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The Privatisation of Violence: New mercenaries and the state

Christopher Wrigley, March 1999

Introduction: the Old Mercenarism

Mercenarism is almost as old as war; but it has always been looked at askance. Fighting qualities were given to men for the defence of the hearth, so those who put them at the service of strangers for hire have been regarded rather like prostitutes, who do for money what they ought to do for love. The feeling became more pronounced with the rise of the democratic nation-state and its patriotic armed forces, and was given formal recognition in the UK by the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, which remains in force.

However, mercenaries really came into prominence during the turbulence of decolonisation and its aftermath in Africa, where they complicated already difficult situations in the Congo, Biafra and Sudan. A little later they were especially active in the small island republics of the Seychelles, Maldives and Comoros, where they have made and unmade governments almost at will. Some of their leaders, such as "Mad" Mike Hoare, the Belgian Christian Tavernier and the Frenchman Bob Denard, acquired international notoriety. The nadir of this kind of mercenarism was reached in late 1974, when a psychopathic ex-corporal recruited a number of London goons and took them off to fight for rebels in Angola. When they discovered the chaos in which they were supposed to serve, some of them wanted to go home, whereupon the leader had them tried for mutiny and shot, before falling himself into the hands of government forces.

Such activities caused anger in Africa and embarrassment in Western capitals and there was pressure to outlaw them. The Angolan government put their captives on trial for mercenarism, but no such crime was then recognised in international law. Several attempts were made to fill this gap: Article 47 of the 1977 Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions; the Organisation of African Unity’s Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, also of 1977; and eventually the UN’s International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries of 1989. None of these measures has proved effective. Article 47, which was never ratified by France or US, piles up so many criteria for the identification of mercenaries that it is legally unusable. As one authority has remarked, ‘any mercenary who cannot exclude himself from this definition deserves to be shot – and his lawyer with him’1 The OAU and UN Conventions condemn only those who bear arms against recognised governments, and the latter is so little regarded that only 11 states – six African, four East European and Germany – have thought it worth ratifying, and so it is not yet in force.

The UK government in fact moved in the opposite direction, towards the decriminalisation of mercenary activity. A Committee appointed by Harold Wilson in 1975 and headed by the distinguished jurist Lord Diplock reported that the Act of 1870 was archaic and inappropriate and should be repealed. For various reasons, including Wilson’s retirement, this did not happen and the Act remains technically in force. However, the Foreign Office position stated in 1991 was that it was "not in itself reprehensible to serve a foreign government in a military capacity". Policy in a given instance "would reflect the varying circumstances and the moral issues involved."2 In December 1995, referring to the use of mercenaries in Sierra Leone, Baroness Chalker pronounced that "the details of any contract with foreign companies are a matter for the Sierra Leone government". 3 The UN was equally complacent, the Secretary-General simply noting the employment of "non-Sierra Leone advisers to improve the fighting skills of its troops, instil discipline and upgrade command and control". 4


The Private Military Companies

First Steps

The change in attitude partly reflected an equal change in the character of the Europeans who engage in what may be regarded as mercenary activity. The warriors who infested Africa in the 1960s and 1970s were for the most part individual adventurers without corporate backing, who sought excitement as well as money by joining in mayhem in troubled corners of the earth. It is true that Denard and some others were initially serving French policy in Africa, but they became freelances pursuing their own agendas. (Denard was recently put on trial in France on a charge of murdering the Comorian head of state he was contracted to protect.)5. Now, however, a different breed has come to the fore: the organisers of "private military companies", who operate from smart offices, purport to be carrying on legitimate, indeed virtuous businesses like overseas versions of Group 4 or Securicor, move in highly respectable circles and have access to government departments.

One of the first of these, Gurkha Security Guards, registered in Guernsey, continued a long-established tradition whereby young Nepalese hill men had served the British Empire as highly respected mercenary soldiers. After the demise of the Raj some Gurkha units were retained as units of the British Army. One was stationed in Brunei, and when this territory finally became independent in 1983 the Sultan, who did not trust his own armed forces, insisted on re-hiring it. Many Gurkhas, however, became redundant and some of them were recruited into the private sector. This enterprise suffered a serious setback in 1995. Hired by the government of Sierra Leone, it lost a number of men, including its Canadian commander, in a rebel ambush, and retired from the scene.6

