Assisted Regime Change: A Bright Future Ahead?
By Justin Quentin Ames
Abstract for Assisted Regime Change: A Bright Future Ahead?
This paper explores the world of the coup d’ etat, with a focus on Africa and the involvement of outside actors in particular. As such, after introducing this topic, I take the reader on a brief journey through a number of the terms used in this paper as well as those seen so frequently in the press, in public and in academia about coups. These various terms are addressed and clarified (or at least I hope they are) in order to explain the difference between, say, a putsch versus a guardian coup versus a pronunciamento versus a revolt.
I then delve into the implications that the understandably secretive, and sometimes violent, world of coups has for various international relations theoretical constructs. With the law of the gun being all that ultimately matters when it comes to political power in many countries that frequently experience coups, I argue that, in this world, Realism is far from an outdated theory. A discussion on the ethics of intervention follows this brief analysis of theoretical constructs: When is intervention justified? And how is intervention justified? How do you determine what is right and wrong? I also assess evidence that conditions are so grim in countries such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Burma/Myanmar that if we in the West do not support efforts at regime change in such countries, that we should at least stand aside and let others (whether these “others” be in the form of a government or private players) take action if we are unwilling to do so.
The reader is then introduced to some of the contemporary history of coups and their supporters, across the African continent, via a series of case studies – one as recent as 2004. The reader will be able to see that significant coup attempts, initiated by outside actors, are downright commonplace rather than being an unusual or isolated affair. Review and analysis is incorporated into each of my case studies as well.
After presenting evidence of how acutely involved in various conflicts across Africa that mercenaries are today, I will explain why this, coupled with present conditions in the private security industry, may actually lead to an increase in coup activity around the world. As such, I hope I will have left the reader convinced, as I am, that the coup d’ etat is far from a thing of the past, but, rather, what may become (and probably should be) an essential tool in the toolkit of policy-makers and that the mercenary/private security contractor phenomenon is here to stay with us (if it ever even left at all). Last in this section, I provide informed speculation on potential trends and patterns in the world of coups and also that of mercenaries and argue that these two worlds will become increasingly interrelated and dependent.
Before the conclusion, I seek to make my final point by taking the reader on a step-by-step walk through what a hypothetical coup might look like in its planning and execution. Following this, the reader will, hopefully, be left with a better understanding of why the coup is the most frequently utilized means of changing government.
The research for this paper was obtained primarily from books on the subject, newspapers, magazines as well as academic writings. However, I must highlight two sections that involved the methods outlined above, but also additional sources:
The research in relation to the case studies involves matters that many would prefer to be forgotten. As such, there can be shockingly little concrete information on some of these episodes. So, I dug deep into old newspaper archives and worked to track down some of those actually involved in these coups and coup attempts to put together an accurate picture of what took place. Although anonymity was demanded by all the coup participants I contacted, a number of crucial (or just interesting) details were filled in through interviews and correspondence with these individuals.
Lastly, the research for my hypothetical coup came from (aside from the traditional sources mentioned earlier) my own firsthand experiences, interviews with the individuals mentioned above, but also from utilizing various contacts in government and the military. Understandably, these individuals also requested anonymity as this is a sensitive subject and those I contacted are all still employed in government or military service. This is the price to pay for up to date information.
Assisted Regime Change: A Bright Future Ahead?
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Table of Contents
1. Title Page – Assisted Regime Change: A Bright Future Ahead?
2.1 The Research
3. Table of Contents
5. The Coup d’ Etat
5.1 Coup d’état – Types of coups
5.2 Breakthrough Coups
5.3 Guardian Coups
5.4 Veto Coups
5.5 The Bloodless Coup
5.6 The Self-Coup
5.7 The Putsch
5.8 The Pronunciamento
5.9 The Un-Coup
5.10 The Fake Coup
5.11 Revolution and Revolt
6. Theoretical Frameworks: A Validation of Realism?
6.1 The Ethics of Intervention
7. The Outside Actors: When Mercenaries and Coups Intersect
7.1 A Review of Past Events: Case Studies
7.2 The Forsyth Coup
7.3 The Wonga Coup
7.4 Bob Denard and the Comoros Islands
7.5 Ghana and the Nobistor Affair
8. The Situation Today
9. The Future: How it might look
10. The Coup of the Future?
Assisted Regime Change: A Bright Future Ahead?
On March 7, 2004, 69 rough-looking men were detained on a Boeing 727 outside Harare, Zimbabwe. They had been picking up a shipment of arms that included 20 machine guns, 61 AK-47 assault rifles, 150 hand grenades, 10 rocket-propelled grenade launchers (and 100 RPG shells), and 75,000 rounds of ammunition from Zimbabwe Defense Industries. (Roberts, 2009) The intended target for all of that firepower was the regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, a country whose lack of global recognition is uncorrelated to its strategic significance. And by “strategic”, I am referring to oil, as the derelict former Spanish colony is now the third-largest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa.
President Obiang is a confirmed, if not convicted, corrupt tyrant whom Amnesty International has accused of murder, torture and locking up dissidents. President Obiang’s name might ring a bell for some readers given the frequency with which his and his family’s name appeared in the international press in 2004 in connection with the money-laundering scandal at Washington D.C.-based Riggs Banks that brought about the collapse of that venerable institution in 2005. (O’Brien, 2004)
The men on the airplane were not on a mission of charity though to liberate the long-suffering citizens of Equatorial Guinea from the despotic rule of President Obiang – these men were mercenaries planning to carry out a coup d’ etat that would make them and the coup plotters fabulously wealthy. Tagged “the Wonga Coup” (a slang term for a wad of money) by the news media, after one of the architects of the coup used the phrase in a letter, the plot conjured up images of swashbuckling dogs of war and international intrigue. The author of the letter that gave us the “Wonga” name and the commander of the men on the Boeing 727 was Simon Mann, son of a wealthy and prominent English family, ex-Etonian and SAS soldier and one of the founders of the private military company, Executive Outcomes. But he was far from the only prominent figure to be swept up in the affair, as others involved included the son of former British Prime Margaret Thatcher, Lord Jeffrey Archer and Lebanese billionaire Ely Calil.
What was unique about this event was not the tactics or the location (Africa has seen many coups), but the goal: simply, profit and lots of it. It’s one thing to hijack an armored truck or even a train for money, but hijacking an entire country puts one in an entirely different category.
Could they have succeeded? And could it happen again? I will argue that, yes, the Wonga Coup could have succeeded and such an event probably will happen again. In fact, as I will explain below, I think it is more likely to happen now given geopolitical events of this past decade.
In reality, coups are far more commonplace than many people recognize or appreciate, particularly in the developing world. Bolivia, for example, has had over 200 coups in its brief existence (CBC, 2005). As the focus of this paper is on Africa, consider the following incumbent African leaders who assumed power via a coup d’état starting with the subject of my introduction, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, who assumed power on August 3rd, 1979. But there is also Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar al-Gaddafi, who assumed control of Libya on the 1st of September 1969, President Blaise Compaoré who took over Burkina Faso on the 15th of October 1987, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who seized control of Tunisia on the 7th of November 1987, President Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir who took power of Sudan on the 30th of June 1989, President Yahya Jammeh who assumed control of The Gambia on the 22nd of July 1994, President François Bozizé who gained control of Central African Republic on the 15th of March 2003, President of the High Council of State Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz who took over Mauritania on the 6th of August 2008, President of the National Council for Democracy and Development Moussa Dadis Camara who took control of Guinea on the 24th of December 2008 and President of the High Transitional Authority Andry Rajoelina who assumed power in Madagascar on the 17th of March 2009. (CIA, 2009) The above list only comprises successful coups as the coup leaders are still in power. There have been many, many other coups and coup attempts across the world such as the coup attempt mentioned in the introduction. So, in no way should the above list be considered all-encompassing. It is not. It is just a suggestion of the level of a political activity many seem to consider a relic of the past.
The Coup d’ Etat
But before proceeding, I must explain what exactly I mean when using the phrase “coup d’état.” Edward Luttwak, in his seminal publication, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, defines a coup as follows: “A coup consists of the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.” This has been widely accepted as THE definition of a coup, and who am I to disagree with what works? However, I would just point out that while Luttwack doesn’t explicitly state this, the method utilized to gain control is illegal and revolves around violence, or at least the threat of violence. So, with that consideration noted, I will proceed with this working definition of Luttwak’s. In addition, it is necessary to describe in more detail the various types of coups and what constitutes a coup or not.
Coup d’état – Types of coups
The late Harvard University political theorist Samuel Huntington, in his book, Political Order in Changing Societies, loosely identified three types of coups. These were as follows: breakthrough coups, guardian coups and veto coups. This categorization has not been challenged since (although it has been discussed and clarified) and I won’t step out of line by doing so either. However, I will attempt to explain and define some other terms following my discussion of Huntington’s categories.
