Conflict Trends 1999/3

Peace, Profit or Plunder? The Privatisation of Security in Wartorn African Societies

Book Review

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‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’
– Leon Trotsky, quoted in Alvin and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war, 1993

Conflict – the unenviable, yet inevitable thread flowing through history from premodern to modern times (and now through post-modern times, if some are to be believed) – continuously threatens individual and community safety and sometimes even world peace and stability. But violence is not only spreading; the horror image carried in graphic novels of a privatisation of security together with ‘global’ (read ‘capital’) interests is coming perilously close to reality.

Ironically, the much acclaimed movement towards liberal democracy and the free market (the end of history?) and the destruction or disintegration of a bipolar world into multiple polarities and merging, exploding and converging polarisms did not bring more peace, stability or justice (not to speak of a more equal distribution of wealth). In a multipolar world dominated by a few rich countries that not only call the shots, but continuously fire them one-sidedly, what is glibly referred to as ‘globalisation’ became more than just a sinister phenomenon. Globalisation, as a sustained political practise towards disempowering the already poor, more or less always affected the so-called ‘third world’, but now also affect countries previously pejoratively labelled the ‘second world’. For many, globalisation became a practise meant to ensure that power and wealth remain in Western hands (read ‘Christian’ and/or ‘capitalist’, if you wish). The consequences are no longer only widespread, but have also spawned many new faces. One of these faces is the spectre (if not already the reality) of privatised war and oppression on a global scale.

Various observers and theorists uncritically accept that globalisation has to be the dominant contemporary discourse. Following from this, it is assumed that the only way to assist (force?) poor states to be responsive to its citizenry is through structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). SAPs are mostly imposed from above. From earlier experience, it has been noted that the post-colonial African state is either too weak or too distant from the people whom it is meant to serve. The notion of ‘the suspended state’ has been used by some analysts. The latest ‘global’ imposition of SAPs comes after tortuous attempts by African states to experiment with nation-building along the lines of first and second world models, while burdened by economic dependency from the dominating first world economic cores.

Theorists like Francis Fukuyama somewhat deterministically declared that The End of History was near, and that the logical march of liberalism was to herald a new era or usher in a new global order. Liberal political scientists such as Larry Diamond, in the wake of this argumentation, declared that the democratic revolution – referring to the advent of multipartyism and free market politics in Africa and elsewhere – was at hand. The successive leaders of the United States – the world’s self-appointed policeman – such as Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, propagated a ‘new world order’. (Bill Clinton went even further: during a much publicised visit to Africa in 1998, he declared that the ‘USA wants to put Africa on the world map’.) The latter was progressively pushed forward not only through propaganda, but also through military intervention on the globe.

What remains uncontested, is that globalisation (in whatever form it exists or is expanding) also implies the globalisation of violence. As the capitalist system is entrenching itself, so are the measures for its maintenance. Part of this is through the blatant projection of military power. In other cases, it takes the form of privatised security interests. Such a globalisation of violence, albeit interstate or intrastate in nature, or as a result of the clash of civilisations, has become a pervasive phenomenon. It spans all continents: Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

What role are multinational corporations playing in this? How do techno-industrial complexes fit into this picture of globalised violence? What interaction exists between privatised security, the accumulation of wealth and the weak or disintegrating state? In which states did privatised security outfits intervene and to what effect? What were the consequences of such intervention? And on whose behalf did such interventions occur? To answer all these questions in one reader is a tall order.

However, Peace, Profit or Plunder, edited by Jakkie Cilliers and Peggy Mason, is a worthy attempt to answer at least some of these questions with specific reference to Africa. The book appeared following a collaborative project between the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an independent policy research institute in South Africa and the Canadian Council for International Peace and Security based in Ottawa. Papers delivered at a conference in March 1998 in Pretoria, followed by further commissioned research, resulted in an expanded and updated published book. The preface states that, “[r]ather than analysing the trend towards an increased role for the private security industry in Africa from a theoretical or ideological perspective, considerable care was taken in the choice of contributors to ensure that the issues will be discussed and presented from different angles.”

