As the danger posed by armed insurgents and criminals increases, so does the number of sophisticated 'private' armies. In the old days, these ex-soldiers were simply called mercenaries and their activities were outside the law. Today, they have changed their image and their orientation. The security business is booming. FRANCOIS MISSER and ANVER VERSI reveal the scale of this new growth industry.
They hate to be called mercenaries - particularly in Africa where the term conjures up horrific images of blood-crazed dogs of war killing, burning, raping and looting.
"That era, the era of 'Mad' Mike Hoare, 'Black' Jacques Schramme and Bob Denard, is finished, "they say. Today, they want to be called contract soldiers. They are businessmen first. They have plush offices replete with works of art. They undertake a variety of specialised services - training, intelligence gathering, personal and site protection and, when necessary, they will go out and rout your enemy for you. They sign complex deals - bartering security against mining concessions for example, or acting as arms purchasing agents.
"We are an international business like any other business," a pin-striped, bespectacled and utterly harmless looking corporate head told us. "We have highly specialised, intensely trained and thoroughly disciplined teams able to deliver a unique service: security. The demand for all sorts of security is increasing. We go where we are wanted and where the people can pay our fees."
Most of these organisations will only work with legitimate governments and only carry out certain functions. What they now want is respectability. And large profits.
They seem to be getting both. Organisations based in London and South Africa have to be cleared by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence respectively. Contracts range from Slm to over $100m. Including perks and spinoffs, earnings can be as high as $400m-$500m. Clients include not only weak or beleaguered regimes but multinational companies and, as seems likely in the near future, the UN and other agencies.
There is little doubt that this is a major growth industry. The only cloud on the horizon is the public and media perception of these contract soldiers as pariah soldiers of fortune. The Geneva Convention bans the use of mercenaries but the distinction between soldiers of fortune and private security firms is blurred.
The fall of the Berlin wall and the general thawing of the Cold War, added to the end of Apartheid and South Africa's proxy wars in neighbouring states, have led to a significant scaling down of regular armies both in Europe and Africa. Demobilised soldiers, used to a regulated and cocooned world in barracks, have found it difficult if not impossible to adjust to civilian life. Add to this the loss of a sense of comradarie - 'the brotherhood of arms,' a life of adventure and danger and often a genuine love for the profession - and you have a ready made pool of men eager, if not desperate, to be recruited into private armies.
At the same time, the need for military muscle is increasing not only in Africa but around the globe. The major superpower confrontations have been replaced by hundreds of 'small wars.'
Cuts in African military budgets, failed demobilisation programmes and bad governance have also created new areas of instability as unemployed soldiers find no other solution but to go on the rampage - as has been the case in Zaire, Congo and Sierra Leone. Only disciplined armed forces can bring renegade soldiers to heel.
International armed intervention has not been the answer, witness the fiasco following the intervention of UN peace-making and peace-keeping forces in Somalia, Rwanda and Angola. In addition the huge costs of these operations have made the West increasingly reluctant to send troops to the continent. There is also a growing antipathy towards sending expensively trained Western soldiers to sort out murderous little' civil wars in the developing world.
This has been largely behind US thinking as it works to create a panAfrican force to deal with conflict resolution. Here again there are mounting problems. Cost and effectiveness are major considerations even if one were to ignore the convoluted political adjustments that will have to be made if the force is to be regarded as neutral. The general failure of ECOMOG, the military arm of the West African Economic Community is a case in point.
Thus the argument for 'privatising' security and conflict resolution is now being given a sympathetic ear instead of being rejected out of hand. The day of Mercenary Incorporated as a legitimate, even respectable service organisation may be dawning.
Security has become an obsession for Africa's big business, especially mining. It is no coincidence that De Beers, Anglo-American and the First National bank fund research at the Institute for Security Studies.
Among the organisations to first see opportunities in this climate of growing insecurity was Executive Outcomes (EO) - perhaps the best known of the modem 'mercenary' corporations.
EO is led by a former Civil Cooperation Bureau officer, Mr Eeben Barlow (see box) and specialises in clandestine warfare, combat air patrols, advanced battle handling and sniper training.
Set up as a sophisticated operational unit from the word go, EO was among the first of a new group of security specialist firms to sign important contracts. Under a $40m contract in...