In the 1990s—egged on by foreign investors, Western governments, and international development banks—several sub-Saharan African nations chose to welcome the 21st century by privatizing a host of basic state services. The African states with the least social unity—like Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Africa, and Sudan—were paralyzed by corruption, devoured by sectarian conflict, and plagued by the stench of weak governance. This toxic combination created fundamentally poisonous institutions. As a result, the transfer of crucial services like utilities and healthcare away from failed governments toward the private sector became extremely alluring.
Many politicians listened to the siren song of privatization, and their states have paid the price: Corporations’ hunger for profit dashed fraying nations against the rocks. Private interests have distributed bribes, assassinated activists, and participated in discrimination against already marginalized groups, exacerbating the fracture of disunited African nations along existing fault lines. However, perhaps the most damaging trend of all has been the privatization of military and security forces. Private military companies (PMCs) have contributed to economic exploitation, human rights abuses, and societal disintegration in Africa’s most vulnerable nations.
PMCs are battle-tested organizations that are often able to operate independently as military units—gathering their own intelligence, recruiting their own troops, and supplying their own arms. While dozens of separate PMCs from the United States, Russia, South Africa, and Europe have already saturated Africa, they are not the only private organizations selling security on the continent. Instead of full-fledged military units, African governments and foreign nations operating on the continent have increasingly turned to private security companies (PSCs) to protect what they define as “high-value” individuals, infrastructure projects, and, above all, mining operations. Together, the rapidly growing networks of private armed groups in Africa are known as private military and security companies (PMSCs).
In Malian, Central African, and Sudanese mines, PMSCs have built a generation of shell companies armed with pickaxes and preferential mining contracts. They sport names like Lobaye Invest and Meroe Group, and they extract billions of dollars worth of minerals, petroleum products, and other assets without paying taxes to the countries that host them. Postcolonial African countries are increasingly surrendering their resources for security guarantees—an exchange with both a dollar cost and a death toll.
Whether siphoning cartloads of Sudanese gold and funneling it to Khartoum’s most repugnant war criminals or converting expanses of Central African soil into toxic open pit mines, PMCs like the Wagner Group have converted Africa’s natural resource wealth into an agent of environmental destruction and conflict expansion. The consequences of soliciting PMSCs are not restricted to resources, however. Military privatization threatens the very foundation of governmental authority.
In functioning states, a monopoly on violence is realized through government-run police and military forces. In disunited, weakly governed states (like the aforementioned Mali and CAR), however, the growing reliance on PMSCs to enforce the law, prevent terrorism, and quell riots has degraded that monopoly. As a consequence, uniformed entities must compete with a menagerie of foreign, private armed groups for popular legitimacy. Unlike cohesive nations whose governments deploy violence to protect those whom they are bound to serve, states with high PMSC concentrations suffer from the fragmentation and conflict that comes with the prioritization of revenue over residents.
PMSCs usually operate in states with weak or non-existent judicial and law enforcement institutions. These states, which are already ill-equipped to prosecute crime, must face the implicit threat of antistate violence from a powerful foreign organization within their borders. Consequently, they often turn a blind eye to PMSC human rights violations. Even in cases of flagrant lawbreaking by PMSCs, states resort to fanciful explanations rather than genuine scrutiny or investigation. For example, when Russian journalists investigating the Wagner Group were killed in CAR, law enforcement blamed the crime on nameless highway robbers and refused to investigate Wagner.
The lawlessness of PMSCs’ behavior has encouraged private interests to openly circumvent laws that protect the public. When Zimbabwean miners protested poor conditions at the Chinese-owned Odzi Mine, mine owners threatened to open fire—in direct contravention of Zimbabwean labor laws that guarantee a right to strike. These bullets would have come from the firearms of a hired PSC. In South Africa, where PMSCs outnumber the police nearly four to one, affluent white residents of a Cape Town suburb attempted to privatize the beach by hiring PMSCs to eject a group of Black beachgoers.
Private forces are not only impairing the ability of the law to protect the population but are also being used to enact private visions of who should have what. As climate change exacerbates resource scarcity in Africa, this is increasingly concerning. In CAR, farmers have used private armed forces to tip the scale in their conflicts with herders who are attempting to use traditional grazing routes. Hoping to secure their livestock and their communities, both lower-income nomadic herdsmen and wealthier urban absentee pastoralists have responded by hiring, and in extreme cases, joining, a variety of PMSCs of their own. These conflicts have further destabilized a deteriorating state, taking over 800 lives in the first half of 2023 alone. While desertification and decreasing land fertility are bound to lead to increased conflict, the presence of PMSCs has turned cross-community animosity into outbursts of communal violence that resemble episodes of ethnic cleansing.
Whether utilized by farmers in the Sahel or apartheid revivalists in South Africa, the privatization of security has made one thing clear: When African states’ monopolies on force are broken, the fragments do not scatter among the population equally. Instead, they accrue to the wealthiest members of society, creating a dual system in which those who can afford to purchase security victimize those who cannot. This process then invites the poor and marginalized to respond with bursts of rifle fire.
To silence hired guns, weakened African nations must reclaim their monopolies on force. This means investigating army enlistment rolls to identify and eliminate fake soldiers and expanding training and incentives for native police forces. Efforts must also include corruption reduction initiatives aimed at all levels of military readiness––from expanded recruiting to troop retention and increased oversight of troop salaries. When national militaries and law enforcement have the strength to ward off external invaders and internal malcontents, citizens will be able to feel secure without private militaries.
While these solutions would shift the balance of force in a public direction, they would not disincentivize African governments from obtaining the services of PMSCs. Here, wealthier nations have a role to play. African governments that mortgage their mines to PMSCs do so because there are no other viable options that allow them to address internal threats. Instead of conditioning foreign aid or development assistance on the immediate dissolution of solidified autocracies, wealthy governments interested in curtailing the rise of PMSCs should collaborate with African governments as they currently exist to build public economic capacity.
Strong societies do not tear themselves apart. For Africa to rid itself of the PMSC plague, communities need concrete—not a mixture of cement, sand, and rock, but a fortified combination of empowered government, functioning security, and national unity.