The mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, against the Russian military, highlights one of the challenges of engaging mercenaries or private military contractors of any hue, including thugs, to help a state prosecute its wars and police actions. Prigozhin, a long term ally of the Russian strong man Vladmir Putin, rose to prominence after his mercenaries helped Russia to raise its flag in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in April this year following a long and bloody battle. Emboldened by its successes, Prigozhin began to accuse Russia’s top military chiefs of being responsible for the failures and setbacks in the Ukrainian conflict.
The feud reached new heights on Saturday, June 24 2023, when Prigozhin alleged that a Wagner camp in Ukraine had been attacked “from the rear” by Russia’s military. The Russian Defense Ministry denied the accusation. Prigozhin then claimed his fighters had crossed from the occupied eastern Ukraine into the Russian border city of Rostov-On-Don and that they would fight anyone who tried to stop them. They later began an audacious march to Moscow, capital of Russia, before suddenly turning back – arguing that it did not want to see the spilling of Russian blood. Wagner, is understood to have fought in Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and Mozambique.
How does Asari Dokubo come into this?
Asari Dokubo, an ex-militant and leader of the defunct Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, has been in the news recently. A loquacious and attention-seeking supporter of President Tinubu during the campaigns, he visited the Presidential Villa recently and not only had a photo Op with the President, but was also given a rare and ill-advised privilege of hosting a press conference at the State House behind Nigeria’s Coat of Arms. In that press conference Dokubo took on the Nigerian military and accused their high command of being behind oil bunkering in the Niger Delta region.
He also claimed that his “men” and not the Nigerian military were responsible for securing the Abuja-Kaduna road and other hot spots in the country. As he put it: “There is a full-scale war going on and the blackmail of the Nigerian state by the Nigerian military is shameful. They said they do not have enough armament and people listen to this false narrative. They are lying. They are liars. I repeat they are liars because I am a participant…
I am a participant in this war. I fight on the side of the government of the Nigerian state in Plateau, Niger, Anambra, Imo, Abia and Rivers. And in Abuja today, you are travelling to Kaduna on this road. It is not the army that makes it possible for you to travel to Abuja or travel to Kaduna, and vice versa. It is my men, employed by the government of the Nigerian state, stationed in Niger.”
If the above claims are true, it means that Asari Dokubo either runs a private military company which the government engages or is a thug in control of armed militia engaged by, or working in conjunction with some elements in the government. Whichever is the case here brings up the whole discussion about the state engagement of private military contractors of any hue in the provision of security:
Modern private military companies (PMCs) have evolved from their origins from a group of ex Special Air Service (SAS) unit of the British Army who in 1965 founded WatchGuard International. There was a dramatic growth in the number and size of PMCs at the end of the Cold War with the exodus of some six million military personnel from Western militaries. Some of the better known PMCs include Blackwater and Vinnell Corporation (USA), G4S and Keeni-Meeny Services (United Kingdom), Lordan-Levdan (Israel), Executive Outcomes (South Africa) and Wagner Group (Russia). Though there was a United Nations Mercenary Convention in 1989 banning the use of mercenaries, which came into force on 20 October 2001, (as of August 2021, the convention had been ratified by 37 states, and signed but not ratified by 9 states), several countries continue to use different forms of PMCs, whose duties could differ depending on who hires them.
Supporters of PMCs often argue that it is cost effective, especially in a situation where the local security agencies are stretched. The argument is that once a contract is awarded to the PMC, the government does not have to worry about stuffs like feeding the fighters, clothing them or providing medical care as the PMC would be responsible for all those. While we do not have details of any government contract with Asari Dokubo or any other military or paramilitary contractor, we have not heard them complaining of being under-equipped as we regularly hear from our soldiers. In fact, while Tompolo’s N48bn oil pipeline surveillance contract has been credited with increase in oil production in Niger Delta by tackling oil bunkering, Asari Dokubo is claiming credit for the relative safety on some hitherto dangerous Nigerian roads “at a fraction of what the military spends.”
One of the criticisms of PMCs is that there are issues of oversight in their operations and of control and subordination to authorities. We see this insubordination to formal authorities playing out in the Wagner conflict with Russian military leadership and in the recent attacks on the Nigerian military by Asari Dokubo. What is shocking is the rather tepid response to Dokubo’s attacks on the military and the state turning a blind eye even when he was brandishing an AK47 and threatening an ethnic group. This raises the question of the nature of Asari Dokubo’s contract with the Nigerian state, (if such exists) and whether like Yevgeny Prigozhin he is already growing too big for Nigeria’s political and military leadership.
Given Asari Dokubo’s loquaciousness and antecedents as a violence entrepreneur, including shifty alliances, promotion of provincialism and recently Igbophobia, his warm embrace by President Tinubu compounds his (Tinubu’s) image problems and negates his recent efforts to distance Tinubu the President from the Tinubu of Boudillon. During the campaigns Dokubo claimed that when he was in prison Tinubu paid his children’s school fees, bought him his first car and even gave him a house. While we do not know the nature of the cord that binds them together, there is no doubt that a chummy relationship with such a character will make it more difficult for Tinubu to successfully re-invent himself as a statesman – as he seems to be striving to do since he became President.
It is generally unreliable, if not dangerous, for a state to depend on non-state actors for the provision of security. The modern State, according to the German sociologist Max Weber, “is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The outsourcing of aspects of security to PMCs questions this monopoly – as we have seen from the outbursts of both Prigozhin and Dokubo against Russia’s and Nigeria’s conventional militaries respectively. It should be borne in mind that in situations of armed conflict, the return to public order can be achieved only if the state’s legitimacy is restored and not if PMCs claim that they restored security for the state. Besides, since mercenaries have vested interests in the perpetuation of conflicts in order to remain in business, even if they succeed in helping to restore order in one conflict zone, they will surely want to open another conflict zone to remain in business. In essence since outsourcing aspects of security to violence entrepreneurs carries the risk of the PMC doing a Prigozhin, it is something that should be properly thought through by any government.
Jideofor Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State
University, Keffi and Extraordinary Professor of Government Studies at North Western University, Mafikeng South Africa. He is also the founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers and can be reached at 0705 807 8841(Text or WhatsApp only).