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Volume 5 Number 6
9 November 1996

The existence of private security companies such as Executive Outcomes (Pty) Ltd has elicited a great deal of criticism based on their involvement as military trainers and supervisors in unstable African countries. But EO is only one of several companies providing security assistance and advice. In fact, there is a range of companies involved in providing a wide variety of services in Africa, ranging from the well-known South African company Grey Security, to the US based Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), to the British Defence Systems Ltd. (DSL), the Gurkha Support Group (GSG) and the French company Crofras. Within this family, EO has gained a unique reputation for three closely related reasons. The first is its alleged role of providing not only advice, but also training, logistic support and even becoming involved in combat. It has stigmatised the company as one composed of mercenaries. Africa has a long-standing abhorrence of such organisations, as a result of the reputations of people such as Bob Denard and Mike Hoare (famous for their involvement in the Congo, the Comores and Seychelles). Secondly, commentators often accuse EO members personally enrich themselves through their contracts and thereby profit from instability by gaining concessions for lucrative business contracts. The third criticism comes from those who see EO members as incurable racists, originating from the military special forces and former members of the police of the apartheid government, ostracised in their own country and intent on pursuing their notorious occupations elsewhere.

Post-Cold War retrenchment by the major superpowers has left fewer resources (political and financial) for peace enforcement in Africa. At the same time the method of linking aid to political reform, has weakened many African leaders, and in some cases has led to instability, such as in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, the United Nations has experienced resounding failures in peace enforcement on the continent. Thus, African state collapse has occurred in a vacuum of foreign or regional intervention, hence leading to the proliferation of non-state actors assuming the security role traditionally played by states or global organisations. The real picture of state decay and collapse in areas such as West Africa presents a distressing picture. Ironically, while the public decries EO, MPRI and Gurkha involvement in Angola or Sierra Leone, behind the scenes diplomats and politicians are far more ambivalent. After all, they argue, EO had apparently played an instrumental role in creating a more conducive climate for peace negotiations in Angola and has forced the same in Sierra Leone, initially preventing Freetown from descending into an anarchic situation similar to those witnessed in Monrovia and Mogadishu. EO`s ability to stabilise or assist in the recapture of key financial targets (diamonds and oil in Angola, diamonds and rutile in Sierra Leone) starved UNITA and the RUF of resources, and hence assisted in the creation of cease-fires and negotiation. Importantly, an end to direct military hostilities between the government and the rebels in both countries has increased stability and led to improved humanitarian assistance to the civilian populations. Furthermore, an ebb in hostilities allows some commercial activities to return to cities that have been cut off by rebel incursions (such as Bo, Kenema and Koidu in Sierra Leone). As a result, many foreign governments that do not want to endanger the lives of their soldiers or risk the political embarrassment that results from failed intervention, quietly approve of the results of EO and GSG operations.

The key aspect to the understanding of the utility of these private contractors, is to ask what would happen if they were not there. In Angola, this is a difficult question to answer, since the EO involvement overlapped with an internationally brokered/supervised peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations. The involvement of EO effectively tipped the balance of power in favour of one side to the settlement, the MPLA. In Sierra Leone, anarchy would have overcome the capital, with various factions in the military and rebels looting from the civilian population. This scenario was carried out in other major cities and strategic points up-country, and began to occur when the rebels were within twenty kilometres of Freetown.

Undoubtedly, state sponsored intervention in Africa, either multilaterally or through the UN, is a more favourable option than allowing private enterprise to stabilise countries for a price. However, regional and sub-regional organisations in Africa do not have the financial or political capacity to intervene in many of the most severe intra-state conflicts. In the absence of other sources of external intervention, following the Somalia debacle and the mutilation of US Army Rangers, private enterprise may be one of the few remaining options until such time as an African or international fire fighting squad is a reality.

A fundamental issue in determining whether private security companies have an essentially positive or negative utility, is whether they indeed thrive on instability. In the wider context this, of course, is true, since instability provides their market. Yet, once contracted, it could well be argued that companies such as EO, MPRI, DSL or Grey Security restore stability, and then expand into other business interests, hence gaining private security contracts, mining rights, and a multitude of non-military business opportunities. This is in itself problematic as such action could readily be exploitative and inhibit rather than assist economic competition, local economic opportunity and therefore development.

True to the fundamentals of a competitive business environment, a company such as EO must carry out its contract successfully if it wants to be hired elsewhere. For example, if EO had attempted to perpetuate the war in Angola by working for the MPLA, but at the same time helping UNITA, not only would the MPLA have terminated their services, but the NPRC in Sierra Leone would never have hired the company. Future clients would take their business elsewhere if they saw that the company was not effective. This scenario was witnessed in Sierra Leone when the Gurkha Support Group (GSG) was fired and Executive Outcomes awarded the contract. The above highlights a second dilemma, namely that a private security company is not constrained by either a specific internationally legitimised mandate and mission, nor by the strict Rules of Engagement that determine and severely restrict the use of force during attempts to solve conflict. In other words, a private security company can act in a far more robust manner - potentially infringing upon human rights and endangering people`s lives to a much greater degree than peacekeeping forces are allowed to do. Although several incidents of human rights abuses have been attributed to Canadian, Italian and Belgian soldiers in Somalia and by the Nigerians in Liberia, these incidents are generally few and far between. This is clearly a serious problem and implies that constraint in the form of the threat of punishing such an infringement would depend on extradition treaties and the saliency of international humanitarian law. In the final analysis, a company such as EO is not an impartial peace keeper, but rather enforces order in the interests of a government which may itself suffer from a severe legitimacy deficit both locally and internationally, and often only acts in selected areas that are of economic importance to a particular sector of society or large multinational companies.

Morally the use of non-state actors being used to restore a semblance of stability in weak African states is repugnant. However, from a realist perspective, it is often a question of the lesser of two evils - either running the risk of total state collapse and anarchy against a background of international indifference, or using private actors who have access to the means of coercion in order to halt additional suffering. In those countries where the international community lacks the will, where regional organisations such as the Organisation of African Unity and the Southern African Development Community lack the capacity, and individual nations avoid responsibility, private actors will be a favoured alternative to no action at all - a reality that many governments covertly accept and possibly utilise.

Ironically, companies such as Executive Outcomes represent the extreme form of what could be termed the privatisation of international peace enforcement. A similar trend can be seen closer to home in South Africa where private security companies effectively replace the police to protect the citizenry against criminal violence. While there may appear not to be a direct comparison between the South African private security industry and a company such as GSG, the inability of the international or national/government agencies to provide stability creates a similar vacuum.

There appears to be little that the international community can do to arrest what may be a new, disconcerting trend. In the emerging post-Cold War disorder, the emergence of these companies reflects, on the one hand, the weakness of many states, and the marginalisation of regions such as West Africa on the other. As a start, a much greater research effort is required to contribute to the understanding and analysis of this phenomenon. At the very least, one can expect that only greater international vigilance, the institution of something akin to an international criminal court and the strengthening of extradition treaties would curb these developments.

* Co-authored by Jakkie Cilliers, Institute for Defence Policy and Christian Dietrich, Princeton University.


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