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November 26, 2012

The Next Mercenary Gold Rush: Sub Saharan Africa & Erik Prince

North Africa has long been a haven for Islamic extremists. It’s chock full of violence, feuding fractional governments, and natural resources. This a perfect climate for American and European Private Military Companies (PMCs) that want to strike gold.

Erik Prince, the founder of the PMC Blackwater USA (BW, Xe, and now Academi), is leaning forward in the region with the help of Chinese investors. This has got to have a lot of his religious conservative fan boys scratching their heads in disbelief, “The damn Chinese Erik?!”, they’ll say.

Not many business friendly places in the world left for Erik, considering his recent US government colonoscopy over BW, and a lot of bottom feeders suing over anything at the chance to grab a bit of his billionaire fortune. I personally don’t have an issue with Erik and his current business enterprises, he’s always had a good reputation in the SEAL community.  If there’s anything I would be critical of, it would be the latter part of his tenure as CEO of Blackwater which I’ll get to in a bit.

Note: We call these people strap hangers in the Military.

A Quick Look at Erik Prince

  • Born Holland, Michigan
  • Graduated Holland Christian High School
  • US Naval Academy 18 months then transferred to Hillsdale College.
  • 1990, Prince secured a low-level internship in the White House under George H. W. Bush
  • Received Navy Commission 1992
  • Navy SEAL (SEAL Team 8)
  • Ended his Navy service prematurely in 1995 when his father died.
  • Prince’s mother sold the Prince Corporation for $1.3 billion in cash.
  • Personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997
  • 2009 relinquished Blackwater (Xe, now Academi)
  • 2011 Moved to UAE to establish an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the U.A.E. Also involved in counter-piracy operations in North Africa. Came under investigation by the State Dept. for potential ITAR violations.
  • 2012-New venture, Frontier Resource Group (FRG), established earlier this year as an “Africa-dedicated investment firm partnered with major Chinese enterprises, including at least one state-owned resource.

Some would say that Prince has had an unfair share of the spotlight, including politically motivated leaks that outed him as a CIA asset, because of partisan politics. However, not all of his bad press is undeserved.

By 2005 Blackwater became a model of what not to do as a PMC but more on that soon. The company and its problems were covered extensively in Jeremy Scahill’s book, Blackwater, Rise of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

There’s dozens of other PMCs that you mostly never here about, MVM, Inc., Triple Canopy (currently being sued by the Federal Govt.), Dyncorp, Vinnel, Control Risks Group, Armor Group, and Global Risk Strategies to name just a few.  The problem with BW? Blackwater grew too big, too fast, and the result was they’d hire anyone.

When I was a contracting in 2006 Blackwater was the land of the forgotten SOF mercenary. It was the place guys with bad SOF community reputations and drug problems went to work (Disclaimer: there were also a lot of great guys working at the company that had climbed the ranks from the very beginning). These guys filled the top spots while other lower tier jobs were filled with man boys who were mostly law enforcement and military rejects from the local strip club bouncer circuit.

You’d see these guys in Baghdad wearing their kit all sorts of wrong, that and they’d have all sorts of ridiculous weapons.  One guy even sported some sort of viking axe, truly ridiculous and scary at the same time. I remember being up in northern Iraq and narrowly avoiding being run off the road by a BW Department of State security detail. We were in indigenous vehicles and had to alter our route to avoid their overt antics.

These kind of hiring ethics coupled with lack of experience, and false bravado of their corps, ended up with innocent civilians and fellow employees killed. One incident I remember well, two BW security contractors got drunk and one shot the other in the Green Zone. A plane ride to the States and back to the stripper circuit for both of them.

Erik is a smart guy, and I’m sure he’s learned some painful lessons from BW. It will interesting to see how North Africa unfolds and how and what Erik’s new company FRG will invest in.  The region has been a model of instability that rivals only Afghanistan.

“Africa is so far the most unexplored part of the world, and I think China has seen a lot of promise in Africa,” Prince said during a brief trip to Hong Kong. Read more here.

From South China Post:

FRG is an Africa-dedicated investment firm partnered with major Chinese enterprises, including at least one state-owned resource giant that is keen to pour money into the resource-rich continent.

The Chinese will demand results and surely will not be passive investors.  My African friends said the Chinese are ruthless in the region, they suck every natural resource they have their hands on with no sustainability in mind for the host country. South Africa will not touch them, and for good reason. Like Star Trek’s fictional “Borg”, the Chinese assimilate and move on to their next victim.

Mercenaries have been in use for centuries, some good, and some arguably bad. Like or not, for now, they are here to stay.

And it looks like the next Merc gold rush is on and the continent of choice is Africa. Erik seems to have aggressively joined the ranks looking to trail blaze to fortune in the volatile region.  It’s too early to tell if FRG will invest for better or worse although, with the Chinese as partners it doesn’t look good.

About the Author

is a former U.S. Navy SEAL with combat deployments to Afghanistan, and Iraq. During his last tour he served as the west coast sniper Course Manager at the Naval Special Warfare Center. He is CEO of Force12 Media , a SOFREP contributing editor, and a New York Times best selling author (The Red Circle & Benghazi: The Definitive Report). Follow Brandon on Facebook, Twitter or his website.

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  • shakeyerboobs

    I've always wondered how EP got out of completing his 5 year commitment.  So that's all it takes?  Having your father die?  Poor baby.  Did his Master Chief powder his bottom before seeing him off?   Seems more likely that someone said "hey, you've got a little experience and a boatload of cash, maybe you can do something useful for us in the (kinda sorta) private sector."

  • SEAL76

    @vpi  @StormintheDesert The Brits, French and Belgians all had something to do with that area. It was their mercenaries and the French Foreign Legion that cleared up many of the problems. They are all cash strapped now. It should also be noted that they were the ones along with Portuguese and a few other nations that divided Africa in such a way that boundaries often divided tribes and clans with no regard for the fact that those loyalties were stronger than some obscure idea of a nation state.

  • vpi

    @SEAL76  @StormintheDesert The US has never really had much influence over any parts of Africa.  With the exception of North Africa (specifically Egypt), we should urge our transatlantic partners to take the lead here.  They have more experience here.  When we gave them the reigns in the late 20th century, this strategy worked in some areas (eg. Libya-Chad Conflict ended the way it did because of the French).

  • SEAL76

    @StormintheDesert  @SEAL76 The US can't commit the resources to the area. It would cost too much. America is running out of patience with endless war. Perhaps if we had some oil to show for our Iraq war maybe many of the American would understand why it might be in our interest to get into Africa ASAP

  • reaganasims

    @SEAL76 That's the key.  First, it would take several decades to counteract the Chinese influence of trading infrastructure for resources.  Second, the dangers and lack of regulation make it very difficult for American companies to be there.