From Mercenaries to Market: Africa and PMCs

“Weak Governments in Search of Strength: Africa’s experience of mercenaries and private military companies”, with Angela McIntyre, in ed. Simon Chesterman and Chia Lenhardt, From Mercenaries to Market: The Rise and Regulation of Private Military Companies, London: Oxford University Press, 2007. The book is available in paperback on

Chapter Introduction:

Modern private military companies go to some lengths to define themselves as professional and accountable entities and to distance themselves from the mercenaries of the past. In Africa, in particular, being a mercenary meant being an instrument of colonial resistance to self determination, of support for secessionist movements, and general destabilization.1 As the winds of change swept through Africa in the 1960s and power was handed to or taken by liberation movements, European business interests— proportionately more substantial then than they are today — had nonetheless to be protected. A series of mercenary interventions in decolonizing states to just such ends in Angola, Zaïre, Nigeria, and the Sudan, among others, would eventually prompt the Organization for African Unity (OAU) to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of Mercenarism in July of 1977.

The OAU Convention was an attempt to eliminate mercenaries insofar as they supported secessionists or resistant colonial enclaves whose main objective was to protect foreign business interests. The mercenary business moved into a niche created by volatile political transitions, economic upheaval, and uncertainty. In the three turbulent decades of liberation struggles and Cold War proxy interventions, the market for private force in Africa changed dramatically in response to broad economic adjustment programs and a sharp escalation in intrastate and small insurgent wars.

Some of the client base for private force today consists of sovereign states employing private companies largely for defence transformation and for multinational partners (in particular, oil and mining companies) who need protection of their commercial interests. The best known incidents of the employment of private force since the days of mercenary legends Bob Denard and Mike Hoare have involved not secessionist movements, but rather government elites safeguarding their partnerships in foreign business interests. In responding to this market shift, private forces have diversified their functions and adopted a cloak of corporate respectability. Since the transition from “mercenaries” to “private military companies”, the new political/private-force/commerce relationships occurring in Africa have undergone relatively little scrutiny vis-à-vis their social, political and economic impact or transparency.

This chapter seeks to illustrate change and continuity in the use of private force on the African continent. Although the clientele has changed and is now primarily composed of sovereign states and multinational corporations, motivations for the use of private force, in some cases, continue to revolve around the exploitation of natural resources. We suggest that there are potentially negative impacts arising from the use of private force by states with poor performance in the areas of human rights and governance. Where states struggle to maintain monopolies on violence in the face of civil unrest or rebellion, PMCs are sometimes used to safeguard the commercial interests that are the very source of discontent, thus becoming embroiled in and potentially exacerbating local political conflicts. In light of the role that PMCs may play in upholding less-than-democratic regimes and in ensuring that opaque state-corporate business partnerships thrive unhindered, regulation of the private military sector could face serious challenges in Africa.