I am writing in response to Sean Creehan's article "Soldiers of Fortune 500" (HIR, Winter 2002), in which mercenaries are portrayed as an acceptable means of establishing security in nations facing insurgencies. Mr. Creehan points to Sierra Leone as an example of a situation in which mercenaries restored order and brought peace and claims that their removal brought about a collapse of stability that could have been prevented by allowing them to remain.
First, I am rather surprised that Mr. Creehan would choose Sierra Leone as a case upon which to base his argument. If anything, I should think Sierra Leone would be a clear example of the destabilizing influence and misery brought on by the introduction of mercenary forces into internal conflicts and of the long-term consequences of this interference. In Sierra Leone, a weak and widely discredited government fought a decade-long and unimaginably brutal war against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group with ambiguous ideological roots and a record of arbitrary and indiscriminate executions, mass rape, and mutilations. While neither side can claim innocence or ignorance with respect to human rights abuses, most of the atrocities have been linked to the RUF. Both sides paint the war in vague ideological terms, but the primary battle is for control of Sierra Leone's vast mineral resources, especially its diamond mines. Proceeds from the sale of diamonds have bankrolled the war for both sides despite an official embargo on these diamonds by the international community. Mr. Creehan correctly points out that the introduction of mercenaries on the side of the government allowed the temporary suppression of the rebels and for a time brought some degree of stability. However, as he also notes, on the two occasions the mercenaries were removed from the conflict, the rebel threat soon re-emerged.
This gets to the heart of the problem for a large number of African governments. It is not purely a lack of military force that makes African governments like that of Sierra Leone vulnerable to insurgency and rebellion, but rather a lack of perceived legitimacy. When governments like that of Sierra Leone are perceived to be weak, corrupt, and unrepresentative of the population, a vacuum of authority is created into which rebel groups and even neighboring nations can step. A government can hire mercenaries in an attempt to suppress rebels in the short run, but not only does this not correct its crisis of legitimacy, it in fact further reduces its perceived and actual authority. The government is rightfully perceived as too weak to support itself without the external aid of mercenary forces and becomes heavily reliant upon these forces to sustain itself. It will stay in power, at least nominally, as long as it can continue payments to the mercenaries, but should financial crisis or external pressure cause the p ayments to the mercenaries to dry up, these outside forces will leave and the government will fall. This reliance further reinforces the weakness of the government, as it removes both the funds and the incentive to develop lasting national institutions. …