Mercenary insight

2010-10-20 00:00

FOR reasons which should be all too obvious, the mercenary business has not enjoyed the best of reputations, especially on this continent. Generally of a rightist political hue, its members tend to operate outside the moral and legal framework imposed on the state and are able to bend the rules of engagement to suit themselves, being beholden only to those who are paying for their services.

Despite the official opprobrium, however, the contracts have continued to roll in with West Africa in particular providing a happy hunting ground (in the nineties, for example, the South African-run military company, Executive Outcomes, helped the Sierra Leonean president to defeat the rebels who threatened to overrun the capital, Freetown).

Hoping to gain access to a war in Liberia that no one else had filmed, cameraman and journalist James Brabazon decided he needed the services of just such a soldier to cover his back, even though he realised he risked compromising his ethics as a journalist by doing so. The man he finally chose for the job was an unassuming former member of the South African Special Forces who would later become infamous for his role in the conspicuously catastrophic attempt to overthrow the government in Equatorial Guinea — Nick DuToit.

Despite their difference in backgrounds and ethical concerns the two struck up an unlikely friendship with DuToit even agreeing to continue protecting Brabazon free of charge when their funds suddenly dried up.

The first half of My Friend the Mercenary centres on their time together in Liberia where DuToit uses his political and military connections to wangle them a ride with the rebel forces (LURD) intent on overthrowing Charles Taylor’s bloodthirsty regime. Brabazon writes easily and well, vividly conveying the rancid, energy-sapping atmosphere of the jungle through which they are compelled to march, the shambolic organisation and often chaotic nature of their encounters with the enemy, as well as the casual brutality of the soldiers themselves, many of whom were still in their early teens. Throughout it all DuToit remained the voice of reason and calm, quietly (and often humorously) shepherding his charge through the minefield (Brabazon credits DuToit with saving his life).

The second part of the book is given over to an account of DuToit’s role in the botched coup in Equatorial Guinea which ended with him being thrown into Black Beach prison, Africa’s most notorious jail.

It seems to have been a singularly ill-advised sortie from the start with the South African Intelligence Services, for one, always a jump ahead of them. For all their supposed experience in covert operations the conspirators (who included Briton Simon Mann and was part­sponsored by Mark Thatcher) displayed an, at times, astonishing naiveté especially in assuming they could just flit into a country ruled by someone as paranoid and temperamental as Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, collect their weapons and then fly out again.

Anthony Stidolph

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