Another early, and much more successful, venture was Defence Services Limited, founded in 1981 by Colonel Alistair Morrison and now run by Richard Bethell, like Morrison a former SAS officer. DSL is probably the largest UK-based organisation of its kind, operating in at least a dozen countries from Canada to Kazakhstan. It offers its clients, who include police forces, large mining corporations and UN bodies, protection and advisory services, guarding oil installations, embassies and VIPs (such as Diana, Princess of Wales during her visit to Angola). Its personnel are unarmed, and it relies on local forces for its own security, telling them what to do and how to do it. It claims that it "never gets involved in other people’s wars" 7. Some of its activity is nevertheless controversial, especially its role as the security department of BP in its highly vulnerable Colombian operation. Colombia has extremely valuable oil deposits, far in the interior. It is also the scene of a very dirty three-way war between drug barons, left-wing guerrillas and national military and paramilitary forces which are not under firm political control. BP openly hired one Colombian battalion to protect its assets. In addition, however, the DSL employee who acted as security manager for the Ocensa pipeline, in which BP has a stake, was recently sacked after allegations of supplying military equipment to another battalion notorious for the massacre of civilians8. It is probably true, however, that DSL does not directly engage in violence, and so on some definitions it would escape the "mercenary" label.


The Sandline Nexus

A much more problematic development took place in 1989 with the formation of the blandly named Executive Outcomes in South Africa. By that time the apartheid regime was beginning to dissolve. The wars it had waged in Angola and Namibia had come to an end, and there would soon be drastic cuts in the South African Defence Force, many of whose white officers and black other ranks were seeking alternative uses for their redundant skills. The first leader of EO, Eeben Barlow, was a special forces officer, reputedly a member of the Civilian Co-operation Bureau, another bland name for an organisation which, among other duties, carried out the assassination of the regime’s more dangerous opponents. His second-in- command Lafras Luitingh had also been a member of the Bureau. Barlow, however, spent most of his time in western Europe, where "he undoubtedly developed many of his corporate connections"9. Among these, it seems, was the British businessman Tony Buckingham who, with his associate Simon Mann, is credited with the setting up of Executive Outcomes.

Buckingham (the name is said to be a nom de guerre) was formerly an officer in the Special Boat Squadron. Mann served in the SAS and is described as an intelligence specialist. Buckingham is the creator and supervisor of a complicated business network devoted to the exploitation of Africa’s mineral wealth. He is Chairman and Chief Executive of Branch Energy, a company, registered in the Isle of Man, that owns mining properties in Angola, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Uganda. It was sold in 1996 to Diamond Works of Vancouver, in which it holds a 30 per cent stake. Buckingham is also the founder and President of Heritage Oil and Gas, formerly British, now registered in the Bahamas and heavily involved in the development of Angola’s offshore oil, in co-operation with the state oil company and another Canadian company called Ranger Oil. Another associated company, Ibis Air of Malta, operates a fleet containing several Boeing 727s as well as Russian helicopters, and has provided Executive Outcomes with indispensable mobility10.

In 1993 Buckingham, Mann and Barlow registered Executive Outcomes (UK). In order to avoid too open a South African connection, however, they later added a new organisation, Sandline International, which established itself in plush offices in Chelsea, which it shared with Heritage Oil and Branch Energy. To head this, they recruited Colonel Tim Spicer, a recently retired Scots Guards and SAS officer who had been wounded in the Falklands, commanded a battalion in Northern Ireland, for which he was awarded the OBE, and served as director of special operations in Bosnia. In December 1996 Sandline was formally incorporated in London by Buckingham, Mann, Barlow, Spicer, Michael Grunberg and Nic van der Berg, who later took over from Barlow as head of EO. The military network was controlled by shadowy holding companies, called Plaza 107 in the UK (controlled by Grunberg) and the Strategic Resources Corporation in South Africa11.

The nexus was now complete. South Africans, among whom there were still many people poor enough to risk their lives for money, provided the military muscle, Sandline the organisation and the respectable front. The object of the exercise was to provide security for Western business in Africa and other disturbed parts of the world, guarding its properties and if necessary propping up those governments best able to supply the order that business requires. The beneficiaries would be, in the first place, the intermediaries who linked owners of capital and of military expertise, whose companies would acquire a privileged position in the pacified countries (Buckingham is reputed to be "fabulously rich"12, and secondly the Western intelligence organisations, from which the intermediaries were drawn and with which they kept close links13.


The South African Connection

Executive Outcomes scored spectacular successes. Its first breakthrough came in Angola, where the war between the MPLA government and the rebel organisation UNITA flared up again in 1994 after a peace settlement had seemingly been reached. Many of the EO people had previously served in South African forces supporting UNITA (indeed some of the rank and file were Angolans), but in the new climate they were willing to change sides and take on a contract for the Angolan government. Though there is no evidence for a close link between EO and Pretoria, they were undoubtedly going with the grain of the new government’s policy, and also with the wishes of Western governments and business. No longer Marxist (at any rate in practice), the MPLA was eager to throw the country’s oil and diamond resources open to Western capital; and UNITA had therefore become expendable.

