Over 2015 and early 2016, there have been reports, ranging from staid to hyperbolic, about the Nigerian government’s decision to hire private military companies (PMCs—or mercenaries to many) to bolster its armed forces’ efforts to deal with Boko Haram. In spite of the ubiquitous if underexposed presence of PMCs in the world’s conflict zones, where they regularly provide security and logistics for the US and British military, this recent action raised some uncomfortable questions about the future of conflict in the region and on a global scale. We spoke to Sean McFate, a former mercenary with firsthand experience of PMC operations in Liberia and Burundi, about why this deployment matters. McFate is a professor at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is the author of Modern Mercenary : Private Armies and What They Mean for the World Order, and his first fictional title, Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel, a thriller based on his real-life experiences in the private military industry, comes out in May.
VICE: The recent employment of mercenaries by Nigeria in its fight to subdue Boko Haram has attracted rather a lot of attention in some quarters. Given that PMCs are so prevalent in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, where they constituted up to 50 percent of all persons deployed by the US, why do you think people have gotten so excited about this?
Sean McFate: It’s attracted attention for at least two key reasons. The first is that it happened, and there was really no public outrage, certainly not in the way that there would have been, say, 20 years ago. And that shows you what the US and Great Britain have done in terms of normalizing the use of PMCs. The second big factor is that Nigeria is West Africa’s regional superpower. It has the most powerful military in the region, and for six years, it couldn’t control Boko Haram. Then the government hired mercenaries to do it, and within weeks, those mercenaries did it. So that suggests that mercenaries are more powerful, or at least as powerful as, the most powerful military in West Africa.
Another thing that grabbed attention is that these guys had Mi-24 attack helicopters, which are like flying tanks. With extremely heavy weaponry, they were conducting offensive operations.
We don’t really know a whole lot about the circumstances in which these mercenaries were hired. But it seems to me, though this is speculation, that it was possibly a slightly underhand move by Goodluck Jonathan, the outgoing president, in a re-election bid—to show military strength—and that the mercenaries were not initially meant to be taking as big a combat role as they did.
This was a more full-blooded mercenary operation than the sort that we are used to of late.
These were real, hardcore mercenaries. This was very different from the ways PMCs were used by the coalition in Iraq, say, where they did convoy protection, defense of buildings or people. This was pure offense, and they did a great job. Well… an effective job, at least.
That qualification you make there, can you expand on it? They were effective. But there’s a sense that—due to the very nature of PMCs and this sort of engagement—this will be far from a long-term solution to the region’s problems.
They were effective operationally, but I think there are a lot of bigger strategic questions at play within Nigeria.
The big question, of course, is how do you defeat Boko Haram? All that these PMCs did was effectively push them into neighboring countries. And now the group will push back. Is it a long-term solution? Probably not.
The second question is, what does it mean, more generally, that we have a rising industry of mercenaries around the world? This is not an industry restricted to employment by the US, the UK, or European countries operating in Iraq or Afghanistan. We are seeing their increasing use elsewhere—for example, at present in Yemen, where South American, ex-special forces mercenaries are being used. It’s going global. The Nigeria case marks a bigger trend.
What do you get when you have industries invested in conflict going to the most conflict prone regions in the world? For me, this fundamentally means you are going to get a lot more war in the future.
What are the advantages for these nations in using PMCs in this way? As you already mentioned, their combat effectiveness, hardware, and training are clearly attractive in places where the national armed forces are less professional. But what else do they offer employers?
There are tons of advantages. Firstly, PMCs are generally cheaper than maintaining a standing army. Second, you don’t have to deal with corrupt, politically ambitious officers. The third is that if you are a rich, small country that wants to participate in war but doesn’t have the citizens who want to serve in the military, PMCs are a good option. UAE is a country like that—small and rich—and it wants to participate in the current war alongside Saudi Arabia. But its citizens aren’t interested in bleeding, so the country hires the job out. There are a lot of “advantages,” quote unquote. A lot of them are dubious or raise concerns, but they certainly offer short-term advantages.
In the case of Nigeria, how big of an issue do you think was posed by the toxic history of PMC use in Africa? Specifically the fact that some of those mercenaries hired to fight in Nigeria appear to have been former apartheid-era South African military? Does that legacy pose particular problems for PMCs in the region?
I think the big issue for people is that what happened in Nigeria smells an awful lot like Executive Outcomes (EO), a South Africa-based PMC which was largely formed of former South African special forces, and which carried out military campaigns in Africa in the early 90s. In the private military industry, EO represents both an apogee and nadir of the industry’s potential in modern times. It was the most combat effective mercenary corporation in recent history—much more so than Blackwater, et al—but also demonstrates the power of private military companies. EO has an “alumnae” network in Africa that remains strong today. Many of the mercenaries hired by Nigeria in 2015 came from this network. And there are all sorts of concerns about the legacy of EO, and yes, I think the ghost of EO was resurrected with Nigeria’s decision here. There are laws against mercenaries in South Africa, because of EO, and because the government of South Africa put out a very strong dictum, in effect saying that “these are mercenaries, and if they show up in South Africa, we will arrest them on the spot.” But outside South Africa, people pretty much shrugged their shoulders at this; maybe they were thinking, Wow. We could use a group like this to go after al Shabab or ISIS or something. I am sure people had those conversations, but of course, I don’t know that for a fact.
Bearing in mind South Africa’s specific laws on this matter, does this appear to have been an above-board example of PMC use? Was this deployment any murkier than your average PMC deal?
There’s no international law banning the use of these sorts of private soldiers. It’s more that it contravenes an international norm, but that norm is winding down. This example is a little different, again, because of the PMC’s use in an offensive setting, as a combat power in this case. Now, to be fair, in modern warfare, the difference between offense and defense can be rather gray and nuanced. Blackwater did a lot of offensive-type stuff. What makes this so interesting is that Nigeria hired these guys with their own private armored helicopter, and I’m not talking about a Blackwater-style helicopter with men with machine guns in the exits; these Mi-24s are Russian military standard gear, armed with missiles and so on. It’s a private air force. It’s the degree and the intensity of this event that’s amazing. It’s no longer PMCs being hired to defend convoys and so on. And of course, again, it’s the fact that the Nigerian military couldn’t deal with Boko Haram. What South Africa is to southern Africa, Nigeria is to West Africa. It says a lot that mercenaries are more powerful than the army there.
And that’s where this fear of PMCs in the region, linked to EO’s past, comes into play—mercenaries are not a threat to the UK, or to the US, but they could be a threat to other countries that are weak. Could these mercenaries stage a coup? I don’t know. But if they can take care of Boko Haram, it’s a pertinent question.
The PMCs of the 2000s were at pains to make it look like that era was behind us. It was all “we are good guys, we are helping the US army,” or the marines, or what have you. And this deployment is interesting because it shows that the industry is actually not over the Executive Outcomes stage, at all.
So you think this could hail a return of the EO model for PMCs?
I think that as the US and others scale back the lucrative contracts that have been in place in Iraq or Afghanistan for years, the market is diversifying. You have countries like UAE, Nigeria, hiring these guys, and it’s a case of supply and demand. My prediction is that we will see more of this, not necessarily PMCs taking over countries, but more of this sort of offensive action by PMCs hired to do the jobs we these days associate with state militaries.