The gross insecurity that has bedevilled the African continent for the past two decades rendered many states incapacitated to provide security to their citizens.
The rise in transnational terrorism in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the SADC region and the Great Lakes region has made the continent to be engulfed in political bushfires that have stretched the military capabilities of affected states beyond limit.
The growing frustration due to the deteriorating security environment has compelled some states and non-state actors to outsource security provision to private military contractors to protect African leaders or deploy them in conflict zones. Many foreign private military companies are being deployed in more and more crisis-ridden countries in Africa.
It is difficult to estimate the number of private soldiers on the African continent. This is because many of these companies operate in the shadows and there is no detailed information about private military companies operating internationally but one thing which is certain is that these private military companies have increased their power and influence in many African countries over the past few years. Amandine Dusoulier says that these companies often operate unofficially and camouflage their activities.
The private security industry has a long history on the African continent and this state of affairs is fostered by factors such as the weakness of government institutions in some countries and the continent’s wealth of mineral resources.
Although they are seen as distinct actors, there is a strong commonality among private military security contractors, armed groups, and mercenaries. They all form part of what are commonly considered ‘soldiers for hire’. These companies are frequently regarded as mercenaries or as engaging in mercenary-like activities simply because of the transactional nature of their business. Former mercenaries, or those who have conducted related activities, may also be recruited by private military contractors. The overlap between these companies, armed groups and mercenaries add to the difficulties of dealing with armed combatants. A current, emblematic case of this murky situation is Libya, where thousands of mercenaries working for the different warring factions have become a major obstacle to peace. In the Democratic Republic of Congo some of them are operating under the payroll of some multinational corporations some of who are involved in illicit mineral extraction, which amounts to transnational crime.
However, criticism of the use of mercenaries and military contractors, some of which are accused of impunity, is growing louder on a daily basis. This criticism stems from the way these companies conduct themselves in the African continent. Private security groups such as the Wagner Group, Dyck Advisory Group, and many others, have been accused of gross human rights violations in countries where they operate such as Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.
For example, the Dyck Advisory Group from South Africa was hired by the Mozambican government to combat al Shabaab jihadist violence in the Cabo Delgado Province and instead the group operatives killed civilians indiscriminately in June 2020 and did not distinguish between civilian and military targets according to a United Nations Report. The Mozambique case is also an example of how many national security forces in Africa struggle to deal with domestic insurgencies.
As a result, countries resort to external security and military services, leading to potential humanitarian and human rights laws violations with little possibility of justice for victims. US companies CACI and Academi, Secopex from France, Aegis Defense Services and G4S from Britain are among the most prominent private military companies present on the African continent apart from Russia’s Wagner Group that have been accused for such human rights violations.
The sad state of affairs on the conduct of private companies and mercenaries in Africa calls for thorough scrutiny and to be addressed by states and the African Union. This is because outsourcing government security requirements to private entities or security operators presents a serious challenge for Africa’s security. At times, security privatisation has blurred the lines between these companies as ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ providers and mercenaries, which carry out subversive and lucrative activities. Both groups are paid for their services rendered, and some private military recruits start out as mercenaries and the actions of certain private security companies also amount to mercenarism.
In September, the United Nations working group also expressed concern about the increasing involvement of private military and security providers in humanitarian operations. The UN group called for a “binding international legal framework” for private security companies. In its report, the UN working group recalls human rights violations committed in the past by private military companies in various regions of the world.
For example, in 2007, guards from the US security firm Blackwater fired indiscriminately on Iraqi civilians and killed 14 people, including children. These atrocities made international headlines. But similar atrocities are still being committed, including and especially in Africa, the UN working group said. Shockingly, in some African countries, these security companies had become a kind of state within a state, thereby threatening the countries’ sovereignty and long-term political stability.
This then calls for African countries to address the gaps that create the need for private military contractors. From a ‘hard’ security standpoint, this entails strengthening public security systems and capacitating the police and the army to deal with less traditional threats. The practice of resorting to private security providers, particularly when threatened, should not become the norm. In addition, national, continental and international norms around private military contractors (and mercenaries) need to be reviewed to match existing realities. The use of such companies must be considered not only in direct classical combat but in the extractive industry and humanitarian missions. Legislation should be tightened to prevent mercenarism in Africa.
Prevention is better than cure, which means states on the continent also need to plug governance gaps and improve their security sectors through robust security sector reforms. This will ultimately yield better results than dealing with the fallout of instability and weak governance.