COWBOY CAPITALISTS - PART 1
For maverick entrepreneur Ian Cox, Africa is the last frontier of free enterprise. The former small-time hustler has been busting his ass on the continent for years, selling and moving merchandise. In 2011 he nabbed a lucrative United Nations contract to transport equipment from South Africa to South Sudan, a country on many countries’ embargo list. The other problem: the journey north entails passing through countless checkpoints and dealing with bribe-happy officials and their nonsensical paperwork and regulations.
What Was the South African Military Doing in the Central African Republic?
African politics is a weird mixture of ancient tribal mentalities and democratic ideals imported from the West. It’s proven to be a pretty volatile combination on the continent and one that spurs much of its political strife. One country that’s had to deal with the consequences of that unique approach to governance recently is the landlocked Central African Republic (CAR), home to a violent upheaval that’s been going on since late last year.
In January 2013, South Africa’s ruling ANC party sent 400 troops to the CAR. Ostensibly, they were there to help the country’s president, Francois Bozizé, fight Séléka, the coalition of rebel groups revolting against Bozizé and his government (they allege that Bozizé isn’t honoring peace agreements made after the 2004-2007Central African Republic Bush War). The thing is, the Central African Republic had been suspended from the African Union because of the uprising, which—in theory—should have disqualified them from receiving external military aid.
There is much speculation over why South African President Jacob Zuma deployed his forces to support the CAR’s clearly failing and dictatorial government. The theory picking up the most steam is that both the ANC and a number of its individual members have private mineral and natural resource interests in the CARthat they wish to protect. There are many South African companies exploiting the oil the CAR has to offer, with most of them linked to powerful political figures in South Africa and arguably fueling the coffers that drive the ANC’s political machine.
One such company is DIG Oil, a company prospecting in the southeast of the CAR. Zuma’s nephew sits on the board of DIG Oil—something that suggests Zuma might have more than a passing business interest in the company. It also suggests—if you’re a fan of linking pretty blatant points—that Zuma may well be using the South African military as a private security service to protect his and his cronies’ international business interests.
Simon Mann Says He Was Asked to Help Start the Iraq War
Simon Mann is a British mercenary, most famous for his failed 2004 coup attempt against Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea. An ex-Special Forces soldier, Simon cofounded the private military company Executive Outcomes, which at its height in the mid-90s ran two African wars and used oil money to fund a full-on air force and thousands of private soldiers.
In 2004, after pocketing millions fighting rebels in Angola and, he says, protecting a free election in Sierra Leone, Simon’s luck ran out. He’d been hired to fly to Equatorial Guinea with 69 South African heavies, capture the airport, and escort an opposition leader to the presidential palace. During a layover in Zimbabwe to collect guns and refuel, he was busted.
He ended up in Chikurubi Prison, one of Zimbabwe’s nastiest, before being extradited to Equatorial Guinea four years later. There he spent a year and a half in solitary at Black Beach prison, one of Africa’s nastiest, before being pardoned. Simon has written a book about his adventures, there’s a movie in the pipeline, and he’s working on a novel he wrote in jail. Between all that, he spoke to me about coups, spies, and kick-starting the Iraq War.
Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone.
VICE: The world of mercenaries is a pretty murky one. How did you get to the top of it?
Simon Mann: Not on purpose. I left the SAS in 1992 and joined an oil company that had one project in Soyo, Angola. I went into the office one day and they said, “This is it; we’re fucked.” UNITA rebels had gone back to war, against the treaties they’d signed, and had captured Soyo, ending our business. I suggested that we retake the town. Two months later, we did. Then the government asked us to take the whole country back. We said “Yep, but it’s going to cost you.” We eventually had 2,000 men under contract and a turnover of $19.5 million every nine months.
A nice little earner. Then you went to Sierra Leone?
Yeah. The Sierra Leoneans asked us to go diamond mining there, but there was a problem: a really bad war. So we told the president we’d help him if we could get help applying for a legal diamond concession. It cost us millions to keep fighting, but our money was coming from the war in Angola, which is what made us different from other warlords—we were reinvesting in Africa. Just as we were leaving, the president asked us to stay and secure the election, so it was us—not the UN—who protected that election. We kept asking, “What kind of fucking mercenaries are we?” We were the nicest, most well-behaved bunch ever.
Simon in Namibia, 1993.
Weren’t you also asked to help kick start the Iraq War in 2002?
Yes. Someone who said he was friends with the American neocons asked me to come up with ideas to get the war kicked off. The first was to pick an Iraqi city away from Baghdad, go there with a rebel force made up of 6,000 Iraqi émigrés, take the city, then say, “Yah boo” to Saddam. That would have forced him to come get us and be zapped on the road by the UK and US, or let the flag of rebellion spread.