EO was originally hired by Ranger Oil to protect its installations. It was so successful in this that the Angola government, hard pressed by UNITA, gave it a contract to provide training, equipment and men for its army. It is commonly credited with turning the tide of battle and providing the conditions for a precarious peace: "hired guns", it has been said, "succeeded where the United Nations failed"14. Others consider this claim exaggerated 15. The Angolan army was not a negligible force; in 1987, admittedly with Cuban help, it had won a significant victory over the redoubtable South African Defence Force, and both the President, dos Santos, and the Chief of Staff, de Matos, are men of substance.

Be that as it may, the reputation of EO was now made. In March 1995 it was invited to Sierra Leone to help the government of Captain Valentine Strasser, which was struggling to contain an insurrection by guerrillas known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Again it was strikingly successful, regaining control over the precious diamond fields and helping to drive the RUF to the conference table. Early in 1997, however, the newly elected government of Ahmed Kabbah asked it to leave, though many of its men stayed on to protect key sites under other labels.

Whatever may be true of other "military companies", there is no doubt that Executive Outcomes was a fighting force. It did provide training, logistic support and static security, but if necessary it also went into battle. Its casualties have been few, because it relied on sudden strikes made possible by its helicopters, which provided both transport and covering fire; but some of its men have been killed in action.

The tentacles of EO spread widely through Africa. It has provided military training in Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Madagascar and Algeria. Barlow has set up a security company in Kenya in partnership with Raymond Moi, son of the President. A subsidiary called Saracen has been established in Uganda in co-operation with Major-General Salim Saleh, half-brother of the President. It guards the gold-mining activities of Branch Energy, in which the Major-General also has a stake. Saracen is also thought to have taken part in operations against the "Lord’s Resistance Army" in the north of the country. In 1998 Sandline and Branch Energy were believed to be expanding into Sudan.16

On the other hand, the organisation’s first significant venture outside Africa ended in fiasco. Late in 1996 Sandline was hired by the government of Papua New Guinea to help restore its rule in Bougainville, an island territory which for some years had been in the hands of a separatist movement. Bougainville contains one of the world’s richest copper mines, owned by the Australian arm of Rio Tinto Zinc but rendered inactive by the rebel forces. Colonel Spicer took charge of the operation, bringing with him 70 EO soldiers as well as two helicopters. The newcomers were fiercely resented by the PNG soldiers, whose pay was less than 1 per cent of theirs, and the general who had invited Spicer turned against him, provoking a political crisis. The EO men were deported and Spicer was arrested at gunpoint and briefly imprisoned.

Two points were clarified by this adventure. First, it disproved the claim of mineral extraction companies such as Buckingham’s Heritage Oil and Gas that they have no link with Sandline and that neither they nor Sandline are linked to Executive Outcomes. In strictly corporate terms this is no doubt true, but, as has been remarked by a well-informed and generally well-disposed commentator, "the paths of all three – and many other subsidiaries besides – have not only crossed on numerous occasions during this decade but, as in the case of Papua New Guinea, were sometimes thoroughly enmeshed"17. In February 1997 an advance payment of $A18m, half the contract fee, was paid into the Hong Kong bank account of Sandline Holdings, of which the signatories were Buckingham, Mann, Barlow and Luitingh. Although the operation was to be paid for in cash, other benefits were expected to accrue. The PNG inquiry into the affair quoted a letter from Spicer to a minister proposing "a joint venture with your government, ourselves and RTZ-CRA to re-open and operate the Bougainville mine once recovered". Tony Buckingham had advised the PNG government to buy back the mine and then get "responsible groups" (presumably his own) involved in its development.18

The incident also discloses that military competence and commercial backing are not sufficient; political support is necessary as well. In this case the important backing would have been from the government of Australia, and this, in spite of the Australian interest in Bougainville, was emphatically lacking. The UK government was silent, but almost certainly not supportive. It is of some interest that a little later Sandline was approached by the tottering government of President Mobutu in Zaire. It consulted the UK government and was told to stay away; Mobutu had outlived his usefulness to the West.19. In desperation he turned to another South African company and to the now unemployed fighters of former Yugoslavia, recruiting both Serbs and Croats, who proved equally ineffective. More recently Sandline has been instructed not to interfere in Kosovo20.


The UK Government Connection: the Affair of Sierra Leone

More successful but even more controversial than its PNG operation has been the activity of Sandline in the troubled republic of Sierra Leone, where the elected President, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, was overthrown in May 1997 in a military putsch led by one Major "Johnny" Koroma, who made common cause with the guerrillas of the RUF. Both the Sierra Leone Army and the rebels were mainly recruited from disaffected "street kids", and the rule of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, commonly known as the junta, was by all accounts disorderly and brutal. The United Nations, with the UK government strongly supportive, called for the restoration of Kabbah. This was also the aim of the Economic Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS), whose military arm, known as ECOMOG, was already engaged in the neighbouring state of Liberia and had been called on for help by the Strasser government. The coup took place in spite of the presence of a substantial, mainly Nigerian force. 300 Nigerian soldiers were in fact taken prisoner in Freetown (to be later extricated by the Red Cross), but the Nigerians retained control of their main barracks and of the airport, both situated a few miles from the capital.

