Skip Navigation

Beyond the Article: A Conversation with Kenneth Kalu on PMSCs in Africa

Original illustration by Ayca Tuzer '24, an Illustration major at RISD

In this podcast, Mitsuki Jiang talks to Staff Writer Kenneth Kalu about his article “Bricks, Not Bullets.” Below is a transcript of the conversation. And, read the article online at

Mitsuki Jiang: Hi, I’m Mitsuki and I’m with the Brown Political Review’s media board. Welcome to our first of hopefully many article spotlights, a series where we interview staff writers on their inspiration for—and the content of—their articles. I’m here today for our very first episode with Kenneth Kalu, who is a first year student interested in studying Public Health and IAPA, and Kenneth is a staff writer for the BPR editorial board. Kenneth recently wrote an article about private military corporations in African countries titled “Bricks, Not Bullets.” It’s featured in the most recent edition of the Brown Political Review magazine, and you can find it on the BPR website. Can you maybe give a brief summary about the article?

Kenneth Kalu: Of course. So essentially, my article discusses the rise of private militaries and private securitization forces, which I refer to in my article as private military and securitization companies, or PMSCs, in Africa. I talk about how PMSCs are degenerative to social cohesion and to the ability for a state to hold itself together; they perpetuate conflicts, they steal resources (those sorts of depredations for a state and its ability to maintain its monopoly on force), and I talk about how private military and securitization companies have to be curtailed in order for states to improve social cohesion, improve trust in between groups and conflict, and improve their ability to remain united.

Mitsuki: I read the article. Amazing article, by the way. 

Kenneth: Thank you. 

Mitsuki: So this was your first article for BPR, right? 

Kenneth: Yeah. 

Mitsuki: So what was the writing process like? Like how was your experience writing the article?

Kenneth: So, my writing process for this article was honestly relatively smooth. Now this is partially informed by my experience having done debate, [but] it was a process that began with research, collection, consulted articles, a couple books on the subject, reports from the UN and other interested parties, and I synthesized these into an argument. Originally, at the very outset of my process, it was more an argument on the military and economic consequences of PMCs, rather than the social focus that I integrated later into my article development process. But, as I kept coming upon the resources that talked about PMSCs—for example, obtaining preferential mining contracts and siphoning resources that could have been used through taxation to fund infrastructure in all of these countries—I also came about the fact that PMSCs thrive off of conflict, whether that’s conflict amongst individuals or conflict amongst groups, or even conflict between states. PMSCs don’t have an incentive to solve conflicts more than they have an incentive to do whatever their benefactor is telling them to do. I found that time and time and again, the objectives of PMSCs were incongruent with peacebuilding and community rejuvenation in countries that had already been wracked by decades of conflict—conflict that in many cases brought about those PMCs in the first place. As I found that social dimension, I then put together my argument before I wrote my article after I did my research, and then the remainder of the process was just putting a voice to the trends that I saw.

Mitsuki: So it seems like there’s a lot of content when it comes to PMSCs, and I feel like there’s a lot of angles that you could have taken. I know that you were given a word limit because of the [magazine]. I’m wondering maybe what was the most difficult part of writing the article? Was it like the fact that there was so much content, or..?

Kenneth: I think it was absolutely related to the word count, and then translating my often verbose ideas into a compact form. I think that a lot of what writing for BPR has taught me to do is to review the arguments that I make for superfluous words, for reiteration of a point, for emphatic or rhetorical purposes, and you don’t necessarily have the room to do that in a BPR article. But there’s also the opportunity cost of not being able to pursue another angle or explore the topic concerning a different group or a different speaker, because you spent so much time focusing on the argumentative quality, I guess you could say, of the piece. And I think that I really wanted to talk about a lot of developments in privatization more generally. I wanted to delve deeper into the consequences of PMSCs for specific states, because PMSCs and the challenges that they pose to African countries are not equitably distributed across the continent. Needing to integrate all of those things into the article meant that I started out with a draft that was 17 or 1800 words, and I had like a 1200 word limit. So yeah, a lot of cutting, a lot of cutting needed to take place.

Mitsuki: The way that writers submit ideas for their articles is through a pitch meeting in which all of the writers pitch ideas for potential articles that they are interested in writing about. So, in other words, every staff writer can pitch basically anything that they want that’s somewhat politically related. I guess what I’m wondering is: what made you want to write about PMCs in the first place? Is there something specific that maybe sparked your passion for the issue?

Kenneth: Well, a lot of my interest in PMCs is part of my general ideological skepticism of privatization. A lot of, in my belief, (and you are obviously free to oppose this, I’m sure there are plenty of, you know, Friedmanites and Hayek enthusiasts on campus)—but, I believe that there are certain functions that do not work/that do not adequately serve the needs of the population if they are not administered by the state or state controlled entities, and one of them is military force. The definition of a state that I utilized in my article is (that incorporated the necessity of a monopoly on force) that agents within the state are the only individuals able to legally harm and and life. And I think that the loss of that monopoly on force is akin to the loss of so many other necessary socialized provisions. I guess you could say things like water or other utilities being privatized or such that people who can’t pay for them—can’t access them in countries with or that already have serious challenges getting clean water to people who need it. Things like oil being being run by a private corporations or being outsourced to foreign multinational oil extractors, making it so that nations with huge oil resources are seeing minuscule, or at least comparatively minuscule, profits from these giant reservoirs of fossil fuel, and still dealing with the consequences of that instruction for their natural environment and all those things. But all of these consequences of privatization unite in that the solution to each of them is reassertion of state control, not necessarily central planning or anything like that, but the need for oversight, for regulation, and for state development of good governance and state institutions. And so with that ideological thread, in my own personal belief and having being the descendant of Nigerian immigrants and being surrounded by my parents appraisals of, you know, Nigerian governmental incompetence and and the consequences of privatization when the government just threw up its hands and said, “You know, we can’t do this, so let’s give it to some random corporation, let’s, you know, to to go figure it out for us.” I think those threads combined in a way that I wanted to find the most extensive consequence of privatization, I guess, the most debilitating. There we go. That’s the word that I’m looking for, the most debilitating consequence of privatization for African countries that are subject to it. And I think that the privatization of the military is the most destructive to states, the most likely to promote conflicts, and the hardest for a state to support.

Mitsuki: I remember hearing your pitch at the pitch meeting and I was like, whoa, like, that’s a big issue, but I really enjoyed reading your article. I think it was very thorough and in-depth, and your argument was super clear. 

Kenneth: Thank you. 

Mitsuki: I kind of want to transition into talking more about that article. Maybe kind of an extension because, you know, we don’t just want to summarize here. So when it comes to PMSCs, I know in your article you briefly mentioned the Wagner Group’s presence in Africa and then their prevalence in countries with maybe weaker military institutions. Are those PMSCs foreign or are they domestic—or does that even matter?

Kenenth: So they’re a collection of organizations, right? They span the globe, many PMSCs (and this is one of the things that I talked about in the article) are domestic, despite the the dominant conception of PMSCs as originating from foreign countries, because that breakdown in the ability for a state to defend its population and the the the loss of the state monopoly and force creates a vacuum into which any group with the resources to arm itself will organize and defend whichever population that they’ve appointed themselves as responsible for, or whoever’s paying them in many cases. And as to the last part of the question, I don’t really think it matters whether those PMCs are domestic or foreign. What matters is the distinction between public and private military forces, because the incentives that a public force that’s accountable to the state, that (hopefully) has some form of regulation and oversight governing their rules, and a private organization that is accountable to either factions of a state, as we saw in the Central African Republic when civilian militias were consisting of herders and pastoralists—well, the more accessible description, I guess herders and farmers would probably be the right way to describe that—when militias developed by these two groups to fight one another in the the country’s resource wars were they’re both successful alongside foreign groups like Wagner in destabilizing the country. And I think that the distinction between domestic and foreign is only important insofar as it helps us understand what states have leverage or control over certain nations because the security situation in nations with a large private military or private securitization forces is almost always going to be abysmal, regardless of whether those forces are foreign or domestic.

