Friday, October 16, 2009

Dogs of War?

The two Norwegians Tjostolv Moland and Joshua French are in deep trouble. Yesterday, they had their first day in a Congolese military court, where they are accused of the murder of their driver, Abedi Kasongo (47), as well as armed robbery, spying, conspiracy and possession of illegal firearms.

According to the two men, the whole thing is a miscarriage of justice. They claim to have been on a motorcycle vacation, visiting the Okapi National Park. For their return journey to their home in Uganda, they hired a car and the driver Kasongo. Along the way, they claim they were attacked by unknown shooters who killed Kasongo. Fearful that they would be blamed for the murder, they drove back towards Kisangani. They had made friends with the park rangers of the Okapi National Park, and they hoped these men would be able to help them. After the car was attacked by Congolese looking for the suspected killers, they fled on foot through the jungle until French was captured by the people of a small village. Moland, thinking his friend had been killed by the intense fire from the villagers, surrendered to the authorities in Mambasa the next day, after a phone call to his family had informed him that the Norwegian Foreign Office said French was alive and imprisoned in Kisangani. When the authorities found that they were carrying Norwegian military ID and a business card from the security company SIG-Uganda, they were handed over to the army for trial by a military tribunal.

I have no idea whether the two are guilty or innocent of the charges. But one thing is abundantly clear: To the Congolese, the two young men are clearly classic European mercenaries of the kind that have caused so much havoc in African nations since independence. Rather than being driven to the courthouse, the Norwegians were paraded through the streets in handcuffs, allowing the locals to demonstrate the hatred they feel toward such mercenaries.
And who can blame them? Since the 1960s, western mercenaries have played a key and very violent part in almost every African civil war, military coup or revolution. Uganda, where the Norwegians worked for the security company SIG, seems to be mercenary central these days. After the fall of Idi Amin, the new Ugandan regime introduced obligatory firearms training for every male citizen, in the hope of improving national security. Lax gun laws and regulations, as well as an ample supply of young men who know how to handle guns, have made the country a haven for foreign security companies.
In an area with considerable natural resources, foreign investors hire these companies to provide armed protection - and for other, more shady activities. According to the NRK broadcasting company, the two Norwegians are suspected of working for Saracen, a Ugandan company run by a former South African mercenary. Saracen is providing security for Heritage, a company conducting a search for oil in the border areas between Uganda and Congo. The brother of the Ugandan president is supposed to be an interested party. No wonder that Congolese authorities question whether the two Norwegians just happened to be on vacation in the area.
To those who have read the thrillers by British author Frederick Forsythe, this may sound familiar. In his 1974 novel The Dogs of War, Forsythe described how a group of American mercenaries are hired by western oil companies to carry out a coup in a small African country and replace the brutal dictator with a puppet who would make sure his corporate sponsors received valuable oil concessions. While the state in the novel is fictional, the plot was apparently based on a real attempt to topple the dictator of Equatorial Guinea in 1973 (some suspect Forsythe was involved in the plan). The attempt failed, as Spanish authorities caught wind of the plans and arrested several mercenaries in the Canary Islands. But thirty years later, the oil companies had another go. This time, the mercenaries were arrested while they were loading supplies and men into a plane in Zimbabwe. The affair caused a considerable stink in Britain, as the British government apparently knew of the plan in advance. Among the many prominent investors was Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former prime minister. I suspect Lady Thatcher had to cash in some old favours to get her wayward son out of trouble...
As I said, I have no idea whether Moland and French are guilty or innocent. It does seem a bit odd that they should suddenly shoot their driver for no apparent reason. There is also reason to doubt that their trial will be fair and proper. But on the other hand, I find it difficult to believe that they were really on an innocent vacation. Given the nature of their work, they would have to be pretty naive to think that Congolese authorities would consider them as ordinary tourists. I doubt foreign mercenaries often travel in this area simply for pleasure. And their professional activities are rarely beneficial to the local population.
Something doesn't smell right.

It’s damning photograph. I sought it out after hearing the story of the two Norwegian mercenaries condemned to death in the Congo for the murder of their Congolese driver. Was their black companion killed in an attempt to rob the white adventurers, as they tell it? US news outlets asked Tjostolv Moland’s mothers about the picture of her son, which showed him smiling as he wiped blood from the driver’s seat of their pickup. The mother dismissed it as bad timing, she though her son was probably caught off guard, laughing at a joke unrelated to his morbid task. Boy can Americans relate.
Other US newspapers speculated about a fabled Norwegian propensity to laugh at adversity. They also described Norwegian diplomats scrambling to save the two boys from the gallows. It’s true that Norway doesn’t have a death sentence, and therefore does not condone it elsewhere. Otherwise US and BBC portrayal of Norwegian concern for the two mercenaries seemed at odds with Norway’s usual determined pacifism, so I was eager to hear from my relatives there.
The scoop? Contrary to US and UK sentiments and their projection of Norwegian concerns, there is no domestic sympathy for the two wayward boys. None.
The Norwegian public has become well aware that Moland and partner Joshua French have been traveling the Congo as mercenaries, and have been involved in other killings as well. The fact that Congolese courts are trying to extort a large fine from the Norwegian government, based on the accusation of the two travelers being agents of Norway, is due to documents which the two forged to pretend they had active duty contact with the Norwegian military.
In Norway, military service is compulsory. Every Norwegian male has a record of military service. It helps that Norway rarely involves itself with acts of aggression, sanctioned by a fraternity of nations or not. And when soldiers of fortune like Moland and French set about rampaging in Africa, it behooves Norwegian authorities to ensure that their military is not implicated by association.
How fitting that US and UK listeners should presume a reflexive maternal instinct to protect the two white boys, set upon by angry African opportunists. The boys might be mercenaries, but America and Britain have lots of those overseas. Hired guns, paid assassins, professional killers, why quibble with words?
The laws of war grant little grace for mercenaries, but that’s not what English-speaking supporters of imperial expansion want to believe. Mercenaries in the Neocon vernacular are called private contractors. They’re just ordinary soldiers who’ve escaped the poor pay of military service, to the entrepreneurial ranks of war-making free enterprise.

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