Western private military firms in Africa

By Alberto Nyangambo

NUMEROUS items in the Western media, which spring up lately like mushrooms, about alleged Russian private military companies’ (PMCs) appearance in Africa inspired me to investigate this topic in more detail. The results turned out worse than my suspicion.

It emerged that the quantity of the American and European PMCs on the African continent is enormous and far surpasses Russia’s – if the latter have any there. On the other hand it should not have been so astonishing if one recalls that Western PMCs appeared in Africa a long time ago.

There are no official statistics on this topic. But Dex Torricke-Barton from the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General once said that “there are thousands of former European and US troops who are willing to fight in Africa.” I will add for my part that the Western PMCs are profiting not only from participating in African conflicts but also from their economic activities there.

A perfect example is one of the most famous American private military companies ‘Blackwater’, which was founded by former commando Eric Prince in 1997. Since then it was renamed several times and now it is known as “Academi”.

Its scandalous fame the firm acquired in Iraq. Its fighters were involved in operations that resulted in the death of a large number of civilians in Baghdad. The company was also engaged in arms smuggling. In particular, several employees of Academi were charged with illegal arms trafficking in September 2010 after several thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons disappeared from American warehouses in Afghanistan.

In 2018 Eric Prince registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo a subsidiary of Academy called Frontier Services Group (FSG). Among its aims, according to a filing with Congo’s business registry, are “the exploration, exploitation and commercialisation of minerals, forest logging, security, transport and construction”.

It is now clear why the Russophobic articles filled the front pages of the Western press. The answer is simple: the US and its European ally wish to avoid new competitors in Africa.

No less known is another American private military company, MPRI. It was founded by retired general V. Lewis in 1987. There are about 350 former American generals in its ranks. The firm provides services to the US government and other states, acting in concert with the Pentagon and the CIA.

MPRI’s staffs have repeatedly participated in local conflicts and wars. It is well known that in Bosnia and Afghanistan the company’s employees fought in the “Islamic brigades” led by the CIA. Thus, the American government, not interfering officially in political processes, has been achieving its goals.

MPRI’s interference in internal affairs of the sovereign states scared some African governments, where the firm currently tries to intensify its activities. Such is the case of Congo, which rejected the offers of the company. But the others didn’t learn the lessons and succumbed to the enticement offered by MPRI. They include Nigeria, where MPRI’s employees conduct active military reform and Equatorial Guinea, whose government permitted the firm to establish its base there.

Among the largest American private military companies is DynCorp. The number of its employees is more than 24,000 people, and the annual income exceeds $3.4 billion. In Africa it is present in Ghana, Malawi, Madagascar, Nigeria and Uganda.

As the other American PMCs, this one also did not avoid scandals. In the late 90s the company’s employees were accused of paedophilia and child trafficking. In 2000 some of its staff, who worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, were accused of sex trafficking. And in 2001, Ecuadorian farmers accused DynCorp staff of spraying herbicides, which had negatively impacted the local population.

There is also a joint American-British private military company, Northbridge Services Group. According to some estimates, the company has about 3,000 former British military personnel, as well as several thousand former servicemen from France and the United States.

The company played an “important” role in the civil conflict in Liberia in 2003, taking the side of the rebels. The result of its actions was the overthrow of the official government.

The limited space of this article does not permit mention of other numerous Western PMCs, but even the above examples are enough to understand that the activities of all of them are seriously flawed.

In this context it is also proper to note the findings of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-determination. It stated that “the growth of unaccountable private armies has exacerbated conflicts in Africa. They are helping to keep the cycle of violence alive in many wars purely to reap financial rewards, while committing atrocities with no fear of prosecution.”

At the same time it should be noted that the above-mentioned report is applicable exclusively to the Western countries because it has been prepared almost 10 years back when Russia was giving priority to its internal problems and stayed far from an idea of restoring its relationship with Africa.

I do hope that this piece will encourage at least part of African leaders to hesitate in cooperating with the Western PMCs.