Africa presents Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) with an endless market of opportunities. Their presence – particularly around the horn of Africa – has grown exponentially since 1994, with no indication that the trend will end soon. Despite this – the continent’s experience of PMSCs has not, to put it diplomatically – been a uniformly positive one. The involvement of “soldiers-for-hire” in the Congo during the 1960’s, the Biafra War (1967-1970), the abortive coup in the Seychelles (1978), Angola (1993-1995), Sierra Leone (1995), Equatorial Guinea (2004), and more recently in the alleged use by Muammar Gaddafi of Serbian and Tuareg private soldiers during the Libyan Civil War in 2011 has cast the idea of PMSCs working in the interests of African security in a very unflattering light.
Proposed legislation, such as South Africa’s (longwinded) ‘Prohibition of Mercenary Activity and Prohibition and Regulation of Certain Activities in an Area of Armed Conflict Act’ (2006) and the archaic OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa underscores this disapproving continental perception. There are, however, two sides to the tale. “Mercenary” legislation in Africa has largely been channelled towards the direct involvement of private soldiers in offensive, combat orientated operations. In particular, the now-defunct companies of Executive Outcomes (EO) and Sandline International, which had a more combat-centered focus, are held up as purveyors of destabilization and neo-colonial machinations.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, companies involved in stability operations, such as DynCorp – which was awarded a contract to train Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) troops in 2011 under the US African Peacekeeping Program – exhibit a nuanced and arguably more acceptable role that PMSCs can occupy. Although not without its own detractors and critics, this form of PMSC use is gaining momentum as a more acceptable vehicle of private force provision. Increasingly, companies such as MPRI and ArmorGroup have readjusted their corporate strategy to support peace operations globally.
The question of whether the new roles of PMSCs beyond the direct combat spectrum have a positive value in Africa is a topic of fiery debate. Proponents argue that the stark absence of core technical competencies in many African militaries creates a demand for such PMSCs on the continent, since the lack of robust military capability fuels the proliferation of ungoverned spaces in which rebels and violent non-state actors can exist with impunity. However, the growth in deployment of PMSCs that provide training in tactical and operational levels of war, leadership and logistics may erode the ability of African forces to cultivate an internal institutional memory their own.
These elements are widely cited as the driving rationales for the use of PMSCs. That such structural deficiencies have created a demand for PMSCs should indeed be of concern and focused attention; but is it disturbing that PMSCs have answered the call to provide “stability support”? The short answer is no. With the “Somalia syndrome” still clearly etched in the memory of the US, and the general operational disengagement of western powers from the shambolic and costly nature of peace support operations, the cupboard of external support for security operations is frighteningly bare. PMSCs offer tangible solutions to the African operational theatre that offer innovation and flexibility in services and capabilities. While the discourse on regulation, transparency, accountability and legal status of these firms is crucial to the broader debate on PMSCs, little effort is being shown at the continental, regional and sub-regional level to proactively engage with the industry and cooperatively develop a sustainable, mutually compatible partnership.
Instead of timidly toying with proposed ambiguous legislation such as the South African act, governments require an assertive posture aimed at harnessing the power of the private sector. The long-standing cry of “regulation, regulation, regulation!” must now be married with the reality of strategic foresight. A vitriolic rhetoric towards PMSCs will undermine attempts to forge sustainable partnerships and will undoubtedly eschew the practical benefits that PMSCs can offer. Regulatory strengthening of PMSCs must go hand-in-hand with good governance if any positive progress is to be made. The almost pathological fear in Africa of hired guns running amok is without doubt warranted and justified. The impact of these types of non-state actors on human rights, development and Security Sector Reform (SSR) is problematic to say the least. What is unacceptable, however is the dithering position espoused by recognised regional powers such as South Africa to the strategic value and reality of collaborative outsourcing.
If the dilemma of PMSCs in Africa is insoluble it is not because of PMSCs but because of a lack of imagination on the part of governments and regional bodies as to how to sustainably and effectively employ them. The recognition of their importance and value as legitimate security actors has begun to dawn on African governments but at present, that is where the story ends. The future of PMSCs in Africa will be contingent upon good governance with robust, strategically aligned frameworks that utilise PMSCs to cultivate, but not replace, security and military capabilities.