It was in these circumstances that discussions took place in Guinea between the exiled President, the Nigerian military and representatives of Sandline, with the UK High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, an ardent supporter of Kabbah, in close attendance. For the sum of $10m, which was to be provided by a Vancouver-based businessman, Rakesh Saxena, in return for the promise of mineral concessions worth many times more, Sandline undertook to provide "adequately equipped forces" to ensure the restoration.21 In the event Saxena, who was arrested shortly afterwards in Canada, could furnish only $1.5m, so the operation had to be scaled down. It took two distinct forms. First, Sandline provided logistic support to the ECOMOG command, notably helicopters which enabled it to lift troops and equipment over the difficult country between their bases and Freetown. Secondly, it arranged for the shipment of 35 tonnes of Bulgarian small arms, mortars and ammunition. These were intended not for the Nigerians but for the Kamajors, tribal militias based on traditional social-control organisations of the Mende people, who were among Kabbah’s most loyal supporters, as they had previously been of Strasser. The Kamajors are sworn enemies of the RUF and they take no prisoners.

As it turned out, the Kamajor project was forestalled by the Nigerian Army, which on February 1998, without waiting to see whether the junta would honour its promise to step down, without express UN authority and, it seems, without the consent of the other members of ECOWAS, launched an attack on Freetown, which was captured after a week’s fighting. The Bulgarian arms arrived a few days later and were impounded by the Nigerians, who were at this time wary of the Kamajors, accusing them of being more interested in diamonds than in democracy. Later, however, they had to enlist their help in pacifying the interior, and it seems that the Bulgarian weaponry did eventually come into their hands.

Discussion of this matter has focused mainly on legal and procedural matters: to what extent did UK officials and/or ministers collude in the breach of a UN embargo (actually drawn up by Foreign Office lawyers) which forbade the supply of arms to any of the Sierra Leone parties and included a ban on brokerage, i.e. the transfer of material from a third party such as Bulgaria? It is not clear whether the ban applied also to the ECOMOG forces - UN sources have been quoted as saying that it did not22 – but these may have been subject to the separate EU embargo on Nigeria. Less attention has been given to a more substantive charge: the apparent willingness of some officials to arm irregular forces. The attraction of the Kamajor option is clear, and was certainly clear to Penfold23. The UK government wanted President Kabbah to be restored but did not want him to owe his restoration solely to General Abacha of Nigeria, who would have gained a new legitimacy by such a signal service to the democratic cause24. Anyone who made this calculation was surely being gravely irresponsible. s one commentator has noted, "had the weapons gone as intended to the Kamajors, the likeliest effect would have been the opposite [to restoring democracy]: it would have given Kabbah a weapon over which there would have been no constitutional control, and would have increased the prospect of violence in the longer term".25 Indeed it was precisely because of unease about the Kamajors that the Foreign Office had procured a comprehensive embargo26. In the ensuing months, however, it seems to have lost sight of that wise restraint. Moreover, it seems at least possible that the Nigerian operation was brought forward to pre-empt a Sandline/Kamajor coup, and the intrigue thus removed any possibility of a peaceful settlement. In negotiations with ECOWAS during the autumn the junta had undertaken to stand down in April 199827. Some observers believe that it knew its position to be untenable and would have settle for an amnesty. Its good faith was certainly open to serious question, but the matter was never put to the test.

The report of the Legg inquiry, set up by the Foreign Secretary in response to parliamentary and public criticism, concluded that the trouble, in so far as there was any, was to be ascribed to overworked officials and faulty office procedures. It mildly rebuked Peter Penfold, whose complicity with Sandline was beyond dispute, for not being "sufficiently conscious of political and public unease about mercenaries". It cleared other officials in slightly ambiguous language: "we do not find that" they gave Sandline encouragement or approval, but concedes that they did not explicitly warn it off. 28 Given the known desire of the government that the junta be removed, Sandline (though the Report does not put it like this) could well have assumed that they had been given a "Thomas a’ Becket" commission.

The terms of the Report allowed Robin Cook to claim that there was "no ministerial conspiracy or connivance within Whitehall to breach the arms embargo".29 It is indeed almost certain that ministers had no idea of what was going on, but "Whitehall" is another matter; and Sir John Stanley, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that tried to investigate the affair, was justified in asking whether there was one government policy or two30. The initial response of the government to the Sierra Leone coup had been to work for the "peaceful" restoration of Kabbah, to be achieved by a combination of economic pressure and diplomatic negotiation. This was still the public line taken at a Foreign Office conference in October (attended by two of Buckingham’s executives) on "Restoring Sierra Leone to Democracy" but by then "military intervention was being whispered around the edges"31. Early in the new year the Foreign Office seemed to be resigned to its necessity; a memo of 4 February 1998 recommended that the Conakry peace accord (with the junta) should be implemented by ECOMOG, under cover of a UN resolution, monitored by the UN, using limited necessary force to ensure compliance.32 This was on the eve of the Nigerian assault, which did not fulfil any of these conditions. There was no mention of Sandline or the Kamajors.