Breakthrough Coups – In breakthrough coups a traditional elite is overthrown by the military, and a radical or “progressive” regime is established around social reform, curing backwardness and stamping out corruption. (David, 1986) An entirely new bureaucratic elite is created in the new government. Breakthrough coups are generally led by non-commissioned officers or junior officers which also makes the coup a mutiny, a fact which can have serious implications for the organizational structure of the military. Examples of breakthrough coups I have seen cited include China in 1911, Bulgaria in 1944, Egypt in 1952, Greece in 1967, Libya in 1969 and Liberia in 1980. I will explain below how a revolution or revolt is emphatically not a coup d’ etat and does not fall into the above category.
Guardian Coups – The guardian coup is often described as the “musical chairs” coup because all of the existing structures of power remain intact. All that changes are the players involved. Stated objectives of this form of coup are usually to improve public order and efficiency or to end corruption. The leaders of these types of coups normally portray their actions as a temporary and unfortunate necessity. (David, 1986) Examples of guardian coups I have seen cited include Pakistan, Turkey, Argentina and Thailand. Nations with guardian coups can frequently shift back and forth between civilian and military governments. If a coup is to be a “bloodless coup” (more on that below) it will usually arise from the guardian coup d’état category. The type of coup I am emphasizing in this paper falls under the guardian coup category.
Veto Coups – A veto coup comes about when the military moves to protect the existing order from mass public participation and social mobilization. A veto coup can also take place when the government in power begins to advocate radical policies or starts to appeal to groups whom the military does not wish to see gain power. (Huntington, 1968) As such, these tend to be the messiest coups and they often involve significant repression and bloodshed as the large-scale and broad-based opposition is brought into line with the new order. Examples I have seen cited of veto coups include Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976, as well as the overthrow of President Fujimori of Peru in 2000. An abortive and botched veto coup occurred in Venezuela in 2002 against Hugo Chavez. The 20 July 1944 plot by parts of the German military to overthrow the elected Nazi government of Adolf Hitler in Germany is an example of a failed veto coup d’état.
Although most academic thought revolves around the three coup types mentioned above, there are a few other relevant terms that it would be negligent of me not to touch on as well:
The Bloodless Coup
The bloodless coup occurs when the mere threat of violence is enough to force the current government to step aside without the need for bloodshed or violence. As alluded to above, it is most often the guardian coup that falls into the “bloodless” category, but occasionally the breakthrough coup can be a bloodless one as well. Pervez Musharraf’s seizure of power in Pakistan in 1999 is often cited as a good example of a bloodless coup.
The self-coup is used to describe a situation where the existing government (usually assisted by the military) assumes powers not allowed by existing legislation or the constitution. This would fall under the guardian coup category, but the term needed to be defined. Frequently cited examples of the self coup include President, then Emperor, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, who acted against the powerful National Assembly; Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who was democratically elected, but later took control of the legislative and judicial powers; or King Gyanendra’s assumption of “emergency powers” in Nepal.
The putsch takes its name from the Züriputsch of 1839 and most people use the terms putsch and coup d’ etat interchangeably. However, there are those who take issue with this. For example: Edward Luttwak insists that a putsch is “essentially a wartime or immediately post-war phenomenon attempted by a formal body within (emphasis mine) the military under its appointed leadership.” (Luttwak, 1979)
Following the theme mentioned above, Edward Luttwak explains that a pronunciamento occurs when the military deposes the existing civil government and installs another civil government. This is an essentially Spanish and South American version of the coup d’ etat, but many recent African coups have also taken this form as well. The pronunciamento is organized and led by a particular army leader, but it is carried out in the name of the entire (emphasis mine) officer corps; unlike the putsch which is carried out by a faction within the army or the coup, which can be carried out by civilians using some army units. The pronunciamento leads to a takeover by the army as a whole. The pronunciamento is usually right-wing in nature as the military is generally a conservative force. (Luttwak, 1979)
The Fake Coup
The fake coup bears mentioning since it is used all too frequently as well. The nefarious fake coup takes place when an incumbent government stages a coup attempt (or even just simply states that an attempt took place) and uses this to justify a crackdown on their opponents.
Revolution and Revolt
Now, I must clarify an important point. A change in government brought about by mass protests, such as Serbia in 2000, Argentina in 2001, The Philippines in 1986 and 2001, Bolivia in 2003 and 2005, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004/2005 and Ecuador in 2005, is not technically a coup. These popular uprisings which force the incumbent leader’s resignation, so that an unknown, uncontroversial interim leader can govern until formal elections are held, are considered revolts or revolutions, not coups d’état, because they are not military actions. The term “revolution” has gained a certain popularity, and many coups are graced with it, because of the implication that it was “the people” rather than a few plotters who did the whole thing, but this is just cosmetic. (Luttwak, 1979) A successful revolution or revolt runs a risk of being met by a veto coup from the military or a counter-coup from an opportunist. A classic example of this type of occurrence would be Napoleon’s rise to power during the chaos of the French Revolution.
So, what have we learned? Reality rarely fits neatly into the tidy definitions I gave above, but there are certain broad generalizations we can make about coups. A coup d’ etat is the illegal, often violent, displacement of an incumbent government, by a small group — usually the military — in order to replace the deposed government with another, either civil or military. Typically, a coup d’état uses the extant government’s power to assume political control of the country. Thus, armed force (either military or paramilitary) or broad intervention from the masses are not a defining feature of a coup d’etat. The coup is successfully executed when the forces attacking the incumbent government consolidate their political, tactical and strategic power (usually by either capturing or expelling the politico-military leaders, and seizing physical control of the country’s key government offices, communications media, and infrastructure) and then receive the deposed government’s surrender; or the acquiescence of the populace and the non-participant military forces.
As an interesting side note, one feature of a coup is that it does not imply any particular political orientation. “Revolutions [and liberations] are usually “leftist” while the putsch and the pronunciamento are usually initiated by right-wing forces. A coup, however, is politically neutral, and there is no presumption that any particular policies will be followed after the seizure of power. It is true that many coups have been of a decidedly right-wing character but there is nothing inevitable about this.” (Luttwak, 1979)
Despite the impression that might have been given by the clinical descriptions of coups d’état above, coups are not just actions of internal players. They have often been used as a means for powerful nations to assure desirable outcomes in smaller foreign states. In particular, the American Central Intelligence Agency and Soviet KGB were quite active on this front during the Cold War period in states ranging from Iran to Afghanistan to Chile. Such actions are/were substitutes for direct military intervention which would have been too politically unpopular or simply too expensive. The governments of France and Britain have also been active in this field, although not to the extent of the former Soviet Union or the United States.
So, what makes a country ripe for a coup d’ etat? What should we look for? Stephen Hosmer of RAND Corporation in a study commissioned in 2001, along with experts David Hebditch and Ken Connor (How to Stage a Military Coup), identified the following characteristics as pre-conditions desirous in a country for a coup to take place:
- Former colony or overseas possession?
- Lies in tropical latitudes?
- Religious, ethnic and/or tribal divisions?
- Substantial natural resources, especially oil?
- Endemic corruption and nepotism?
- Strategically Located?
- Long-term despotic regime?
- Army staff officers trained overseas?
- Finance available for mercenaries?
- Had a coup d’ etat previously?
The more answers in the “yes” column, the more susceptible the country under examination is to coups or counter-coups. For the record, Equatorial Guinea hits nine checks in the “yes” column out of the ten possibilities above – the only “no” being in regard to strategic location. Some of the above might seem curious or arbitrary, such as number 2 on the list: “Lies in tropical latitudes?” Consider, however, that many countries in this geographical sphere were colonized by England, Spain, France and Portugal during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.
One might accuse me of picking on Africa in this paper, but I do not emphasize that continent out of any malice. It’s just that Africa so perfectly meets the many pre-conditions for a coup listed above, and African countries have a remarkable record of coup activity and plotting over the past 50 years. Consider that in Africa, between 1952 and 2000, thirty-three countries experienced 85 coups. (CIA, 2009) And then, of course, there is the list of incumbent African leaders above as well.
Theoretical Frameworks: A Validation of Realism?
Now, with the definitions and clarifications out of the way, how did we get where we are today? Shouldn’t coups and the primacy of the gun have been banished to history? Clearly, this is not the case. Has the world view of the Realists been re-invigorated and rehabilitated? Or is this a validation of the Liberal view of globalization? How can globalization and interconnectedness be discounted or ignored? Or is it not that simple? The increase in the use of mercenaries (they prefer the term private security contractors) in the fields of combat today fits the world view of both Realists and Liberals. Realists would argue that they are the natural result of a vacuum of power, and Liberals would argue that they are a natural extension of an increasingly integrated and globalized world.
However, I would argue that the mere existence of coups, let alone their frequency, is proof that Realism is far from dead. The world of coups and coup plotters is, I believe, an argument for Realism and its importance. Raw power and money are still very much relevant in today’s world. But, is Realism alone sufficient? Or, is the explanation found in an amalgamation of international relations theoretical constructs? I believe so. Reality is never so accommodating as to be able to neatly fit into a single, tidy explanation or theory. What does this mean? It means that Realist and Liberal logics will often work together in the world of coups and sometimes work against each other.
