Africa's new enforcers

What is a mercenary? The staff of Executive Outcomes shy away from the label. But beyond doubt is their reputation as one of the most efficient private armies in the world. Michael Ashworth reports
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The Independent Online
The offices of Sandline International are much like those of any other successful, London-based firm with international interests. They occupy part of a glass-fronted block on the King's Road, Chelsea: inside, the floors are wooden, expensive paintings decorate the black walls, and well-dressed employees enter and leave watched by security cameras. All that this tells the visitor is that Sandline is rich: what is not so clear is the fact that these offices are a first port of call for governments wishing to hire one of the most effective private armies in the world.

Sandline International provides expertise in military and security matters. As such, it works closely with - and contracts work to - Executive Outcomes, which, with the possible exception of the South African Army, is the most deadly and efficient army operating in sub-Saharan Africa today. But Executive Outcomes is the army of no state, no government: it is a private security force.

Executive Outcomes offers a wide range of security services and is capable of mounting sophisticated operations involving armour, artillery and air- power. Its soldiers have uniforms, badges of rank, and are paid well. If those men in the field fall under the definition of mercenaries - and, according to Executive Outcomes, they do not - they are a new breed, qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything that Africa or the world has seen before. They have already fought in Sierra Leone and Angola, intervening on the side of the government on both occasions against rebel groups, and with devastating results.

The popular image of mercenaries has been shaped by the pirates who operated throughout Africa in the Sixties and Seventies. Mercenaries are outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Article 47 defines the mercenary as "any person who is a) specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict; b) does in fact take direct part in the hostilities; c) is motivated ... essentially by the desire for private gain and in fact is promised by or on behalf of a party to the conflict material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants ... in the armed forces of that party". In the Sixties and Seventies, colourful (if murderous) characters such as "Mad" Mike Hoare, "Black" Jacques Schramme and Bob Denard took advantage of the crisis that followed African decolonisation in the Congo, Angola, Biafra, Uganda, Gabon, Benin, Rhodesia, Mozambique, the Seychelles and the Comoros Islands. They were the leftovers of empire, small-time figures with a handful of colleagues recruited from the back streets of Glasgow, Hamburg, Marseille. Sometimes, they made it big: Denard lived as a sort of local dictator in the Comoros Islands between 1978 and 1989. Most often, they were grubby, violent and dangerous characters, often dying violent and sordid deaths.

That is not Executive Outcomes. This is a well-drilled, disciplined force that can field aircraft, give training in naval tactics, and has used helicopter gunships. It is staffed by former members of elite units of the South African forces, and top-line British regiments. Its glossy brochure explains that it "provides a highly professional and confidential military advisory service to legitimate governments". It promises "sound strategic and tactical advice" and "the most professional training packages available to armed forces". And then there is the name: smooth, deadly, but with a hint of professionalism and even value for money. "The corporation has experienced an above-average growth, and has been able to assist clients in ensuring that their outcomes are met," the brochure reads.

There is more to this company than war. Executive Outcomes is one element in a unique fusion of muscle and money. Sandline International is located in the same offices as Heritage Oil and Gas and Branch Energy, two companies that have employed the services of Executive Outcomes in the past. There is no evidence of a corporate connection between these companies. Nonetheless, Executive Outcomes's close ties to capitalism have earned it the name "the diamond dogs of war".

Executive Outcomes' links to mining and oil companies are no secret, though their extent and nature are hard to detail. Heritage's use of Executive Outcomes has been questioned in the light of the influential personalities on Heritage's board of directors. These include Sir David Steel, the former Liberal Party leader, and Andrew Gifford of GJW Government Relations, the influential London-based parliamentary lobbyist.

Anthony Buckingham, a director of Heritage Oil and Gas and Branch Energy, admits that there are business links because Executive Outcomes looks after the security of Branch Mining concessions in Sierra Leone, but "there is no corporate link between Executive Outcomes and the Branch-Heritage group". Whatever the relationship between the companies, it is not the first time a security company has been contracted to secure a multinational's corporate assets. BP, for instance, has recently hired over 500 personnel to protect an oil pipeline in Columbia.

Executive Outcomes has its roots in South Africa, and in the apartheid years. It employs ex-members of notorious apartheid military units such as 32 Battalion and Koevoet, an anti-insurgency unit in Namibia. Its directors include Eeben Barlow and Lafras Luittingh, ex-members of the apartheid era government's misleadingly-named Civil Co-operation Bureau, which carried out a campaign across southern Africa and in Western Europe.

Although Executive Outcomes has existed since 1989, it first emerged as an apolitical security force during the Angolan Civil War. Ranger and Heritage Oil contracted the group to protect their commercial interests. The initial success of the force in recapturing the oil town of Soyo in 1993 prompted the Angolan government to offer them a contract reportedly worth over $40m. This involved the training of commandos and involvement in military operations. They were instrumental in the capture of important objectives such as Uige and the headquarters of the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi at Huambo. Although the government forces would probably have worn Unita down in the end anyway, the presence of Executive Outcomes made the process much quicker and more sure. Men who had fought in Angola on the side of the rebels were now being employed to fight against their former allies, on the side of the Marxist government they had tried to unseat.