As in earlier scandals such as Matrix Churchill and the Iraqi supergun, there is a clear impression that parts of the civil service were pursuing their own agenda. (There is even a clear echo of those episodes in the intervention of the Customs and Excise Department, unwelcome enforcers of the law.) In particular, a number of observers have seen the hand of the intelligence services in the Sierra Leone affair.33 A key role is said to have been played on the ground by Rupert Bowen, a former FO man but by then an executive of Branch Energy, who had remained close to Penfold. Bowen was an officer of MI6 who had worked under diplomatic cover in various capitals.34 Of the other key figures in the Sandline complex, Buckingham, Mann and Spicer all had a background in UK intelligence. There also appear to have been links with its US counterparts. Certainly Barlow and Spicer were "guests of honour" at a Defense Intelligence Agency conference in October 199735.

The Legg Report treated "private military companies" simply as commercial organisations which "are entitled to carry on their business within the law and, for that purpose, to have the access and support which Departments are there to provide British citizens and companies"36 All the indications are, however, that some of them are much more than that. "Sandline and its bedfellows" an informed commentator has concluded, "whether we like it or not, have become a tool with which Her Majesty’s Government can implement aspects of its policy that are best kept at arms’ length".37


ARGUMENT: The Case for the Companies

According to Legg, the companies "are on the scene and likely to stay on it".38 They themselves claim to be public benefactors, serving only recognised governments, bringing peace and order where there was anarchy and violence, creating the basic conditions for development. One spokesman remarked scornfully that "bunny-lovers and tree-huggers" might disapprove of them, but "the real world is a violent, unpleasant place and we are trying to make things better".39 Their case has been accepted by many who are not militarists or interested parties. David Shearer, author of the International Institute for Strategic Studies essay Private Armies and Military Intervention, formerly headed a Save The Children operation, and his distress at the disorder prevalent in Africa led him to accept the necessity of such bodies as Executive Outcomes and to recommend that Western governments and the UN should "engage" with them.40 He wrote before the affair of Sandline and the Sierra Leone embargo, but many commentators on that episode have likewise taken the view that the ends – peace and democracy – justified the irregular means.

Given the desperate weakness of many post-colonial states, whose security forces are often either ineffectual or oppressive or both, and given the prevailing faith in private enterprise, the appeal of the military companies, both to African politicians and to Western businesses and governments, is very obvious. If a few hundred highly professional, well-organised and well-equipped soldiers can crush insurrections and get mineral exports going, who is going to worry overmuch about their motives or their methods?


The Case Against: the Special Rapporteur

One who has questioned these things is the UN Special Rapporteur Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, who was appointed in accordance with a General Assembly resolution of 12 December 1996 to report on "the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination". He quickly saw that the problem had changed. Not only had "gangs of misfit professional soldiers" been replaced by "private security companies", but their services were now rendered to recognised governments more often than to rebels. He concluded that, within the restrictive terms adopted by the UN, outfits such as Executive Outcomes "have some mercenary traits but cannot be described as being wholly mercenary".41 He was nevertheless in no doubt that such firms, "which present a more modern façade and engage in activities which are apparently legal but are no less dangerous for the independence, economies, democracy and self-determination of the African peoples".42

Nor was he impressed by the seductive arguments deployed in favour of the use of such companies by African governments, which he described as "formally tolerated mercenary intervention". "Making internal order, the security of the individual and control over the exercise of civil liberties the responsibility of private international security companies is simply unacceptable". It would be inconceivable in developed countries, so "why should poor countries affected by instability have to add to their sufferings a situation in which private companies, in return for vast earnings … take over security and control in practice the most important decisions of the state?"43

Ballesteros further asks what will happen when the companies have carried out their immediate tasks. If they stay on indefinitely, the independence of the employing state will have disappeared. But if they withdraw, the problems that brought them there "will, in substance, persist and become worse".44 The condition of both Angola and Sierra Leone at the beginning of 1999 provides eloquent support to this conclusion.

