The Rise of Chinese mercenaries in Africa

In recent years, China has made massive inroads to secure valuable assets within Africa. Since the start of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, Chinese profits have quadrupled from Africa alone. In 2017 for instance, Chinese projects in Africa from the BRI brought in an estimated of $51 billion dollars in revenues. There is no mistaking that Africa is a key component in China’s economic ambitions.

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The amount of labor and capital migrating to China has also seen a spike in recent years. It was reported in 2018 that over 200,000 Chinese workers migrated to Africa, bringing the current number of Chinese workers in Africa to about one million. In addition, an estimated 10,000 Chinese companies have also set up shop in numerous African nations, looking to take advantage of the rich natural resources the continent has to offer. We are seeing a scramble for Africa within our very own life time.

However, these profitable ventures in Africa do not come without their penalties. Most of the companies located in Africa were deemed by The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to be in medium, to high-risk countries. In addition, this has spurred concerns of terrorism, piracy, and looting taking place in or around key BRI assets.

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According to a report from the Small Wars Journal, the Gulf of Guinea encompassing the countries of Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo accounts for 73% of hijackings and 92% of hostage-takings. In recent years, China has employed private security forces to maintain order and protect key assets within these regions. They range from low level security procedures such as manning check points, to high level security operations like that of armed transport of VIPs to securing shipping routes. Chinese security in Africa has boomed.

The reason why China has increased its private security presence in recent years is also to avoid using professional military in areas it deems high risk. China has stressed to African nations that it will not follow the same path as ‘Western colonizers’ by allowing its military to take an active role in Chinese-African security. Also, for China to project power abroad for long periods of time currently remains outside its scope of capabilities. Private security firms allow for China to secure its investments abroad without having to stain its military, for the moment.

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Return of the US

Another hallmark of Chinese private security firms based in Africa is to consult with CEO’s of Western based security firms. Eric Prince, former CEO of Black Water is now CEO of Frontier Service Group; an African-Chinese focused private security corporation based in Hong Kong.

Erik Prince, CEO and Founder of Black Waters
Erik Prince, CEO and Founder of Black Waters

It is becoming increasingly common for Chinese based private security firms to poach foreign, high-level CEOs to help consult in their future development. Whether this co-op by former western mercenary moguls and Chinese security firms will benefit Africa’s long term interests is yet to be seen.

The Perils of Mercenaries

There are already signs of abuses being conducted by Chinese private security firms within Africa. Because of the lack of oversight of these firms by Beijing, some have taken it upon themselves to act autonomously in the region; even going so far to contract local militias for protection. A lack of oversight comes from the fact that a lot of these security firms do not register the proper licensing with Beijing when launching, and Beijing has not taken the initiative in keeping these companies accountable for their establishment and operations within Africa.

Private military contractors may serve as a blessing in disguises in the years to come, or a nightmare. They could allow for China to secure its BRI investments while also allowing for a basic level of security to African nations without spooking them into ruminations of another scramble for Africa. Yet, private security contractors can also serve as a detriment to Africa’s development if they are left unchecked, and begin manipulating local regional affairs to their interests.   

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