How private military services saved Sierra Leone: The contracting out of military duties came from necessity but help ensure long-lasting security

Photo courtesy of prezi.com
Photo courtesy of prezi.com

By Marika Josephides

Dismissing private military contractors as mercenaries can be simplistic and misleading, as their deployment in Sierra Leone’s Civil War displayed. That the country is rebounding despite 2014’s Ebola crisis is due in part to the success of contracted firms neutralising destabilising rebel groups.

For impoverished Sierra Leone with its history of civil warfare, more unwelcomed news came with the Ebola plague that commenced mid-2014 and continued to claim victims and exhaust precious national resources through October and November. However, a central government stronger than any in decades was in place to deal with a public health emergency so deadly it possessed the ability to undermine national security. The existence of such an unprecedented degree of security (for Sierra Leone) can be traced to the timely employment of private military companies (PMCs) during the nation’s civil war two decades ago.

The modern PMC can be defined as an entity that offers services aimed at addressing security concerns through a variety of security engagements. From a legal perspective, a PMC is a corporate entity, while a mercenary group is not. Security needs — combined with the proliferation of PMCs post-Cold War — makes PMCs an inevitability in weak states such as Sierra Leone during its Civil War.

How PMCs came to the aid of post-civil war Sierra Leone represents an historical lesson with relevance to the country today, and to other countries whose militaries are incapable for various reasons – incompetency, underfunding, inexperience, corruption – of mustering the strength and resources to ensure a nation’s security. PMCs have been doing mischief in post-colonial Africa for decades. However, the Sierra Leone example offers a better experience.

This article is extracted from the November 2014 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Civil war engenders a need for security operatives

The 11-year Sierra Leonean Civil War (1991–2002) claimed the lives of around 50,000 people — by conservative estimates, with many more injured and displaced  — completely staggered the formal economy that had already been ailing, and exhausted the country’s considerable natural resources. The catalyst for peace is now accepted as having been the British intervention known as Operation Palliser. This intervention was launched in May 2000 to bolster the failing UN peacekeeping presence. However, before Operation Palliser was launched, PMCs were already at work in the country. The most prominent of these were Executive Outcomes (EO) and Sandline International  — both of which are now defunct. The role of PMCs in the Sierra Leone Civil War and their activities (that have been subject to criticism) in fact helped lead to eventual peace. While PMCs are most often cast in a negative light, their involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict was crucial and helped to introduce and develop a peace infrastructure.

Building such an infrastructure as a platform for the return of a secure nation was not an easy task in a country burdened with significant social problems, poverty and no history of strong and stable governance. The humanitarian crisis grew worse with each year of civil war. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report for that year, 2000, painted a bleak picture of Sierra Leone. Life expectancy at birth was 38 years, the adult literacy rate was 31% and the infant mortality rate was a high 164 deaths per 1,000 births. Unsurprisingly then, out of 174 countries in the Human Development Index, Ssierra Leone came in at last place. Furthermore, per capita annual income was US$ 200, and the government was operating in exile from Nigeria. By that time, the country had been at war for almost nine years.

In 2000, the main aggressors in the war — excluding international actors and PMCs — were the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in collaboration with the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The RUF manifesto called for “a national democratic revolution…what we need then is organised challenge and resistance. The strategy and tactics of this resistance will be determined by the reaction of the enemy forces — force will be met by force, reasoning with reason, and dialogue with dialogue.” But on the ground, this firm but accommodating ideology gave way to a grim reality, despite the rather organised nature of the RUF, of systemic foraging, looting and the perpetration of war crimes. Underpaid SLA soldiers conducted themselves no better. Sierra Leoneans had no protectors, only predatory thugs in uniforms pillaging villages.

The focal point of the conflict lay in the Kono region to the east, and in several areas in the south. These regions contained the majority of Sierra Leone’s mineral and, in particular, diamond mines. Koindu, the centre of the Kono region, is 8 km from the border with Liberia and 3 km from the border of Guinea, leaving the area particularly vulnerable to occupation by the RUF coming over the border from Liberia. After such an occupation did happen, mineral production stopped. Without production from its biggest source of revenue, the Sierra Leonean government’s position weakened considerably.

With the Sierra Leonean government losing its hold on the state, mineral resources and even its army as some soldiers defected to the rebels, national leadership faced some difficult decisions. After a brief and failed experiment employing the PMC firm Gurkha Security Guards, the government was helped by Branch Energy — one of the primary mining companies active in Sierra Leone  — forming a mutually beneficial business partnership that would prove more fruitful. The collaboration led to the employment of the South African firm Executive Outcomes (EO), a PMC that would provide the necessary military experience required to help stabilise government’s declining security situation.