He himself relied partly on an analysis of the Sierra Leone example, written after the deposition of Kabbah but before his restoration. As we have seen, thanks to the presence of 300 EO personnel and 2000 Nigerian troops as well as the Kamajors, the RUF guerrillas signed a peace accord with the Kabbah government in November 1996. A condition of the accord was that EO should withdraw, and formally it did so in February 1997. 100 of its men, however, remained under another name to protect the diamond fields it had helped to recapture. Ballesteros suggests that the Army’s resentment of their presence helped to trigger the coup of May 1997, and more generally that they "created an illusion of governability but left intact some substantive problems which could never be solved by a service company".45

In other words, Kabbah, relying on foreign military force, made no real attempt to heal the wounds of civil war or to address its causes.


The Case Against: the Impact on Africa

It is clear that hiring samurai is no answer to the problems of African states. For one thing, modern samurai are not content with three bowls of rice a day. No doubt African citizens would gladly pay their much higher fees in return for peace and order. In addition, however, the people find their permanent resources handed ver to the samurai’s capitalist friends. Few will believe it to be a coincidence that Strasser’s decision to employ Executive Outcomes (actually announced by Rupert Bowen!) was followed within four months by the granting of a concession, said to be worth $1bn, to Branch Energy/Diamond Works.46 As the Observer’s Africa correspondent David Beresford remarked some time ago, EO is "the advance guard for major business interests engaged in a latter-day scramble for the mineral wealth of Africa".47 It is true that that wealth is no use to Africans unless it is exploited and that at present this cannot be done without Western capital, technology and marketing organisation. But truly independent and unobligated governments would be able to drive a much harder bargain.

In other ways too the influence of the military companies on Africa is pernicious. Their relationships with members of East Africa’s ruling families is clearly corrupting. And to claim, as they do, that they support only recognised governments is to beg large questions: are recognised governments necessarily legitimate, and what, in African conditions, is legitimacy? Are they not propping up regimes which do not deserve to survive – much as Swiss Guards and the like helped to prolong the despotisms of 18th-century Europe and Hessians tried to keep Americans subject to King George? Ballesteros points out that the "recognised" government of Zaire, i.e. the Mobutu tyranny, "endangered the lives of Zairians and the right to self-determination" by hiring mercenaries – Yugoslav, Bosnian, French, South African and others – in the attempt to stave off its fall.48 In Sierra Leone Executive Outcomes was credited with rescuing the government of Captain Strasser from the RUF insurgents, who were close to capturing Freetown in 1995. However, though recognised by Western governments, Strasser was a military usurper who ruled with a heavy hand. It is true that an RUF victory would not have been a pleasant outcome. Even before its recent exploits, the Front had a long record of atrocity. Its fighters were recruited from the social elements that are both symptom and cause of Africa’s sickness: rootless, jobless, hopeless youths, whose adolescent taste for violence was given free reign by political breakdown, and whose essential nihilism was covered by a veneer of radical ideology, derived at second hand from the works of Colonel Ghadaffi and black American militants; Ghadaffi also supplied more material help.49 Yet all these things were also true of the guerrilla movement led by Charles Taylor in neighbouring Liberia, and Taylor now heads the recognised government, having been accepted by ECOMOG as the least of the available evils.

Ballesteros is right: samurai make things worse, not better. They encourage African leaders to seek military rather than political solutions, to engage in the zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach to politics that is the root of Africa’s troubles. And the solutions they offer are at best partial and short-term. Four years after EO’s victory over UNITA – if that is what it was – the civil war rumbles on in Angola. Less than two years after EO’s 1995 successes in Sierra Leone, the RUF did take Freetown, in alliance with the disgruntled Army, and in January 1999 they came back and burned it down. This was notwithstanding the continuing presence of Sandline and many EO personnel, not to mention the Nigerian troops. It is even suggested that mining companies jealous of the privileges enjoyed by Diamond Works have been covertly backing the rebels.50 Peace and democracy have certainly not returned to Sierra Leone.


Private Armies and the State

The Ballesteros Report focuses on the consequences of the new mercenarism for the people of Africa and other parts of the Third World. It does not engage with the most disturbing aspect for UK citizens, the close relationship between private military companies and Western governments and their use as agents of, or substitutes for, foreign policy.

In the United States this role is more or less overt. The US contingent of the NATO monitoring group in Kosovo, for example, is to be supplied, not by the US Army, but by a commercial company called Dyncorp. This is not a new development. When Yugoslavia broke up in 1991 the Serb population of the Krajina district, which was constitutionally part of the Federal Republic of Croatia (as Kosovo is of Serbia), refused to recognise the authority of the newly independent Croatian state, and upheld their refusal for nearly four years. In 1995, however, they were overrun in days by a Croat force which had been specially trained by a US company called Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI). This company also has a contract to train and equip the Bosnian Army, presumably for a renewal of the war. These activities are undoubtedly in accord with US government aims in former Yugoslavia, and MPRI’s board is full of recently retired US generals. Another company, called BDM, which is linked with the former Secretary of State James Baker, has a huge contract for the training of the armed forces of Saudi Arabia. Again it is clearly in the US interest that the Saudi military should be able to make better use of their lavish armament than they did in the Gulf War.51

The US government’s use of private initiatives is transparent, whereas the UK government’s relationship with military companies is opaque, deniable, veiled from public and parliamentary view. And the first requirement is that these veils should be removed and that the government should state clearly what it intends to do about the companies.

