The deployment of Chinese security firms in Africa is expanding without a strong regulatory framework. This poses heightened risks to African citizens and raises fundamental questions over responsibility for security in Africa.
Since 2012, over 200,000 Chinese workers relocated to Africa to work on China’s One Belt One Road commonly known as the Belt and Road Initiative, bringing the number of Chinese immigrants on the continent to 1 million. There are over 10,000 Chinese companies in Africa, including at least 2,000 state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Chinese SOEs have a major stake in African construction projects, generating over $40 billion in revenue annually.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences notes that 84 percent of China’s Belt and Road investments are in medium- to high-risk countries. Three hundred and fifty serious security incidents involving Chinese firms occurred between 2015 and 2017, from kidnappings and terror attacks to anti-Chinese violence, according to China’s Ministry of State Security. This has placed a premium on security to safeguard these investments and a growing demand from executives of Chinese SOEs for a more robust Chinese security presence on the ground. While the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been averse to maintaining a large presence in Africa due to a host of reputational and logistical factors, China is not confident that African security forces can do the job.
“A more robust regulatory process in Africa will be essential to prioritize and protect African citizen interests.”
The Chinese government is, consequently, increasingly relying on Chinese security firms as part of its security mix. There are 5,000 security firms registered in China, employing 4.3 million ex-PLA and People’s Armed Police. Twenty of these are licensed to operate overseas and report that they employ 3,200 individual contractors, more than the size of PLA peacekeeping deployments, which number around 2,500 troops. The actual number of Chinese contractors in Africa is doubtlessly significantly higher. Beijing DeWe Security Service and Huaxin Zhong An Security Group employ 35,000 contractors in 50 African countries, South Asia, the Middle East, and China. Overseas Security Guardians and China Security Technology Group employ 62,000 in the same regions. In Kenya, DeWe employs around 2,000 security contractors to protect the $3.6-billion Mombasa-Nairobi-Naivasha Standard Gauge Railway alone.
China does not want its security providers to be compared to Russia’s shady Wagner Group or the disbanded American security firm, Blackwater. Yet that is a real danger. Moreover, Chinese security contracting comes with many of the same risks associated with some Chinese SOEs, including a lack of transparency, weak national controls, undue influence on regime elites, and social tensions.
The proliferation of foreign security firms has important policy implications for Africa as it undermines the government’s role as the primary security provider within a country and heightens the risk of human rights violations. A more robust regulatory process in Africa will be essential to prioritize and protect African citizen interests.
Security Contracting with Chinese Characteristics
The term “private security company” is misleading and inaccurate in the Chinese context. As a party state China requires all “enterprises” to obey party directives, hence the catchphrase, “as the state advances, the private sector retreats”
A business with three or more employees must establish a ruling party organization within its structure. The chief executives of SOEs are not only trusted party members but also secretaries of their respective internal party organizations. Security firms must be state-owned sole proprietorships, or at least 51 percent of their capital must be state-owned.
In short, Chinese security firms are not private. They are controlled by the state and serve its interests. The opportunities they chase are lucrative, however. The Beijing-based China Overseas Security and Defense Research Center notes that Chinese SOEs spend about $10 billion annually on security globally. Their entry into Africa coincided with the PLA’s counterpiracy missions off the Somali coast dating back to 2008. Huaxin Zhong An and Overseas Security Guardians were the first to receive Chinese government authorization to provide armed maritime escorts to Chinese fleets in these waters.
Chinese security firms have subsequently diversified their portfolios. Beijing DeWe Security Service is protecting a $4 billion natural gas project in Ethiopia for China’s Poly-GCL Petroleum Group Holdings. Shandong Haiwei Security Group protects Chinese-owned mines in Southern Africa. China Overseas Security Group, a conglomerate of five firms, protects Belt and Road projects in conflict zones, including Somalia. China Security and Technology Group secures land and maritime transportation routes, including the Gulfs of Guinea and Aden and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor.
Chinese security firms are not allowed to carry weapons domestically or overseas, requiring them to adjust their business models to suit different legal settings. The more permissive the environment, the greater latitude they have. In South Africa, where laws are strictly enforced, Chinese security firms work through local subsidiaries. For example, the Shandong Huawei Security Group operates a joint venture with Raid Private Security, which provides security for mining interests. In the more permissive setting of Kenya, Chinese security contractors are more hands on, working directly with local security forces to whom they provide supplementary pay, training, technical assets, intelligence, and equipment.
“Chinese security firms are not private. They are controlled by the state and serve its interests.”
In the even more permissive settings of Sudan and South Sudan, Chinese security actors work with local forces in the field, and in some cases accompany them on missions. In 2012, ex-PLA units widely believed to be from VSS Security Group helped the Sudanese military rescue 29 kidnapped Chinese oil workers in South Kordofan province. In 2016, DeWe Security Service enlisted armed South Sudanese as backup to evacuate over 300 Chinese oil workers after fighting erupted between rival factions in South Sudan’s civil war. These ventures can compromise African citizens’ safety. China National Petroleum Corporation, for example, has secretly funneled fuel, hard currency, and armored personnel carriers to government militias to protect its South Sudan oil fields. Some of these South Sudanese forces have been accused by the UN of committing atrocities against civilians.
Some Chinese firms recruit veterans from Western militaries to form Western-managed but wholly owned Chinese outfits that are presumably more “professional.” The UK-based China Overseas Security Services styles itself as a Sino-British venture that “fully understands Chinese clients’ specific needs.” Even these “Western-looking” outfits, however, have courted controversy. The Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group drew intense media scrutiny for questionable operations in numerous conflict-affected African nations, such as Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Frontier Services Group, with operations in a number of African countries, was founded and run by ex-U.S. Navy Seal and Blackwater founder, Erik Prince, and is wholly owned by CITIC Group, China’s largest state-owned conglomerate. In 2021, UN monitors accused Prince of using a “well-funded private military operation” to supply advanced weaponry, including drones and attack helicopters, to Khalifa Haftar, commander of a faction attempting to undermine the UN-backed unity government in Libya. Such examples serve as warning signs of the controversial dealings that can be anticipated between Chinese SOEs and foreign security firms eager to profit from China’s need for security contractors.
A Risk to Citizen Safety and Regulatory Integrity
China’s security contractors have caused their fair share of trouble in working around weapons restrictions. In 2018, two Chinese nationals were arrested in Livingstone, Zambia, for giving illegal military training to a local security company. The trainees wore uniforms similar to those used by the Zambia Wildlife Authority to avoid detection and blend in more easily in the popular tourist resort city. In neighboring Zimbabwe, two Chinese guards were imprisoned for shooting and injuring the son of a parliamentarian. They had been previously deported for firing on local workers during a pay dispute at a gold mine but stayed in the country illegally. In Kenya and Uganda, Chinese contractors were arrested in 2018 and 2019, respectively, for possessing military-grade gear for use by a local firm and an illegal communications interception system.
Ugandan military personnel being trained by a former member of the PLA. (Image: File photo)