Burkina Faso has been plagued by an insurgency for seven years; numerous news outlets have reported that the Russian Private Military Company (PMC), Wagner Group, has been hired to assist them.
The possibility of using Wagner to help Burkina Faso has been the subject of debate for several months, and has drawn warnings from Western partners. Virginia Palmer, the US ambassador to Ghana, says the presence of the Wagner force in Burkina Faso is a danger to security in the West Africa sub-region. She also labels them a proxy of the Russian government… and she’s right.
The same must then also be said and expected of any of the American or British military companies operating all over the world, or even their state militaries. Companies like Wagner must not be confused with non-state actors. These companies are para-military private actors acting on behalf of a foreign government; they will never truly have the interests of a specific host country at heart. How could they?
There are fears that an unregulated PMC will exploit mineral resources and engage in other activities like drugs and arms smuggling. Although some of these concerns might be valid, professional companies would not be involved in illegal activities. Professional companies take pride in their work to solve real problems.
However, in Europe, America or Russia there are no true private military companies currently in existence. The phrase ‘private military company’ has inaccurately described these state-aligned para-military actors over the last few decades.
Here distinction should be made between privately-owned commercial security companies, which are operating in almost every country of Africa, and companies mostly involved in military or paramilitary contracts.
Companies like Wagner are contracted in foreign countries to assist foreign governments by implementing the political or economic aspirations of their own government’s departments of state.
Africa has been plagued by various insurgencies in recent years, and ISIL/Islamic state has been gaining ground in numerous countries of Africa for the last seven years.
Gains of these rebel groups have been made possible for various reasons, but the most important reasons would be poor advice from mostly western military influence, poor training by western militaries, and equipment that is unsuitable for the African environment.
It is debatable whether these reasons are deliberate sabotage or plain ignorance of the culture, terrain and politics of these African countries. What’s clear is that the West has not been able to turn the fate of Africa around in many decades of involvement, despite their increase of military presence in nearly every country and significant foreign-aid.
To continue doing the same thing that has not been working for so long is a waste of time and precious resources, and has contributed to significant loss of life and internally displaced people. A better outcome, a real solution, cannot be expected unless there is a change in strategy.
To its credit, Africa has had quite a few positive interventions by PMCs in recent decades.
The most well-known of these were during the 1990s in Angola and Sierra Leone – where the intervention was successful and brought speedy ends to civil wars in those countries.
More recently, STTEP International was involved in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria, and provided key personnel and advice to the entity contracted to counter ISIS in Mozambique.
African governments should be more diligent and thoughtful when seeking a PMC to address a programme requiring a military solution beyond their internal capability and capacity.
Here are some guidelines to think of before deciding to contract with a private military company:
- Be sure that you are willing to be subject to a foreign government’s political or economic guidelines. Remember that no services are rendered for free. Everything comes with a price.
- Make sure to contract with a company that is truly private and not working on behalf of their own government.
- Make sure the company is apolitical and has a successful track-record.
- Make sure the company does not have other ‘interests’ at heart; for example, mineral concessions.
- Question their timelines to resolution. Some companies want to remain in country for as long as possible – draining resources and extending the problem for their own gain.
- Question how many expats the company wants to use to fulfil the contract, the number of host government soldiers used, and what standard of training they are willing to provide the host country’s military.
- Question how the company is willing to work with local soldiers, their use of available equipment and recommendations for mission-specific, terrain-appropriate equipment. Ill-advised equipment procurement is costly and will ultimately lead to failure.
- Establish whether the company has relevant African experience. First-World environments are vastly different from the operational theatres in Africa. Most Western ex-military personnel struggle to adapt, be effective or to produce tangible results in Africa.
These few simple guidelines might be the difference between a speedy resolution ending a terrorist campaign and a long-drawn-out costly exercise with no end in sight. This type of failure leads to resentment by the local population, and rules and regulations are forced on a government by interlopers who do not understand or care to appreciate local customs or traditions.
With the number of PMCs today, it appears that STTEP International is the only private military company on the African continent that deals in the mitigation of military conflict on the continent. Based in South Africa, STTEP International operates with permission of the South African government – but is free from influence or sponsorship from any government or foreign interests and has no geopolitical interests. It only serves legitimate governments and interests of the government it contracts with.
Every African country has the capability to protect itself against aggression from inside or outside its borders; but they have failed to do so because of bad advice and guidance, bad training, outdated strategy and equipment not suitable for the operational environment.
For low-level conflict in Africa, truly private military companies are well-suited to assist under-siege governments in conflict resolution. When an African government decides to make use of a thoroughly vetted PMC, this should be the most effective and politically neutral option available.