Following the launch (2013) of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese investments in Africa have multiplied with establishment of terrestrial and maritime routes connecting China with Africa. Besides entailing huge investments, the BRI has also led to deployment of about a million Chinese nationals and positioning of over 10,000 Chinese companies in Africa. The safety of its assets and nationals as well as securing sea routes, threatened by piracy along the African coasts, provided China a pretext for ‘interference’ in Africa through its Private Security Companies (PSCs). In recent times Chinese interests in Africa have been experiencing threats emanating out of conflicts with local, organized crimes such as illegal wildlife trade of which in many cases Chinese nationals are also part of, kidnapping, civil conflicts, terror attacks and piracy. Further, the BRI is being seen as an opportunity by the PSCs to enhance their footprint in Africa.
The use of PSCs, however, is a clever ploy by China to maintain a discreet military presence in Africa and avoid being seen as another colonial power. The PSCs thus seem to be a tool that Beijing wants to employ and prevent involving its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to secure its interests, at least for the time being. However, China continues to provide arms and equipment to African countries and has emerged as a key arms supplier to the Continent. The positioning of Chinese PSCs and supply of arms in Africa indicates that Beijing might move away from its principle of ‘non-interference’ in Africa. As per a 2021 report of the US Department of Defence, China ‘may have considered’ military installations in 13 African countries, including Angola, Kenya, Seychelles, Namibia and Tanzania to expand its military footprint. Meanwhile, China has established a naval base in Djibouti to station a ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ for covering Africa. The base has the capacity to house 10000 soldiers against the provision of deployment of 1000 soldiers in the Chinese-Djiboutian Agreement.
In August 2021, China announced its intent to build its first naval base on the Atlantic coast at Bata in Equatorial Guinea, to look after its oil and commercial interests along West coast of Africa. Notably, China has been grappling with the ‘PLA’s Veterans Crisis’, who are protesting to highlight their poor conditions, a situation exacerbated after the announcement by President Xi Jinping to relieve 300,000 soldiers from the PLA. The Chinese government has to rehabilitate PLA ‘elites’ and soldiers which is the rationale of employing PLA veterans in PSCs. Despite Chinese claims that PSCs are involved in providing passive security services, such as access control and protection against theft & violence, it has been observed that often they act as ‘Private Military Companies’ carrying out covert activities such as spying, gathering of intelligence using ‘Humint’ sources and advice local forces on the information gathered by way of intelligence collection.
Over a period of time, given that most of the founders and managers of the PSCs have police or mlitary background, with close ties with the PLA and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), the PSCs are evolving as an extension of Chinese State and working for interests that are extraterritorial to Africa. Companies like DeWe Security and Frontier Services Group have deployed about 3,000 PLA ex-servicemen who are operating discreetly with local police, intelligence and military personnel. Moreover, Beijing supplied technologies to Angola, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and others, has the potential to be used against political opponents, activists and protesting labor to suppress their dissent and human rights. Another Chinese PSC, ‘Haiwei’, which is present in 51 countries, is actively involved in ‘gathering of intelligence in Ethiopia through its channels and share with the locals for their action against threat.
The Chinese PSCs have a poor staffing record due to the poor quality of training of their personnel, who also have language barriers and lack openness towards the locals. Often former members of PLA/PAP, these personnel have been a tool of repression of Chinese government, they continue to act accordingly in Africa while dealing with any opposition. Being under-paid they lack motivation and act unprofessionally making them prone to carry out illegal activities, such as involvement in/facilitating illegal wildlife trade, drug and human trafficking. Africa has been marred by mercenary culture, characterized by presence of several armed groups who are often in conflict with each other.
The ingress of Chinese PSCs has played its role in encouraging the mercenary culture, worsening the situation. Instances have come to notice that Chinese companies have hired local militias for their protection through the PSCs. The Security companies have also played role in creation of local militias in achieving their end, particularly in mining sector, leading to several violent incidents against the locals by the Chinese Contractors, as in Ghana, when Chinese nationals working in Africa were accused of abusing local workers. In 2020, a Chinese coal mine owner in Zimbabwe shot and wounded two local workers for complaining and demanding wages. Kenya also deported a Chinese national who used racial slurs against his Kenyan colleagues.
This plight of African workers highlights scant regard and non-compliance of labour laws of the African countries by the PSCs. The increasing presence of Chinese PSCs, manned/owned mostly by former PLA/PAP officers/personnel could potentially lead to increased Chinese interference in Africa, besides violation of human rights and increased illegal activities. In times to come, Beijing’s PSCs, backed by rising Chinese military footprint in Africa, are on their way to transform into ‘Private Military Companies’, based on Russian model characterized by setting and achieving geopolitical objectives, involvement in illegal work and adoption of a military approach.