It is necessary to distinguish. It would doubtless be impossible to prohibit the functioning of those organisations, now very numerous, that merely provide security consultancies and unarmed security guards to overseas clients. In the present state of the world it would be difficult for businesses, humanitarian agencies or even UN agencies to function without such services. The example of DSL’s activity in Colombia, however, suggests the need for supervision and regulation of their work. But the main problem is with companies which go beyond protection to intervention, which supply foreign governments with military training, logistic support and armed men.

The present government, like its predecessor, has declined to sign or ratify the UN Convention of 1989 against mercenaries.52 Its argument is that there is little prospect of the Convention coming into force and it would need much amendment to make it truly effective. But why not sign it, and then work for its amendment? There are vast numbers of unemployed soldiers in the world, capable of wreaking enormous harm, and the need for international control is urgent and glaring. Moreover, if it were desired to outlaw such activities as Sandline’s, the instrument is ready to hand in domestic legislation: the Act of 1870 makes the recruitment of mercenaries, whether in the UK or elsewhere, a criminal offence. It is not quite true that the Act has never been used. The section dealing with "expeditions" was invoked in 1896 against the organisers of the Jameson Raid on the Transvaal; and warnings of prosecution are said to have deterred some people from taking part in the Spanish Civil War. However, for many years it has certainly been treated as a dead letter, and it is only by inertia that it remains on the statute book. But on the statute book it remains, and there is no good reason why it should not be reactivated. The reasons given for deeming it too archaic for use are mostly trivial. For instance, the framers naturally did not foresee that mercenaries might leave the UK by air rather than by ship. That, however, could be dealt with by judicial common-sense, or failing that by simple amendments.53 The real obstacle is more likely to be the lack of political will.

At present the government appears to be thinking in terms, not of suppression, but of regulation. Thus Baroness Symons told the House of Lords in June 1998 that it is "examining a number of options for national domestic regulation of so-called private military companies operating out of the United Kingdom. As part of this process, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is currently looking at measures taken by other governments, including recent South African legislation"54. Without making Executive Outcomes and other such enterprises illegal, the South African law now requires that specific approval be obtained from a designated government body before any operation is embarked upon. This is an undoubted advance. In fact EO felt its style so far cramped that it wound itself up at the end of 1998.55 Provided that this dissolution is real, and not just a tactical manoeuvre, a long step has been taken towards the cessation of mercenary activity. However, legislation on the South African model does leave open the possible use of such organisations to pursue strategic aims without committing their own armed forces – in other words that regulation may be combined with "engagement", as Shearer’s IISS paper recommends for the UN as well as for national governments.

Given that member-states of the UN are plainly unwilling to risk their soldiers’ lives in conflicts that do not directly affect them (witness the flight of UN peace-keepers from Rwanda in 1994), Shearer clearly has a point. But for the body responsible for world order to hire private enforcers would surely be a final abdication, and most would agree that a similar delegation of responsibility by the UK government would be a privatisation too far.

Ultimately, CAAT seeks an end to all mercenary activities. But if the government does opt for regulation, there are minimum requirements that need to be met.

  1. All dealings between government departments and agencies and the military companies, other than operational details, must be in the public domain. There must be no repetition of the shabby intrigue that took place over Sierra Leone, involving mercenary organisations, concession-hunting companies, Bulgarian weaponry, rogue financiers and conniving or absent-minded officials.
  2. The existing links between private violence and predatory capitalism are absolutely unacceptable. Any contract entered into between a military company and a foreign government should stipulate a cash fee and no other benefit. No other business sharing directors or offices with the providers of security should be allowed to have any dealings with the foreign government concerned for a period of, say, five years. It would be necessary that the ownership of the military companies be made transparent. (Sandline’s owners are reported as being ‘Adson Holdings’ of Guernsey, which is not illuminating.)
  3. The companies should be made responsible under UK law for any breaches of human rights or of the laws of war that may be committed by their employees.
  4. Since some of the companies are also concerned with arms brokerage, this should be brought within the export licensing system without delay. The urgency of this matter is suggested by the report (Times, 11.2.98) that two (unnamed) UK-based companies have been supplying the Sierra Leone rebels with Slovakian weapons. If this is true, then, saving the Nigerian presence, a civil war is being fought in that country by two irregular forces, neither of which has heard of the laws of war, and both of which are being or have been armed by British citizens with weapons bought from cash-strapped Eastern Europe.

