A tale of two mercenaries

While British mercenary Simon Mann (left) is looking at 34 years in a hot prison cell in a tiny sub-Saharan African dictatorship, his former colleague Tim Spicer (right) is making millions working for the Americans in Iraq.


In Africa, they were “mercenaries.” In Iraq, they’ve become “security consultants.”


A generation of British and South African mercenaries is turning legit. After fighting tough and bloody wars in Africa during the 1990s, groups with roots in the South African military are now acting as security consultants seeking – and winning – lucrative contracts from the US government and private companies in Iraq and Afghanistan.


But not Simon Mann (pictured above, left, at his sentencing on Monday). After a decade-long involvement with “mercenary” groups – first the South-African-born Executive Outcomes, then the UK-based Sandline International – Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe in March 2004. He and a planeload of South African ex-soldiers were about to pick up guns and ammo to unseat Equatorial Guinea’s dictator-for-life, in a story straight out of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel, The Dogs of War (inspired by the author’s actual attempt on the very same country).


Meanwhile, Mann's ex-colleague, Lt.Col. Tim Spicer (pictured above, right, in 1997), is using pretty much the same skillset to run Aegis Defence Services. His company won a $475-million contract in September 2007 with the US Defense Department to provide security services in Iraq.


According to Adam Roberts, online editor of The Economist and author of The Wonga Coup, about the 2004 coup attempt, Mann goofed up. “I think he made a deliberate choice, because he thought he could make a lot more money there.”


Money from oil - Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country of 600,000 wretchedly poor people, has the third-largest reserves of oil in sub-Saharan Africa. Its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is reputed to have a massive personal fortune while most of the population remains in abject poverty. His son, according to Britain's Sunday Times, has owned Lamborghinis in Paris and Cape Town.


But Mann did not end up living the high life. Instead, he learned his fate in a court in Equatorial Guinea on Monday: 34 years and four months in prison.


Unlike his former colleagues, who broadened their horizons beyond Africa, Mann did not see that the times were changing. “Simon Mann’s a romantic, a throwback to the 1960s... he was involved in political intrigue," says Dr. Chris Kinsey of King’s College, London, a specialist in security affairs. "In Iraq now, they protect assets and are used for security.” 


Executive Outcomes – pioneer in the field


With an ex-South African officer, Eeben Barlow, Mann was one of several ex-UK and South Africa military officers to help set up Executive Outcomes in the early 1990s. It was one of the first Private Military Companies (PMCs) – a precursor to the Private Security Companies (PSCs) that today constitute the second-largest armed force in Iraq.


Executive Outcomes drew its strength from South Africa’s elite units, such as the 32 Battalion, Koevoet and CCB, mostly disbanded after the demise of apartheid.


Simon Mann became involved with EO when it moved its headquarters from South Africa to the UK in 1993. With offices, investments and ethical guidelines, EO proved that a small, professionally managed firm could perform military tasks that the UN or international leaders wouldn’t or couldn’t.


In Angola in 1994, EO helped the democratically elected government defeat UNITA rebels. In Sierra Leone the next year, they halted RUF rebels who were killing and hacking limbs on their way to Freetown.  “These places were held together by these PMCs,” says Doug Brooks, who heads the International Peace Operations Association, an industry group.


In 1996, Mann and several partners founded a new firm, Sandline International, and hired Lt. Col. Tim Spicer to run it.


EO kept operating for a while, but closed its South African operations after the government passed a 1998 law, the Foreign Military Assistance Act, banning South African citizens from working in a war zone without government permission. Eeben Barlow quit and wrote a book.

Following the money

Sandline closed down in April 2004 – the same year as Mann's arrest in Zimbabwe. In the meantime, Spicer had started a new firm, Aegis, which by the end of 2004 had won a three-year, $239-million contract with the US Defense Department to work in Iraq. The contract was renewed for another two years, and $475 million, in 2007. (Aegis did not return e-mails when asked for comment.)


Most "mercenaries" are highly trained professionals who have a particular skillset with which to earn a living. Several sources in the business told FRANCE 24 that South Africans are highly sought after for security work - in Iraq and elsewhere - because of their expertise, although South Africa's anti-mercenary laws can make it hard to hire them.  


A 2006 report by the British charity War on Want estimated that around 2,000 South African citizens were working for PSCs in Iraq. However, that number is impossible to verify, since neither the security companies nor the US Defense Department release breakdowns of security personnel by nationality. Also, security contracts are often subcontracted to smaller firms, making numbers even harder to track.


According to Kinsey, of King’s College, "Hiring is very much by word of mouth, and London is one of the main centres for recruiting people into the industry."


Despite the dangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, security work can be less dangerous than getting involved in African wars. “There is a fundamental difference between Africa in the 1980s and 90s and Iraq and Afghanistan today, in the way private companies are being utilized,” says Brooks. The big difference is that security contractors in these two countries are used in “passive” roles – they are not allowed on “active” missions, but provide security detail to bases or convoys.


This modernization of the military role and strategy is worth hundreds of millions to private firms. Aegis's $475-million contract is the single biggest security contract awarded in Iraq to date.


Frederick Forsyth - whose 1973 coup attempt failed, as did Mann's - got it right this time around. He told Ireland's Sunday Business Post last month that he had been an investor in Aegis until recently - when he sold his shares for a profit.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app