Contrary to common perception, the presence of private military and security companies holds a substantial historical background, particularly within Africa. In this article, Christopher M. Faulkner, Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, delves into the history of mercenarism across the African continent. The focus centers on the role played by the South African PMC Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, drawing connections to contemporary dynamics and the evolving landscape of PMC market diversification within the region.
The rise (and fall) of Russia’s Wagner Group has ushered in a renewed sense of interest in the world of private military and security companies or PMSCs. And rightfully so. Until its mutiny in late June 2023 and subsequent assassination of its leadership core in August 2023, the Wagner Group had been a central feature in the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. However, while the organization’s visibility in Ukraine is arguably what garnered it international notoriety, it is the African continent where Wagner has been most active over the past decade and remains a fixture in the security toolkits of several African regimes.
In places like Libya, the Wagner Group worked alongside Russian forces in support of General Khalifa Haftar. In Mozambique, it tried (and failed) to counter a growing violent Islamist insurgency in the country’s northeast. In the Central African Republic, the group and its subsidiaries have provided regime security and counterinsurgency training and support all while embedding itself into CAR’s extractive economies. Meanwhile, in Mali, Wagner has replaced French forces as the ruling military junta’s counterterrorism partner of choice. And following its coup, rumors began swirling about a potential Wagner contract unfolding with Niger’s new junta.
In many ways, the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa are distinct. The organization’s cultivation by and connection to the Russian state along with its deployment as a foreign policy tool in Africa (and elsewhere) stand out in this regard. However, it is important to recognize that private military and security companies are far from new in Africa. While the expansion of the private military and security industry might best be categorized as an outcome of the United States’ growing reliance on security contractors to support war efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Wagner Group’s efforts to court new clients across the African continent is reminiscent of decades past.
The Market Grows
The rise of the private military and security (PMSC) market has often been labeled a post-Cold War phenomenon. But mercenarism, and the corporatization of it, far predates the fall of the Soviet Union. Still, it was the period leading up to and immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain that PMSCs made their bones – particularly in Africa. In fact, many of the early modern PMSCs found business on the African continent because countries that could previously count on the U.S. or Soviet Union for military and security support suddenly found themselves grasping for alternatives.
Grappling with various security challenges, several African regimes sought assistance from an expanding list of private military contractors. And while these firms filled the immediate void, their engagement did little to rectify underlying security and governance challenges. All that is to say, business boomed and has been booming ever since. According to one recent dataset on private military events, the African continent is the clear front-runner for private military activity.
One of the most prominent early examples of PMSCs during the early 1990s was the emergence of the South African firm, Executive Outcomes (EO). Executive Outcomes formed during a time where South Africa’s apartheid regime was beginning to unravel. Amidst this backdrop, several former members of South Africa’s Defense Forces (SADF) stood up a private military and security firm. Headed by Eeben Barlow, a former Lt. Col. in the SADF, EO first served as a training provider for SADF operators. Not long after its conception, EO quickly became a military and security provider to fledgling regimes in places like Sierra Leone and Angola – both mired in civil war.
Many, myself included, have written extensively on ways in which EO’s business practices were far from strictly benevolent. While there may have been empathy for the regimes that hired them, EO, like most business ventures, was profit-oriented. In that vein, EO leveraged its military and security services in ways that some might contend bordered on a form of extortion. As regimes struggled to pay EO’s bill in the midst of ongoing civil war, a vast network of business entities directly and indirectly connected to EO gradually took over extractive industries in client states. In Sierra Leone, for instance, EO and its broader network eventually became the majority owner in several of the state’s most lucrative diamond mines – a “security equity swap” that dramatically undercut government revenue and served as an additional grievance leveraged by the RUF and its sympathizers.
In addition, while EO pitched security force capacity building, in reality, the firm primarily served as a force multiplier. Building capable militaries in partner states is a difficult business and while EO did engage in military training, and helped shift the balance of power in the government’s favor while deployed in Sierra Leone, such efforts were unable to outlive their departure.
