Skip to content
IMG_6135 2

An American Mercenary Resurfaces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN recently linked Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, to a shady mercenary deal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s war-torn North Kivu. The alleged deal, and others like it, hold great risk for the region.

Words: Michael E. Picard
Pictures: Allyn Gaestel

Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, has appeared in yet another UN report on sanctions violations, this time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The UN Group of Experts monitoring the country’s arms embargo claimed they have evidence that Prince attempted to broker a deal to deploy 2,500 Latin American mercenaries in the country’s war-torn, mineral-rich North Kivu region. The Group presented these findings in its most recent report from December 2023, but it seems to have gotten little attention.

The allegations come amid a deteriorating situation in the region: an explosion of fighting that could turn into a war between the DRC and Rwanda, the imminent withdrawal of an embattled UN peacekeeping mission, and a swirl of mercenary activity and foreign interests. Because Prince is a US citizen, the alleged deal should raise concerns among US authorities about corruption and arms trafficking risks, especially as Prince may have acted on behalf of foreign governments. It also serves as a reminder of how far the international community has to go in bringing private military and security companies (PMSCs) under control.

The Context

North Kivu hosts a gordian knot of proxy conflicts, illicit economies, and poor governance. The conflict there is almost three decades old (with much deeper roots) and has caused astonishing violence that doesn’t get enough attention. The region is rich in natural resources yet remote and underdeveloped. It shares porous borders with Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi — all of whom are embroiled one way or another in North Kivu and the DRC. It’s a crossroads for displaced populations, trafficking networks, and armed groups.

Several recent developments are worth mentioning. In March 2022, M23, an anti-government Tutsi rebel group supported by Rwanda, launched an offensive against the DRC’s armed forces (FARDC) and UN peacekeepers (MONUSCO), eventually seizing a large amount of territory with support from Rwandan troops. Rwanda’s not-so-secret support has greatly increased the risk of open conflict between the two countries. In July 2022, protests against MONUSCO over its perceived ineffectiveness turned deadly, causing the government to order the mission’s hastened withdrawal for this year. And in December 2022, the UN eased its two-decade arms embargo by ending a notification requirement for foreign governments supplying the DRC. This move was spurred by the DRC’s protests that the notification process impeded its fight against the rebels. 

Enter Erik. The deal he allegedly negotiated in mid-2023 would have seen the deployment of 2,500 private military contractors from Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina in North Kivu. They would be tasked with a) halting the M23 advance and b) securing mining areas. The deal apparently stemmed from a bilateral agreement between the DRC and the UAE, which we’ll get to later. Three South Africans had scouted the region in March/April, and by July, the first batch of 250 contractors had already arrived with equipment at a base operated by Congo Protection (which we’ll also get to). On top of that, Prince was also allegedly collecting evidence against MONUSCO that could be used to hasten its exit.

The UN Group reported that the deal had been halted, though it isn’t clear whether permanently or temporarily. Other key details aren’t clear. When did the negotiations begin? How would the contractors have been armed? Would their role include offensive operations? Was the US involved in these negotiations? What is clear are the corruption and arms trafficking risks behind the alleged deployment, and the spiraling private and foreign interests likely behind them.

Mercenary Activities

The last decade has seen an explosion in private military activity throughout the continent. The DRC is currently host to several PMSCs from various countries, and the groups demonstrate just how intertwined they are with natural resources, political patronage, and foreign interests. An attentive eye also reveals that these groups show up alongside risky arms transfers.

The first contractor is Agemira RDC, whose role is to repair and maintain the DRC’s small fleet of combat aircraft, and to secure its airfields. It reportedly employs Bulgarians, Georgians, and Belarusians. The company was founded by French national Olivier Bazin, who is allegedly part of a network that attempted to smuggle arms to Cote d’Ivoire in exchange for oil during the final days of the Gbagbo regime. Even though Agemira is French-owned, it is registered in Bulgaria due to its lax and opaque arms export regulations. It is noteworthy that FARDC commanders allegedly outfitted its proxy militias in North Kivu with seemingly new Bulgarian MG-M1 machine guns in October 2023, in clear violation of the UN arms embargo.

Then there’s Congo Protection. This company’s role is ostensibly to provide combat training and support to FARDC troops, though the UN notes that its personnel frequently engaged in combat against M23 rebels. The company operates a training camp where Prince’s contractors were set to deploy. Africa Report described Congo Protection as a shell company where Bazin allegedly holds influence, according to its sources (Bazin denies this). Africa Intelligence said the company is owned by the head of the Congolese prime minister’s political party. 