The second was far more criminal. We wanted to buy an old rust-bucket ship, sail it to Karachi, load up secretly with some weapons-grade uranium, or whatever, then sail it into the Gulf with a motley crew, including me. We’d then leak our presence to the Saudis, get the navy to intercept us, sink their ship—hopefully without killing anyone—then sail into Basra. The world would have gone nuts and we’d have had an excuse for war in Iraq.
That’s pretty scandalous.
Well, yes. We actually got feedback saying that they liked the ideas, but not me. I believed them.
Is This the Century of Africa’s Rise?
For decades, the dominant African narrative in the media was of famine, war, and disease. Recently, in light of a perceived economic upturn and a relative reduction in famine and disease across most of the continent, the narrative has changed to one of thrusting progress. The Economist and TIME magazine have both published big articles in the last two years called “Africa Rising,” complete with positive economic statistics and photos of children flying rainbow kites in the shape of the African continent.
We have moved from pictures of starving children with flies crawling across their faces to pictures of young men in big cities talking on mobile phones. Of course, neither narrative is correct. No narrative that attempts to take on something so large and diffuse can ever be correct. But there is something about these conveniently totalizing stories that fires the passions of believers and cynics alike. Believers point to fast-growing economies and fragile but intact democracies, non-believers refer to what the Kenyan writer and investigative journalist Parselelo Kantai told me was an “insidious little fiction manufactured by global corporate finance.”
The idea of Africa’s rise comes from a straightforward interpretation of high growth rates and increased foreign investment in parts of the continent. As The Economist’s piece pointed out, “over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African.” According to McKinsey & Company, real GDP in Africa grew twice as fast in the 00s as it did in the 80s and 90s. Suddenly everyone has a mobile phone and that mobile phone has great reception.
Renaissance Capital’s Charles Robertson, author of The Fastest Billion, drew my attention to annual growth rates of “around six percent across sub-Sahara since 2000. Some say rapid growth is inevitable from a low base. This is nonsense. People got poorer in sub-Saharan Africa from 1980 to 2000.” Recent growth in Africa and rapid increases in Asia-Africa trade and investment have taken place against a backdrop of global austerity. As people struggle desperately in southern Europe, gas and oil resources are enriching a new generation in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and even—if proposed exploration occurs this year—Somalia and Somaliland.
The problem, though, is that most of this wealth is extractive. There is, as Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, told me, a “lack of value added on the African side.” “The energy companies are seeing massive domestic demand from Asia and they are capitalizing on that,” he said.
Parselelo Kantai put it more bluntly: “What is happening on the continent economically is a new era of massive resource extraction, catalyzed mostly by Chinese domestic demands. And because it is almost exclusively extraction without on-site value addition, it’s a process where the continent’s elites, the Chinese and Westerners, are the only people who benefit. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be called by its real name: the Second Scramble for Africa.”
What both Smith and Kantai are referring to is a system in which an elite minority, often not from Africa, benefit extraordinarily from the natural resources the continent has and the world needs. The outsiders may not wear pith helmets and long for a proper cup of tea any more, but it’s colonial business as usual.
Last Stop, Tel Aviv is the story of the 60,000 asylum seekers living in Israel’s capital. Escaping dictatorships and indefinite military conscription, Africans flee their homelands in the hope of a better life, but arrive to find that they are criminalized, vilified, and unrecognized in the Israeli state. We got to know this marginalized population, who have no place in society and no option to return home.
Watch it here
A PERPLEXING SURVEY OF THE CONGO’S MYRIAD RESISTANCE GROUPS
On my first day embedded with the UN stabilization force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I visited a camp in the city of Goma set up to house rebel combatants who had recently surrendered. The facility was split along ethnic and administrative lines, with only a chain-link fence separating Hutu and Tutsi fighters who, out in the bush, have been spilling each other’s blood by the bucket for decades.
Alongside the scarred and lean young fighters at the camp were dozens of women—“bush wives,” we were told—and their children, all born in the jungle. Most of these women had been taken as sex slaves, who pull double duty as domestic servants forced to cook, mend, and serve as porters for their captors. Already warned by my UN minders that they were concerned about the extent of my coverage, I asked the camp’s public information officer, Sam, how close I could get when snapping photos. “Get your pictures,” he replied. “Just, please, avoid the children.”