Mitsuki: So the alternative, I guess the security alternative to PMSCs in those countries is pretty much non-existent, right? So how can (I think you’ve briefly mentioned a solution), but how can African nations rebuild themselves to kind of rid themselves of their reliance on PMSCs? And is that even feasible?

Kenneth: I think that a lot of solutions to the issues that trouble the weakest African states, I guess you could say, often begin with “end corruption.” That’s obviously really, really challenging to do, right? I mean (and I think that in this case it’s very similar), a lot of the reason why public militaries or national military and police forces are unable to do the job that they’ve been appointed to do, and thus leaving the path open for private military groups, is because a lot of these military forces, as I briefly touched on in my article, are hollowed out by corruption. There are ghost soldiers, there are military groups that splinter to fight ethnic or religious separatist conflicts as opposed to joining with the national military force to fight whatever conflict, say, against terrorists or criminals or any other group that threatens the security of members of the state. And so I think when you have a large number of groups that are poorly policed within states with weak judiciaries that have the capability to turn from their mission for financial reasons or are weakened by corruption within the ranks, within the military procurement system so they don’t have weapons within the the pay distribution system so that soldiers are less motivated to fight, or as I already mentioned, within the soldier recruitment system, such that armies are much smaller and weaker than they are on paper. I think if corruption can be remediated within those forces, then it’s far more likely that they’re going to be able to do the jobs that they’ve been asked to do. But the problem is that corruption doesn’t originate from the military. In states where corruption affects the military, it’s pervasive throughout the remainder of government and society, and I think that addressing corruption and its consequences for governance lie with the the creation of strong judiciaries—judiciaries that are multi-ethnic, multiracial (in states where race is a pertinent issue), and judiciaries that exist with broad national confidence, broad perception of fairness and high civil trust. The issue with that is that that’s also a lot easier said than done. And I think that as I go from the broader solutions of, you know, “solve corruption” to some of those more specific means of implementing solutions to corruption, I think eventually I reach a point where I don’t really know what to do.

Mitsuki: We’ve had a lot of debates in general where there’s debates over which countries should be involved in Africa, if countries should be able to intervene, etc., etc. There’s this whole thing, for example, about Huawei and China building infrastructure in Africa versus our own efforts (and we tend to pit ourselves against China), but is there a reason, maybe, why America is lagging in collaboration with Africa?

Kenneth: I think that a lot of America’s lack of involvement, I guess you could say, in the continent is as a result of America’s foreign policy posture globally and its consequences for Africa. I think that the United States has busied itself over the past 20 years with extinguishing the embers of the War on Terror, and that’s the primary means through which the United States interacts with Africa. And the African command of the US Army is all over West Africa and the Sahel, fighting every terrorist group imaginable, along with the American forces in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. And I think that because we’ve oriented our foreign policy position toward military support, toward crushing terrorist groups, as opposed to building state capacity because the latter is harder/is a much longer term affair, and comes with goals that are broader, more challenging to define, and harder to meet, I think that other nations have seized our lack of commitment to a soft power strategy (Russia and China and other regional powers). Saudi Arabia, Iran, [and] other similar nations have fewer controls on what sort of aid [that] can be provided to African governments. They have fewer export regulations, they don’t have the arms proliferation treaties or other developments that prevent them from giving African leaders what African leaders need (or at least what they reason that they need) to achieve their domestic priorities. And because of our insistence on democracy and on American values and on fighting terror (and fighting terror in the ways that America sees fit) as the number one priority of African governments, a lot of states like Mali, like the Central African Republic, like Chad, have turned away from the US and other Western powers more generally, especially because of the legacy of colonialism that exists amongst Britain and France. And they’ve turned toward China, Russia, India and elsewhere as other emerging markets, as states that are aligned against these colonial powers, as states that give them what they want, that listen to their asks for their own domestic security, even if those asks entrench autocratic regimes, even if those asks precipitate human rights violations, even if those asks are ultimately promoted or ultimately supportive of corruption and the misdirection of public resources. And I think that the fact that the US isn’t willing to do that, and the fact that, in many cases, the US just isn’t willing to engage with Africa in a soft power context unless the African countries that the US engages with are willing to emulate and reproduce its geopolitical goals, [has] made the United States posture in Africa weaker than emerging nations that can do more, at least for the leadership of many African countries that have the capability to serve their governments more effectively.