Congo Protection is clearly opaque (no pun intended), but if these allegations are true, it presents a major corruption risk. Despite being previously unheard of and having no public profile, the company has evidently been awarded important and sensitive state security contracts. The fact that the government does not directly contract the PMSCs, but instead works through Congo Protection, is highly questionable. If it is controlled by political elites, they could presumably get a cut of FARDC contracts before the work itself is subcontracted out to actual PMSCs. 

While Congo Protection may be a shell company, the actual military training and support it nominally provides is apparently provided by its subcontractor, a Romanian company called Asociatia RALF. RALF was founded by Horatiu Potra, a Romanian veteran of the French Foreign Legion with extensive contracting experience in Africa; the company has reportedly deployed 900 contractors in DRC as trainers and advisors. The UN Group documented several instances where these contractors, under Congo Protection, allegedly directly fought against M23 rebels and provided logistic support to the FARDC’s proxy militias, ferrying them to key points on the battlefield. 

While these PMSCs have been highlighted in UN reports, there are evidently others active. A New York Times article about the Oct. 7 Hamas massacres in Israel passingly mentioned how an interviewed survivor was an Israeli security contractor who had recently returned from the DRC, where he trained FARDC soldiers. It’s noteworthy that when M23 rebels renewed their offensive in October 2023, they claimed to have captured a large haul of modern weapons and military equipment from retreating FARDC soldiers; many of the weapons were apparently of Israeli origin. The UN Group also documented the use of Israeli precision guided mortar munitions in the conflict throughout 2023, albeit apparently fired from M23/Rwandan positions.

Foreign Interests

Beyond their stated security roles, PMSCs can be effective vehicles for facilitating corruption or illicit arms transfers, particularly in environments with weak defense sector governance and oversight. However, they are oftentimes (but not always) working on behalf of a foreign government seeking to obscure its hand. It’s worth pointing out that in this case, Erik Prince has clear and direct ties to two key geopolitical players in the DRC: the UAE and China. 

The UN Group of Experts alleged in its June 2023 report that the Prince deal stemmed from a bilateral agreement between the UAE and the DRC, though the former denies this. Throughout the 2010s, it appeared that Erik Prince was arguably (and perhaps still is) the Emirates’ preferred mercenary broker. The UN Panel of Experts on Libya strongly linked him to a failed mercenary operation involving a UAE-based PMSC that tried to supply Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar with sophisticated air assets and hit squads in 2019. He also arranged the supply of Colombian mercenaries to support Emirati military operations, some of whom may have been deployed to Yemen in 2015. The UN Panel of Experts on Somalia also linked Prince to a controversial anti-piracy force with Emirati support in Somalia in 2012. 

It seems the UAE often trades military assistance for economic concessions in countries throughout Africa, and the Emirates has certainly been busy in the Congo. The UN Group detailed how the two governments set up Primera Gold DRC, a private-public gold supply company, in early 2023. The venture is intended to combat gold smuggling and promote responsible sourcing from the DRC. While the UN Group found Primera to be legitimate and possibly constructive, it also observed weaknesses in its sourcing methods that suggested a risk it could be used to launder smuggled gold. Primera was created on DRC President Felix Tshisekedi’s orders against the objections of the country’s mining authority, which viewed it as establishing a monopoly over gold exports. Gold smuggling is widespread in North Kivu, and the UAE has been a major importer of East African gold over the past decade. 

The other foreign player with curious connections to Prince is China. Prince founded a security and logistics company called Frontier Services Group (FSG) in 2014 with funding (and partial ownership) from a Chinese state-run investment firm. The firm was intended to support Chinese industrial projects throughout Africa, but also appears to provide paramilitary training to Chinese military and security personnel. Prince officially ran FSG until 2021 as his activities with the company attracted increasing scrutiny. The US government sanctioned FSG in 2023 for allegedly training Chinese military pilots to counter Western aircraft (FSG denied this). While the company claims it does not provide armed security, it has a robust presence in the DRC, and provided security for the Chinese ambassador in 2022.

Like the UAE, China has deep mining interests in the DRC. Just recently, China announced it would build 7,000km of roads in the country so that it could maintain its powerful hold over the DRC’s large cobalt and copper reserves. FSG is a part of that, and Prince was very vocal about his plans to mine Congo for these minerals around 2019, when he was still officially running the company. Furthermore, a senior FSG manager founded a company in partnership with a close associate of the DRC’s former president Joseph Kabila in 2020 with the intention of setting up the country’s first gold refinery near North Kivu. Coincidentally, it was shuttered in 2023 as Primera moved in. Amid the deteriorating conflict in the country, it is notable that China reportedly sold nine armed drones, similar to the US MQ-9 Reaper, to the DRC in 2023.

