We should support African states by refusing to countenance mercenaries

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If there was one clear message yesterday from the conviction of former SAS officer Simon Mann for attempting to buy arms for an alleged coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, it was this: black Africa is no longer willing to accept the use of white mercenaries to upset governments, however repellent some of them may be. This is especially true of South Africa, which first alerted Zimbabwe to the visit of Simon Mann and his men. For so long the spawning ground of mercenaries in the days of apartheid, the ANC government wants to make absolutely clear to its neighbours, and to the West, that it won't tolerate their activities now.

If there was one clear message yesterday from the conviction of former SAS officer Simon Mann for attempting to buy arms for an alleged coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, it was this: black Africa is no longer willing to accept the use of white mercenaries to upset governments, however repellent some of them may be. This is especially true of South Africa, which first alerted Zimbabwe to the visit of Simon Mann and his men. For so long the spawning ground of mercenaries in the days of apartheid, the ANC government wants to make absolutely clear to its neighbours, and to the West, that it won't tolerate their activities now.

That is an important enough - and overdue - message for Western governments, the British and Americans in particular, who for too long have given ambiguous signals on the use of mercenaries. While disapproving of them in public, they have often, as in Sierra Leone, tacitly encouraged them, finding private armies useful to carry out actions which governments would find impossible and which could be readily disowned if the mercenaries were caught.

Nor is it just a matter for governments. Not the least disturbing aspect of the rise in the use of mercenaries has been the role of multinational companies. Under the guise of employing private troops for security reasons, companies have allowed, even encouraged, their use by government and/or rebel groups to act as local policemen and enforcers. The line between self-protection and becoming part of the political process has always been a narrow one. One has only to look to the difficulties of Shell in Nigeria and BP in Sudan to see that. But it is a line that has been increasingly crossed in the past decade.

Africa is often treated as an impoverished basket case in the media. Many of its problems arise from its possession of extremely valuable raw materials and energy sources in specific regions. This scattered wealth has brought about all the problems of political corruption and outside intervention which Africa knows so well today. Mercenaries are not always the cause, but they are all too often the effect of this cauldron of ambition and greed.

But in a wider sense, too, the embarrassment and scandal of the mercenaries and their backers should give the West some pause for thought. At the back of this suspected coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea, just as in the invasion of Iraq, is the view that it is up to the West to decide where regime change is needed and to carry it out regardless of the law or the feelings of the region.

Far from being a thing of the past, intervention for regime change is actively discussed and countenanced in Washington, and London, as a perfectly respectable arm of foreign policy. The aims, the removal of despotic and corrupt regimes (many of them, it should be said, set up by the West), may be laudable. But the means are not.

With the very deliberate, and public, pursuit of this case, African leaders are saying they will no longer countenance such outside intervention. They are right and we should listen to them.

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