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Foreign or African, mercenaries are back into action in Africa. Having changed their name and their image, today's mercenaries are not any more the rug-tug soldiers of fortune of the past. Since the war against Iraq, “corporate warriors” as the new mercenaries are now called, have come to the fore and offer their services to governments. Gone are the “dogs of war” connotations linked to these “killing machines” of the 1960s and 70s.

Mercenaries of the new millennium are Armani-clad gentlemen who rub shoulders with the greats of this world while running their businesses from glass and chrome offices where Bond girl receptionists welcome business clients. These respected businessmen are highly sophisticated, well read, knowledgeable in world politics and especially very well connected. Combining engineering skills and military know how with business acumen, these former military officers who served in the armies of Britain, Canada, the US, former Soviet republics or South Africa, cultivate good relations with either powerful friends in governments or are themselves political heavies in their respective countries.

Their transformation has been swift and easy. From the ideologically motivated early days, mercenaries were paid to support particular governments or regimes in, for example, Namibia, Angola, Ghana, Zaire and Congo-Brazzaville. These warriors metamorphosed into “security” groups protecting the interests of the multinational mining and oil companies. In the early 1980s, Chevron paid and armed local militias to defend its oil fields in Southern Sudan, but other companies have made use of the services of "security" firms like Executive Outcomes (South Africa) and Sandline International (UK). Their services were already highly paid, but additional revenue was generated when they succeeded in exchanging their services against stakes in the mining concessions they were contracted to protect.

In the 1990s, the mining arm of one of the most active of these “security” companies was Branch Energy Ltd. Established to carry out mining operations in Angola, Sierra Leone and Uganda, Branch Energy was a subsidiary of Diamondworks Ltd., which had a variety of gold and diamond concessions in Sierra Leone and in Angola. Branch Energy was registered as a wholly owned subsidiary of Diamondworks, and the two may not have had corporate links with each other, but directors, partners, owners and/or executives of one entity were also directors, partners, owners and/or executives of the other entities. These arrangements were made in such a way that for each mining venture, be it in Uganda, Sierra Leone or Angola, a company was set up with some government and local businessman/men participation.

For example, in Sierra Leone, Branch Energy had a 60% stake in Branch Energy Sierra Leone, the government had 30% while a local businessman/investor held a small stake of 10%. The same pattern was repeated in Angola and in Uganda. Branch Energy's African assets were mainly concentrated in countries where civil wars and rebellions were raging, so was it just pure luck or coincidence that these countries were selected? In fact the selection appears to have been guided by very defined criteria: the potentials in minerals (diamonds, gold and oil), a bankrupt national economy and armed rebellion threatening the ruling strongman.

With their associates, this Third Generation of mercenaries specialises in security matters, engineering, arms, transportation, finance, recruitment, consultancy, and other businesses related to security and defence. Their network is like a giant octopus that spreads all over the world but more specifically in Africa and the Middle East where the pickings are easy and very lucrative. At the height of the fighting in Sierra Leone, the now disbanded Sandline International was accused of helping the British government to exporting weapons illegally to that country.

Providing high technology military capabilities, their services cover not only like in the past combat operations, but also strategic planning, intelligence gathering and troop training. Specialised magazines such as Soldiers of Fortune or Cover Action advertise the many career opportunities available “both domestically and world-wide” in “international police monitoring in Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor” to “Qatar Security Guard Forces”. An article published in International Security in 2002 spells out the range of services these businesses can provide. Just like the armed forces of most western powers, they can deploy capabilities ranging “from a team of commandos to a wing of fighter jets”.

Strange as it may sound, these mercenaries do not work any more under cover. They have come out of the closet and operate in the open because governments have come to recognise the role these "private military companies” can have in peacekeeping and peace enforcement. In the corridors of power in Washington or London, the supporters of this new global policing and peacekeeping vision believe that emergency response to conflicts around the world must be “privately provided” as a public service. Though some UN members are still reticent to make use of these private “peacekeepers”, the organisation has also been considering the use of these groups for peacekeeping in conflict areas.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, is reported to have said that during the 1994 Rwanda crisis when he was the UN Undersecretary General for peacekeeping he “considered hiring a private firm”. Not long ago, in 2002, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that a strong and a “reputable private military sector might have a role in enabling the UN to respond more rapidly and effectively to crises”. Opportunities in Africa for these “corporate fighters” are made available by the very fact that national armies in many African states have been transformed into “operetta” armies, good enough only for welcoming state visitors and staging military events.

Next to being pampered, cajoled and looked after, these “Republican Guards” or “Presidential Guards” are hand picked “loyal” fighters from the ethnic group of the elite in power. The relationship that exists between them and their employer is like a vicious circle: as long as their employer remains in power, they will continue enjoying extra privileges and vice-versa. So loyalty depends on how much and how long will the privileges last. When the situation changes and the state disintegrates - Mobuto's Zaire comes to mind - loyalty ceases and these special units disappear in the wilderness, taking with them the last few dollars left in the coffers. In many parts of Africa these “special units” are still active. Often they become “uncontrollable monsters” and continue to operate for their own benefit, even when their employers try to disband them. In Sudan, despite the promised efforts of the regime to disarm the Janjaweed, militias loyal to the regime and accused of genocide in Darfur are still killing people, destroying villages and terrorising refugees in the camps. In Chad, the Guarde Republicaine of President Idriss Deby composed of the Zaghawa tribesmen who helped him into power, have today their own agenda.

According to many observers, some 10,000 trained and highly qualified soldiers of fortune roam the African continent. They have been joined by colleagues from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics and offer their services - either in the old fashion or in new style operations - to the highest bidder. The 70 suspected mercenaries held in Harare and accused of plotting to overthrow the regime of the Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema are a sad indication that mercenaries in Africa are here to stay.

* Eva Dadrian is an independent broadcaster and Political and Country Risk Analyst for print and broadcast media, who currently works as a consultant for Arab African Affairs (London) and writes on a regular basis for AFRICA ANALYSIS (London), for Al Ahram HEBDO Echos Economiques and Al Ahram WEEKLY (Cairo) and contributes to Africa Service BBC WS (London). Published reports include: Religion and Politics in North Africa; The Horn of Africa: Country Risk Analysis; The Nile Waters: Risk Analysis; State and Church in Ethiopia; Policing the Horn of Africa; Religion and Politics in Sudan; Can South Sudan survive as an independent state?

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