Goma is the capital city of the North Kivu province of the DRC and is situated in one of the world’s worst geopolitical neighborhoods. To the southeast, there’s the Rwandan border, which largely consists of mountain jungles through which scores of Hutu militants passed in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing punishment for their role in the massacre of Tutsis there. Over the course of the next decade, this armed migration directly contributed to the escalation of ethnic and factional tensions in the First and Second Congo Wars, in which an estimated 5 million people were murdered. Meanwhile, to the northeast of Goma, the West Nile region of Uganda has served as a transportation corridor for heavily armed Acholi-speaking fanatics like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—who were made infamous by Invisible Children’s viral KONY 2012 documentary—to cross the border and drive deep into the DRC, where they’ve engaged in all sorts of ruthless behavior, like herding villagers into churches before burning them down to the ground.
FDLR ex-combatants, bush wives, and their children are processed for intake at a UN transit camp in Goma, North Kivu.
While KONY 2012 got a lot of flack for focusing on a rebel faction that had largely dissipated by the time of its release, ethnic conflicts are still erupting throughout the DRC, albeit of different varieties. These ethnic tensions are in turn exacerbating an already raging fight between local groups to control the illicit mining of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and other minerals essential to the manufacturing of everything from smartphones to air bags to jet engines. As a result of these tensions, a slew of foreign and native Hutu and Tutsi militias have renewed hostilities against each other.
My Friends Started a Bus Company in Congo
In August 2010, I traveled to Rwanda with three friends to cover the presidential election. We spent a month there and I headed back to Europe, but my friends—Yassin, Arthur, and Louis-Guillaume—crossed the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo and decided to start their own Congolese bus company, the “Amani Express,”which translates to Peace Expressin English.
The DRC is reportedly the sixth most corrupt country in Africa and its roads are rarely paved, which doesn’t seem like a great recipe for a successful start-up bus company. But that didn’t dissuade my three friends, who settled in Butembo, North-Kivu and have built their company into a profitable one, all the way from the ground up.
I thought this was all pretty impressive, so last time Yassin and Louis-Guillaume were here in Paris, I asked them some questions about their business.
Amani Express’ first passengers
VICE: What prompted you to set up your own company in the Democratic Republic of Congo ?
Yassin: Ignorance, mainly. We didn’t realize all the factors that put off foreign investors from starting businesses in the DRC. Some surveys rank the DRC as the sixth most corrupt country in Africa in order to dissuade people like us from investing money there. We were a little naïve, but that’s ultimately what has brought us so far.
LG: We were completely amazed by the country as soon as we crossed the border. We really wanted to settle in a hostile environment and live an extraordinary adventure.
Did your skin color give you any trouble when trying to fit in?
Yassin: My dad is Somali, so I thought I’d be able to be the link between the Congolese and us, but I quickly realized that, to them, all three of us were white. When we got there, people called us “muzungu,” which means “the white man” or “the rich man.” We thought that the authorities in the region would eventually give us more credit because of the company, but they didn’t. The company still suffers from corruption because of our skin color, but our relationship with the local population has changed; we’re now seen as real members of our neighborhood.
LG: It’s difficult to establish your personality and go beyond skin color at the beginning. Even though the authorities take advantage of it, people tend to put us on a pedestal for some reason. They’re very respectful and admiring toward us. It’s very strange.
Yassin, Arthur and the Amani Express team.
Do you get into much trouble with the local authorities?
LG: [laughs] They’re probably the main source of our problems.
Yassin: They call it “hassle” over there. Mind you, that can mean “a gun to the head,” which is definitely a hassle. On several occasions, soldiers sent by the local chief of immigration—who we know very well now—turned up at our house at dawn. I guess he thought, This was a bad month, I need money, so how about sending a few armed men to put pressure on the expats and extort some money from them?
A Cringeworthy Letter from an Idiot Who Wants to Save Africa
Sometimes you get an email that is so good you know people are going to struggle to believe it is true. Last year, while looking into Asian media companies and their plans to expand in Ethiopia (it was a thrill-a-minute story, trust me), we got in touch with a young American who was in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. He was out there trying to sell advertising space to Ethiopian businesses for a number of Chinese companies.
Looking for a little insight into the dry mechanics of this, we emailed him asking for some information. We were expecting some spreadsheets, maybe a few overheads. What came back was a diary entry. An outpouring of emotion that was ridiculous but also kind of typical of what a lot of people, some of them professional journalists, think about Africa. We sent it to some writers and other professional folk working in Africa to ask for their informed opinion. Some of them didn’t get it or were too po-faced to comment (illuminating in itself). But some of them did. So here’s the diary entry, which we’ve corrected for basic spelling and grammar and made anonymous to spare the poor dude’s blushes, followed by some comments.
