When South Africa’s defense force disbanded in 1994, tens of thousands of military personnel found themselves out of work. The state’s massive security infrastructure — independently built with advanced capabilities relative to the country’s size and geopolitical importance — employed the force to keep an inhumane system in place. Suddenly jobless and pension-less with the fall of the apartheid state, some of the elite officers turned to Eben Barlow, the special forces lieutenant colonel who resigned just years before to start his own private military company, Executive Outcomes.
He was hiring. And they had just the right skillset.
Back then, as today, no shortage of conflict areas and unstable governments on the African continent provided a ready market for Barlow’s services. Stacked with former special forces and intelligence officers, his private corps trained and equipped the Angolan and Sierra Leonean militaries — allegedly also fighting alongside them — to put down separatist movements and end those two long and scourging civil wars.
The now-notorious Wagner Group is believed to have been based directly on Executive Outcomes’ model following a meeting between Barlow and Russia’s General Staff in 2010. On the surface, the two companies might appear to be not so different. Since the recent march on Moscow by Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin — and the uncertainty of his location and relationships with the Russian elite — the big question now is how the group’s complex and extensive relationships and operations in Africa might be affected, and how those will in turn impact the Russian government and its war in Ukraine. Prigozhin’s business model in Africa — pulling in funding and resources from the Russian government while simultaneously setting up a broad network of subcontracting companies that operate in the same regions — has proved effective. But Wagner has plenty of profit-seeking rivals the world over providing similar military and security services that are less chaotic and more reliable by comparison, a dynamic that will factor into Wagner’s survivability on the continent. With business booming in Africa, entrepreneurs and former elite soldiers across the globe — many seemingly capable of effectively running a business — want a piece of the action. Not to mention the handsome payout. [Continue reading…]