Seeing the Risks

A deployment of 2,500 mercenaries in a mineral-rich region suffering from a worsening conflict to guard mines is cause for concern on its own. But the involvement of Erik Prince, with his deep ties to foreign governments and reputation for conflict profiteering, emphasizes the profound corruption and arms trafficking risks at hand. On top of that, it shows the dark direction this horrific conflict may be heading.

Transparency International ranks the DRC in the bottom 20 of its 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index. The alleged Prince deal takes place at the intersection of two sectors — mining and security — that are extremely vulnerable to corruption. In this environment, it’s easy to envision a situation where local officials and politicians are cut into state security contracts to protect critical mining and transportation infrastructure. Infrastructure investments from foreign governments and companies related to mineral concessions could provide embezzlement opportunities to local officials, who could award them to allies, patrons, or family members in construction, logistics, or security companies. Apparent monopolies in certain mining industries and security contracting greatly exacerbate the potential for corruption. Such a deal in a region known for artisanal mining could also provide dubious mercenary bosses with access to untraceable wealth and commodities.

If well-armed mercenaries and PMSCs are set to replace MONUSCO peacekeepers, then the conflict in North Kivu is heading in an ever-darker direction.

The risk of arms trafficking is also profound. In the past year, the emergence of new, sophisticated weapons in the DRC shows how the relaxation of the UN arms embargo is providing an opportunity for foreign powers to silently funnel weapons into the conflict zone, potentially in exchange for concessions. This includes PMSCs, an overlooked aspect of the arms trade, who often accompany weapons transfers. Despite this influx, the DRC remains an extremely high-risk country for arms trafficking. It frequently arms proxy militias in North Kivu and UN investigators have implicated senior FARDC commanders in large-scale arms trafficking schemes. Deploying a brigade of Latin American mercenaries throughout a region awash in arms and warring armed groups could fuel both the supply of and demand for trafficked weapons. 

If well-armed mercenaries and PMSCs are set to replace MONUSCO peacekeepers, then the conflict in North Kivu is heading in an ever-darker direction. For all of its flaws, the UN mission operated within a framework of relative accountability and transparency, subject to periodic reporting, public scrutiny, and international humanitarian law. The contractors would be operating in the dark, answering only to their patrons. Their deployment could lead to conflict profiteering in which lucrative mining and transport sites are secured while violence rages everywhere else. They could also be used to reconquer territory and infrastructure from rebels through offensive combat operations on behalf of political patrons. Contractors could also participate in illicit economies like illegal timbering, poaching, wildlife trafficking, mineral smuggling, and human trafficking. The Congolese elite and their foreign partners would get fabulously wealthy at the devastating expense of civilian populations caught in the crossfire or living near anything remotely valuable.


The alleged Prince deal highlights the need for action by the US authorities and the international community. If the UN Group’s allegations are true, Prince — a US citizen — likely acted as a broker of defense services, which is regulated under US arms export laws. Defense services include overtly military services provided to foreign actors, like military training, operating or maintaining weapons systems, or advising commanders. Yet it excludes providing armed security. Despite this distinction, it is highly likely that other contractors providing both military and security services in the DRC are engaging in or directly enabling offensive combat operations, suggesting “security” services could easily and fluidly become “military” or “defense services” in nature. Furthermore, the US has a blanket ban on arms exports to the DRC with narrow exceptions that require UN approval, and the UN Group’s reporting suggests that Prince’s alleged activities did not take place with proper notification and approval. US export authorities should consider whether the evident risks posed by the services Prince allegedly brokered violate these laws.

Internationally, the UN and concerned member states need to advance a stronger mechanism for making PMSCs accountable. The most notable effort to date is the Montreux Document — sponsored by the Swiss government and the ICRC — which is a non-binding document that very kindly urges states, PMSCs, and their clients to respect international humanitarian law and human rights. While this might be effective for engaging major, reputable contractors like GardaWorld, Amentum, or Constellis, it has little bearing on the companies (or their sponsors) created for dirty, secret missions in opaque and insecure areas. Separately (and in possible tension with the Montreux effort), the UN Human Rights Council is pushing for a more binding international agreement on PMSCs through an intergovernmental working group. While this effort could be more impactful in ensuring PMSCs are held accountable with respect to human rights, the effort is still in its infancy, and there will be a lot of foot-dragging as a draft framework evolves.

In the meantime, researchers, academics, civil society groups, and journalists concerned about the accountability and impact of mercenaries and PMSCs must do their part to ensure efforts like Prince’s are documented, scrutinized, and brought to light.

Michael E. Picard

Michael E. Picard is an independent researcher focusing on arms trade, corruption, and conflict.  He is an expert at the Forum on the Arm Trade. Picard has worked with several international NGOs and conducted research into private military and security companies and corruption on behalf of Transparency International - Defense & Security.

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.