Consider a coup in Pakistan versus a coup in Guatemala. The global community could never reverse a regime change that took place in Pakistan – but multilateral coordination would have an effect on Guatemala. Indeed, the fact that Guatemala is relatively small is what makes it easy for the global community to muster some consensus on the issue. Furthermore, in contrast to larger countries, the effect of multilateral sanctions on Guatemala would be pretty significant. In Pakistan, on the other hand, conflicting strategic interests prevent any kind of great power concert that could push for domestic change. It’s also far from clear whether anything short of a complete embargo on all goods to or from Pakistan would really have an appreciable impact on the regime in Islamabad. (Walt, 2009)
So, holding everything else constant, the odds are that the coup in Guatemala would be far more likely to be reversed than the coup in Pakistan. Powerful countries get left alone while weaker, smaller countries get pushed around? That’s the very essence of Realism.
Robert Kaplan, writing for Foreign Policy magazine, argues as well for this revival, or at least reassessment, of Realism. He states that, “Realism means recognizing that international relations are ruled by a sadder, more limited reality than the one governing domestic affairs. It means valuing order above freedom, for the latter becomes important only after the former has been established. It means focusing on what divides humanity rather than on what unites it, as the high priests of globalization would have it. In short, Realism is about recognizing and embracing those forces beyond our control that constrain human action—culture, tradition, history, the bleaker tides of passion that lie just beneath the veneer of civilization. This poses what, for Realists, is the central question in foreign affairs: Who can do what to whom?” Kaplan is saying in essence that we are forced by the reality of the world we live in and by the daily headlines produced by that world to accept at least some of the tenets of Realism. I find this a difficult position to argue with.
And then there is the position of Walter Laqueur, who states in the foreword he wrote for Edward Luttwak’s, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, that coups “almost by definition are mortal enemies of orderly hypotheses and concepts” as “how does one account scientifically for the political ambitions of a few strategically well placed individuals?” Laqueur makes a valid point about the shortcomings of theory, but I believe the Realists would still argue that their world encompasses the world of coups, based as it is on the interplay of political power structures and their respective strengths and weaknesses.
The Ethics of Intervention
This brings me to my next theoretical point, a thorny topic with many divergent viewpoints. Some argue stridently that any outside intervention in the affairs of other countries is wrong. This is based on reasons ranging from pacifistic leanings to the theoretical Westphalian concept that foreign governments should never possess the right to intervene in another sovereign nation’s internal affairs.
It may seem awkward to write in defense of coups, but is it wrong to do so? Removing a bloodthirsty despot to advance the interests of an individual or country can be called selfish, but if the lives of everyone in the country affected improve – even if just a little – can it be unambiguously wrong? Is it not too rigid to argue that every outside intervention is bad? NATO’s intervention in the Balkans was not authorized by the UN Security Council and yet one hears frequently about the “Just War Doctrine” and how this was the right thing to do. What is the difference between a country such as Great Britain or the United States pursuing unauthorized regime change in a sovereign country (Kosovo) versus a group of individuals (Equatorial Guinea) other than the power and marketing capability of the players involved? Realism comes into play again in delineating this difference, as the explanation is the same as that for my Pakistan versus Guatemala example above.
Even the least cynical amongst us cannot possibly argue with a straight face that many so-called humanitarian interventions do not in fact contain elements of self-interest by the intervening countries (which is a fundamentally Realist position). One of the fundamental tenets of capitalism is that greed and selfishness is good. By each of us pursuing our own selfish interests, society as a whole benefits. Could the same not occasionally be said for governance as well?
Even well-respected academics, notably the development economist Paul Collier, have come out in favor of the occasional coup as a means to improve the lives of ordinary people in repressive countries. Collier, writing in The Washington Post suggests that “After Iraq, there is no international appetite for using the threat of military force to pressure thugs. But, it is only military pressure that is likely to be effective; tyrants can almost always shield themselves from economic sanctions. So there is only one credible counter to dictatorial power: the country’s own army.” Collier argues that it is unrealistic to expect despotic rulers such as Mugabe in Zimbabwe to ever be replaced except via a military coup because they will either rig an election or ignore the results if they are not pleasing (as was done in Burma/Myanmar). As such, Collier unambiguously states, in Zimbabwe, Burma and the like “coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse.)”
Adam Roberts, author of The Wonga Coup, takes issue with the Collier argument on the grounds that if a coup is attempted but fails, as in the Wonga Coup, this provides the incumbent dictators with even more of an excuse to crack down on any opposition and to resist peaceful criticism. Roberts goes on to state that if the coup succeeds, it is “as likely to lead to further repression by a new regime, successive changes of power through military means or, worst of all, full-scale internal conflict.” He points to Somalia, Congo and Sierra Leone, where military attempts to seize power produced wars and state collapse. (Roberts, 2009)
I believe Adam Roberts is wrong on two counts. First, he ignores all of the successful coups that have taken place (and there are a lot of them). Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a coup will fail or that it will involve massive loss of life and suffering. And so, I find his opposition to coup attempts to be too simplistic and reflexive, based more on ideology rather than reality. The country discussed in his book, Equatorial Guinea, has never held a credible election and is considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world. President Obiang and his inner circle have amassed huge personal wealth from Equatorial Guinea’s substantial oil profits while most of the country has yet to reap the rewards. Human rights abuses — including torture, indefinite detention of political opponents, and extrajudicial killings — are widespread. It’s easy for Mr. Roberts to casually condemn coup attempts whilst residing in a prosperous and secure developed country such as the United Kingdom or the United States. However, I doubt the average resident of Equatorial Guinea would be so opposed to a change in leadership, regardless of the source of that change.
Secondly, Adam Roberts seems to be arguing that because there is a risk involved, that a chance should not be taken on a coup in places such as Burma, Zimbabwe, et al. Yes, there is a risk that another bad regime will come into being. But that exists as a hypothetical chance of something happening versus the reality of the outlaw regime that is already in existence. So, if the coup effort fails or another unpleasant government comes into power, what tangibly has been lost? Nothing. We have simply replaced one bad regime with another. If a better government takes control, however, which is not at all outside the realm of probability given the countries we are discussing, then is that not a success? How can a force that brings an end to violence and oppression be completely wrong, regardless of the sponsor or private motivations of this force?
As Paul Collier says, “The scope of the torment in Burma and Zimbabwe should be more than enough of a goad to action. We need to move away from impotent political protest, but we must also face the severe limitations on our own power. The real might lies with a dictator’s own forces of repression. Our best hope — and the best hope of suffering citizens — is to turn those very forces against the men they now protect.” Time to unleash the old mercenary dogs of war in these countries? Or to at least turn a blind eye to those inside or outside actors that wish to have a go at regime change?
The Outside Actors: When Mercenaries and Coups Intersect
As alluded to above, there is certainly a precedent for mercenary involvement in regime change. That is nothing unusual or new. There is also nothing unusual or new about paid warriors. “From Sparta and Athens, through ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, via the condottiere of Renaissance Italy to the 19th century, the soldier-for-hire graced a perfectly honorable profession.”(Forsyth cited in Venter, 2006) More recently, the paid warrior, or private security contractor to use the modern parlance, has enjoyed a huge comeback and rehabilitation of image, courtesy of overextended militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan (a comeback that I believe is not without potential unforeseen consequences, as I will expand on later).
A Review of Past Events: Case Studies
I share the following case studies and analysis to provide some depth to my statement above that assisted regime change (taking the form of a guardian coup) is indeed nothing new or unusual. I hasten to add that these are far from the only examples, but merely a representative sampling
The Forsyth Coup
The coup plot referenced at the start of this paper was the Wonga Coup, but I’d like to start with a predecessor to the Wonga Coup. A predecessor with the same target: Equatorial Guinea. This one is notable for the involvement of bestselling British author Frederick Forsyth.
Author, Frederick Forsyth, started out in Africa as a BBC correspondent covering the Biafra conflict of the 1960s. After it was decided that he was too personally invested in the conflict by showing an alleged bias toward the Biafran cause, he was pushed out of the BBC, but returned to Biafra to write his first book, The Biafra Story. He also stayed in touch with the players involved in the Biafra conflict.
Forsyth’s exact motives have never been publicly revealed, but at least one British newspaper has reported that his desire to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s dictator (the current president’s uncle) was founded on a wish to not only remove a deranged dictator, but also to set up a Biafran base in Equatorial Guinea to continue that struggle. Regardless of his motive, the writer plotted and gave money to mercenaries in 1972 in an aborted attempt to topple the leader of Equatorial Guinea. (Chittenden, 2006)
Forsyth’s role in this effort was first publicly uncovered by investigative journalists working for Britain’s Sunday Times in 1978 upon reviewing the diaries of a mercenary who had committed suicide during a siege in east London after he had shot a policeman. The diaries identified Forsyth as being present at meetings in Hamburg where guns were obtained for the coup attempt. The Sunday Times contacted some of the mercenaries involved. It learned that Forsyth financed a former Scottish bank clerk named Alexander Gay, who had fought as a mercenary in the Congo and then Biafra, where he commanded a brigade of 3,000 men. In 1972, Mr. Gay reconnoitered the island segment of Equatorial Guinea, from which Francisco Macias ran the country as president for life, for a coup attempt. He came to believe that a small number of soldiers could overthrow the government. (Chittenden, 2006)
Mr Gay hired European mercenaries and chartered a fishing boat called the Albatross in Fuengirola, Spain. But things started to go wrong due to a British Special Branch informant in Gibraltar. The mercenaries stood out in the Spanish port, and an official who had been bribed refused to issue a certificate that would have allowed Mr. Gay to move the arms from Hamburg to Spain. While the boat sailed for Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Mr. Gay went to Hamburg to sort out the weapons. But back in the Canaries, the boat was impounded after a tip-off from the British embassy in Madrid, the crew arrested and the coup attempt was aborted. (Lashmar, 2004)
Until recently, Forsyth would politely demur when quizzed on the Equatorial Guinea plot and all one could really say for certain was that his “fictional” book, Dogs of War, about a nearly identical coup d’ etat, was a very well-researched book. However, perhaps because the statute of limitations has expired, or the players involved have died or simply because the evidence was so overwhelming, Forsyth admitted the extent of his involvement in the attempted coup in 2005 to The Wonga Coup author, Adam Roberts. While researching his book, Roberts came across a previously classified Foreign Office cable in the National Archives that described the 1973 coup attempt.
