Ever since the 1974 book "The Dogs of War" portrayed the exploits of mercenaries in Africa, it's been known that "soldiers of fortune" are powerful players in this continent's conflicts.
But a drama now unfolding in both Zimbabwe and the tiny oil-producing nation of Equatorial Guinea is highlighting the growing demand for mercenaries in West Africa, a volatile region that's becoming a key exporter of oil to the United States.
The saga began March 7 when Zimbabwean officials stormed a Boeing 727 in Harare, the capital. On board they found "military materiel" and more than 60 men, including South Africans, Angolans, and Namibians. All were accused of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea and may face the death penalty. They are currently awaiting charges.
Equatorial Guinea's repressive regime, meanwhile, has had mercenary help of its own. In 2000 the oil-rich government hired a private American security firm called MPRI to beef up its military. The contract didn't last long, but it hints at why mercenaries - both the corporate and shadowy types - are thriving in this region.
For one thing, most West African soldiers "are very poorly educated and don't have much training" or good equipment, says Ross Herbert, a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. Combat is often "very crude - where people shoot off their guns in random order" and scatter into the bush.
That makes them easy for elite troops, like the team detained in Zimbabwe, to overpower. Simon Mann, for instance, was reportedly connected to the now-defunct South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes, which was active in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Mr. Mann is also reportedly a cofounder of the British private military firm Sandline International.
Logo Logistics, meanwhile, is the British company that owns the Boeing 727. It insists the team was headed to the Congo to guard a mine, but it hasn't divulged details about the mine. Also, according to a publication called "Africa Confidential," the coup plot may be connected to a wealthy Lebanese businessman named Ely Calil. Mr. Calil has ties to oil companies in the region. Several American firms, including ExxonMobil and Halliburton, have operations in Equatorial Guinea.
The country's dictatorial president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is reportedly ailing and has apparently been grooming his son, Teodorin, to take over. But some observers see Teodorin as unstable. This may be one reason for outsiders to try to orchestrate a coup - and bring into power an exiled leader named Severo Moto, who lives in Spain.
Equatorial Guinea, nestled in the crook of Africa's west coast, is the region's third-biggest oil producer. In 1995, the year a big oil field was discovered, the country's per capita annual income was $370. By 2002, it had jumped to $5,000. But as in most of West Africa, much of the wealth is held by the ruling elite. This can spark envy - and coup attempts, thus boosting a government's desire to protect itself by hiring military muscle.
But oil is just one reason for West Africa's growing demand for guns for hire. The US, for instance, is now more engaged in West Africa. But with troops tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, it's increasingly hiring private security firms to represent it.
In a recent speech, Theresa Whelan, a top official for Africa at the US Department of Defense, put it this way: "The use of contractors in Africa ... means that the US can be supportive in trying to ameliorate regional crises without necessarily having to put US troops on the ground, which is often times a very difficult political decision."
So, in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere, private firms are training militaries to become more professional, courtesy of the US government.
These firms are also key to supporting peacekeeping efforts. The US has paid them to provide logistics support - transportation, fuel, and other supplies - to African-led peacekeeping units in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast.
"If you didn't have private companies doing what they're doing in West Africa, things would fall apart," says Doug Brooks, head of the International Peace Operations Association, an industry trade group based near Washington. He argues that private firms should be allowed to run full-blown peacekeeping operations, saying they could do it better and cheaper than the United Nations and regional peacekeepers. He once calculated that private firms could stop all Africa's wars for just $1.1 billion.
But many people worry private firms can be roguish and unaccountable.
Jan Breytenbach, founder of South Africa's infamous apartheid-era Battalion 32, a mercenary group, warns that today's seemingly upstanding private-security firms will employ ex-soldiers "under false pretenses" in order to get them involved in clandestine operations. "You can think you're being hired to protect a diamond mine," he says, "but then you end up fighting other people" - or participating in a coup. He cautions ex-military men: "It's better to stay out of this stuff all together; otherwise you'll get caught with your pants down."