South Africa’s famously tough stance against “mercenaries” is the result of the success of one man – Eeben Barlow, founder of Executive Outcomes (EO). The company operated for less than a decade and reportedly only had about a handful of clients during that time, but rumour, conjecture and reporting greatly exaggerated this at the time. Where EO operated in public view, as was the case in Angola and Sierra Leone, the local people spoke highly of it, as William Shawcross wrote in his myth shattering book about United Nations peacekeeping – Deliver us from evil – Warlords & peacekeepers in a world of endless conflict – reviewed elsewhere on these pages.
Barlow established EO as a sideline in 1989 to teach intelligence procedures to the South African Special Forces and the company shut its doors on December 31, 1998. By then the company was infamous and Barlow a pariah, as he sourly notes in Executive Outcomes – Against All Odds, the book here under review. It is a lengthy tome, weighing in at over 500 pages, but a rewarding and easy read for Barlow gives a good description of his company`s operations in Angola, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Indonesia. In doing so, he sheds light on the conflicts there, both before EO operatives arrived and after they left. It makes for interesting reading – the more so since very little has been written about those brutish conflicts outside academic circles. What is striking is just how disorganised, badly trained, paid and disciplined many African “militaries” are, so much so that Sierra Leone`s beleaguered people coined the term “sobels” – part-time soldiers, part time rebels – full time predators. The level of their savagery and sadism proverbially defies description but will be remembered for decades to come.
Executive Outcomes also underscores several points made by James F Dunnigan in How to Make War, reviewed on these pages some years ago (June 2003). In many parts of the world, most of Africa inclusive, a gun and the willingness to use it is the key to economic, political and social success; camouflage fatigues do not turn criminal gangs filled with dysfunctional children and sociopaths into soldiers; and, that “much of what we currently call war is merely armed disorder” and brigandage. “This is an important distinction, as a great deal of military skill is not needed to create armed disorder. You don`t need trained troops to create a proper insurrection or civil war. All you need are angry [or desperate] people and some weapons.”
This, in turn, recalls the Indigenous Military Peace-building Initiative (IMPI) described in the African Armed Forces Journal in June 2002. Core to IMPI was the idea that peace and prosperity on this continent required “the professionalising and right-sizing Africa`s armed forces, paramilitaries and militias…” The flip-side of that is Barlow showing just how easy this is to do and with what economy in life and treasure rebel movements such as UNITA (in Angola) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), in Sierra Leone, could be smashed.
Barlow holds scant regard for the UN, whom he notes – as does Shawcross – is more to disposed to talk peace than make it a reality. Indeed, Shawcross laments that the US – directly and via the Security Council – bullied EO out of Sierra Leone and then muscled the lawfully elected government into a “unity” pact with Sankoh. The result was more blood… Yet, when EO left, the RUF were beaten. The EO founder then clearly believes there is a role for private military companies (PMC) – and there may very well be. During the Rwandan genocide, then-UN peacekeeping chief Kofi Annan even asked them for a quote to put an end to the murder, but adjudged the company as “too expensive.” UN concern about EO`s activities led to a special report on PMCs, which Barlow reproduces at length. The report clearly values principle more than mere human life and provides an interesting counterargument to EO. For the military professional, this is a valuable read.
Executive Outcomes –Against All Odds