Nearly 100 coups have been staged across Africa since 1960, presenting challenges and opportunities for outside states jockeying for power on the continent. When independence movements began to sweep through Africa in the 1950s, many of the European nations that had carved up the continent had to look for alternative ways to maintain their clout in their newly freed colonies. Former colonial powers such as France and Britain did so by installing or supporting leaders who would uphold their interests — a priority in territories with critical natural resources such as oil, diamonds, copper and uranium. The threat of instability in these emergent and often feeble nations provided their onetime parent states an impetus to lend their support, offering defense and security agreements in exchange for the continued flow of goods. France signed nearly a dozen defense agreements with its former colonies.
In 1964 a coup led by factions of the military ousted Leon Mba, the president of Gabon. At the time, Gabon was France's principal source of oil, and de Gaulle immediately ordered French paratroopers to intervene, citing the 1960 defense agreement with Gabon and quashing the new government. After reinstating Mba, elements of the External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service, then France's external intelligence agency, stayed behind to guard his palace. Robert Maloubier, a member of the agency and a former French agent of the British Special Operations Executive during World War II, was chosen to form a new Gabonese presidential guard. Maloubier brought several expert French policemen, marksmen and bodyguard trainers to the country, building an elite guard to protect the president who had done so much to protect Paris' interests.
After Ghana gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, its leader, Kwame Nkrumah, forged closer relations with the Soviet Union. When Nkrumah bought arms from the Soviets and established a Soviet-trained presidential guard, however, the Ghanaian armed forces' long-standing ties with the British — who trained and educated Ghana's officers corps — came back to haunt him. Angered by the leader's sudden political shift and burgeoning security forces (which comprised a 1,500-member battalion and plans for a second), officers of the Ghanaian army overthrew Nkrumah in 1966.
For countries without colonial interests in Africa, the wave of independence movements offered an opportunity to make inroads in nations outside their traditional spheres of influence. Here, too, security provided an entry point. For example, when Guinea declared its independence from France in 1958, the communist world was at the ready. In time, Soviet advisers poured into the country, and Cuban military officials trained President Ahmed Sekou Toure's entire presidential guard. Having assumed control of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi turned to East German security services to train his personal guards.
In 2006, President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic approached South African President Thabo Mbeki at an African Union meeting to ask for help in reducing his country's dependence on its former colonial master, France. Mbeki saw Bozize's request as an opportunity for South Africa to extend its power further into Central Africa, and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement the next year. Bozize then submitted an extensive wish list of defense assistance services — something South Africa neither could nor wanted to provide. As a compromise, Mbeki offered to furnish the Central African leader with a close protection team until South Africa could train a team of locals to give him better security. Bozize's protection team and small training mission grew slowly until 2013, when the South African National Defense Force deployed 200 additional soldiers. The troops eventually countered several thousand Seleka rebels attacking from northern Central African Republic in an attempt to take its capital, Bangui, from the Bozize government. Thirteen South African soldiers were killed in the fight, and the Bozize administration collapsed, sending its leader into exile and undermining South Africa's influence in the unstable country. In the wake of the coup, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza came to rely almost entirely on Rwandan peacekeepers for security. Samba-Panza explained her choice by citing the Central African Republic's close relations with Rwanda. The countries grew only closer as a result of the peacekeeper's service, and Samba-Panzer later appointed a consul to Rwanda.
President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) engaged Israeli advisers to train his Special Presidential Division. Given its reputation for security and its close alliance with Zaire's Cold War patron state, the United States, Israel seemed a prudent choice for Mobutu. The leader added another layer of security on top of the Israeli training and recruited only members from his ethnic group to staff his personal guard. In this way, he ensured that disgruntled bodyguards from another group would not turn on him. (Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, after all, was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards after the Indian army's assault on the most prominent Sikh holy site.) Mobutu is not the only African leader to rely on Israel's expertise in personal security.
For years, Cameroonian President Paul Biya has employed retired Israeli Gen. Mayer Heres for protection. That Heres is far removed from the ethnic intrigues that plague Cameroon has likely endeared him to Biya, a Christian from south Cameroon whose 34-year tenure in office included a 1984 coup attempt by Muslim presidential guards from the north.
In recent decades, the rise of private security and military companies has enabled African leaders to find disinterested experts to train their personal security details. For instance, TASK International, a U.K.-based firm established in 1990, trained Nigeria's presidential security guard. This type of contract offers African leaders all the skills and training of former top-level soldiers from the United Kingdom, France or the United States (among others) without the hassle of foreign governments' meddling and ambitions. President Ali Bongo of Gabon has relied heavily on the experience of Park Sang Cheol, a South Korean bodyguard who has provided his security for almost three decades.
For better or worse, African leaders have options when looking for personal security, even if some are not offered with the noblest intentions.
As the African proverb goes, "The hand that takes is beneath the hand that gives."
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