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Mercenaries in Africa

The fog and dogs of war
Mar 18th 2004 | JOHANNESBURG AND MALABO
From The Economist print edition



An alleged coup plot and its murky aftermath

IN A marketplace in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, foreign traders cower. Since President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's government announced that it had foiled a foreign mercenary plot, the radio has been urging Guineans to report suspicious aliens, and the police have been rounding them up and beating them, or worse. A 12-year-old boy walks up to a shopkeeper from Benin and demands to see his papers. He has trouble reading them, and goes. “What hope is there for this country?” mutters the Beninois.

Mr Obiang is almost a parody of a despot. State radio likened him to God last year. His opponents can end up in jail, or roped to a bar in such a way that their forearms eventually break. Since his country struck oil, he has had a lot of cash to dole out. Rumours of plots against him are common, but this one was unusually dramatic.

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AllAfrica.com and Human Rights Watch report on Equatorial Guinea. See also Military Professional Resources Incorporated, the International Peace Operations Association and the South African Institute of International Affairs. The United Nations has some thoughts on the use of mercenaries.

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On March 7th, some 70 men were nabbed in Zimbabwe, where their plane, which took off from South Africa, had allegedly stopped to load weapons en route for Equatorial Guinea. The men were mostly former members of “Battalion 32”, a disbanded elite South African military unit, some of whose other members staged a brief coup in São Tomé last year. The men were charged with conspiring to murder Mr Obiang, which they denied.

How were they caught? One theory is that South African spies tipped off their Zimbabwean counterparts after noticing dozens of ex-members of Battalion 32 training at a rifle range in Pretoria. Another is that a lowly security officer noticed that there were more men on the plane than the pilot had said there were. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, seized on the incident as proof that western powers are bent on overthrowing splendid chaps such as himself. He did not dwell on the report that the alleged gunmen were buying their guns from the state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

A second group of 15-odd alleged mercenaries was arrested in Equatorial Guinea and accused of being the advance party. One, Nick du Toit, admitted on television to plans to oust the president and install an exiled rival, Severo Moto Nsa. The alleged motive was a share of renegotiated oil contracts. Mr Moto denies involvement.

Equatorial Guinea's information minister said the plot was orchestrated by a firm called Triple Options. Documents obtained by The Economist suggest that this was a joint venture, formed for ordinary business purposes, between Mr du Toit and Armengol Ondo Nguema, the president's brother and secret-service chief, but the president denied his brother was in business with Mr du Toit, and Mr Armengol could not be reached for comment.

Greg Mills, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, argues that successful mercenary coups in Africa are a thing of the past. The African Union no longer recognises leaders who seize power by force. America is planning several small military bases in remote African spots, which are ostensibly for use against terrorists, but could also protect the superpower's growing oil interests in the region.

Tyrants cannot afford to relax, however. Their armies are often no match for coup-plotters with foreign expertise and weapons. Equatorial Guinea's had until recently just three armoured cars, though the oil money has bought more.

Many former soldiers want to work as mercenaries. Johann Smith, an expert on private military activity, estimates that some 3,000 well-qualified South Africans would be eager. The UN says hundreds serve as security experts in Iraq, and their less skilled compatriots have taken part in recent civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. Since 1998, South African law has forbidden mercenary activity, but not everyone is deterred.

It might be smart for governments to recruit some of these fighters. A growing lobby wants some private military activity to be recognised as legitimate. The American government allowed a firm called Military Professional Resources Incorporated, for example, to use former American soldiers to train Croatia's army. The same firm has long requested a licence to train the army of Equatorial Guinea, too. An umbrella group of nine military companies called the International Peace Operations Association argues that private firms can help keep the peace in unstable spots.

In Africa, the need for a bit more stability is obvious. Some UN staff say, privately, that private firms could supply effective peacekeepers more cheaply, quickly and willingly than African governments do. But African governments themselves remain wary of the dogs of war. Once bitten, twice shy.




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