Struck by the similarity with The Dogs of War, Roberts challenged Forsyth, who told him: “I originally postulated a question to myself. Would it be possible for a group of paid and bought-for mercenaries to topple a republic? I looked around and saw Fernando Po, and every story about the country was gruesome . . . I decided it could be done. If you stormed the palace . . . probably by sunrise you could take over, provided you have a substitute African president and announced it was an internal coup d’état.” (Chittenden, 2006) We’ll never know what the outcome might have been of Freddie’s coup, but this was not the last time that someone would view Equatorial Guinea as an easy target.
Forsyth Coup Outcome: Failure
The Wonga Coup
“The story of the Wonga Coup began, ultimately in Angola’s civil war. It was in Angola that the soldiers of 32 Battalion cut their teeth, and it was in Angola that Simon Mann’s Executive Outcomes was born. Angola’s war, at least in the 1990s, was a battle for control of oil and diamonds, not one of ideology. Similarly, the scrap for Equatorial Guinea was all about controlling oil revenues.” (Roberts, 2009)
For some background on that opening statement, 32 Battalion was an elite unit of the South African Defense Force comprised of former Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) guerillas from Angola integrated with South African officers. 32 Battalion was primarily deployed in southern Angola and participated in some particularly brutal and heavy combat during the 1980s. In 1989, as the apartheid regime in South Africa was disintegrating and the “Border Wars” in Namibia and Angola were winding down, the South African Defense Force began making heavy cuts in military personnel. 32 Battalion was not spared in this process and was formally disbanded in 1993, and retired to the miserable, former asbestos-mining town of Pomfret, South Africa. This treatment from the South African government left most of the 32 Battalion members with feelings of betrayal and bitterness.
Many members of 32 Battalion found that their skills were not obsolete though, as they were soon recruited by private military firms such as Executive Outcomes. Executive Outcomes was a pioneer in filling the niche for professional, corporate military services following the end of the Cold War. With slick brochures promising all the aspects of a highly-trained modern military force such as the ability to field not only professional soldiers but also armor (BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles) and support aircraft such as Mi-24 Hind and Mi-8 Hip helicopters, Executive Outcomes had little trouble attracting clients in the post-Cold War chaos that was Africa in the 1990s. (Venter, 2006)
Two particularly noteworthy contracts for Executive Outcomes were in Angola and Sierra Leone. In Angola, Executive Outcomes (comprised mainly of former soldiers from 32 Battalion) ironically fought on the side of the Angolan government against their former allies in UNITA. In a short span of time, the professional skills and discipline of Executive Outcomes in combat was too much for UNITA and the rebels sought peace. This led to a cease-fire and the signing of the Lusaka Protocol, formally ending the Angolan civil war.
In Sierra Leone, the company successfully reigned in a vicious group of guerrillas calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and regained control of the diamond fields the government of Sierra Leone had lost to the rebels (and that the rebels were using to finance their operations). These battlefield setbacks forced the RUF to the bargaining table for a negotiated peace. A peace, incidentally, that evaporated when Executive Outcomes left Sierra Leone.
Why this extensive discussion of Executive Outcomes and 32 Battalion? It was from these sources that the backbone of the Wonga Coup was formed. The plan of the Wonga Coup was to remove the country’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and replace him with his rival Severo Moto, an exile living in Madrid. In return, Simon Mann and the others expected to receive their large “splodge of wonga” and millions more in government contracts as well as lucrative oil rights. With Equatorial Guinea and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema now earning billions of dollars every year from its oil and gas reserves, there would have been a lot of “wonga” to go around.
Simon Mann’s adventure fell apart on the runway at Manyame military airbase outside the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, when he and the other soldiers of fortune were arrested as described in the introduction of this paper. An advance party on the ground in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, led by Nic du Toit, that was supposed to secure the airport in the capital for landing, was also arrested after the government of Zimbabwe tipped off the government in Equatorial Guinea. “It was the normal Zimbabwean game of selling arms to anyone without end user certificates. The Zimbabweans only changed sides at the last moment. The plane arrived at 7:10pm and the arrests were not made until after midnight. Mugabe saw in Simon just a huge wad of notes. And Obiang wanted this white man because for the first time in his life, he’s been able to parade on the world stage as a victim of a white plot.” (Berger, 2008)
The reason for the breakdown of the Wonga Coup appears to have been an absence of operational security brought about by the need for multiple investors in the project as well as the loose tongues of some of those involved and the use of aircraft to transport the men and weaponry to their destination. Intelligence agencies across Africa, Europe and almost certainly the United States were aware of the Wonga Coup plot in advance of its initiation. Britain, for example, was given a full outline of the coup plot, including the dates, details of arms shipments and key players, months before the coup was launched. Interestingly, no one bothered to warn the government of Equatorial Guinea. Even more interesting was the presence of two Spanish warships, filled with hundreds of soldiers, which just happened to be moored off the coast of Equatorial Guinea on the expected day of the coup. (Roberts, 2009) The presence of the Spanish ships provides a fair amount of weight to the allegations by the coup participants that they had more than tacit support from a number of governments that now wish for the matter to be forgotten.
Interestingly, Frederick Forsyth himself provided a brief analysis of the Wonga Coup and its chances for success (and he should know) in the introduction to, War Dog.
“The funny thing about recent events in Equatorial Guinea is that had the South Africans actually managed to get ashore at Malabo, they would have probably captured both Nguema and the country in an hour because at the time that tin pot dictator’s defense structure was centered around an emasculated praetorian guard that was responsible for the security of the nation. Nguema was so paranoid about being murdered by his own people that while his bodyguards were issued with weapons, they weren’t given a single round of ammunition. He kept all that locked in a cellar below his throne room where he also safeguarded his foreign reserves.
Had the South Africans, under the mercenary leader Nic du Toit pulled it off, it would have been a double coup: they’d have had the country and the money. And let us not forget that immense lake of oil upon which Equatorial Guinea is perched, the reason why Mark Thatcher – the son of a former British PM, and his friend Simon Mann – were first tempted into that eventually calamitous project.” (Venter, 2006)
The Wonga Coup Outcome: Failure
Bob Denard and the Comoros Islands
Bob Denard (real name: Gilbert Bourgeaud) was born in Bordeaux and served in the French marine commandos in the early 1950s, before entering the colonial police in pre-independence Algeria and Morocco. After a short time spent selling kitchen appliances in Paris, Denard moved back to Africa offering his services as a mercenary. He began his mercenary career in the Belgian Congo province of Katanga in 1961 when he and other foreign mercenaries were brought in to assist with the independence movement there. Denard became famous for being part of a team which, in 1963, rescued white civilians encircled by rebels in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) within Katanga.
During the following decades, he is believed to have also fought in Yemen, Gabon, the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nigeria, Benin (where he was involved in a failed coup attempt) and Angola, but his favorite playground was the Comoros Islands. There he was involved in four of the more than 20 coups and coup attempts that have taken place in the Comoros archipelago since the islands won independence from France in 1975. He overthrew the government the first time on August 3, 1975, following President Ahmed Abdallah’s unilateral declaration of the Comoros’ independence on July 6, 1975. Ahmed Abdallah was soon replaced with a man named Ali Soilih. (Nicholson, 2007)
However, Ali Soilih did not perform as expected. He soon instituted a number of socialist policies and policies antagonistic to France. These deteriorating relations with France resulted in a cutoff of financial aid and the treasury in Comoros began to run dry. So, Soilih came up with a creative solution. Instead of paying the government bureaucrats, Soilih fired them all and replaced the civil service with illiterate teenagers. As if he intentionally wished to lose the support of the populace, Soilih then outraged the large Muslim population by ordering women to stop wearing veils and by banning traditional wedding feasts. Following a warning from a fortune teller that he would be overthrown by a man with a dog, Soilih commanded his youth brigade to kill every dog in the islands. They scoured villages, tied the captive canines to the back of a Land-Rover and dragged them to death through the streets. (Anon., 1978)
Enough was enough and so on the night of May 13, 1978, Bob Denard returned to overthrow President Soilih and re-instate Ahmed Abdallah (Abdallah took out a mortgage on his Paris apartment to help finance the operation). As foretold, Denard was accompanied by a German shepherd dog. Within a few hours, Denard and his gang had shot up Soilih’s bodyguard, put the dictator under arrest (allegedly surprising him in his bedroom while he was smoking hashish with two prostitutes and watching a pornographic movie) and accepted the surrender of the Comoran army, an amateurish force of 200 men who did not fire a single shot. The coup touched off a week of celebration that grew still more frenzied with the announcement that Soilih had unfortunately died while “trying to escape.” (Anon., 1978)
Although Ahmed Abdallah was officially “president”, Bob Denard and his mercenary “advisers” were assigned to the army, police, post office and telephone company and in every instance took firm, though unofficial, command. And so, for eleven years (1978-1989) Denard unofficially ruled the Comoros Islands and maintained extensive business interests in the archipelago, comprising hotels, lands and the 500-man “presidential guard.” The Comoros also served as his logistics base for military operations in Mozambique and Angola. (Nicholson, 2007) Bob Denard even became a Comoran citizen and converted to Islam so that he could take multiple wives (He would have seven marriages and eight children in his lifetime).
