Erik Prince used to have an army at his disposal. In 1997, the former Navy SEAL founded Blackwater Worldwide, which won more than $2 billion in contracts from the United States government to provide security for military bases and embassies abroad. At its height, Blackwater had a 6,000-acre training ground in North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp and guys armed with guns, big guns, all over the world.
Slowly, it unraveled for Prince as allegations of “cowboy tactics” in Iraq followed the company. He resigned as CEO in 2009 and sold Blackwater in 2010. Five of his former executives were indicted, and the Holland, Michigan native moved to Abu Dhabi. In August 2012, Blackwater – now called Academi – paid a $7.5 million fine relating to allegations of arms smuggling when Prince was in charge.
The Blackwater founder, sensing the negative public opinion of his company in the United States, kept a low profile for his first few years in the United Arab Emirates. But now he is back. Prince founded Frontier Resource Group (FRG), a company that raised $100 million to invest in infrastructure Africa in conjunction with Chinese companies.
“Africa is so far the most unexplored part of the world, and I think China has seen a lot of promise in Africa,” Prince, who served with SEAL Team 8 in Haiti and the Balkans, said during a visit to Hong Kong, later telling the South China Morning Post: “The problem is if you go alone, you bear the country risk on your own. You have to get support and maintenance there.”
Which means exactly what? Well, no one really seems to know. Prince’s objectives in Africa are obscured, while FRG’s goals are vague and convoluted.
“The view of his new company is very limited, and very opaque. If you look at his website it seems like a front for funding and training local security forces to provide security for resource projects in African nations, particularly for the Chinese,” Geoffrey Ingersoll, a former member of the Marine Corps and a Military and Defense reporter for Business Insider, told Guyism.com.
It does seem clear that whatever FRG does, it will employ some of the same tactics that Blackwater utilized. That means potential controversy. Prince might not fight dirty, but he and his troops get as close to the line as they can. (And yes, sometimes they cross it.) But will FRG’s new business partners care how the company achieves its goals? Not really, no.
“The Chinese are cut-throat capitalists. They’re much more concerned with their workers not getting kidnapped, and with making money. the over-arching concern is that they want to dominate Africa, geopolitically and economically,” Ingersoll said.
FRG is investing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, and South Sudan. I asked Ingersoll for speculation about what might happen.
“What I think he wants to do is bring in contractors to employ and train organic security forces. That way, you only need a handful of former SEALs to command 200 men, and those 200 men you can pay small salaries because they’re from sub-Saharan Africa The tactic is called a ‘force multiplier’ – and comes straight out of the Marine Corps ‘small wars’ manual.”
FRG could have competition in the fight to provide security to companies interested in gaining access to Africa’s wealth of resources. That competition? Ironically, Blackwater.
“Academi is supposedly moving it’s operation to Africa, because the Americans have grown tired of their uncontrollable, heavily subsidized child acting like a rich kid addicted to cocaine and crashing Lamborghinis,” Ingersoll said.
As it turns out, Prince might need more than an army to conquer Africa.