There will be work for mercenaries in Africa until democracy replaces dictatorships

The spectacle of white-led armies rampaging across the continent is an affront to African dignity

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Take a plane full of mercenaries recruited from some of apartheid's most notorious battalions and head for... Zimbabwe? Only a fool would do it. But the man charged with organising the dispatch of the mercenaries is no fool. He is a former British military officer who served with the SAS. Here in South Africa the grizzled veterans of past African wars are deeply puzzled. I bumped into an old colleague in Cape Town the other night, a man who witnessed mercenary operations in the Congo years ago. "What the fuck were they thinking of?" he asked.

Take a plane full of mercenaries recruited from some of apartheid's most notorious battalions and head for... Zimbabwe? Only a fool would do it. But the man charged with organising the dispatch of the mercenaries is no fool. He is a former British military officer who served with the SAS. Here in South Africa the grizzled veterans of past African wars are deeply puzzled. I bumped into an old colleague in Cape Town the other night, a man who witnessed mercenary operations in the Congo years ago. "What the fuck were they thinking of?" he asked.

Of all the countries in the world you might choose for a stop-over with a plane full of mercenaries, Zimbabwe would probably be the last. The political conditions are deeply hostile. There is a paranoid president surrounded by a brutal security establishment, both convinced that the West is out to install its own puppets as the new leaders of the country. And if he didn't believe the mercenaries were out to get him, Robert Mugabe would hardly smile on the prospect of them being used to topple another African leader.

Simon Mann, the ex-Army man charged with organising the jaunt, would have had plenty of experience of covert operations with the SAS. A friend of mine who served for years in the regiment is dumbfounded. "It was ham-fisted and naive beyond belief. To think you could waltz into Zimbabwe and pick up a load of guns and then fly off to Equatorial Guinea! If he wasn't dumb he must have been set up."

A theory doing the rounds among old soldiers is that the Zimbabwe Defence Industries, a state-operated firm, promised to sell Mann the guns in order to draw him and his mercenaries to Harare. If this turns out to be true, then Mann walked obligingly into the trap. Now Mann and his men, and the others who have been arrested in Equatorial Guinea, are likely to face a long spell in jail. Unhappily for them, they have little trade value. Most of the soldiers come from Angola, Namibia and South Africa and served in units that became notorious during the apartheid era. The governments of their home countries are now run by former enemies who won't be keen to bargain for their release.

The fact that squads of such soldiers exist tells us much about the wreckage created by apartheid-era South Africa. The rampant militarism of the 1970s and 80s in South Africa, and the policy of aggression against the frontline states created a generation of killers. They were men who served in outfits like 32 Battalion or the Recce Commandos or Kovoet in Namibia.

Hang around certain bars in Pretoria and Cape Town and you bump into embittered former commandos. They are men adrift in the new South Africa. It is not because their country does not want them. They don't want the kind of country it has become (ie a non-racial democracy). They and many of the black soldiers who fought alongside them were so brutalised by war that killing is all they know. So they look north into Africa at the small wars and fragile regimes and they see business.

The growth of so-called "private security firms" was initially welcomed by many who called themselves liberal. When mercenaries intervened to reinstate the democratic government of Sierra Leone in 1998, there was a widespread feeling that their intervention was a good thing. It was even suggested that there is a new generation of ethically-conscious mercenaries. Baloney. Mercenaries fight for money. If one group will fight to save the good guys, another will surely be found to take up arms for the bad. It's a question of the price. And if we accept that it is right to intervene to get rid of a monster, do we also accept that it's right to install one?

But the spectacle of white-led armies rampaging across the African continent is not only an anachronism, it is an affront to African dignity. That is why Thabo Mbeki's government was so quick to distance itself from the arrested men. Africans of Mbeki's generation can remember the first mercenary era in Africa, which began with Mad Mike Hoare and the rest of his mob during the Congo war in the early 60s. The Congo mercenaries were ruthless and brutish and loathed by the locals, whom they treated with racist contempt. There were characters like "Black Jack" Schramme, a Belgian hired gun, and his men in Bukavu, Eastern Congo. Schramme set up himself as de facto ruler of a slice of Congo until he was dislodged by Congolese and French forces.

There was also Bob Denard, who set himself up as the prince of the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. I once met him for lunch in Johannesburg at a time when he was contemplating whether to return to France and face trial (the French had tired of his relentless coup-mongering). He was sly and evasive and very boring, a man with a murky past but without the imagination to render it interesting.

The first mercenary age ended with the case of Colonel Costas Callan in Angola. Callan and his men were captured and then executed after a prolonged trial in the capital Luanda. The white soldiers were tied to stakes and shot and then buried in paupers' graves. It was tough justice but it put an end to mercenary adventures in Africa for a long time. I believe the capture of Mann and his men signals the end of that era, certainly when it comes to intervening in the politics of African states.

But this case raises a more profound challenge to the leaders of the African Union. The mercenaries are a symptom of a crisis, not the cause. Simon Mann and his men were allegedly en route to depose the loathsome dictator of Equatorial Guinea. This gluttonous despot has followed a traditional route to wealth among the ruling classes of post-colonial Africa. He doesn't run the country, he effectively owns it. The West, with its eye firmly to the country's oil supplies, doesn't squeak about his appalling human rights record. Indeed the tyrant has been a visitor to the White House of George W Bush.

It is a path well trodden by African despots; one thinks of the delightful Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, the butcher of Liberia, who graced the Oval Office of Ronald Reagan during the Cold War era. Doe ended up having his gruesome death by torture recorded on video. It is the kind of fate that may yet await his brother in crime in Equatorial Guinea, who will in turn be replaced by some other dreadful dictator.

That is unless the African Union starts to put its rhetoric of good governance into action. African civil society has progressively pushed out the boundaries of freedom. Across the continent the dispossessed are successfully challenging despots. This is the most exciting period in African history since the early 1960s. There is idealism backed up by realism. But there are a number of countries like Equatorial Guinea where the repression is so extreme that civil society is unable to advance.

The problem is at its most acute in west and central Africa, but Zimbabwe also provides persistently dramatic evidence. So far the African Union has adopted a "softly softly" approach to Mr Mugabe and all the other dictators on its turf. African human rights activists cannot understand why. They are men who have brought nothing but chaos to their people. For as long as the African Union tolerates the presence of these bloodthirsty dictators, there will be unrest, economic collapse - and sooner or later the mercenaries will be back.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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