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The helicopters opening fire at murderous black-clad Salafist terrorists over the Mozambican town of Palma in northern Cabo Delgado province two years ago were the most welcome sight the terrified expats huddling on the beach had ever seen. 

Yet the chopper pilots and gunners who enabled the later rescue of most of the threatened civilians were employed by the Dyck Advisory Group and were “private military contractors”, more popularly known as mercenaries, a tag that has an almost odious association with warfare, insurrection, and skulduggery in Africa. 

But in a time in which the Wagner Group — a mercenary company with deep and troubling engagements in many African countries — dramatically staged an armoured thrust towards Moscow that almost became a military coup d’etat against Russian President Vladimir Putin, the role of such shadowy organisations has come under the spotlight again. 

Founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former convicted robber who, after his release from prison in 1990, rode the tide of late-Soviet perestroika to become a billion-ruble oligarch and close Putin associate, the Wagner Group was enabled by its patronage by the Russian military’s intelligence arm, the GRU, to grow from the size of a company of troopers in 2014 to that of a fully fledged private army today. 

It is named after co-founder Dmitry Utkin, a reclusive former lieutenant-colonel in the GRU’s Spetsnaz special forces, call-signed “Wagner” because of his love of Richard Wagner. In an echo of his supposed Nazi leanings, the company’s slogan is the far-right flavoured “blood, honour, homeland, courage”. 

The Wagner Group has made use of Russian military bases, equipment, funding, and most important, the Kremlin’s political support to land contracts as far afield as Syria, where it battled Islamic State over 2016-19, and Venezuela, where it trained militia and paramilitaries in 2019. 

Along the way to its recent almost-bid for power in Moscow, the outfit has become somewhat of an arms-length enabler of Russia’s ambitions, notably in Africa, where Wagner’s record is blemished — and where its 1,400-strong battle group in Libya earned opprobrium for its contravention of the laws of war by using hollow-point bullets and booby traps that killed civilians while backing the rebel forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar against the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. 

US academic John F Clark, who follows great-power competition in Africa, in a much-reposted report, noted that “the Russian government has been on the lookout for military bases in Africa. Even before Wagner first got involved in Africa in 2017, Russia already had military co-operation agreements with 18 African countries. These have ranged from democracies such as Ghana and Nigeria to ungoverned Eastern Libya, which has become a logistics hub for Russia as well as Wagner”. 

Aside from increasing its geopolitical footprint, Clark says Russia is also motivated by using many African state leaderships’ nostalgia for the USSR to promote its counter-narrative on the war on Ukraine — where Wagner cut its teeth in 2014 — and by profit, noting that in addition to their paid mercenary work, “Wagner has negotiated agreements for exclusive access to gold, diamonds and uranium resources in several places it operates in. These include the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan.” 

African contestations over power, and the access to resources exploitation that they bring, have often drawn a mercenary contingent. The Katanga secession, which in 1960 broke that province away from newly independent Congo-Leopoldville, now the DRC, provided a playground for a colourful cast of guns for hire. 

Mercenaries served on both sides of the Congo conflict. The Leopoldville government of US-backed president Mobutu Sese Seko, which opposed the secession, was supported by the 6e Bataillon de Commandos Étrangers, formed of Frenchmen, Belgians and Italians, all former parachutists or French Foreign Legionnaires under the famous then-commandant, later colonel, Bob Denard. 

Denard was described by hawkish war journalist Al J Venter, who covered the Congo Crisis, as “a warrior king out of Homer” — and, in fact, Denard ruled the Comoros island nation until 1989 as a shadow military leader after leading a coup d’etat there in 1978. Denard’s mercenaries at times reportedly wore Nazi swastika armbands in the field. 

Opposing them were the Katanganese rebels under Moise Tshombe, with a range of mercenary supporters, including Belgians, white Congolese, French, Italians, Rhodesians and South Africans, the latter formed into an International Company.

Among them was Irishman Col Thomas Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare, who gave up the dreary life of an accountant in Durban to lead Tshombe’s 4 Commando, then the Leopoldville state’s 5 Commando, once Tshombe became prime minister after his secession bid failed.

The all-white 5 Commando included South Africans, Rhodesians, British, Belgians, and Germans, including several who wore Iron Crosses earned in World War 2, and took the pro-communist Simba rebels — and their Cuban supporters under Che Guevara — down to defeat.

Though infamous for looting, it was largely a well-disciplined force that Hoare always insisted was inspired by martial glory in the fight against communism — and not by money. He died in Durban at the grand old age of 100 in 2020. 

Among about 1,500 foreign fighters recruited over 1974-1980 to fight in Rhodesia were members of the Frankfurt-based former SS organisation the Kampfbund Deutscher Soldaten, while Denard’s French-speaking 7ème Compagnie Indépendante was only deployed once because its harsh interrogation methods alienated potentially friendly black populations. 

Arguably, despite the racist attitudes of many of their irregulars, men like Hoare — who spent 33 months in prison for hijacking a jet airliner during his failed 1978 coup attempt in the Seychelles — and Denard created the myth of the mercenary in Africa as a swashbuckling adventurer, defending democratic Western values.

That is hardly the case with Wagner, with Clark writing:Everywhere it goes, Wagner has been indifferent to human life, indiscriminately killing civilians as well as Islamic militants and other insurgents. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project research group found that between 52% and 71% of Wagner’s uses of force in the Central African Republic and Mali targeted civilians. 

Arguably, the end of the Cold War in Africa enabled the emergence of professional modern private military companies, which can be dated to the formation of Executive Outcomes in 1989 by former CCB covert ops manager for Europe and International, Lt-Col Eeben Barlow.

Though much-derided as paid gunslingers, Executive Outcomes can actually be credited with ending two African wars: it helped defeat Unita in Angola after it refused to accept the 1992 election result, and it contained the brutal RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. But in both cases, the UN forced the company’s withdrawal, allowing both countries to plunge back into civil war. 

Barlow maintains that Executive Outcomes — which he refounded in 2020, allegedly at the private request of some African governments, was always a disciplined outfit, legally contracted by UN-recognised governments to train and fight as components of their regular armed forces under all the necessary laws and protocols. Crucially, unlike Wagner, he says Executive Outcomes was staffed by Africans who understood local contexts. 

It was this new type of African-based private military company that saved so many lives in Mozambique — incidentally, a country in which Wagner had earlier tried to combat the Salafist insurgency, yet had been found wanting. 

• Schmidt is a veteran journalist and author.

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