Somalia’s PMCs: What’s the big deal?

Jul 31, 12 Somalia’s PMCs: What’s the big deal?

Khadija Patel recently wrote a piece on the presence of private military contractors, PMCs,  for the dailymaverick. In it she borrows heavily on the expertise of Sabelo Gumedze, an analyst at the Institute of Security Studies, and a “security analyst” who apparently remained nameless to protect themselves, or to sound more mysterious, either of which serves to add to the shadiness of private security. The article rides on the back of a UN Report detailing PMC activities in Somalia and most significantly fingering the South African Government as being incredibly naughty for not helping the UN on gathering information. But underneath all this is the theme of implied ‘evil’ on PMC actitivities, when really this tar and feathers approach utterly misses the point. PMCs, God help us all, can actually be useful.

Media outlets have made a meal out of PMCs in the past few years. They’re a soft target, like Julius Malema and painting penises on caricatures of famous people. After all, many of the organisations running around Africa (and the Middle East) in their designer Oakleys and cargo pants, bristling with ridiculously-customised assault rifles and pickup trucks use South Africans. That’s because we happen to have an entire generation or two of black and white combat veterans who, upon being cast out of their military society in South Africa, are welcomed back into the private fold for quadruple the price and, this time, the Angolans are your battle buddies, not targets. Moreover, the bigger PMCs regularly get utterly roasted for their blunders (which do often result in innocent lives lost), and thus are ever the sinister ghoul hanging over many major conflicts around the world.

But what Patel and most media on PMCs miss is the inalienable reality that private military work sees individuals fulfilling contractual obligations in bloody dangerous areas. Areas where people will die regardless of who’s there or not. Where civilian casualties, regrettable as they are, will happen. In Somalia there appears to be a rough consensus that the country and piracy off its coast will only be fixed with, like, lots of development and greater political involvement and institution-building. Of course what is almost entirely missed from their wishful missives is the difficulty in building institutions and engaging in ‘development’ (as if it’s some sort of magic wand you bring to shitty countries) when there are still clans and warlords vying to utterly destroy their neighbours in order to control real state. Ironically, it was a former ISS expert on Somalia, Paula Roque, who pointed out in 2009 that Somalia had suffered a catastrophic rupture, both in its society and in its institutional framework. That will not be fixed with good wishes and zero security on the ground.

Recovering from this rupture requires military and external state intervention such as the world has never seen before, and yet we are to then also utterly disregard the minimal work being conducted by PMCs as well, simply because they don’t dress the same and have the same rules as the non-existent military forces. It’s somewhat absurd to expect a non-state contractor, working for the legally-recognised transitional government, to abide by the same rules as military forces who are neither equipped nor prepared to be there. Certainly there is the AU Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, who has been on the edges of the failed state for years, and has been sending body bags back for years too, but they are not the ones training the coast guard in Somalia to combat piracy. They are not the ones the World Food Programme approached for protection in its passage through to Mogadishu. That work was done by PMCs. “Mercenaries” by the definition of the masses, are the ones who are actually doing anything towards creating a security framework in the world’s least secure country. For all the implied evil that PMCs must be doing, if we are to believe conventional thought, there seems to be a pretty good track record on the ground of persons successfully-protected, convoys guarded, security forces trained, and of reckless violence curtailed. Patel and her contributors could contribute more towards reducing the need for PMCs if there were more attention paid to the fundamental inability of African states to utilise their own militaries in anything beyond toppling their own governments. Aside from South Africa (and perhaps Algeria), there are few countries on this continent with the skillsets necessary to train a coast guard anywhere, let alone one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

A recent scandal saw the South African PMC Saracen be booted out of the country because of shady and shadowy connections to CIA “secret missions” to hunt insurgents and al Shabaab/al Qaeda terrorists. They were then replaced by virtually the same company and staff in all but name, and the mission continued. Pundits would argue that secret terrorist-hunting missions are bad at the best of times, and that utilising PMCs in intelligence organisations’ dirty dealings is beyond reprehensible. And yet, at the very worst, some very bad men will be killed or captured by men in custom-made Oakleys and cargo pants rather than in equally-Oakley’d and cargo-panted CIA operators.

If Africans want to get serious about PMCs, they need to start thinking seriously about the reality of the strategic situation in which PMCs operate. They thrive in vacuums of insecurity, or even in support of legitimate military operations, and they sometimes actually yield positive results. There needs be a frank and honest look at the philosophy of contracted soldiers in Africa before we can begin to pass a moral judgement upon the entire industry (however implicit).