Abdallah remained president until 1989 when, fearing a coup d’état, he signed a decree ordering Denard’s presidential guard to disarm the armed forces. Shortly after the signing of the decree, Abdallah was allegedly shot dead in his office by a disgruntled military officer. The cause of his death as well as the circumstances remain in dispute, but what is certain is that Abdallah was indeed slain, leading Denard to temporarily assume full control of the Comoros Islands again. However, perhaps weary of the responsibilities of governance, Denard relinquished power to Said Mohamed Djohar, who was, incidentally, Soilih’s older half-brother, and retired first to South Africa and then to his native France.
Retirement life did not suit Mr. Denard though, and so in September of 1995 he returned to the Comoros Islands, landing on a beach with 30 mercenaries in Zodiac inflatable boats, and seized control of the government yet again. After a week of fun, the French army gently removed Denard from power and he returned to France, where he died on the 13th of October, 2007.
As an interesting “oh by the way”, Bob Denard’s African exploits led many to regard him as the model for the hero of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel The Dogs of War (discussed above under The Forsyth Coup). Ironically, Denard’s troop of mercenaries all had a copy of it in French in their back pockets when they seized the Comoros Islands for the first time. They were referring to it almost page by page. (Venter, 2006)
Comoros Islands Coup Outcomes: Successful
Ghana and the Nobistor Affair
Godfrey Osei has always been an ambitious man. As a low level government employee in Ghana, he was arrested and jailed for his participation in a 1983 coup attempt against the Marxist government of Jerry Rawlings. However, Osei was able to escape from the Ghanian prison and made his way to the United States. Once there, he soon began to plot another coup against Jerry Rawlings.
Stories vary, but one way or another Godfrey Osei was able to raise approximately $500,000. One story version is that Osei borrowed the funds from a Chinese organized crime group in New York after agreeing to pay interest rates of 300 percent and promising the group gambling concessions in Ghana once he secured control of the country. Another, less Hollywoodesque version, is that Osei was funded by Israel’s Mossad and/or America’s Central Intelligence Agency – both of whom wanted Jerry Rawlings gone.
In possession of working capital for his venture, Osei then focused on acquiring weaponry. For this, he turned to a Texas commodities broker named Ted Bishop, who happened to have very good connections with Argentina’s Fabricaciones Militares, the government arms producer (and also connections to Israel’s Mossad, which strengthens the funding story above). In exchange for his assistance, Bishop was allegedly promised exclusive marketing rights for Ghana’s coffee and cocoa crops (again after Osei was in power, of course). Argentina, still suffering from a negative impression of their military equipment following the Falklands fiasco, was happy to have a buyer for their weaponry. Osei spent $200,000 on six tons of weapons from Fabricaciones Militares that included 70 FAL rifles, submachine guns, revolvers, ammunition for all of these firearms and fragmentation grenades. In the midst of his dealmaking, Osei had been able to pick up eight American mercenaries (Vietnam veterans) for his project. Perhaps of interest to this audience, one of the mercenaries was an international relations graduate student at California’s San Francisco State University. (Carey, 1986)
The plan to place Godfrey Osei in control of Ghana was as follows: The men were to go ashore with Zodiac inflatable boats near the city of Accra and strike a government compound there, freeing prisoners in a nearby jail who were Central Intelligence Agency employees imprisoned by Jerry Rawlings. The group would then split into two assault teams – one would attack the presidential palace and the other would attack the remaining government buildings of interest. Once their objectives had been achieved, the two assault groups would reunite for the purpose of attacking a Libyan base and training center 40 miles from Accra.
To make this plan a reality, the eight American mercenaries were to pick up the weapons Osei had purchased in Buenos Aires, Argentina, using a seagoing tug named the Nobistor, and then proceed to the coast of Africa – the Ivory Coast (Cote d’ Ivoire) to be specific. Upon their arrival, the Nobistor and the mercenaries were to rendezvous with 80 to 100 trained soldiers loyal to Osei. The mercenaries were to be paid $10,000 for ferrying the weapons to Ghana. As compensation for their service in support of the actual overthrow of the government, they were supposedly promised access to the Ghanian national treasury and the national gold and diamond mines. (Bishop, 1986)
The plan started out well. However, after picking up the weapons in Argentina, loading them on the Nobistor and getting underway toward the coast of Africa, the mercenaries mutinied. The men had lost confidence in Osei, who had declined to join them on their journey at the last minute and had taken to using a swagger stick and strutting around wearing a beret with a Nazi SS badge on it. More importantly though, evidence indicated that the Ghanian government was aware of the pending invasion. If true, the mercenaries would have been slaughtered upon their arrival in Ghana. Demanding that the crew of the boat turn back toward South America, the group dropped anchor in Guanabara Bay, a small port 20 miles east of Rio de Janeiro.
It was at the Nobistor’s captain’s insistence that they dock in Brazil. However, he could have perhaps chosen a more ideal location for the Nobistor to land as they arrived at a sensitive time in Brazil. An agrarian reform movement had provoked armed resistance from wealthy landowners opposed to distributing their land to millions of peasants. Searching the Nobistor, it did not take the Federal Police long to discover the six tons of weapons. The Brazilian authorities considered it “too much of a coincidence” that six tons of heavy weaponry would arrive on their shores just as wealthy landowners were desperately seeking arms, and all eight men were jailed with sentences ranging from four to five years. After one of the men wrote to his wife requesting “iron enriched” vitamins, she knew exactly what he meant and mailed four hack saw blades, hidden inside a package of Carnation powdered milk. Half of the men were able to escape in an attempt that one described as “5% planning and 95% luck” and make their way on an extraordinary journey across South America back to the United States. (Carey, 1986)
I was fortunate enough to correspond with a member of the mercenary team (who wishes to remain anonymous) and he was able to fill in many of the above details.
Ghana and the Nobistor Affair Outcome: Failure
The Situation Today
The world is awash in mercenaries. They may call themselves by a different name (private security contractors) but these are still men that kill for money – mercenaries, in other words. As Al Venter, the author of War Dog, reminds us, “During the past twelve or fifteen years there has been a spate of mercenary involvement in coups and uprisings across the African continent.” In early 1999, news agencies mentioned that there were former Soviet pilots in the pay of Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who was killed in 2002. Certainly Russian and Ukrainian aviators flying Mikoyan fighters fought on both sides of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Similarly in the Congo (both before and after the recently departed Elder Kabila ousted Mobutu), Serbs, South Africans, Israelis, Croats, Zimbabweans, Germans, French and other nationalities were deeply involved, some fighting for, and others against the government. More mercenaries were seen in action with rebel contingents in Guinea-Bissau, and reports out of Dakar speak of foreign veterans (possibly French) helping dissident Senegalese rebels in Cassamance Province. It was the same in Namibia’s Caprivi Zipvel where, until Dr. Jonas Savimbi was killed, UNITA rebel forces, recruited and trained by mercenaries working for Savimbi, crossed the ill-defined frontier from Angola at will to drive government troops into the jungle.
It is also the same story in Sudan, where first Iraqi pilots and then Russian mercenaries flew military aircraft. Additionally, there was a time when Khartoum spiced up its ground forces with members of the Afghan mujahedeen, Yemenis and al Qaeda operatives. Other foreign nationals, including some former Executive Outcomes mercenaries (discussed above under the Wonga Coup case study) who had originally been active in Sierra Leone and Angola, also eventually found themselves in Sudan. Some of those Executive Outcomes mercenaries also returned to Sierra Leone to fight for the other side. (Venter, 2006)
In, War Dog, the author wrote about the presence of a white-painted Revolutionary United Front (RUF) helicopter that operated briefly in support of the RUF in the Freetown flight corridor. The helicopter was based in the Liberian capital of Monrovia and regularly crossed into Sierra Leone airspace to support rebel operations. Various national intelligence services crunched numbers and dates and deduced that the intruding helicopter was being run by some of the old South African crews who had flown for Executive Outcomes in Angola and Sierra Leone five years prior. And on the ground, about a dozen mercenaries of East European stock were serving with the RUF at this time (later joined by some South Africans and Serbs). Most of the imported mercenaries were paid their wages in raw diamonds. The presence of European mercenaries was first discovered when government troops returned with the heads of two of them after a battle. (Venter, 2006) As we can see from all of the above, the world of mercenaries and coup plots is very much an active part of our globalized society today.