Finally CAAT welcomes the recommendation of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the Government should publish "a Green Paper outlining legislative options for the control of private military companies which operate out of the United Kingdom, its dependencies and the British islands". The Committee, however, sets a target date of 18 months for this paper, which seems rather long.

However, legislation will not be effective without the determination of progressive ministers to make their principles effective in every corner of the State apparatus.

The latest situation on mercenaries and CAAT's position can be found in the issues section



  1. Professor Geoffrey Best, quoted by David Shearer, Private Armies and Military Intervention (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper No 316), p.18. The present essay, though it comes to different conclusions, is heavily dependent on Shearer’s work.
  2. Mark Lennox-Boyd to Audrey Wise, 31.7.91.
  3. Hansard, 12.12.95, col.WA 101.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Daily Telegraph, 1.5.98
  6. Africa Confidential, 31.3.95. It will become evident that this excellent newsletter is a major source of the information contained here.
  7. Jane’s International Defence Review, 3, 1998
  8. Guardian, 17.10.98
  9. Shearer, Private Armies, op.cit., p.41.
  10. Financial Times, 15.9.97; Independent, 5.10.98
  11. Accounts of this network include Observer, 19.1.97, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 13.11.96, Jane’s International Defence Review 3, 1998, Independent 13.5.98, Africa Confidential, 29.5.98, 23.10.98. The most comprehensive description is in Africa Confidential, 15.5.98
  12. Indep., 13.5.98
  13. The intelligence connection is probed or hinted at in Afr.Conf., 29.5.98 and 23.10.98, Indep., 5.10.98, Sunday Times, 7.6.98.
  14. Jane’s International Defence Review 3, 1998
  15. Afr.Conf., 6.10.95, which claims that EO "has always been an overrated force".
  16. Afr.Conf., 23.10.98
  17. Jane’s IDR 3, 1998
  18. Indep., 4.4.97. For accounts of the adventure see Shearer, pp.11-12, Guardian, 18.3.97, Sunday Times, 23.3.97
  19. Afr. Conf., 23.10.98
  20. Financial Times, 18.11.98
  21. Report of the Sierra Leone Arms Investigation (London: Stationery Office, 27.7.98) (‘The Legg Report’), p.27; Africa Confidential, 6.3.98; Observer, 8.3.98
  22. Daily Mail, 25.5.98; Financial Times, 27.5.98
  23. In his letter of 30.12.98 to the Foreign Office he welcomed Sandline’s plans to arm and train the ‘civil defence militia’, ‘not least because it means that Sierra Leoneans will be more directly involved in getting their legitimate government back’ (Legg Report, p.40.)
  24. Afr. Conf., 18.7.97, quotes the Nigerian Foreign Minister as saying that when Nigerian restored democracy in Sierra Leone it would have to be welcomed back into the Commonwealth fold.
  25. Chris Allen, ‘Britain’s Africa policy: ethical or ignorant?’, Review of African Political Economy 77 (1998), 405-07
  26. Legg Report, p.16.
  27. Afr.Conf., 9.11.97; West Africa, 22.12.98-11.1.99
  28. Legg Report, p.107
  29. Times, 1.7.98
  30. Guardian, 26.9.98
  31. Indep., 13.5.98
  32. Legg Report, p.60
  33. See n.13 above. Those who suspect that the intelligence role has been concealed range from Sir Douglas Hurd via Menzies Campbell MP to Tam Dalyell, MP.
  34. Afr.Conf., 6.3.98; Indep., 5.10.98
  35. Afr.Conf., 29.5.98
  36. Legg Report, p.115
  37. Defence Industry, June 1998
  38. Legg Report, p.115
  39. Sunday Times, 27.7.97
  40. Shearer, Private Armies, op.cit., pp.73-77. See also his article in the Financial Times, 19.5.98
  41. UN General Assembly A/52/495. Report by Mr Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, Special Rapporteur on the question of the use of mercenaries, 16.10.97, para 71.
  42. Ibid., para 18, cf.para 47.
  43. Ibid., paras 58, 61.
  44. Ibid., para 61.
  45. Ibid., para 29.
  46. Financial Times, 15.9.97; Afr.Conf., 15.5.98
  47. Observer, 19.1.97
  48. Ballesteros, op.cit., para 35
  49. Ibrahim Abdullah, ‘Bush path to destruction: the origin and character of the Revolutionary United Front’, Journal of Modern African Studies 36 (1998) 203-35.
  50. Afr.Conf., 23.10.98
  51. Shearer, op.cit., pp. 56-63; Jane’s IDR 3, 1998; Daily Telegraph (John Keegan) 15.5.98; Financial Times 19.5.98.
  52. Hansard, 27.1.95, col. 426; 30.7.98, col.528
  53. This paragraph derives from a research paper by Jonathan Dames
  54. Hansard, 30.6.98, col. 30.6.98
  55. Financial Times, 11.12.98
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