EO’s value to the Republic of Sierra Leone’s Military Force (RSLMF) did not go unnoticed by adversaries. In fact, a condition of the November 1996 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) mandated that EO leave the country no later than five weeks after the deployment of a neutral monitoring group. The clause reflected a similar condition from the Lusaka Protocol, signed by warring factions in Angola in November 1994. While an oversimplification, EO’s departure was the beginning of the end for what was, at best, a fragile peace. Within a few months of EO’s departure, a military coup unraveled the government and civil war resumed.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The EO experiment Sierra Leone offers a cautionary tale of the complexities of contracting PMSCs. Even if well-intentioned, such firms are focused on corporate performance and reputation maintenance in order to solidify their next contracts. And when buyers can’t afford the bill, such firms have proven creative in the collateral they are willing to trade with cash-strapped governments. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all PMSCs are nefarious actors looking to extort clients. But buyers should be cognizant that employing PMSCs isn’t without risks and that hiring them rarely rectifies the reasons they were sought out in the first place.
While a state-backed mercenary outfit like the Wagner Group is far from analogous to Executive Outcomes, there are at least modest similarities in the ways this firm sought contracts and exploited buyers. For instance, contracted in Syria, the Wagner Group and affiliates were promised up to 25 percent of the revenue generated by oil and gas fields it reclaimed. In part, the allure of such equity stake agreements led to one of the most infamous engagements between the U.S. and Russians since the fall of the Soviet Union – an event where some 200 or more Russian mercenaries were killed by U.S. special forces.
In CAR, Wagner has followed a model tangentially connected to the EO playbook. Most directly, it has embedded itself in CAR’s extractive economy via diamond and gold mining concessions, in addition to foraying into the timber, coffee, and alcohol business, all in exchange for regime security. While these have been lucrative ventures, the real power lies with the political influence Wagner, and the Kremlin, yield from their infiltration of CAR’s economic and political spheres. As one recent investigation noted, Wagner has been a tool used for “state capture.”
Today, the private military and security market continues to thrive on the continent. Despite efforts by the Organization for African Unity (OAU), and its successor organization, the African Union (AU), to eliminate mercenarism, the PMSC industry has remained a fixture. Wagner’s engagement in Africa is merely the most recent visible example of the market for force, along with the most infamous illustration in recent years of the dangers of outsourcing military and security to mercenary outfits. But it is far from the only game in town.
Importantly, however, severe and increasing levels of insecurity in several African states set the foundation for the continued engagement of mercenary firms. Democratic retrenchment across the Sahel, compounded by a swelling of anti-French sentiment, has enabled opportunists like Wagner to fill a security vacuum. Though regimes like the ruling military junta in Mali may care about rising levels of violence, they care little about long-term solutions. Instead, mercenary outfits like Wagner function as regime insulators – serving to bolster elites while giving the guise of effective counterterrorism operations. In reality, the situation in Mali has deteriorated further since Wagner’s arrival, even if the Malian army can claim some recent successes, and civilians have been borne the brunt.
But the Russian firm is far from the only PMSC active in Africa. The defense contractor CAIC was awarded a quarter of a billion dollar contract with US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2020 to provide support for its headquarters in Germany and for its operations across the continent. The South African firm, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) replaced the Wagner Group in Mozambique after its failed mission. In 2015, Nigeria contracted a mercenary firm to aid in counterterrorism operations against Boko Haram. An Israeli firm was identified as having trained Cameroonian special forces who were later implicated in human rights abuses. And China has also made inroads in the industry with a significant number of private security companies (PSCs) operating across the continent. However, distinct from other entities, these firms are almost exclusively involved in the security of China’s economic investments across its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While Russian firms look to ensure insecurity persists, Chinese counterparts much prefer stability given that the Chinese government exerts strict control over these private security firms’ operations abroad – including limiting the ability of their use of force in foreign countries.
The diversity of private military and security firms as well as the diversity in clients employing them underscores the importance of developing clear typologies across the spectrum of private military actors. Professor Sean McFate highlighted this point in his seminal text, The Modern Mercenary. Without clear classifications and categorizations, comparison may be futile. The Wagner Group, for instance, is vastly different from Blackwater who was different from Executive Outcomes, who itself was distinct from mercenaries of the past.
This speaks to a critical, albeit often neglected point, about African agency in relationships with external agents. While PMSCs market themselves to potential buyers, they are only one side of the equation. Buyers have a direct say. And looking at the types of PMSCs that African governments choose to employ can provide insight into the intentions of a regime – or at the very least can give us clues. One thing is for certain, the PMSC industry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The debate over the causes and consequences of civil-military crises in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, have each ushered in discourse on PMSC engagement, some real, some imagined. Either way, PMSCs are likely to find opportunities in Africa – and African regimes will have no shortage of contractors to choose from. Identifying effective alternatives to Russian mercenaries like Wagner, or other nefarious PMSCs is, and will remain, an important strategic question in the years ahead.
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