For some even more contemporary evidence, consider events in the three Guineas of Africa (Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea) in just the past few months. In March of 2009 army troops shot dead João Bernardo Vieira, the president of Guinea-Bissau, in an effort to bring in a new president. In neighboring Guinea, the death in December 2008 of the long-time president, Lansana Conté, sparked a coup by junior and mid-ranking army officers. And in February of 2009, officials in Equatorial Guinea said they had arrested 16 men involved in another attempt to overthrow the government of President Obiang. The Equatorial Guinea affair was almost certainly a fake coup (see definition above) designed to sweep up some political undesirables. (Polgreen and Cowell, 2009)
Freelance journalist David Axe reported in May 2009 that in the wake of the recent rebel uprising in eastern Chad, up to three Chadian aircraft had attacked targets inside Sudan. The aircraft were Su-25 attack jets bought from, and flown by, Ukrainians. Chad’s air force is small but heavily armed and very active over the border region. Last year, rebels shot down a Chadian Mi-35 flown by Ukrainian mercenaries. And despite protests from the Sudanese government, there are persistent rumors of Chinese pilots operating fighter aircraft within Sudan (not an entirely implausible scenario if one contemplates the close ties between Sudan and China). (Axe, 2009)
In Mogadishu, Somalia, also in May 2009, between 280 and 300 foreign fighters, comprising a mix of mercenaries and Islamic ideologues, were involved in an attempted coup against President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the moderate Islamic “leader” of Somalia. The coup attempt unleashed a week of fierce fighting between thousands of Somali Islamic “insurgents” working with the foreign fighters mentioned above and the government forces working with African Union (AU) forces. (Hassan, 2009)
The more polished side of the mercenary world has not been idle either. Rebranding efforts have been underway for some time now to try and clean up the “dogs of war” image and to offer corporate services to mainstream governments (see Executive Outcomes above). The success of this rebranding effort can be seen in comments Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General, made at the Annual Ditchley Foundation Lecture in 1998 when he declared that, “When we had need of skilled soldiers to separate fighters from refugees in the Rwandan camps in Goma, I considered the possibility of engaging a private firm. I did not do so because I believed the world might not be ready to privatize peace.” (Venter, 2006)
These more polished, new age mercenaries – the private military companies – have been around for years, but their importance has increased exponentially in post-Cold War defense spending. Approximately 240,000 contractor employees support the U.S. missions alone in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually outnumbering the troops they serve. These contractors provide security, military and police training, logistics and air support – collecting some $100 billion of the $830 billion U.S. taxpayers have paid out in the two wars. (Vardi, 2009)
Contractors have drawn fire because of high-profile scandals such as Titan Corp., now part of L-3 Communications, and CACI International, who were caught up in prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Blackwater, the notorious private military firm recently renamed Xe Services, had been protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq but got kicked out of the country after its employees killed seventeen civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007.
Yet the business keeps growing–for giants like KBR (annual sales: $11.6 billion); and SAIC ($10.1 billion), which manages the delivery of mine-resistant vehicles; and for smaller private firms like Triple Canopy, which does security work; and IAP Worldwide Services, helping to generate power at forward operating bases; or DynCorp training Afghan police, building barracks and managing poppy eradication in the war’s biggest new contract. That’s on top of major deals DynCorp already scored in Iraq, airlifting and protecting diplomats and supplying combat interpreters. “There is no intent not to have contractors in the battlefield–I am not uncomfortable with a 1:1 ratio,” says Jacques Gansler, former Under Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration and chairman of a 2007 commission that urgently called for contracting reform. “Issues need to be resolved,” he says, “but you can’t get along without them.” (Vardi, 2009)
Despite all of its scandals, even Blackwater/Xe is still active. The company has gone back to its roots: training police officers and active-duty military at a vast camp in Moyock, North Carolina. Xe would like to expand that business to any region of the world that might require nation-building. And it certainly has its eye on Afghanistan, where it is already training that nation’s border patrol, as well as protecting State Department personnel and conducting low-altitude air drops of arms and other supplies for the U.S. military in remote locations. (Vardi, 2009)
The Future: How It Might Look
Some clues to the future are offered by the rebranding trend mentioned above. Pursuing this rebranding trend, Tim Spicer (a longtime figure in the mercenary world and the founder of Aegis) pronounced his creed in 2002 that the world was waiting for “the speed and flexibility with which private security companies can deploy, rather than wait for the U.N. to form a force.” (Armstrong, 2008) He went further still, arguing that private military companies were ideal vehicles for operations such as those to aid the Northern Alliance forces that fought against the Taliban or the Iraqi resistance to Saddam Hussein. He even suggested that it might be in the international community’s interest if PMCs were hired to intervene in long-running conflicts in Sudan or to topple leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. In short, Spicer proposed the overt shifting of significant foreign policy objectives to mercenary companies - an idea that would have been met with derision only a few years before, yet he received a respectful hearing. (Armstrong, 2008)
In 2006, infamous mercenary firm Blackwater (now Xe Services) offered to supply a brigade-sized force to Darfur to assist in peacekeeping efforts alongside the African Union’s (AU) force. This offer led to widespread debate over the potential of using PMCs to help play a role in protecting populations rather than just VIPs and corporate facilities in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the discussion was short-lived, largely due to misconduct on the part of several contractors in Iraq the following year. Still though, PMCs are proactively attempting to get themselves on the ground in unstable areas where they think they can help — and make some money along the way. Xe Services wants to send a ship to the Gulf of Aden to fight pirates, and other firms have offered their services in these dangerous waters as well. Yet others are offering their services in such varied operations as the tracking of ivory smugglers, anti-piracy operations off Liberia and training Congolese troops to better protect refugee camps. (Armstrong, 2008)
One proposal by the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC), an industry trade group, suggests a “politically holistic approach” to the “unstable” world that has emerged from the remains of the Cold War. The association argues that around the world failed states require “skilled nursing back to health”. And, of course, private military companies believe they have just the skills needed for this process that “can take 10 to 15 years.” The private military companies perceive roles for themselves in post-conflict reconstruction, including such ideas as ‘SSR’ (security sector reform, the retraining of security forces) and ‘DDR’ (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration). An example of this softer, more friendly approach cited by PMCs is ArmorGroup’s (A British PMC recently acquired by G4S) experience in Mozambique. Between 1985 and 1991, by helping to restore the railway from Malawi to the Indian Ocean, “We delivered an economic zone because it was secure,” declares its spokesman. (Geraghty, 2007)
Eric Westropp, a veteran member of the Control Risks team (a British PMC), has an even more rosy future in mind for private military companies and private security contractors/mercenaries. His dream is to spread good governance to cure the instability of countries that are falling apart. He envisages linking private military companies with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “win hearts and minds” while simultaneously giving an economic boost to wrecked economies. The process, Mr. Westropp argues, would empower investors to work in partnership with the international aid agencies “to create an ecosystem in which peace would triumph over warlordism.” (Geraghty, 2007)
So, it would seem that mercenaries (even if they rename and rebrand themselves as private security contractors, working for private military companies) are here to stay in one form or another. And that is assuming that nothing happens to make their use even more mainstream for reasons such as continued manpower shortages in the Western countries or various other uses such as those discussed above.
However, what is the reason behind this frantic rebranding effort by the PMCs? Why are they so keen to promote their services in other areas? The reason for this frantic rebranding and effort to offer services in other sectors is a response to the deflation of the Iraq revenue bubble. Western military forces are drawing down their presence in Iraq, and the demands of the conflict in Afghanistan are not enough to replace this loss of business. PMCs are looking around for new revenue sources.
So, while the above rebranding effort may sound great and look good on paper, it unfortunately strikes me more as clever marketing than realistic proposals. The individuals working for these companies are trained to be aggressive and to kill people. They are not trained to hold hands and make friends. What happens when the mercenaries/private security contractors get in a firefight and civilians are killed? They’ll be viewed as occupiers again and treated with hostility.
In addition, does it not stand to reason that the contractors themselves will feel bored and frustrated with their new assignments? They certainly won’t be able to command the high salaries they have become famous for. Already, as demand has been decreasing for PMCs with the decline of the Iraq revenue, and supply has been increasing with more contractors hitting the market, wages have been dropping. (Geraghty, 2007) This reduction in wages will not be sufficient to continue to attract the most highly skilled and intelligent operators, presumably leading to a decrease in professionalism and quality. And the 10 to 15 years cited above is a long time for men of action to hold hands and make friends, while earning a low salary. Would none of them contemplate that it might be easier to short-cut the process and run the country themselves via an overt coup or a more subtle, creeping one in a process that makes the host country increasingly, or completely, dependent on the PMC for everything from security to logistics operations?
