Mercenaries And Death Squads: Two Sides Of The Same Coin
By J. Kpanneh Doe

One of the untold stories and least reported events in the final years of the twentieth century, has been the presence and involvement of mercenaries in Africa's civil war. Mercenary-soldiering for pay or trading military services for pay, is not a new phenomenon; it has had a long record in Europe's history, but has taken on a new and disturbing development in the conflicts in Africa.

With the demise of the cold war, Western countries have lost interest in sending their own soldiers to prop up dubious governments in distant wars, those governments ­ and the rebels fighting them ­ have increasingly sought help from mercenaries, who are now provided by a collection of private companies. At the same time, governments of such countries as America, Britain, Israel have helped set up security firms staffed by former special forces officers. The aim has been partly to protect their country nationals or commercial interests in dangerous places, partly to do dirty work they could not allow their armies to carry out.

As war business flourish in Africa, it has created a fertile market for such private "military" companies run by mercenaries. The companies that thrives on war in Africa are many, they range from Executive Outcomes (EO) to Sandline International (SI) to Military Professional Resource International (MPRI). These companies specialize in private military operations, and make fortunes from the blood of millions of innocent victims.

These companies are also often staffed by retired generals and former elite troops. Some have the capacity of mobilizing up to 2,000 men. They offer tailor-made services to their clients, from simple ones like providing surveillance of oil installations to even direct intervention in conflicts.

But despite their new corporate outfit, these "businessmen with guns" also tend to be virtual companies, sometime no more than a "retired military guy sitting in a spare bedroom with a fax machine and a rolodex," says a former American defense official.

A disturbing element also of these mercenary outfits is that they have become convenient channels and conduits for arms and drugs trafficking. For example, according to the UN Institute of Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), "there are more than seven million small arms circulating in West Africa today." This covers a frightening arsenal: revolvers, rifles, assault rifles, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers, mortars, etc.

West Africa is also "awash with small arms that have been acquired by legal and illegal means," according to former Ghanaian ECOMOG commander, General Arnold Quainoo. These weapons, he said, have heightened tension within the region.

But whether as a corporate entity, or as an individual running a scheme to cash in on his military expertise, the real issue at stake and of much concern has to do with their direct intervention in African conflicts, and the ramifications this has in shaping the internal politics of the countries in which they are involved.

The current crisis in Sierra Leone (in which the Liberian government has been directly implicated) and Liberia, speaks to this fact. In the case of Sierra Leone, the involvement of mercenaries have been very evident. In 1995, for example, when the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, was struggling to hold onto power, it contracted mercenaries to help the regular army fight Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who had reached the outskirts of the capital, Freetown.

In fact, it has been established that Executive Outcomes (EO) of South Africa was contracted by the Sierra Leone government to flush out the rebels at the time. Various reports have it that the price tag for EO's assistance was $35 million, but it is not clear whether the government paid in cash or by giving the mercenary outfit mining and water-distribution contracts as has been rumored.

Similarly, in a reversal of fortune, when the RUF attempted to regain power in 1997 and 1998, they were assisted by mercenaries from places like Ukraine and Belarus in the former Soviet Union. They were identified by ECOMOG, the West African Peace Keeping Force, based in Freetown, and providing protection for the Kabbah's government. ECOMOG also captured and identified hundreds of former fighters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of Charles Taylor, fighting on the side of the rebel RUF. Also, identified as aiding the rebels were hundreds of fighters from Burkina Faso.

Liberia's illegal involvement in the Sierra Leone crisis and reported connivance with mercenary groups to support the rebels seems to go against the grain and defy conventional wisdom. It begs the question: Why would a country, just emerging from war and struggling to reconstruct, want to engage in such dangerous forays? "But this should come as no surprise, there is clearly a chain of linkage here," observed one Liberian watcher. "Because the state has been criminalized, it has no boundaries in pursuit of its mission," observed another.