The mercenary-soldier as a phenomenon is perhaps as old as civilisation. The Greek and Roman civilisations made use of mercenaries; so did Genghis Khan and various European powers in the 1800s, including Napoleon. In the Anglo Boer War (or Second South African War), some of the ‘Free Corps’ fighting on the side of the Boers were little less than adventurous mercenaries. (Some of the units conscripted from the poorer parts of the British isles were perhaps little more than ‘enforced mercenaries’ who died on South African battlefields to sustain British colonial expansion.) In Africa, the 1960s still call to mind mercenary involvement in the Congo. In the 1970s, Callen and his cohorts gave a sinister twist to mercenary involvement in Angola when they took to butchering more than war in support of Holden Roberto’s FNLA. Mercenaries were used as late as the 1980s by the authoritarian apartheid state to ensure ‘political’ friends of the regime – inter alia, through attempted coups d’état in the Seychelles and Comoros. But the romantic notion of the adventurous mercenary (‘soldier-of-fortune’) if there was any, has been substantially transformed over the past decade. They became sophisticated, privatised agents of security, focused on enhancing the accumulation of wealth on behalf of multinational corporations or unrepresentative kleptocrats. Security, the privatisation of war and the accumulation of scarce resources (minerals, capital, wealth) became synonymous with globalisation and the ‘freeing of the market’. This book gives the first tentative steps in analysing the contribution of privatised security to the endemic ‘African condition’.

The book comprises eleven chapters (list of abbreviations and preface excluded) and 245 pages. The chapters cover general areas: an introduction to the phenomenon of private security in war-torn African countries (Jakkie Cilliers), Africa, military downsizing and the growth of the security industry (Peter Lock), the crises in external response (Mark Malan), as well as the much spoken about collapse of the African state (Richard Cornwell). Case studies include Executive Outcomes (EO), a South African private security outfit involved in Angola, Sierra Leone and elsewhere by journalist Khareen Pech, studies on Angola and Sierra Leone (Sean Cleary and Ian Douglas), and a consideration of private security in relation to international law (Yves Sandoz). The book concludes by trying to tease out the question whether Africa is moving out of an age of the privatisation of security towards the privatisation of war.

I found the chapters by Cilliers, Malan and Pech very informative. Cilliers discusses the trends around the privatisation of security in an accessible and neutral manner. He is correct in his observation that disempowered states or ‘suspended states’ have but little choice in the absence of military capacity to buy in foreign-based security outfits. What remains unsaid, is that the world’s military might remains American and Western-based, and that SAPs do not only disempower poor people, but also render the state in Africa a mere charade. And if the state in Africa is suspended, partisan SAPs contribute to the further erosion of the civil society and communities (which, in most cases, are very weak indeed). Earlier works by Onimode, Wallerstein and Hoogvelt would have informed the reader here and later works by Anyonge would also be informative. Malan’s chapter on the crises in external response in Africa is worth reading – a more than competently written chapter. What Khareen Pech misses in analytical capability, she makes up for in splendid investigative journalism in her case study of EO. But much more remains to be explored in this area.

The chapter on the military as business by Cilliers and Douglas points out that the old-styled mercenary outfit in the age of globalisation became a new powerful animal with much more at stake than just adventure and a rush of adrenaline. Privatised security holds both good and bad consequences. It is argued that accountability, transparency and codes of ethics may be of use in controlling this new animal. But riding the tiger may not be easy. Robin Luckham, a theorist knowledgeable about military regimes, asked rhetorically whether new approaches to civil-military relations could yield results. Can an epitaph be written for the Frankenstein monster of military interventions, military regimes and coups in Africa? If this was a tall order for a continent plagued by military interventionists, the phenomenon of privatised security and potential privatised war make it even taller. If the political scientist, Nordlinger, brought the sobering (if not optimistic) observation that “military regimes are notoriously unstable … and rarely lasted longer than five years”, the times are indeed changing. Through privatised security, direct intervention by global Western powers is no longer necessary, simply because the suspended state can now be propped up (more or less endlessly) by privatised security specialists. No wonder African leaders and citizenry are opting away from imposed Afro-pessimism towards reconstructing the state and empowering communities. Valuable groundwork for future research is offered here by Cilliers and Douglas. It remains critical for researchers to carry the ball from here. Or shall we rather say ‘to pick up the spear from here’?

