The Devious Art of Securing Influence in Africa

Stephen Rakowski
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst, Stratfor
8 MINS READAug 21, 2016 | 13:03 GMT
Hissene Habre (R), then-president of Chad, greets Mobutu Sese Seko (L), then-president of Zaire, on his arrival in Ndjamena on Aug. 20, 1983. For African leaders in charge of poor, weak states, maintaining personal security is a perennial challenge.
Hissene Habre (R), then-president of Chad, greets Mobutu Sese Seko (L), then-president of Zaire, on his arrival in Ndjamena on Aug. 20, 1983. For African leaders in charge of poor, weak states, maintaining personal security is a perennial challenge.
(JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders around the world must routinely deal with threats to their personal security. For the heads of many African countries, contending with those threats can be an especially fearsome endeavor. Since gaining their independence, many African nations have remained poor, weak states filled with competing ethnic and political factions, making it difficult for any one ruler to satisfy his or her public's demands. Some leaders have imposed authoritarian rule to stifle dissent, only fueling discord.

Over the decades, numerous African leaders have been assassinated or chased from power. The former rebel leader and president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laurent Kabila, for example, was murdered by his own bodyguard, a child soldier, in 2001. In such volatile times and places, presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state in Africa have devoted considerable attention to ensuring their security. To that end, various competing states, individuals and private security companies have offered their protective services to African leaders through the years, usually with an ulterior motive.

Nearly 100 coups have been staged across Africa since 1960, presenting a challenge and an opportunity 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.

Guarding Influence

France signed nearly a dozen defense agreements with its former colonies. But protecting the countries' external security often entailed physically protecting their leaders, who, in the words of Alain Peyrefitte — then a minister in President Charles de Gaulle's government — were "at the mercy of agitated [people] with guns." In 1964, the same year Peyrefitte made his assessment, 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.

Gaining Influence

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 (before eventually adopting the infamous all-female Amazonian Guard).

By the same token, a quick change of patron state — especially to a more politically radical one — can provoke a backlash that not even a highly trained presidential guard can avert. 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.

Providing physical security for a leader and his or her family is a particularly useful tool for a country that wants to assert its influence without committing extensive resources. 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.

Dodging Influence

Some leaders prefer to forgo the complications of international power politics and opt instead for a neutral country to provide security training. 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.

That said, it is not always clear where national allegiance ends and business begins. Though perhaps best known for his operations in countries such as the Congo, Rhodesia and Angola, the legendary French mercenary Bob Denard was particularly adept in forming the president guard of Comoros, a nation of disparate islands near Madagascar. During his time in Comoros, Denard ran a 500-man presidential guard that held such sway over the impoverished state that many considered Denard himself to be the real power behind the country's government.

Today, Africa's leaders face, if not a more stable environment, then at least a lower assassination rate: Seven years have passed since the last assassination, which killed President Joao Barnado Vieira of Guinea-Bissau. If anything, old age poses the most pressing threat to many of Africa's aging leaders. Still, many of the continent's states remain weak and fraught with ethnic and tribal tensions, giving their leaders cause for concern in the years ahead. 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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