“Bubbles of security” when companies do police work

Privatisation of security is becoming more common in Africa and sometimes private security companies also carry out the duties of police. The presence of these companies, however, is explained by foreign interests in mineral extraction. A new book in the Africa Now series describes how security, natural resources and politics are interlinked.

In states with weak government institutions and poor service delivery, private security providers sometimes take over tasks that the police or military should perform. One of the chapters in a new NAI book, Private Security in Africa, describes how a security company upholds law and order in rural Tanzania.

“Villagers in that area prefer to involve the security people rather than police, who don’t have the resources anyhow. Moreover, involving police often includes paying bribe for them to do their job”, editor of the book and social anthropologist Mats Utas says.

However, security providers do not do police work out of any notion of social responsibility, Utas points out. They mainly operate where they make profits, like in areas with natural resource extraction or larger cities. For instance, in conflict-torn DR Congo, which has many insecure areas, there are “bubbles of security” around every mine, but not in many other places. Security providers are paid to protect mines and foreign workers but nothing else.

“This is similar to how things were during colonial times. Large companies paid the colonial army for protecting their interests”, Utas notes.

International security providers need good relations with authorities to win tenders, but also reach agreements with local militias or rebel groups. They often recruit labour from such groups.

“Contracting militias is also a way to eliminate potential military threats to the mine as they are less likely to attack their employer. This also means security providers get politically involved in a country", Utas remarks.

He has long experience of fieldwork in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After the end of civil war, in both countries, several former generals and warlords created their own security companies or got leading positions in international security firms. In many cases, commanders on the losing side got help establishing security firms from those who had won power.

“It is a win-win. The generals run businesses and maintain influence over their foot soldiers working in the companies. Obviously, not only former rebels work there, but their military experience and skills are appreciated in security companies. At the same time, the authorities don’t have to worry about the generals starting an uprising – because they have a lucrative occupation”, Utas states.

TEXT: Johan Sävström


Private security in Africa: From the global assemblage to the everyday
Africa Now Series
Edited by Paul Higate and Mats Utas
Published by the Nordic Africa Institute and Zed Books (June 2017)
A comprehensive analysis of the rise of private security providers across Africa, and its implications for African states and societies.

Order a copy of the book
Buy it in paperback or as an e-book at Zed Book's website


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