Cleary’s case study of Angola is useful, although it could have offered more rigour in analysis and in contextualising the Angolan war as a battle for scarce resources. Angolans have been at war since the 1960s when the liberation movements – the FNLA, UPA (later to become transformed into UNITA) and the MPLA – started their protracted guerrilla campaigns against the Portuguese colonial power. During the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa intervened on behalf of UNITA, headed by Jonas Savimbi, and contributed to the long-term destabilisation of Angola. As the country fell apart in civil war in 1974/75, Cuban forces and some Russian advisors in support of the socialist-oriented MPLA entered the picture. Apart from the ideological divide that the Cold War brought (and the legacy it left), Angola as a rich African country retained value for capital accumulation by big business. Cleary underestimates the need for capital accumulation in Angola by consortiums as essentially contributing to the continued civil war. (The manipulation of ‘ethnic’ forces to attain access to products needed for the accumulation of capital is but one of the morbid side-effects.) Cleary is correct in observing that “a new war (or continuation of it?) can only contribute to economic exhaustion of the region” (p. 167). He is also correct that it is an imperative to dissuade the warring parties from prolonging the war. But I differ with him that it is not only the task of the ‘international community’, but also of various multinational corporations that have invested in Angola to assist in taming the tendency towards privatised war. It would be a good start if multinational corporations accept that they have contributed to war-mongering and, following such an admission, involve themselves in putting pressure on such outfits by not making use of them.

If the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa on the role of ‘big business’ are anything to go by, one cannot expect any hindsight (the foresight never was) from big business and monopoly capital in resisting oppression. Through capital gains and through the exploitation of scarce resources – even by using privatised security – big capital is a major stakeholder and conflict-monger. What remains unsaid, is that the globalisation of violence will remain a threatening phenomenon as long as monopoly states, techno-industrial complexes and big business are not confronted by communities (the ‘other’ civilisations?). The ‘others’ in this case are those who are negatively affected by the globalisation of power, the continued accumulation of wealth and the universalisation of violence and oppression. In attempts by the ‘rich few’ to globalise and dominate, resistance can only come from those who are negatively affected by the ‘profit through exploitation’ process and more resistance should be expected sooner than later.

The chapter by Vines about Gurkha involvement on African battlefields at first sight looks a bit misplaced. The Gurkha brigades from Nepal, somewhat modelled on the French Foreign Legion, have a military tradition of hard soldiering covered by a tripartite treaty between Britain, India and Nepal. (And, as soldiers, they earn hard currency for the rather poor Nepalese government.) It was the same Gurkha soldiers who contributed to British victories in North Africa during World War II and in countless neo-colonial wars for the ‘Empire’. More recently, they fought on the side of ‘democratic forces’ (G-8) in the three-months war against Serbian ‘racists’ – without much acknowledgement. However, Vines argues that, as a result of the changing face of private security and its links with big business, the Gurkhas have been caught in a hard place, despite their long military tradition. And they may end up blamed for mercenary adventures rather than the countries or companies they are called in to defend. For this reason, this very readable chapter is informative, but not misplaced in a work of this nature.

The book reads well. Language editing and layout are well done. The list of abbreviations at the beginning of the book is very helpful to the reader who is not au fait with the acronyms in the field. An index would have added value to the book and would have enhanced its capacity as a reference work. Various maps and accessible tables contribute to a readable and informative work. It certainly lays the foundations for future research in this field. A wide spectrum of readers, both practitioners and academics, would find it worth reading. For those interested in a better understanding of ‘new forces’ active in the interplay between state, security and big business, it is essential reading.

For those interested in conflict studies (mediation, second-track diplomacy, arbitration and early-warning, among others) and those pondering the potential for a continental reconstruction – call it a (re-)awakening or Renaissance if you wish – the book provides splendid background reading on current conflicts, the actors involved in Africa and the potential outcomes or consequences of such conflicts.

For South Africans aware of the destructive consequences of interstate and intrastate conflict – and especially the suffering it caused in Angola – the book is a reminder that the privatisation of security, globalisation and one-sided new world orders go hand-in-hand with the universalisation of violence. Fernando Alvim, an artist who lived through Angola’s hard times reminds us “that when ideologies clash and people are dehumanised and stripped of their common dignity through mindless violence to such an extent that submission becomes the last line of resistance (existence?), then solitary resistance/protest becomes a necessity.” But since the violence in Angola and elsewhere is now stateless, whither the resistance? Peace, Profit or Plunder – whether you agree with it or not – provides more than a few clues.

Undoubtedly, a conservative professor somewhere would think that a review like this is a childish lament in empathy with Noam Chomsky. The reality is that the form of globalisation described in Peace, Profit or Plunder, will not be disarmed by the ‘newsspeak’ of greater market freedom for the rich but by its antagonist, ‘crimethought’. This crimethought represents the argument for a forceful (re) negotiation of human security, economic sustainability and social justice for those who are disempowered in the former ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds.