Best Defense

The U.N.’s mercenary problem

Last fall, a former mercenary with the South African firm Executive Outcomes published a comic book account of his involvement in the civil war in Sierra Leone.



By Matt Collins
Best Defense West Africa bureau

Last fall, a former mercenary with the South African firm Executive Outcomes published a comic book account of his involvement in the civil war in Sierra Leone. The war was one of the first times in that era that a private military company had had such an expansive role in a civil war. Their involvement and the interventions that followed had a major influence on the way the United Nations looked at peacekeeping.

Tom asked in his blog post about the comic book/graphic novel why the U.N. was portrayed as the villain. The U.N. had two big problems with EO’s work. First, it was paying for it. More specifically, the international community paid for it. The International Monetary Fund had floated loans to Sierra Leone’s government. It used the money to hire the South African mercenary firm. While EO’s contract was a pittance by most standards, it accounted for a large chunk of the country’s defense budget. This bought 150 advisors, whose mission blurred into direct combat.

The other problem was that they won. EO soundly beat back the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), complicating the peace deal that the U.N. was trying to broker. EO was enough of a threat that its ouster was a precondition for the rebels agreeing to the accord. Some Sierra Leonean military officers openly resented the presence of foreign advisors and quietly accused them of human rights violations, while privately colluding with the rebels. And, as everyone from EO predicted, the peace deal fell apart the moment they left.

What followed was a series of horribly bungled interventions, first by the Economic Community of West African States, then the U.N., that accomplished little beyond confirming its critics’ worst prognostications about the wisdom of such endeavors. The RUF restarted its brutal campaign with renewed enthusiasm. The war that EO had largely won continued for several more years at the cost of thousands more innocent lives. What became the largest U.N. intervention in the world almost became its biggest failure. The British Army would eventually enter the conflict to quell the violence, but separate from the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The issues raised by that war are still being debated in the U.N. today. Rich countries want to send money, but not bodies. Poor countries will send bodies, if they are getting paid to, but don’t want fight. Nobody is interested in doing the hard business of fighting someone else’s dirty little war. India, who conducted a tactically brilliant rescue and fighting withdrawal in Sierra Leone before ending its mission in 2000, remains the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

While President Barack Obama has asked for more countries to contribute troops to U.N. missions, India’s ambassador to the U.N. has said, “if somebody wants soldiers to go in and fight they should hire mercenaries, not take U.N. soldiers.” Some EO veterans agree.

Matt Collins spent ten years as Marine intelligence officer. He deployed with the British Army to Sierra Leone in 2002 as a member of the international military advisory and training team. According to the British Army’s official webpage, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces continue to advise the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces today. The RSLAF have since deployed in support of peacekeeping operations in Somalia and South Sudan. For a more conventional history of the war in Sierra Leone, he recommends A Dirty War in West Africa, by Lansana Gbeire. Opinions expressed are his own

Photo via Amazon

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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