And would Western ideas of good governance even be welcome in these “failed states?” Will governments and PMCs have the stamina and patience to see an operation through for 10 to 15 years without any visible return other than containing terrorism or “warlordism?” Without government funds to run such programs, they seem distinctly utopian. Private military companies, after all, exist to make a profit. Is there a hole to be filled large enough to accommodate the myriad services the proliferating security companies have to offer? Many volunteers in the aid community would challenge this idea, considering it their territory. (Geraghty, 2007) It seems inevitable that an industry shakeout is on the way which will leave a lot of security contractors looking for work and missing their massive paychecks.
And can we really assume that all of these professional killers will smoothly integrate back into polite society? I’m afraid the evidence would argue otherwise, and I am not just referring to the evidence offered by the case studies above.
Consider the case of a former private security contractor named Richard Blanchard who was recently arrested (March 2009) in Shelbyville, Tennessee, for robbing a convenience store of $90. (Melson, 2009) During his time in Iraq, Mr. Blanchard was earning $15,000 a month (tax free) for protecting American engineers who were disposing of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in Fallujah.
Some men who have made action and killing their profession have a tough time adjusting back to normal society. Mr. Blanchard was one of these men. Before his arrest for the convenience store robbery, he had been arrested several times by Shelbyville police since his return from Iraq on charges ranging from assault to resisting arrest and leaving the scene of an accident.
Does anyone believe that if Mr. Blanchard were approached with a serious offer of employment for participating in a military coup that he would refuse it? I doubt it. And there are potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of Richard Blanchards out there. As a cursory review of crime statistics will reveal, there is no shortage of volunteers to engage in illegal activity for the promise of high profits.
Just as the end of the Cold War unleashed a flood of suddenly redundant weaponry onto the global marketplace and destabilized developing countries around the world, so I believe the same may be true today with the winding down of Iraq and other conflicts. A new wave is ready to hit the global marketplace, only instead of military hardware this time it is military “software”, or human bodies in the form of private security contractors/mercenaries trained to kill. Perhaps this wave will prove even deadlier?
What I am arguing is that with human nature being what it is, coups are far from outdated, but indeed are a very relevant part of the future. Whether this is a fortunate or unfortunate state of affairs, I will leave to the individual to decide. “The idea that a coup d’ etat can be carried out in many parts of the world with equal ease by small groups of men of the left and the right (and, for all one knows, also of the centre), provided they have mastered some elementary lessons of modern politics, is, of course, quite shocking.” (Laqueur cited in Luttwak, 1979) And yet it is so. As such, for my closing section, I would like to draw attention to how fundamentally straightforward a coup could be for an adventurous businessperson and, this being the case, why they shall not be disappearing anytime soon. If one reads the internal communications of the architects of the Wonga Coup, for example, it is clear that it was very much a business venture.
The Coup of the Future?
The following is based on an amalgamation of not just published research and lessons learned, but my firsthand experience and interviews as well. Obviously, there is no “one size fits all” formula for a coup. Each country or set of circumstances presents its own challenges and opportunities. That said, I believe a few basic elements remain consistent. As such, I will attempt a structural outline for a potential coup. As the focus of this paper has been on Africa, I am assuming this hypothetical effort will take place there as well. One could indeed accuse me of being an “armchair general”, but I still consider the below to be illustrative (and it has certainly been heavily researched by me) and therefore of some value.
First off, a coup needs weaponry. Obtaining the sort of firepower one needs for a coup might seem like a daunting task. However, I assure you that it is not. While visiting Peshawar, Pakistan, last year, my contact took my companions and me to an illegal weapons manufacturing facility on the city outskirts. We were just there to see the operation and take some pictures, but were offered all manner of light weaponry – handguns, shotguns, rifles and more.
And earlier this year, the same companions and I were able to bribe our way onto a military base in the country of Belarus for a look around. Seeing the bribe paid to the guards at the entrance, a man took us aside and offered us all manner of heavy weaponry for the right price. And by heavy weaponry, I am referring to hardware such as anti-tank rockets, artillery, tanks and attack helicopters.
I need to emphasize that I am not a military professional or a former CIA agent with scores of underworld contacts. In other words, if I can do this, almost anyone could. As evidence of this and if anyone is interested, photographic documentation of the above events is available on TheVelvetRocket.com at https://thevelvetrocket.com/2008/05/09/killing-is-my-businessand-business-is-good/ and https://thevelvetrocket.com/2009/06/25/stalin-line-military-complex-belarus/ respectively.
For our hypothetical coup, I would select two attack helicopters (such as the Russian Mi-24 Hind offered by the military in Belarus) and an assortment of heavy machine guns (7.62 mm up to .50 caliber), handheld anti-armor rockets, fragmentation grenades and light assault weapons such as AK-47s or Heckler & Koch MP5s. Special Forces operators prefer weapons local to the target area because this makes it easy to acquire additional weapons, ammunition and parts from local supplies or dead opposition figures. Such a calculation would certainly figure into our acquisitions.
Now, what about staffing our hypothetical coup team? Simon Mann had no trouble at all rounding up volunteers from the former 32 Battalion (discussed above). And according to Robert Young Pelton, in his book Licensed to Kill, no one else would either. Pelton asserts that anyone that showed up in Pomfret, South Africa, with the right amount of money could assemble a mercenary army in 24 hours. And this is all assuming that we know no one who might be of assistance to us and have contacts in the “old boy” mercenary network. According to my contact on the Nobistor affair (see above), this is much easier than many people would imagine. Undoubtedly, if former private security contractors/mercenaries were contemplating a coup, they would have a broad network of friends and contacts upon whom they could draw. And what about force requirements? All evidence seems to suggest that 75-100 men is an ideal number – backed up by the equipment we acquired above. The above happens to match the exact formula (force requirements) that Executive Outcomes used with such success in Sierra Leone and Angola (Venter, 2006).
Choosing a target for our coup – This must be done with some caution. Certainly, we do not want to pick on a country with a powerful supporter because the last thing we want is the American 101st Airborne parachuting in to undo our hard work. So, one must pick a country that is isolated and without friends. Recall the “coup prognosis” checklist discussed above? Secondly, we need to pick a country that is a mess. Aside from verbal lashings, would anyone in the Western political establishment not secretly breathe a sigh of relief if someone swept into a place such as Somalia and imposed a semblance of order? I doubt it.
To be sure though, we must focus on developing the right political conditions for our move. The organizers of the Wonga Coup did this by hiring public relations firms prior to their coup attempt, and I believe we should follow this example in our hypothetical coup. There are a variety of different PR firms in existence with different contacts and specialties. Obviously, we would wish to hire a firm with a specialization in African affairs. And we certainly would not reveal our plans for regime change, but instead would seek to highlight problems with the current government and gain a more sympathetic audience in Whitehall, Washington D.C., and Beijing. A typical PR campaign can be constructed for under $100,000 and if one considers the potential benefits, this is an extraordinary return on our investment. (Roberts, 2009) Stephen Walt, writing for Foreign Policy, describes this world the PR firms can penetrate: “In addition to the various general-purpose groups named above, there are also a vast array of special interest think tanks, committees, groups, and lobbies with their own particular international agendas. Whether the issue is Cuba, Darfur, the Middle East, Armenia, arms control, trade, population, human rights, climate policy, or what have you, there is bound to be some group pressing Washington to focus more energy and attention on their particular pet issue. And with 535 Congresspersons to choose from, there’s a good chance you can find at least one to promote your agenda on the Hill.” The point is not that we need the governments of Britain, the United States or Beijing to do anything, but more importantly, we need them not to do anything once we launch our coup.
Intelligence gathering and reconnaissance are vital once we have chosen our target because we must determine how many guards are defending sites of interest to us, avenues of approach we or they will utilize, where reinforcements will likely arrive from, etc. During this orientation phase we will also focus on the opposition and their disposition (do we anticipate the opposition to defend, attack or withdraw?), equipment, and resources. This information will help us decide where we need to direct the most resources – likely for capturing the president. Furthermore it will allow us to develop a fire support plan to determine the placement of weaponry such as mortars and heavy machine guns we have purchased.
Aside from visiting locations in person, one can utilize satellite images from Google Maps for analysis. For example: Upon visiting Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this year I was quite surprised by what I considered to be several significant security risks Sudan’s government was neglecting. Incidentally, I was able to photograph most of these security lapses with relative ease (and had I possessed a hidden camera, I would have been able to photograph all of them). Upon returning home, I confirmed these security lapses I had noticed with surprisingly clear images from Google Maps. Had I nefarious intent, I could easily combine the satellite imagery from Google with my pictures taken in person and develop a solid plan of attack.
