Chris Blattman

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“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.

12 Responses

  1. I’m sick and tired of the whole Joseph Kony nonsense that captures the imagination of the know-nothings in the West. That EO is pilloried by the same talking heads adds further insult to injury.

    If it is true, as Blattman suggests, that the 1980s-1990s Africa (sub-Saharan I presume) had a paucity of “legitimate” governments, then why would the entire UN and western powers have relations with these governments and conduct official business with them if they had a problem with the “legitimacy” of the people they were dealing with.

    If you’re going to attack EO ad nauseaum for having had official dealings with these governments, then please also attack Francois Mitterand, Maggie Thatcher, Ronnie Reagan, and cohorts, for their doing the same.

  2. You sir, have no idea what you are talking about.

    For goodness sake, you held one “job”. Just one at Deloitte & Touche and you could not hold on to even that one. You have as much life experience as a potatoe. You have seen nothing of the world but HBO and MTV, and heard of your cohort’s accolade.
    You sir killed my family. You came and cut my father’s hands off, smashed his foot with a truck, and laughed about it. Then while he we were tied to posts my sisters and mother was raped repeated till they bled to death. Then they were burned alive. You did that sir. I was there and watched you do it. Maybe you had a different face, and skin color – but might as well been you. It was your and your buddies’ words that let the beasts loose. You think you know better.
    I will never forget those years I spent in slavery because of you and your ilk. Every day I wake up and do not look into the mirror. I scare little children on the street. You did that to me.
    When EO was here, we were safe. They came through; they were real *gentlemen*. You sir, do not have the right to even mention their names without prostrating. Narcissism is an illness. You should have that looked at as it spreads.

  3. Sir, you really didn’t do a thorough job before posting your ‘dodgy’ accusations. You obviously haven’t studied the situations the Executive Outcomes chose to enter. Africa is an ever changing place where unfortunately, sometimes, the only solution is putting down rebels with military force. A leftist ideology that looks to the UN for any resolutions in conflict zones is out of luck. If more countries with aims for peace were to employ capable military men in conjunction with the host nation’s army, it would save 100’s of thousands of lives. There is a possibility that they can be misused and upset the geopolitical norms but Africa requires African solutions. We cannot as Americans or Europeans impose our morality or ideology on that continent.

  4. Why don’t you just contact some people in the nations where EO used to work, and ask them what they think of EO. Africa is getting more connected with Social Media, and it must be within your realms to ask people directly. I am not saying this is the best way of doing research, but it must be better than writing about something you know nothing about. Eeben Barlow may even be nice enough to invite you along to go speak to his clients. Surely this much be a better approach than commenting on something you know nothing about.

  5. My question tends to be why so much focus on Kony? I know he has done many, many horrible things but what about the other side of the fight for power in Uganda in the 80’s? You know, the other warlord just as guilty as Kony in crimes against humanity, the man people in Uganda refer to as Mr. President Yoweri Museveni?

  6. Eeben Barlow’s refutation did not appear to be any much longer on facts than your original commentary. Now you have partially retracted and clarified will he do the same? Or is that only for “so-called intellectuals”? Military men, I can only assume, do not have to live up to the same standards, but instead go back on the attack, as he has done in his latest post.

  7. I enjoyed Barlow’s list of things EO has NOT done:
    “Neither EO – nor later STTEP – ever engaged in any criminal activities nor smuggled drugs to embassy personnel anywhere, sexually assaulted foreign nationals where we worked, simultaneously supported governments and those who oppose them, interfered in the internal politics of African governments, killed innocent civilians under the guise of ‘collateral damage’ and invaded countries.”

    In a previous unrelated post he also noted:
    “The golden rule is always: ‘Don’t get caught’.”

    (It’s been a long time since my undergraduate ethics class, but that’s not the Golden Rule I remember hearing about!)

  8. Firstly. I am an ex EO employee, book number 32. I worked on the Angola contract in the airwing as refueler and marshaler. We were not a bunch of yahoo mercs.
    We did not run amok like you see in Hollywood flicks.
    We did not don headbands.
    We did not pump iron and shoot our weapons watching our rippling biceps. NO.
    The company was run like a military unit of the old South African army.We conducted mundane tasks like taking out the trash, guard duty, digging long drop crappers, building relationships with the soldiers we were there to train, considering that they were at war with the very trainers a few years ago.

    Your article is a tad lame and limp at best in the delivery ( something like limp afternoon lettuce). You allude to all manner of things and then fall woefully short of exposing the details. It is as if you are thumb sucking. Do you actually have any credible proof or facts? I personally don’t think so.

    Why do you skirt around the issues you bring up and not support your studious findings with empirical proof? Why, because you have none.
    Nice try at pseudo ops but I fear you have put the cart in front of the horse and the turd in front of said horse so to speak.
    An unshaven profile pic ala Miami Vice makes you an intellect not as Yoda would say!
    Post your proof or move onto something else. Eeben Barlow is no bogeyman, your country have far more bogeymen within their own military and political ranks, why not scratch around at home before going off half cocked.

    Mike Da Silva just a lowly ex EO employee who was and is proud of the little part I played in the bigger picture to which you are totally oblivious to. Tell me, how old were you in 1993?

  9. Spot on, Chris! But if so many US magazine and newspaper editors “don’t have enough basic knowledge to check sloppy Africa reporting” why don’t they just acquire the knowledge? What’s holding them back? The slash-and-burn Africa reporting in the American media goes much deeper than the reason you’ve assigned.

  10. Thanks for posting this as I am very interested in this private security industry and have been following EO and its remnants for a bit.

    Although I disagree with your first point (it deserves further detail–but you are right in the sense that EO should be described) and third point (this is more like Apple’s and Oranges), you are right about the poor journalism in this article. In addition to being poorly explained, the article just did not read well. Surprisingly, this seems to be the case for all articles about EO–they tend to have mistakes and are poorly written (also causing Eeben to provide his own comments to clarify). Nevertheless, thanks for sharing.

  11. Great posting….especially what you wrote about sloppy journalism. Anyone who knows them and works with them would tell you that nothing good will come out of this deal. They will ask for something in return. The officers are a bunch open racists and full of hatred, and the lower ranks are just there for the money. Newyorker should have done a better job.

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