“Is the @NewYorker publishing puff profiles of mercenaries Executive Outcomes now? (It’s Joseph Kony-related)”

That is the tweet of the week, from @AfricasACountry. They’re talking about this article, “How a Texas philanthropist funded the hunt for Joseph Kony”:

Davis told me when we spoke again in New York this past week, that, in 2010, she realized that she had to move beyond advocacy…

Laren Poole called to tell her he thought he’d found the right man for the job. Poole was one of the founders of Invisible Children, the San Diego-based advocacy group that rocketed to international prominence last year…

Poole had been reading a military and security blog written by Eeben Barlow, who had been a commando and a covert agent for the South African apartheid regime’s most notorious squads. He was also a visionary and a dreamer. Back in 1997, he told me that his goal was to create the best and biggest military consultancy in the world. The private army he founded, Executive Outcomes, hired itself out, in the late nineties, to end civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola in exchange for lots of cash and access to diamond and oil fields.

Davis went to meet Barlow in South Africa, and, after a family dinner with his wife and son, he told her he would take the job—and that he did not want a fee.

Basically, Davis would pay Executive Outcomes, and EO would train Ugandan Army units into becoming special forces.

Let me start by saying that I generally think military professionalism in Africa is a good thing, that aid has a role to play in training and supporting this, and that I think few people deserve to hunted down faster and (if necessary) deadlier than Joseph Kony. I spent six years studying and working in his carnage and he must be stopped.

Even so, if I were writing an article for one of the most esteemed journalism outlets on the planet, here are a few things I might do:

  1. Hesitate before I describe one of the more notorious mercenary organizations on the planet as mainly “helping to end civil wars” in Africa. Whatever acts EO have on the positive side of their ledger (there are several), there are a great many dodgy ones to balance it out. I might also mention they were outlawed and disbanded, and discuss why.
  2. Mention that training special forces for increasingly dictatorial regimes might have some unexpected consequences. yes, future military coups, though those are less frequent. More worrisome: who will the leader use the special forces on after Kony? Maybe Uganda’s opposition leaders?
  3. Note that this strategy did not work out so well for America, when the CIA funded the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.

There will always be sloppy or rosy reporting. My hunch is that a fundamental problem in US journalism is that, when it comes to Africa, the editors of most newspapers and magazines don’t have enough basic knowledge to do check sloppy Africa reporting. The same mistakes would probably not get made in a story on China or Iraq or Germany.

Update (1 Dec 2013):

The former head of Executive Outcomes (EO), Eeben Barlow, responds on his blog.

Although Blattman gives EO some credit, he refers to a “great many dodgy” things EO did and also that the company was “outlawed” and “disbanded”. Why doesn’t he list these “great many” dodgy acts? And why does he not say when EO was “outlawed” – and by whom and for what reason? As for being “disbanded”, his inference is very clear.

It then somewhat gets less polite. Our email exchange, fortunately, was cordial.
Barlow has a fair point: there is innuendo without fact in my post. Here’s my (unfortunately brief) reaction.

The main message in point 1 above: there there is huge amount of controversy surrounding EO. I’d link to something, but Barlow actually describes the controversy in detail in his post. I would have expected a publication like the New Yorker to, well, mention this.

Casual observers (even academics) are not in a position to do this research themselves. This is what investigative journalists and academics do, and why we each specialize.
The New Yorker failed here, deeply and (I would say) uncharacteristically. If the case against acts being dodgy is a strong one, as Barlow argues, then the New Yorker failed EO as well, because open-minded skeptics like me remain unconvinced.

Other statements of mine deserve clarification or even retraction. On the “outlawed” point, when I wrote this I understood that stopping organizations like EO was the goal of the UN’s Mercenary Convention and other advocacy and legal efforts. However true, on closer inspection that act followed EO’s dissolve. I’m not actually sure what precipitated EO’s demise, and from what I found online or in the news it’s not so transparent. Insight from readers welcome. Independent and dispassionate sources are, as usual, more credible tan the alternatives.

More importantly, I should have written “allegations of dodgy acts” rather than “dodgy acts” since I don’t have special knowledge on what EO has or hasn’t done, and they dispute what their accusers say. I do get worried, though, because my definition of “dodgy” appears to differ from Barlow’s. From his post.

If being contracted by legitimate African governments falls within the ambit of “dodgy acts” then EO must plead guilty

Actually, saying you do the bidding of African governments in the 1980s and 1990s, with only their laws determining what is and is not acceptable, actually increases my worry that dodgy acts were done. By almost any notion of legitimacy, very few African governments had a claim to it in the 1980s and 1990s.But legitimate or not, the actions of a government and their agents can easily be questionable, dodgy, immoral, or illegal (and often are).

The job of journalism and academics is a democracy is to ask and debate these hard questions, and ultimately that’s what disappointed me about the New Yorker article. I wasn’t looking for them to string up EO (indeed, as I mentioned, I think that some of the EO record is commendable) but rather to discuss rather than obscure important controversies.