Getting there – For a variety of obvious reasons, one cannot just purchase tickets to whichever capital we wish to seize and board an airline with a team of mercenaries weighed down with heavy weaponry. In addition, we need life support functions from where our attack is launched, a headquarters to coordinate logistical issues (such as where do team members go if they run out of ammunition, what to do with captured opposition figures and where to take team members that are injured), toilets, food, medical facilities, and an armory. A ship would be absolutely ideal for this. A ship could also comfortably house our two attack helicopters until we were ready to launch them into action. In fact, no less of an authority than Frederick Forsyth (discussed above), endorsed this approach as well in his critique of the Wonga Coup. “I became convinced that a mercenary invasion by air would not succeed. I was right because it didn’t work for Mike Hoare and his group when they tried to take the Seychelles in 1981, and it certainly didn’t work for the group from Pretoria in Equatorial Guinea. In both cases, I believe the plotters ignored the basics by trying to come in by plane. I was always convinced that the attackers would need the freedom and invisibility of the ocean to launch such an operation. Invasion from the water is an obvious option because until you arrive, nobody knows you’re there. Also, you do your training and kitting-up onboard. The ocean is ideal for target practice, getting your weapons battle-ready, perhaps removing manufacturer’s grease and that sort of thing. In other words, you prepare. And when you come in over the horizon and your target is ahead of you, your men are landed and they storm the capital. Bob Denard [whose successes were highlighted above] invaded Grand Comoros by trawler out of Le Havre and he did exactly that.” (Forsyth cited in Venter, 2006)
What about tactics? Again, each country has its own set of particulars, but a few basic universal elements stand out. The tactical template of our assault can be gleaned from the lessons learned above, as well as from this insightful analysis offered by the former mercenary with whom I corresponded on the Nobistor affair, “Most coup attempts in western Africa usually succeed because the colonial powers put the capitals on the coast with those tribes closest to the center of power getting the wealth, while the disenfranchised are ripe for fomenting trouble. So, a quick strike…then the other targets [could be] hit fast.” Details on launching the operation such as the appropriate signal to initiate the operation, the time of attack, proper fire support positions, supervising the operation, chains of command, exact equipment requirements (such as night vision goggles), attack positions, whether to wear the uniforms of the opposition troops in order to confuse them, etc. go well beyond the scope of this paper (and one would hope that if we have hired competent fighters, that these sorts of issues would be second nature for them). However, we can assume a few constants with a relatively high degree of confidence.
A common feature of militaries in developing countries is a sense of restlessness, low pay and low morale. This is both a problem and an opportunity. It is a problem for the government they are ostensibly designed to protect and it presents a problem for those seeking political stability. However, it creates an opportunity for those seeking a coup, or “assisted regime change.” These common features result in forces that generally lack initiative and rely too heavily on the chain of command. Removing the top of this chain or even just disrupting it, tends to throw these military forces into disarray and leads to widespread desertions.
This is not an issue that has failed to be noticed by Western militaries. An interview with a senior military planner in the U.S. Marines (who demanded anonymity given the sensitive nature of the discussion) revealed the following loose plan to me for taking down a government with a small, well-trained force of outside actors:
It may possibly just be necessary to seize the president and media complex, striking at the organizational heart of the entire state. In Khartoum, for example, these are a city block away from each other and all of the country’s media capabilities are centered in the same location along the Nile River. Most other African capitals feature similar security shortcomings. However, an assault plan should definitely be in place to neutralize the military headquarters as well, should a disruption in the chain of command be needed. (Alternatively, it may be possible to sabotage the communications system of various police and military headquarters which would leave them in an information vacuum, unaware of what was happening until it was all over – and too late to do anything).
Poorly trained and paid conscripts will almost certainly flee in the face of a massive show of force – a “shock and awe” campaign if you will. If our mercenaries launch an assault that “blasts the bunkers and guard towers to send body parts flying around, this will intimidate the survivors. Then rake the interiors of these compounds with automatic weapons fire. Following that initial display, the threat of force should suffice to achieve your objectives for the remaining time you need.”
We should attempt to secure our series of objectives as simultaneously as possible (in order to give the government forces as little time as possible to mobilize and react) and this task is best served by utilizing a helicopter (such as the Russian Mi-24 Hind we purchased above), which also serves as a force multiplier. The reason being that it has been determined that “a helicopter gunship is equivalent to 50 men as it serves as a troop transport as well as gunship.”
Now, it is impossible to give specific advice at this point, but a general announcement should be made as soon as possible along the lines of the excellent radio communiqué of Ghana’s National Liberation Council following a successful coup in 1966 which stated, “The myth surrounding Kwame N’krumah has been broken… [he] ruled the country as if it were his private property…[his] capricious handling of the country’s economic affairs …brought the country to the point of economic collapse…We intend to announce measures for curing the country’s troubles within a few days…the future is definitely bright.” Specifically, we will announce that the president is dead or has been arrested and that our chosen puppet leader is replacing him (The military really doesn’t have many options once the president and his senior chain of command are out of the picture except to fall in line – especially if their top commanders are no longer with us either). In addition we need to emphasize that law and order has been restored and that all resistance has ceased. We will reassure the citizenry that the coup is not a threat to them and, more specifically, reach out to the government bureaucracy to soothe their concerns about job stability. (Luttwak, 1979)
And utilizing the propaganda strategy planned for the Wonga Coup, the coup would have to look like a heroic local uprising – an act of nationalism and loyalty to the state. We would film the arrival of the new president, flanked by mercenaries of whichever ethnic group dominates the area, in such as way as to make them look like rebellious local soldiers – and not the remnants of an apartheid-era Special Forces unit. This footage – the only television pictures that would exist – would be released to the world’s media, buying our new regime time while it took over the institutions of state. (Roberts, 2009)
If things go wrong, we can always deny involvement as the investors in the Wonga Coup and the Nobistor affair did. We’d be out our investment, but no one said it was an investment free from risk. Consider the upside though: “You now have your own republic. You’ve now got a government that can issue visas, passports, its own currency, as well as a seat at the United Nations. It’s a massive power tool if you happen to be a businessman.” (Venter, 2006)) Sounds like a pitch for a firm seeking to raise capital by selling shares in an initial public offering, doesn’t it? And speaking of issuing things, be sure to have yourself issued a diplomatic passport after the coup so you can’t be arrested or otherwise hassled when you wish to travel.
We know a correlation exists between waves of weaponry hitting the global marketplace and political instability, particularly in developing countries. I believe we will see the same correlation unfold with the wave of mercenaries/private security contractors hitting the global marketplace. The type of coup described in my introduction was a “guardian coup” and it is this type of coup I am suggesting is increasingly likely to be seen in the future as various players seek to realize their ambitions. “What Forsyth began, Mann did not necessarily end. It seems likely that someone, one day, will try a rent-a-coup again. Most likely the target will be small and oil-rich, probably an island state with few foreign friends. It may yet be Equatorial Guinea once more. Bored buccaneers, perhaps men who tasted war in Iraq and who are looking for new places to fight in, will dream up another Wonga Coup. Some involved in this one – despite trials, prison, lost earnings and hunger – say they joined the adventure for the kicks and would be ready, given the right plan, to do it all over again.” (Roberts, 2009)
Executive Outcomes cut a wide swath across Africa. And although the company’s primary interests were in Angola and Sierra Leone, the British Defense Intelligence Staff suggested that Executive Outcomes also had “involvement,” or at least had sought contracts, widely throughout the nations of the continent, including Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. It also noted the new modus operandi, which Buckingham and Mann had introduced on joining forces with Executive Outcomes. “It has secured by military means key economic installations (diamonds, oil and other mineral resources) and secured for itself substantial profits and disproportionate regional influence.” (Roberts, 2009) And the stakes were even higher in Equatorial Guinea, literally billions of barrels of oil.
As events showed us, Executive Outcomes (EO) was quite effective in tamping down violence and atrocities in places like Sierra Leone. One might wonder what EO could have accomplished in Rwanda in 1994? Would anyone care if EO had made a profit if the genocide was stopped? In reference to the question of ethics raised above, how could stopping genocide be unethical? What if EO had executed a coup to remove the current government as the most effective means of stopping the genocide? Would this behavior not fall under a mandate to stop genocide? Perhaps the future will see not just individuals leading coups, but will see a corporation launching a military coup or the creeping coup d’ etat I speculated about above.
Which leads me to my next point – Western governments may quietly get in on the act again as well. I find it hard to believe that the expensive messes in Iraq and Afghanistan will not encourage a re-evaluation of the coup d’ etat as an instrument of regime change by Western powers. The coup can be arranged with plausible deniability by the sponsoring government if anything goes wrong and is an extremely low cost affair to fund. Consider that all of the coups in the case studies above were launched with an investment of a few million dollars at most versus the hundreds of billions of dollars spent so far on Iraq and Afghanistan. Literally thousands of coup attempts could be sponsored for less than 1% of what has been spent on the direct military invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely, one of those thousands of attempts would succeed, would it not? And don’t forget that with a coup, a sponsoring government would not be obligated to inherit the headache of actually running the country – a perspective that might seem awfully appealing as our respective governments struggle to administer Afghanistan and get out of Iraq.
The benefits of low risk (in the form of plausible deniability) and low cost (especially when compared to conventional military operations) coupled with potentially high returns (politically or financially) seem too attractive for governments and individuals to ignore. There are just too many people out there who would prefer to see changes in leadership – with either themselves or an ally in power – to think that this trifecta of money, individual ambition and political expedience will not merge. As Edward Luttwak says, “The coup is the most frequently attempted method of changing government, and the most successful.” I believe the coup d’ etat has a very bright future indeed.
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Please contact me privately if you are interested in initiating a coup d’ etat and wish to consult me for details.