by Moyiga Nduru
(IPS) JOHANNESBURG -- Debate about the role played by mercenaries in Africa has been revived in recent months, following the arrest and subsequent sentencing of 68 men accused of plotting to overthrow Teodoro Obiang Nguema: president of the tiny, oil-rich state of Equatorial Guinea.
The trial of the men took place in Zimbabwe, where they were arrested in March at the airport in Harare. Although it initially appeared that the men would face coup charges, they were ultimately tried for lesser crimes that included the possession of dangerous weapons.
But, say analysts, prison terms -- even death sentences -- are unlikely to deter mercenaries from operating in Africa, particularly when oil, diamonds and other resources continue to offer lucrative rewards for those who can forcibly appropriate them.
"The age of mercenaries is not over. I think we are going to see more of it," Nhomo Samasuwo of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) told IPS Tuesday.
"Even the United States is hiring private security firms in Iraq," he said, referring to the role played by personnel- an estimated 20,000 -- from these companies in guarding public figures and protecting strategic installations in the Middle Eastern nation, which is also rich in oil.
Most of the men imprisoned in Zimbabwe carry South African passports, although they were led by former British special forces officer Simon Mann. Another team of 19 men, headed by South African Nick du Toit, has been detained in Equatorial Guinea for its part in the supposed coup.
The group is being held in the capital, Malabo, where its members could face the death penalty. They are accused of plotting to replace Nguema with Severo Moto, an exiled opposition leader.
In an added twist, Mark Thatcher -- son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- has been accused of funding the plot. South African officials have obliged him to remain in the port city of Cape Town, where he has taken up residence -- and report daily to police, who are probing the matter.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, mercenaries such as French national Bob Denard made their mark on Africa. Denard played a key role in several coups that were carried out in the Indian Ocean nation of the Comoros.
Since the proclaimed end of the Cold War, so-called "security firms" such as Executive Outcomes and Corporate Warriors have sprung up, offering specialized military services for hire. But "these firms are a disguise. In short, they are mercenary outfits," Samasuwo says.
The role of mercenaries increased after poor countries, some under pressure from donors, began cutting back on their defense budgets and downsizing their military forces.
In South Africa, the trend was given added impetus by the demise of apartheid, which left well-trained soldiers out of jobs. Many of these men had been involved in operations conducted against neighbouring states during apartheid, in a bid to root out leftist anti-government militants amongst other things.
A number of South African troops were involved in setting up the now defunct Executive Outcomes -- based in the capital, Pretoria -- which deployed forces in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.
According to local media reports, about 3,000 South Africans are also working in Iraq as security guards at present, although Samasuwo believes the figure could be much higher: "The business is attractive because mercenaries are paid three times more than a regular soldier."
In Sierra Leone, Executive Outcomes was employed to help government regain control of the diamond-rich Kono district, where many of the gems that fuelled a long-running civil war in this West African state were mined.
Although the exact details of the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea remain sketchy, it has highlighted the extent to which the activities of mercenaries are connected to the control of resources.
"After all, Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in Africa after Nigeria and Angola -- and it's at the centre of U.S. oil strategy in Africa," Sarah Wyke of the London-based Global Witness, an international rights watchdog, told IPS last week.
A December 2001 report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, 'Global Trends 2015', forecast that by 2015 a quarter of U.S. oil imports would come from Africa, surpassing those from the Persian Gulf. The U.S. currently gets 16 percent of its oil from sub-Saharan Africa.
Most of these imports will come from West Africa, notably the area located between Nigeria and Angola.
Equatorial Guinea is also one of the most secretive African states as far as accounting for its oil revenues is concerned, something which could play to the advantage of those who might take control of the oil resources.
"There's complete secrecy; there is no transparency. None of the oil money has gone into developing the country. It's squandered by corrupt officials," Wyke says.
"There's no education, no running water and no electricity for the majority of the people there. The health system is appalling."
In July the government of Equatorial Guinea accused foreign media of trying to destablise the country by broadcasting information related to a U.S. Senate probe into accounts held by Nguema at Riggs bank.
The Senate report alleged that the accounts had been used to filter oil revenues for private use. Nguema, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist since seizing power in a military coup in 1979, has denied the allegations.
The 53-nation African Union (AU) is pushing for a law to curb the activities of mercenaries on the continent.
In July, AU Secretary-General Alpha Oumar Konare proposed the creation of a new court to deal with them. The organization's executive council will decide in November whether to establish the court or not.
"'It's a positive step...Laws should be harmonized (and) the AU should find a way to address the issue of mercenaries," Samasuwo says.
September 14, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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