First Thing, its award-winning daily newsletter hitting your inboxes every morning at 6am. By night, John also happens to be a defence expert, weighing in on all matters military. John holds a masters in War Studies from King's College and a masters in International Relations (Wits). His unfettered love for dogs has probably influenced a lot of the pictures of the day featured in First Thing.

Private military contractors get a bad reputation. Journalists especially are very uncomfortable with the idea of well-paid, armed men wandering around the planet’s hotspots in cargo pants and Oakleys. But these men can play a vital role in restoring security and bringing about development.

Khadija Patel recently wrote a piece on the presence of private military contractors, PMCs, for the Daily Maverick. In it, she relied heavily on the expertise of Sabelo Gumedze, an analyst at the Institute of Security Studies, and of a “security analyst” who apparently remained nameless to protect themselves, or to sound more mysterious, either of which serves to add to the shadiness of private security. The article rode on the back of a UN report detailing PMC activities in Somalia. Most significantly, it fingered the South African Government as being incredibly naughty for not helping the UN on gathering information. But underneath all this (and also underpinning Simon Allison’s column accompanying the piece) is the theme of implied “evil” on PMC activities.

This tar and feathers approach utterly misses the point, which is that PMCs, God help us all, can actually be useful.

Media outlets have made a meal out of PMCs in the past few years. They’re a soft target, like Julius Malema’s press briefings and painting penises on caricatures of famous people. After all, many of the organisations running around Africa (and the Middle East) in their designer Oakleys and cargo pants, bristling with ridiculously-customised assault rifles and pickup trucks, use South Africans. That’s because we happen to have an entire generation or two of black and white combat veterans who, upon being cast out of their military society in South Africa, are welcomed back into the private fold for quadruple the price and, this time, the Angolans are your battle buddies, not targets.

And who can blame them? Any South African is free to visit Pomfret, the backwater township where many former 32 Battalion soldiers now live in relative obscurity. There is nothing in the way of work for hours in any direction. An asbestos poisoning debacle resulted in half of them being forcefully (and willingly) relocated to Mafikeng, where their futile quest for legitimate work can begin anew. Black Portuguese-speaking ex-Angolans generally have little in common with the locals.

Moreover, the bigger PMCs regularly get utterly roasted for their blunders (which do often result in innocent lives lost), and thus are ever the sinister ghoul hanging over many major conflicts around the world. But their bad reputation is not necessarily deserved.

What most media reports on PMCs miss is the reality that private military work sees individuals fulfilling contractual obligations in very dangerous areas. Areas where people will die regardless of who is there or not. Where civilian casualties, regrettable as they are, will happen. In Somalia there appears to be a rough consensus that the country and piracy off its coast will only be fixed with lots of development and greater political involvement and institution-building. Of course what is almost entirely missed from this wishful thinking is the difficulty in building institutions and engaging in “development’ (as if this is some sort of magic wand) when there are still clans and warlords vying to utterly destroy their neighbours in order to control the state. 

Somalia has suffered a catastrophic rupture, both in its society and in its institutional framework. That will not be fixed with good wishes and zero security on the ground.

Recovering from this rupture requires military and external state intervention such as the world has never seen before, and yet we are to then expected also utterly disregard the minimal work being conducted by PMCs, simply because they don’t dress the same and have the same rules as the non-existent military forces.

It’s somewhat absurd to expect a non-state contractor, working for the legally-recognised transitional government, to abide by the same rules as military forces that are neither equipped nor prepared to be there. Certainly there is the AU Mission in Somalia, Amisom, which has been on the edges of the failed state for years, sending body bags back for years, too. But Amisom is not training the coast guard in Somalia to combat piracy. It is the organisation the World Food Programme approached for protection in its passage through to Mogadishu. That work was done by PMCs.

“Mercenaries”, by the definition of the masses, are the ones who are actually doing anything towards creating a security framework in the world’s least secure country. For all the implied evil that PMCs must be doing, if we are to believe conventional thought, there seems to be a pretty good track record on the ground in terms of persons successfully-protected, convoys guarded, security forces trained and of reckless violence curtailed. Patel and her allies could contribute more towards reducing the need for PMCs if there were more attention paid to the fundamental inability of African states to utilise their own militaries in anything beyond toppling their own governments. Aside from South Africa (and perhaps Algeria), there are few countries on this continent with the skill sets necessary to train a coast guard anywhere, let alone one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

This is not to say there should be a cavalier approach to PMC regulation, but there is a definite bias towards approaching the PMC question from a rejectionist perspective by default. Dismissing PMCs out of hand, much like pretending the USA’s Africom isn’t in Africa doing operations and exercises, will not result in their disappearance from the African conflict space. It will keep the debate about how and when to use them utterly stifled.

A recent scandal saw the South African-linked PMC Saracen booted out of the country because of shady and shadowy connections to CIA “secret missions” to hunt insurgents and Al-Shabaab/al-Qaeda terrorists. They were then replaced by virtually the same company and staff in all but name, and the mission continued. 

Pundits would argue that secret terrorist-hunting missions are bad at the best of times, and that utilising PMCs in intelligence organisations’ dirty dealings is beyond reprehensible. But one must ask, at the end of it all, what will result of this? In Somalia some very bad men will be killed or captured by men in custom-made Oakleys and cargo pants rather than in equally-Oakley’d and cargo-panted CIA operators. Will there be controversies and crises? Absolutely. Will that happen regardless of whether PMCs or state actors are involved? Almost certainly.

If African legislators want to get serious about PMCs they need to start thinking seriously about the reality of the strategic situation in which PMCs operate. They thrive in vacuums of insecurity, or even in support of legitimate military operations, and they often actually yield positive results. There needs be a frank and honest discussion on the philosophy of contracted soldiers in Africa before we can begin to pass a moral judgment upon the entire industry. DM


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