Is there a chain of linkage or point of connection? Has the Liberian state become criminalized? It is no hidden secret that the Rebel RUF and the NPFL pursued joint training, shared resources and exchange information during the Liberia civil war (see article on Sierra Leone crisis - page 3). Keen observers of both the Liberian and Sierra Leonean crises have observed similarities in the fighting strategies of the rebel RUF closely resemble those of the erstwhile NPFL. "RUF recent attempt to take over Freetown is an exact replica of the Operation Octopus launched by the NPFL to take over the city of Monrovia in 1992," noted one observer. The fighters of both groups even share similar strange and mythical names such as: "General Mosquito," "Red Devil," "Jack the Rebel," etc. Not too long ago, Justice Minister Eddington Varmah had to go out of his way to fetch a Gen. Mosquito to present to the public and press whom he said was not the same Gen. Mosquito fighting with the RUF.

So, how about the state being criminalized? Kimmie Weeks, a 17-year old Liberian high school student who came to national attention a month ago, reported to the world that the Liberian army was involved in the training of child soldiers at Camp Schefflin, a military barracks located outside Monrovia. The Liberian government denied this report and condemned Weeks as a "dangerous subversive." The government has also denied the existence of a secret "death squad" called SWAP. This secret military unit comprising well over 600 fighters (reported to be undergoing training in Gbatala, Bong County) is headed by the notorious Chuckie Taylor, son of Charles Taylor, and is said to include nationals from Burkina Faso, Guinea and the Gambia. As if this was not enough, recent calls by Liberia's Foreign Minister, Monie Captan, urging the United Nations to lift the arms embargo imposed on Liberia, all leaves much to be desired. These developments are clearly not isolated and seem to be part of well-orchestrated efforts to use the state for criminal purposes.

But this is not all. The South African-Israeli connection cannot go unnoticed or escape our attention. In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, there seem to be an increasing presence and involvement of former military personnel from both South Africa and Israel. Fred Rundle, a retired South African Army General, is said to have had numerous business dealings with Mr. Taylor and owns and operates mining and rubber businesses in Liberia. Sigmund Rosenblum, an Israeli arms dealer and owner of GE TRAC, a mercenary outfit which provides bodyguards and vehicular security for Charles Taylor's security detail, is said to be wanted for questioning by the Sierra Leonean authorities.

The new proliferation of arms and the role of mercenary groups in Africa's conflicts, especially in Sierra Leone and Liberia, raises some real concerns about the prospects for peace and stability. Mercenary groups driven by their new found lucrative market on the one hand and rebels or rogue nations like Liberia, willing to utilize their services on the other , have found common ground in fomenting some of the most unspeakable violence the world has witnessed in these countries. Using arms to settle differences only adds to the vicious cycle of violence.

There is clearly an urgent need now for all countries including the United States, to ratify the United Nations treaty banning the recruiting, use, and financing and training of mercenaries. Sadly, only 12 countries have signed this treaty. Furthermore, developed countries must take needed policy and legislative actions to discourage the formation of private companies trading military services to third world countries. Last year, the South African government passed a law banning mercenary activities by its nationals. The action taken by the South African government would be an example worth emulating.

If for nothing else, the Liberian government could learn a few lessons from the South African experience. The measures announced by the government of Liberia recently to bring resolution to the crisis in Sierra Leone are necessary but insufficient. Restricting the movement of arms from Liberia which has been used as transit point; urging Liberians in Sierra Leone to return home; and collaborating with the Sierra Leone government to arrest and prosecute former combatants, now turned mercenaries, fighting on the side of the rebels forces in Sierra Leone, are in themselves necessary steps which do not go far enough, neither do they address the source of the problem.

It seems apparent that in the absence of a comprehensive rehabilitative program needed to integrate former combatants back into the civil society, and the failure to pursue an exhaustive disarmament process, which is yet to be completed, former combatants will still seek new outlets to cash-in on their acquired war expertise.