African business, politics and lifestyle
Is the “wonga” running out for Africa’s mercenaries?
Only this month, Britain’s Simon Mann won a pardon for his part in a foiled 2004 coup attempt on Equatorial Guinea, an old-style adventure whose glittering prize was the central African state’s multi-billion-dollar oil riches.
Contrast that to reports last week that a band of South African and other mercenaries had flown into the chaos of Guinea to train up a militia loyal to the incumbent junta leader — on a salary put at barely $3,500 a month.
That’s not bad money in most parts of the world, and there were reports that the company involved would have won extra remuneration in the form of minerals from Guinea’s fecund soil.
But it would have been peanuts to Mann, whose Equatorial Guinea coup was known as the “Wonga Plot” after the English slang for the money they hoped to yield in buckets.
While mercenaries are often seen as in the business of bringing governments down, it is not new that they should be trying to prop one up, as is happening in Guinea.
Mann himself is reported to have worked for the Angolan government in the 1990s to help it wrest back control of a key port from rebels, and again for Sierra Leonean authorities in the 2002 civil war there.
But what has changed since then is the economics. Thanks to the steady flow of new oil and mineral finds on the continent, the private security business in Africa is booming. A lot of the real pros now find there is steady money to made in guarding a gold mine in northern Congo, for example.
The more dubious end of the business is now increasingly the preserve of what some describe as cowboys.
“They couldn’t get enough people to do the job,” Henri Boshoff, a military analyst who served in the South African army, told Reuters of the mercenaries hired by Guinean junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. “(The South Africans) were very desperate. They are not being very well paid.”
The Guinea mercenaries may not be in the same league as Mann and his fellow Wonga plotters, but their capacity to stir up trouble should not be underestimated.
The fact that Camara’s militia is being selected on tribal lines could add an alarming new ethnic dimension to Guinea’s instability.
Security sources also told Reuters that part of their job is to ensure the arrival of arms acquired by the junta in Ukraine in direct contravention of an international arms embargo.
South Africa is keen to get rid of its reputation as a training ground for hired guns and is officially investigating the activities of its nationals in Guinea.
Depending on what it finds, it may have to decide whether they are in breach of its
three-year-old anti-mercenary law that still contains grey areas as to what is mercenary behaviour.
Is it time for a more concerted effort by governments to end the days of Africa’s dogs of war? Or will the wonga run out by itself?