One has to wonder what the old generation of independence activists in Africa, those who fought for freedom across the continent, would think of the current state of affairs. Over 30 years since the OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa, ‘Modern Day Mercenaries’ are once again operating across the continent. In their current guise, these mercenaries are now known as Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC’s), and while they have evolved from their notorious ancestors in some key (and positive) ways, the lineage is still strong. Fundamentally, these are still armed civilians operating for profit and private companies, rather than under the flag of any particular state and thus are not recognized as soldiers under the Geneva Conventions.
While the majority of PMSC’s are not involved in direct hostilities (but rather are providing logistical functions), there are a number of PMSC’s that Brookings Institute scholar Peter Singer would say are operating at the “tip of the spear,” and therefore closer to the traditional conception of mercenaries. From Djibouti hiring Blackwater to hunt pirates off its coast, to the training of a battalion in the DRC by Protection Strategies Inc (under the auspices of AFRICOM), these descendents of the mercenaries that plagued the continent during the post-colonial period are once again becoming prevalent on the continent.
The activities (and widespread abuses) of PMSC’s in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely documented. There are at least as many contractors in these two countries as there are military personnel (with nearly 200,000 operating in the 2 countries as of 2010), and the notorious abuses of contractors at Abu Ghraib have long been etched into the public’s psyche. Moreover, the name Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) will forever be associated with the infamous massacre at Nisoor Square in 2007 – for which none of the Blackwater employees were held fully accountable (although a recent appeals court decision means that justice may yet be forthcoming after the case was initially dismissed).
Aside from their prevalence and criminal acts that have gone unpunished, there has also been a great deal of criticism over the financial effect of using PMSC’s including massive overbilling, alleged waste and uncompetitive bidding processes for government contracts. The Commission on Wartime Contracting set up to investigate and give recommendations on these issues has yet to submit their final report (due in July this year), but the latest interim report by the CWC suggests that the U.S. government needs to drastically reform its use of contractors. And yet despite these abuses, the lack of criminal accountability, and the accusations of financial impropriety, there seems to be a consensus in Washington at least that PMSC’s are here to stay. In the current discourse there is no mention of whether we should be using PMSC’s, but rather how can we use them in such a way that avoids wasting money and attracting bad publicity.
Thus it is against such a background that we see an increase in the prevalence of PMSC’s on the African continent. Expert David Isenberg has written about the possibility of PMSC’s exploiting the crisis in Libya to extract a profit. UN reports have said that PMSC operations amount to a new form of mercenary activity, and that their use could be a threat toward human rights and self determination. In addition, the lack of accountability and enforcement when it comes to crimes and abuses by PMSC employees is a worrying sign; how can the principles of human rights and the rule of law be improved on the continent if the use of such actors in Africa is on the rise?
If PMSC’s are really here to stay, then their lack of accountability for criminal acts (not just using civil remedies such as tort law) needs to go. On this there can be no compromise, whether you see PMSC’s as either a necessary evil or a progressive use of the private sector in a fragmented international system.
Laurence Hull is a former Foreign Policy In Focus intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lives in London, UK and is studying history and international studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.