PMCs proved controversial in their work but effective with results

Arriving in the country in March 1995, EO commenced with a needed restructuring of the army, after which was implemented a three-phase strategy: to end the siege of Freetown (Sierra Leone’s capital), to clear and reclaim the mines, and tofind and destroy the RUF headquarters. They had, in large part, fulfilled all of these objectives by early 1996, with their presence thereafter becoming more passive. Complications with their payment led to their departure in January 1997; although an affiliate, LifeGuard, remained to guard the mines.

The next large PMC to become involved was London-based Sandline International, following the May 1997 coup d’état by the AFRC (in collaboration with the RUF). Initially arranged by the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, Sandline’s reason for being in the country was “to negotiate the provision of military expertise and planning for the eventual return of the [de jure] government-in-exile to Sierra Leone by force, if the international community did not provide a satisfactory solution,” Penfold stated. Sandline had close links with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence; links that were to prove useful later on. Sandline’s precise role in assisting the government besides logistical support and intelligence gathering for the counter-coup effort is unclear, and it is unknown whether Sandline was actually in the front line of the fighting. However, their five-phase plan, which involved the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) and EO’s former affiliate, LifeGuard, succeeded in securing Freetown and reinstating the government by 1998. This was not to put a stop to the civil war just yet.

Sandline’s involvement was fraught with controversy. In May 1998, a British government inquiry concluded that Sandline had breached a UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone. Sandline rebutted that its actions had not been unlawful and that their arming of the de jure government had been supported by Foreign Office officials. The Prime Minister of the UK at the time, Tony Blair, also defended the British position involving Sandline, saying, “in Sierra Leone we helped restore a democratically elected regime, which is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Sandline mostly recovered from the affair and went on to carry out another contract in neighbouring Liberia in 2003; but it shut its doors in 2004, issuing the following telling statement on its website:

“The general lack of governmental support for Private Military Companies willing to help end armed conflicts in places like Africa, in the absence of effective international intervention, is the reason for this decision. Without such support the ability of Sandline to make a positive difference in countries where there is widespread brutality and genocidal behaviour is materially diminished.”

As for Sierra Leone, the fighting continued with unmatched brutality until the conclusion of Operation Palliser; then, at last, came peace.

This article is extracted from the November 2014 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

PMCs can bring a professional response to a chaotic situation

EO’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil War came at a critical point when Freetown had almost been taken by rebels. EO recaptured the diamond mines, leading to their reopening, and this success was followed by a ceasefire and elections. Sandline succeeded in bringing the resulting legitimate government back from exile.

Criticism of PMC involvement in regions such as West Africa is largely made under the Western notions about state security. This assumption that only government armies may legitimately fight internal opponents and that there is something inherently wrong about hiring private firms to stand in for government militaries might have been more credible if Sierra Leone had a functioning army that benefited from foreign government assistance. At the time of PMC intervention in Sierra Leone, little foreign aid was available to Sierra Leone through secure channels due to what was described by the West as their own resource shortages and ‘donor fatigue’. The impact that EO and Sandline had in turning the war around in Sierra Leone should be apparent. What the PMCs managed to do that the government-led interventions did not was to secure and protect remaining infrastructure.

While still not scoring impressively on the UNDP Human Development Index relative to other African developing countries, as of 2013, life expectancy in Sierra Leone has risen to 45 years; the adult literacy rate has risen to almost half; the infant mortality has decreased to 114 per 1,000 births; and per capita annual income increased over twofold, to US$ 580. Most importantly, the country is not at war. There is still a long way to go, and Sierra Leone is not yet rid of its ‘resource curse’, but recovery and development are apparent. The mines are operant, there is foreign direct investment from China, there are growing small and medium-sized enterprises and there is a considerable increase in the tourism (particularly ‘adventure tourism’) sector. None of this progress can be credited solely to PMC involvement in Sierra Leone. However, without such involvement, today’s brighter security situation (albeit currently and sadly under threat by the Ebola epidemic after such progress) would have been more difficult to have obtained.


(1) Marika Josephides is a Research Associate at IOA with a focus on terrorism, counterterrorism, state-building and the roots of conflict. She has also published on the issue of cyber threats and resilience.