PRETORIA // Simon Mann, the Old Etonian and former SAS soldier turned mercenary who began a 34-year sentence last week in the heat and humidity of Malabo for trying to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's oil-rich but despotic ruler, epitomises the old image of mercenaries in Africa. Guns for hire, they moved from conflict to conflict, most notably in the secessionist struggles of Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, with the occasional coup attempt thrown in - the Frenchman Bob Denard mounted four in the Comoros islands, while Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare tried and failed in the Seychelles in 1981.
Africa has never been short of demand and supply for mercenary services. The continent has huge natural resources, plus the ready availability of weapons and fighting men from a succession of wars in its post-independence era. And the prospects of wealth and power have enticed many. Nowadays, though, the industry has been transformed by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by western governments' need to slim down their militaries and privatise support functions in the face of budget pressures. The US government has 180,000 contractors working in Iraq, most of them working in logistics, with the defence department having almost 10,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
In the 1990s, by contrast, the South African firm Executive Outcomes was instrumental in ending the decades-long civil war in Angola and in breaking the brutal, diamond-funded Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, which made a speciality of chopping off civilians' arms. After the company left under the terms of a peace deal, the RUF rose again, and Sandline, a British firm led by Lt-Col Tim Spicer, played a key role in its second defeat.
Such offensive war-fighting capabilities are no longer what private security companies (PSCs) boast of - few are happy with the perhaps more accurate term "private military companies" (PMCs), and all deny they are mercenaries - instead focusing on their defensive, protective abilities. Lt-Col Spicer himself is an example of the change: since Sierra Leone, he has founded a new company, Aegis Defence Services, which provides security services to the United Nations, the US government and the private sector, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and including counter-terrorism services.
There is even a trade group for private security companies, an industry worth billions of dollars worldwide: the Washington-based International Peace Operators Association. According to its most recent annual survey, 70 per cent of its members operate in Iraq and 65 per cent in Afghanistan. But Africa remains a key market, with 43 per cent active in Sudan, 35 per cent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 30 per cent in Nigeria.
"It's a growth industry in Africa, but it's nothing compared to Iraq and Afghanistan," said Doug Brooks, the association president, who described the Mann escapade as "so out of date" and argued that private security companies can be legitimate and effective contributors to humanitarian interventions, especially as western governments become less willing to commit their highly trained forces to such places as Somalia.
"What Executive Outcomes did was unique and it was a unique organisation," he said. "You were renting the former special forces of South Africa. Is that appropriate for today? It doesn't look like it. Most companies say no and the international community says no. But what about a Rwanda-type situation? Why not? "We have better accountability in the private sector than your typical peace operation. When someone screws up, they get fired. That beats the hell out of the UN. Ninety per cent of the problems the UN faces, at the most they just get reassigned. From an industry perspective, we don't have a problem with accountability. We think it's a good thing. We have a legitimate industry here, bigger, more ethical and more utilised than in the past."
Writing in the African Security Review, Leslie Hough, of Yale University, described a United Nations operation in Sierra Leone as "hapless" and an "abject failure", while a regional West African force was hampered by lack of equipment, poor training, conflicts of interest and abuse of human rights on its part. "The failure of multilateral peacekeeping forces in peace-enforcing roles suggests that small contingents of elite special forces, whether donated unilaterally by governments or hired in a competitive PMC market, are likely to be more effective in bringing violent conflict to a halt," he wrote.
Nonetheless, campaign groups are ambivalent. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a British charity that has carried out research on private military companies, said: "It's quite clear you can't have the same people mopping up an insurgency at the point of a gun and then delivering aid the next moment. "There's no doubt they are very, very efficient, but should there be a privatisation of war? Should we be contracting out something as important as military force?
"The problem is they act outside any form of legal parameters," he said, citing the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad by employees of the US firm Blackwater last year as the worst example of many incidents of abuse. "Most companies are staffed by mercenaries of old," he said. "Simon Mann's fate is probably enough to tell them that's not the way to go. Reinventing themselves as being these new-style above-board security companies is the way to go.
"Why take those risks when you can make the same benefits or even more on official contracts?" Coincidentally, the fate of Executive Outcomes' former headquarters, a house on a large plot of land south of Pretoria, is evidence of the change. Now overgrown with scrub, the site is being redeveloped by a firm called Louis Pasteur Investments. As its name suggests, it has its origins in medical equipment.