Mitsuki: The issue about PMCs in Africa is obviously very dense, and again, you did an amazing job in simplifying it. Is there anything else maybe you really wanted to include but couldn’t because of the word limit?

Kenneth: Yeah, I think that a lot of the larger issues with PMSCs include the fact that PMSCs’ involvement in countries like the Central African Republic or Mali that seed to them huge volumes of resources or are being used to fund the expansion of PMSC operations in countries that won’t give them those sorts of resource concessions, right? All the countries in which Wagner Group currently operates in, in Africa, are shore areas for Russia to expand its geopolitical influence in the continent. But above all, they’re an economic engine for [the] Wagner Group and other PMSCs. And so allowing the Wagner Group, for example, to operate in Africa is a net negative for peacekeeping and the prevention of conflict globally because it makes Wagner Group stronger, unlike operations in, say, Ukraine, that wear down Wagner group/consume Wagner group resources/kill Wagner group commanders and represent a huge loss on the balance sheet of Wagner Group or any other private military company that conducts operations there. I also think another angle that I wanted to include is that there is a pretty significant difference (even though I used private military and securitization companies as a singular adjective) between how states use and regulate PMSCs. For example, China’s PMC strategy is far more disciplined than that of Russia: the Chinese government is far less willing to just allow random private armed groups to achieve qualitative state functions, I guess you could say, to conduct military operations outside of China. And I think a lot of that was due to just general Chinese reticence to have private private groups fighting wars on the behalf of the Chinese state, and then also just the orientation of the Chinese government against uncontrolled private groups representing China in foreign contexts. And I think that despite that, though, a lot of Chinese groups have engaged in human rights abuses that they commit in defense of infrastructure projects, of the property of leaders in Mozambique and the Central African Republic, and a lot of these groups are more likely to pose an issue for the social cohesion of states, insofar as they are used to achieve the priorities of the state, as opposed to Wagner Group, [which] essentially makes its own priorities and contributes to the the development of conflict in states because so strong within the states in which it in places itself that it’s really, really hard for  African leaders to dominate those groups that by the time that the Wagner Group has entrenched itself in the Central African Republic or Mali or even Sudan, they’re working in symbiosis with the leaders of those countries more that they are in a customer-patron relationship.

Mitsuki: I would read this article if it was 1200 words, or if everything else that you added made it 3000 words. I think it would be interesting either way. 

Kenneth: Thank you. I really appreciate it. 

Mitsuki: Thank you for your time. 

Kenneth: Absolutely. 

Mitsuki: And to all of our listeners, if you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to check out Kenneth’s piece. It’s titled “Bricks, Not Bullets.” And again, you can find it in the Games edition of the Brown Political Review magazine, and also on our BPR website, where you can also find a ton of other articles as well. Make sure you follow BPR podcasts wherever you get your podcasts (maybe wherever you’re listening to it right now!), and also please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Kenneth: Absolutely. Please purchase several copies. It makes a great Christmas/birthday gift. Any time where you need to give anyone anything by social custom, the magazine works as a perfect substitute. Please, please support Brown Political Review. I really enjoy being part of this organization, [and] so many people do really good work (just like the really good work that I’m currently a part of). But please provide whatever you can to support our work.