Peter Fabricius: The day of the mercenary coup is past

If coups are waning in popularity, coups by white mercenaries are decidedly out of vogue
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The Independent Online

From Britain, Etonian old boy Simon Mann's alleged coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, using South African mercenaries, may have looked like business as usual on the African continent. From inside Africa, it looked like a strange anachronism. Military coups are becoming passé here.

From Britain, Etonian old boy Simon Mann's alleged coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, using South African mercenaries, may have looked like business as usual on the African continent. From inside Africa, it looked like a strange anachronism. Military coups are becoming passé here.

In 1999, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) broke from its 36-year tradition of studious non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states, and resolved to suspend any government which came to power through a coup.

Almost immediately after that there were coups in Cote d'Ivoire and the particularly coup-prone Comoros. Both were duly suspended and negotiations were launched to return them to civilian rule. And there have been coups elsewhere since then - in the Central African Republic for instance. But they are no longer carried out with the impunity that characterised previous overthrows.

Last year, a small band of men emanating from the same old South African army battalion which trained most of the mercenaries now in jail in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, helped to pull off a coup in São Tomé et Principe, another tiny oil-rich island state.

The African Union sent a delegation to negotiate with the new leaders, and persuaded them it would be a good idea to hand power back to the old President Fradique de Menezes. In what was surely a first for Africa, they did so, after their grievances had been addressed.

If coups are waning in popularity as a method of transferring power, coups by white mercenaries are decidedly out of vogue. Indeed, you would have to go back to 1981 and the crazy attempt in the Seychelles by the legendary Congo mercenary leader Mad Mike Hoar and his Frothblowers to find something akin to what Mann and Co were allegedly attempting. It was also a departure from custom for Mann. In 1989, he was one of the co-founders of Executive Outcomes (EO), based in Pretoria.

In Africa, this soon became the most famous of a new breed of mercenary - they themselves preferred to be called "security" - company. EO was staffed mostly with highly-trained, but out of work, former special forces officers of the South African Defence Force.

EO accepted "respectable" assignments, positioning itself on the politically correct side of conflicts. Between 1993 and 1996, the company was contracted to the MPLA government in Angola, and helped it to turn the military tide against its rebel enemies, Jonas Savimbi's Unita - alongside whom, ironically, most of the EO soldiers had fought a few years earlier when the government of apartheid South Africa was backing Savimbi.

In May, 1995 the teetering government of President Tejan Kabbah in Sierra Leone contracted EO to help it fight off the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels which it efficiently did.

In both countries, though, the whiff of old South Africa hanging around the company grew too pungent for the client governments, and contracts were terminated rather prematurely, leading to a resurgence of the rebel enemies.

And in 1998, after the new ANC government in Pretoria passed legislation to control mercenary activities - the same law under which Mark Thatcher was arrested this week - EO decided to close its office in South Africa.

Yet the presence of EO, Sandline International and US security companies such as MPRI - which took over from EO in Angola - has arguably contributed to stability in some African regions, spurring a growing debate about institutionalising mercenaries as the private arms of legitimate government peacekeeping efforts.

When governments are so reluctant to put their boys in danger on distant soil, why not use people who are more than eager to do the job, goes the unorthodox but compelling argument.

The war in Iraq has brought to public light how far private military companies have already proliferated. But it has also raised considerable alarm about their lack of accountability.

In Africa, the botched adventure in Equatorial Guinea has served a similar purpose. One of their mistakes was to hatch their alleged plot in the new South Africa where assembling some 80 men would never escape the notice of the intelligence services. And even if they had succeeded in toppling President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's government, the AU would have sent in troops - probably Nigerians and fellow South Africans - to oust them.

As one veteran of the South African special forces remarked: "They did not seem to realise that the time of the white mercenary coup is past."

He might have added that Mann and Co have also helped set back by years the debate about the constructive role mercenaries can play in pacifying a violent continent.

The central question in the debate about whether or not to privatise conflict resolution in Africa has always been whether private armies can be trusted to stay on the right side of the fence. In the end, will greed not trump discipline and loyalty? The farcical and grubby grab for Equatorial Guinea's oil riches has answered that question convincingly.

The writer is Foreign Editor of Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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