...a drama now unfolding in both Zimbabwe and the tiny oil-producing nation of Equatorial Guinea is highlighting the growing demand for mercenaries in West Africa, a volatile region that's becoming a key exporter of oil to the United States.
The saga began March 7 when Zimbabwean officials stormed a Boeing 727 in Harare, the capital. On board they found "military materiel" and more than 60 men, including South Africans, Angolans, and Namibians. All were accused of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea and may face the death penalty. They are currently awaiting charges.
Equatorial Guinea's repressive regime, meanwhile, has had mercenary help of its own. In 2000 the oil-rich government hired a private American security firm called MPRI to beef up its military. The contract didn't last long, but it hints at why mercenaries - both the corporate and shadowy types - are thriving in this region.
Equatorial Guinea, nestled in the crook of Africa's west coast, is the region's third-biggest oil producer. In 1995, the year a big oil field was discovered, the country's per capita annual income was $370. By 2002, it had jumped to $5,000. But as in most of West Africa, much of the wealth is held by the ruling elite. This can spark envy - and coup attempts, thus boosting a government's desire to protect itself by hiring military muscle.
But oil is just one reason for West Africa's growing demand for guns for hire. The US, for instance, is now more engaged in West Africa. But with troops tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, it's increasingly hiring private security firms to represent it.
In a recent speech, Theresa Whelan, a top official for Africa at the US Department of Defense, put it this way: "The use of contractors in Africa ... means that the US can be supportive in trying to ameliorate regional crises without necessarily having to put US troops on the ground, which is often times a very difficult political decision."
We learn that the MPRI contract of Equatorial Guinea's repressive regime "didn't last long." It stands to reason that our oil-crazed White House wouldn't be content to let the third-biggest oil producer in West Africa collapse, unless its conversion to American interests was supervised and enforced in one way or another.