Mercenary Report Card

A new study of private military firms takes on tough questions

by Stephen Mbogo

Toward Freedom magazine, February 2001


With considerable resources at its disposal, and despite its best efforts, the UN has scored nearly zero in its ~ African peacekeeping missions. This sad fact raises a thorny question: Is it the complexity of resolving such armed conflicts, or the inherent weakness of the UN, that has made efforts at re-stabilization fruitless?

While the 130-page paperback, The Privatization of Security in Africa (South Africa Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)), doesn't offer a direct answer, its analysis does suggest an unconventional follow-up: Could there be an alternative to the UN handling of

internal and, to a lesser extent, external conflicts? In five scholarly papers on the topic, the book not only provides insights about the options, but also analyzes how effective, efficient, and legally binding they can be. Basing their views on what has already transpired, the authors specifically look at private military companies (PMCs) and how they have impacted the security situation in Africa.

PMCs are basically what used to be known as "mercenaries," or as Frederick Forsyth put it, the "Dogs of War." Sandline International and Executive Outcomes (EO)-disbanded but allegedly still operating unofficially-are among the leading firms that have actively participated in both the de- and re-stabilization of African countries. In an introduction, SAIIA director Greg Mills and John Stremlau, professor at the University of Witwatersrand, argue that as long as many African states hide behind the facade of sovereignty and the international community prefers to accept this delusion, there will be a strong market for such private operations.

Alex Vines, a research associate at the University of Oxford, looks specifically at the PMCs that have, at one time or another, found work in Africa as "soldiers of fortune." EO's operations are highly detailed, including adventures in Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Angola, as well as Colombia. The company, whose revenues between 1994 and 1998 are estimated at $55 million (other sources put it slightly lower), closed up shop in January 1999 due to bad publicity and a too-high international profile. But it appears that EO was actually absorbed into the Sandline International corporate structure.

Sandline offers a wide range of products and services, from systems procurement to combat operations. According to the authors, it has undertaken at least six major-that is to say, publicized-international assignments since 1993, including a debacle in Papua New Guinea in 1997. That contract fell apart, causing a revolt and the administration's resignation. A tribunal later awarded the firm $18 million.

"Sandline behavior in Papua New Guinea was aggressive, pushing for business and advocating use of force," reports Vines. "The prices it quoted were above market rates for the equipment. The consultancy fees were high, such as $1165 an hour, and $35,714 per mercenary per month." On a related note, both Sandline and EO have strong links with Diamond Works, a Vancouver-based mining firm founded in 1996 "that aspires to be a major player in the international diamond market."

Another PMC, White Legio, led by Christian Tavernier, actively participated in efforts to suppress the rebels in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) just before the late President Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted. Stability Control Agencies (Stabilco), based in South Africa, also played a role in that conflict, contracted in 1997 to help stop the rebels for $300,000 by Kpama Borromidto Kata, at the time the chief of staff of the nation's army. Since then, Stabilco has closed down, but some of its personnel are allegedly working for Sandline in Sierra Leone and the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a regional peacekeeping body.

Vines concludes that PMCs haven't enhanced stability or encouraged business confidence. "Indeed, their poor human rights records, their lack of transparency, their engagement in arms transfers, their training in psychological warfare against civilians, their erosion of self-determination and sovereignty in situations of crisis, and their use of people with track records of human rights abuses does not bode well for the upholding of international law."

At least one expert appears to disagree. Writing in the International Herald Tribune last December, William Shawcross, author of Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflicts, argued, "Many Sierra Leonians yearn for the mid-1990s when a small mercenary force from South Africa, Executive Outcomes, drove the rebels out of much of the country. Even one senior UN official said to me last week, 'If Executive Outcomes had been allowed to stay, we would never have had the present crisis.' Unlike Executive Outcomes, the UN force is neither equipped nor mandated to attack let alone defeat the rebels."

According to Garth Abraham, senior lecturer in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, regardless of whether legislation might be effective, a thorough reassessment of mercenaries is needed. "It is important to differentiate between varieties of mercenaries and mercenarism, not all of which are deserving of condemnation and moral opprobrium," he adds.

Yet, the prospects for regulating PMCs are extremely limited, notes Jeffrey Herbst, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. On the other hand, he thinks that the market itself will probably shape the industry profoundly as more companies enter the field. "Ironically," he concluded, "those who want to regulate private security forces do not have to worry because they will, due to their own strategic considerations, probably seek to legitimate themselves by working less for African governments and more for international organizations who can actually pay."


Stephen Mbogo is a Kenya-based freelance journalist specializing in development and technology issues in Africa. He can be reached at

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