So I’m in Africa. First full day down and out. It’s a real culture shock being here. I’m literally a walking attraction. It’s strange. Strange how people view other people as exotic and foreign. I’m the outsider looking in. I’m the unwanted stain on the shirt you love but never knew existed. (Don’t really know what that’s supposed to mean but yeah, Africa!) I made it. I totally did it. Now what?
My life is a freestyle. Today I got a tour of the African Union. The fucking African Union, I didn’t even know that existed until today. It was surreal my entire African experience has been a daydream. I’m not sure when I fell asleep but I’m not planning on waking up any time soon.
So we have a meeting with the prime minister tomorrow, Meles Zenawi. I’m super fucking pumped, I really like Africa/Ethiopia so far. It’s amazing and I’m having fun. I’m getting cultured and I’m seeing the world. Let me tell you a little about my world and karma. Yesterday I take out cash and don’t realize that I left my card in the ATM, in an Ethiopian shopping center, till this morning. I go back to the bank only to find someone, some beautifully kind Ethiopian, has returned my card. The karma is a factor because before I left Belgium I found a card at the ATM and slid it under the bank’s door (because it was closed for the weekend). BAM! WOW!
And that’s what happens when you don’t fuck a stranger in the ass! Good story, huh? What else, Ethiopians are extremely nice. So far, so good. Oh, and my internet connection is shit.
I’m in Africa. Alone. By myself in a hotel room. Overlooking the city. Waiting to take over the world. I just watched 127 Hours and it reminds me, we (as human beings) are capable of anything. Extraordinary things. Unimaginable things. Fuck what we know. There’s more to life than just gossip. Than just words. There’s more to life than just the routine. And I’m on a journey to find these things. To live these things. To cherish these things. I will have my adventure. I will find my dream girl. I will feel the love. I will be the man I’ve always planned to be. I will not stop. I will live. I will die. I will be happy. I will be sad. I will be young. I will grow old. I will experience life and all its secrets. I will not settle. I am the motherfucking man. This world is beautiful and the people within it are amazing.
A Weird Holiday at Mobutu Sese Seko’s Jungle Hideaway
The world has seen tyrants more evil than Zaire’s ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, even among Africa’s legion of Big Men who snatched power and held it when Europe relinquished its colonial chokehold on the continent. But no despot was quite as colorful. A case could be made for Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who proclaimed himself emperor in 1977 and enjoyed feasting on the flesh of his enemies. The closest Mobutu ever came to cannibalism was simply downing the occasional beaker of human blood.
Mobutu managed to control Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years before being deposed in 1997, and during that time he bled the country dry while enjoying a lifestyle a real emperor might have envied. Once, after flying with Mobutu on his private DC-8 from France to Zaire, I watched with astonishment as he sent the jet immediately back to the Riviera to retrieve a fashion magazine Madame Mobutu had forgotten.
In June 1993, CNN’s Africa correspondent Gary Striker wanted to interview “Le Maréchal” about what amounted to a civil war in the southeastern part of the country while his army, unpaid for months, pillaged Kinshasa, its capital. I was Gary’s producer, but sensing we’d never get the truth from “The Helmsman” (Mobutu had a laundry list of unofficial titles), I had a secret agenda. I wanted Mobutu’s hat: that trademark jaunty leopard-skin number he sported everywhere.
As the military began ransacking Kinshasa, Mobutu literally headed for the hills to his native village of Gbadolite, where he’d erected a lavish presidential palace for himself in the heart of the equatorial forest. Of course, getting there—as well as convincing Mobutu to grant an interview—posed herculean challenges, even for Africa.
I’d been in contact with Mobutu’s advisors for weeks while we covered other news in Gabon: the second African/African-American Summit in Libreville, the capital, as well as Albert Schweitzer’s famed leper colony in Lambaréné. The hospital was still functioning, along with a small museum containing the doctor’s fabled organ (with Bach sheet music) and other personal items that belonged to the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suzanne, the museum’s guide, was only a child when Schweitzer ran the place and said Big Al, who believed promptness to be a virtue, savagely beat both girls and boys if they were late for school—a juicy historical tid- bit the Nobel Committee obviously overlooked. “Oh, yes,” Suzanne insisted, “he slap us VERY hard across zee FACES.”
Back in Libreville, I finally received confirmation that Mobutu would be sending a plane to shuttle us to his jungle outpost. We were instructed to be at the airport early the next morning where we waited about 14 hours for a flight that never arrived. It was yet another WAWA1 moment. Two days and $600 in telephone charges later, we were back at the airport… still waiting. After standing around for another 12 hours with our dicks in our hands, a white 727 with Zaire’s distinctive red-and-gold torch livery on its tail landed and rolled up the tarmac. Finally, less than ten minutes later, we were airborne.