The end of the war in Angola prompted Executive Outcomes to look for other opportunities. Sierra Leone, a former British colony in West Africa, was a prime candidate. Its government was under desperate pressure from the rebel Revolutionary United Front which had reduced much of the country to anarchy and chaos. More importantly, Sierra Leone had extensive concessions of titanium oxide, oil and some of the best diamond deposits in the world.

The first indications that Executive Outcomes was interested in Sierra Leone were some tentative approaches in November 1994 to Sierra Rutile, a US/Australia-owned titanium dioxide mine in the south-west of the country. In the event, the National Provisional Ruling Council hired a Gurkha mercenary force to provide the security advice, leadership and training. Little further was heard about Executive Outcomes involvement until May 1995.

On 10 May 1995, the vice-chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council announced to British, Nigerian and Ghanaian diplomats that a South African company had been contracted to provide training services to the Republic of Sierra Leone military. Subsequently, a man called Rupert Bowen gave details of how the operation would run. Branch Energy was to co-ordinate the operation. The security aspects would be run by Executive Outcomes while the commercial elements would be headed by Alan Paterson, a South African who had formerly headed a de Beers subsidiary in Sierra Leone. Bowen indicated that the project was expected to run for 35-40 years. Rupert Bowen was the Deputy High Commissioner in Namibia. By 1995, he worked for Branch Energy; he also knew Andrew Gifford, the Westminister lobbyist.

Executive Outcomes operations in Sierra Leone turned the tables on the rebels almost overnight. Rebel forces were driven from the capital, Freetown, and important economic and strategic assets were seized for the government, including the all-important diamond region of Kono and the ore-producing southern coastal region.

The intervention of outside forces, their rapid success and their uncertain political allegiances have made enemies for Executive Outcomes. The managing director of Executive Outcomes, Eeben Barlow, will have none of this. "Executive Outcomes will only work for legitimate governments. We are not mercenaries."

Nick van der Berg, a representative and director of Executive Outcomes in South Africa, says of the company's involvement in Angola: "Unita was an anti-democratic force and Savimbi was motivated by greed and power. When we arrived they controlled 80 per cent of the country; a year later the situation was reversed."

Equally, the fact that Executive Outcomes concentrates its efforts on the areas of economic interest has aroused some concern. In Sierra Leone, the Freetown newspaper For Di People claimed that "Executive Outcomes is made up of killers who are very dangerous, because their presence can quickly lead to political unrest. Let's be honest, they're not here for the security of Sierra Leoneans, they're here for diamonds."

Executive Outcomes would say that the securing of strategic economic assets is the first step in winning any conflict; and it does not argue with the fact that it is not in Sierra Leone for anything other than commercial gain. At the same time, it argues that behaving in an undisciplined and underhand manner is bad for business. It has been as ruthless to the government units that have been involved in looting and banditry as it has been to the rebels. To date Executive Outcomes has conducted itself well in Sierra Leone, according to all available reports. It is rumoured that it threatened to withdraw support for Valentine Strasser, the ex-president, when he expressed a desire to postpone the elections. Strasser has since been deposed in a bloodless coup

Like any modern army, Executive Outcomes has a "hearts and minds" policy. It has worked in close association with aid agencies and government officials in returning child soldiers to civilian life. It assists in civilian re- settlement for displaced persons and provides security, logistics and intelligence to humanitarian organisations. Terence Taylor, the managing director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, says: "Despite their dark beginnings in the ashes of apartheid, there is a general move towards respectability."

Despite this, some feel that a dangerous precedent is being set. A recent report from the parliamentary Human Rights Group states: "Even if Executive Outcomes' role in Sierra Leone proves to be beneficial, it may lead to a situation where any government in a difficult position can hire mercenaries to stay in power." In the case of Sierra Leone and Angola this is an oversimplification. In both countries Executive Outcomes assisted in the process of democratisation: it brought stability to Sierra Leone, which would have almost certainly followed Liberia into uncontrolled anarchy without assistance, and, in the eyes of many, - including senior representatives of the Angolan Government - Executive Outcomes played a part in returning Angola to a semblance of stability.

The links to commercial organisations, to the pursuit of resources and profits, leads some to see Executive Outcomes as neo-colonialists, Cecil Rhodes returning in a Toyota Landcruiser with a satellite phone. But it has brought relative peace and prosperity in a way that no other organisation has dared to do in the past. It is there for profit, of course; but then this is just a particular illustration of a generality, that out of chaos can come cash. Private security is a large and flourishing business in Africa, in the plush suburbs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, but also across the continent. Executive Outcomes - or companies linked to them - can provide that, too. This is more akin to the Condottiere, the private armies that fought for the Italian city states, than the grubby toughs of the Seventies.

The existence of Executive Outcomes is symptomatic of the failure of the international community and African political leaders to prevent the economic, social and political breakdown of many states in Africa. If the United Nations or the Organisation of African Unity were able to field a viable peace keeping force then perhaps Executive Outcomes would not exist.