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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Multiple Layers of Private Military Involvements in Africa

Article by: Shaun Kinnes

Peace Makers or Trouble Makers?

Private Military Contractors, or PMC’s, have developed into a global, high stakes business involving profitable gains and comparatively low financial risks. In multiple conflict zones on the African continent, the use of force is partly or even largely outsourced to these ‘soldiers for hire’. According to scholars at the University of the Witwatersrand, this can be viewed as the traditional Weberian state retreating, where the state delegates its security obligations to private actors. With its continental curse of relatively weaker institutions and abundant resource wealth, Africa has emerged in recent years as the main destination for PMCs from all around the world. The most prominent operators being the infamous Russian Wagner Group, as well as Executive Outcomes and the Dyck Advisory Group, both from South Africa. Drawing on research from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Auckland, we shall give you a brief run-down of the phenomenon of PMCs beyond the headlines.

Plausible Deniability

In essence, Private Military Contractors operate like most multinational corporations do, with offices in major cities and shareholders likewise dispersed across the globe. As there are essentially no legal restrictions on who the potential clients of PMCs can be, one raison d’être for PMCs is to provide “plausible deniability” for the countries they are headquartered in. This way, governments can argue that they have no involvement in the conflicts of multiple African states since PMCs are private actors and not under the direct control of governments. Consequently, foreign actors, including states, with interests on the African continent can let their PMCs operate in conflict zones while denying the involvement of the state itself. Due to this effect, foreign actors that seek influence in the political and economic affairs of African states frequently utilise PMCs to accomplish their goals below the radar and attain access to essential mineral resources.

A Case Study: The Infamous Wagner Group

The United States Department of the Treasury recently classified the Russian private military group Wagner as a transnational criminal organisation. Wagner currently controls multiple mining rights Mali and the Central African Republic and has long aimed to destabilise internal relations between numerous African states for its own gains. Wagner places its employees primarily in Mali’s resource-rich regions. It is also important to note that there are few PMCs present in African nations that lack mineral resources and earn their gross domestic product from industries like agriculture, service sectors, and so forth.

Ultimately, in exchange for their services those closely affiliated with Wagner, including several Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats, are regularly compensated with access to diamond, gold, and uranium mining contracts within these states as payment. The PMCs routinely follow the instructions and political directions of the Russian elite, which highlights the indistinguishability between politics and private interests in Russia.

Long-Term Effects on Peacebuilding

PMC’s alone are generally found not to be capable of consolidating long-term peace & stability in Africa. They are frequently hired on a contractual basis with the formal goal of resolving conflicts and establishing law and order on behalf of their clients, and on their behalf alone. In practice, studies show that these goals are almost never achieved as contracts  frequently are short to medium-term in nature, and they hardly ever take into account the fact that ending wars also requires addressing the root causes of the problems, diplomatic efforts, and regional or even international considerations. At the level of civil society actors, several PMCs, most notably Wagner and Executive Outcomes, frequently target and discredit NGO’s and run disinformation campaigns. Wagner recently oversaw several disinformation initiatives in Mali and the Central African Republic, which ultimately contributed directly to the outbreak of widespread electoral violence.

Long-Term Effects on Qualified Personnel

Another long-term concern rarely discussed is the brain drain on whose receiving end PMCs can be found. Particularly Chinese PMCs, such as the DeWe Security Group or Huaxin Zhong An Security Group regularly employ the most qualified local skill set holders and experts, ultimately poaching individuals from state law enforcement and armed forces. When their contracts end these PMCs vacate the terrain, and they commonly take newly recruited personnel with them to other locations where their services are employed. This approach ultimately deprives post-conflict states of the chance of developing their institutional and military capacity, as well as to perform administrative functions within the armed forces and provide security themselves.

Long-Term Effects on Arms Proliferation

The increased flow of arms between PMCs, other non-state actors, and authoritarian governments is a further serious issue with a detrimental impact on establishing peace. Specifically, PMCs are accused of illegitimately diverting small arms into the hands of unauthorised personnel in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Mozambique. As civilians and non-state actors may feel emboldened by the acquisition of weapons to engage in armed conflict against the state or gain access to mineral wealth, these developments around diversion further increase the risk of armed violence. With porous borders of frequently hundreds of kilometres, armed conflict can easily spill over into neighbouring countries.

Multidimensional Impacts

On the surface, PMCs operate in a similar way to other multinational corporations. However, we focused this piece on a darker side. Beyond the well-known concerns around a lack of legitimacy and oversight, PMCs also have questionably roles in long-term brain drains, small arms diversion, and disinformation campaigns against civil society. From the criticisms of heightening tensions between African nations to failing to address the root problems of wars, evidence shows that PMC activity can cause detrimental impacts. Sanctions against PMCs have been taken by, for example, the US Department of the Treasury. However, with PMCs operating in a grey area between national and international laws, leading to a rather murky regulatory environment, ‘soldiers for hire’ may be a phrase being used long into the future.

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