Clerical Imposters (8/99)

In the days of ragtag freebooters like "mad" Mike Hoare, Jacques Schramm, and Bob Denaed, the term "Dogs of War" had a romantic ring. Some White mercenaries fighting in Africa’s many conflicts even wore it as a badge of honor. But the old image of this once "dark continent" is changing fast with the persistent calls for transparency in all aspects of international relations. Yet, even though foreign mercenaries have curbed their barks and claim they’re now only guard dogs, they remain among the continent’s most detested instruments of instability and carnage.

For a while now, there has been growing public awareness that multinational corporations and even foreign governments employ mercenaries both to protect their legitimate interests and handle the dirty work with which they can’t openly be associated. Mainly, the mercs help spark and maintain conflicts by offering military skills, sophisticated killing tools, and what turns out, in many cases, to be only the illusion of security. They usually come as smooth-talking businessmen selling services at competitive prices. But sometimes they may also come in the guise of "missionaries."

In March, when three US citizens turned up in Harare, Zimbabwe – claiming to be men of God on missionary duties, but possessing an arsenal of military-style weapons and equipment – churches reacted promptly and sharply. The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), which usually avoids controversial political matters, was the first to express "horror at the abuse of the term ‘Christian work’ by people who have allegedly been involved in illegal arms smuggling … . The pursuit of violence in the name of any Christian cause is a perversion of true Christianity and we vehemently protest this abuse of the name of the Church," said EFZ president Reverend Andrew Wutawunashe.

The Perfect Cover

Christian churches in Central Africa have good reason to be sensitive about what some call "a growing culture of violence in the region." They are suffering an acute crisis of confidence because of it. For five years, political violence and ethnic animosity have overwhelmed the churches, seriously undermining unity and identity. In Rwanda, the most heavily churched country in Africa, some of the most gruesome atrocities of the infamous 1994 genocide took place right inside houses of worship.

Church leaders and missionaries desperately want the violence in Central Africa to end. A clerical collar still commands considerable respect and acceptance throughout the region. Church growth continues at a phenomenal rate, and church communities and facilities play increasingly important roles in relief and development work. When governmental authority collapses, they are often the only available source of refuge, sustenance, and comfort.

Church leaders and missionaries are also uniquely able to attract foreign assistance. For this reason, it’s important for them to cross borders and pass through customs without too much harassment. Thus, it’s no wonder they’re upset that mercenaries would masquerade as missionaries to transport lethal goods across frontiers.

Such charges have been made in the past, but none were substantial enough to take to court until John Lamonte Dixon, 39, Gary George Blanchard, 34, and Joseph Wendell Pettyjohn, 35, all of Indianapolis, turned up in Harare on March 7. They left their GMC Sierra pick-up at the airport parking lot and lined up to board a plane to the US through Zurich. A handgun on one of them activated a metal detector and sparked their arrest.

"More guns turned up in their luggage," according to an Associated Press report. "Out in the pickup was a bigger surprise: a warren of secret compartments containing two semi-automatic assault rifles, 10 disassembled shotguns and sniper rifles, one machine gun, 19 handguns, 70 knives, silencers, telescopic sights, ammunition, camouflage paint and two-way radios."

A subsequent search of their residential quarters in Harare and Lubumbashi, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), unearthed more unlicensed weapons, ammunition, and equipment, including shotguns modified with hand grips and shortened stocks, typical of weapons used in military and paramilitary close-range attacks. The men, insisting they were "missionaries working for Harvestfield Ministries in Indianapolis," said they had done "nothing more than deliver Bibles, medicine, clothing, and seeds to poor Africans." They needed the guns for protection, hunting, and recreation, they said.

Across Africa, the claims were dismissed out of hand. Editorialists thought the men were on a dangerous mission. Even missionaries have to get their firearms licensed, and nobody needs that much firepower for recreation.

Then why did they go to Lubumbashi? Since 1997, this capital city of the mineral-rich Katanga province has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the on-going civil war in the DRC. It’s the favorite destination of mercenaries, not missionaries. The idea of firing off guns in Lubumbashi for hunting and recreation looked to the African press like a cruel joke.

Pulling Up Stakes?

Reached at his home in Indianapolis, Harvestfield Ministries leader Jonathan Wallace said the "mission" had pulled up stakes from Lubumbashi because the fighting there had become too fierce. He said the three men, including his own son-in-law Joseph, had traveled to the Congo two weeks before to pay bills, settle accounts, and pack up belongings. This too was unusual; most missionaries don’t abandon their flock. But mercenaries do, often leaving when the going gets too rough.

For example, South Africa’s Executive Outcomes, which was dissolved in January, promised the governments of Angola and Sierra Leone "the mother of all violence" to end violence in those countries, in exchange for fat checks and access to rich diamond fields. They got the money and the diamonds, but those two countries remain among Africa’s worst killing fields. In the Congo, the French "White Legion," retained at an exorbitant price to prop up the collapsing regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, managed to turn people against Mobutu and left the country without as much as a skirmish with the rebels.

The claim that the three alleged missionaries were pulling up stakes raised another question: Why were they leaving their vehicle and its lethal contents in a public parking lot? Was it waiting for someone else to pick it up? John Makumbe, a political commentator in Harare, told South Africa’s prestigious Mail and Guardian that the arms discovered were "only the ears of the hippo." Like the tip of an iceberg, they "hide the real problem beneath the surface." In short, other caches may be out there.

Zimbabwean government prosecutors accused the men of terrorism and weapons violations. They allege the three were funneling weapons to DRC rebels, spying on government troops and their allies – including Zimbabwean troops, and plotting assassinations in both the DRC and Zimbabwe. Their trial began in mid-July. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.

US authorities, who usually vigorously defend genuine missionaries, issued a short press statement denying any official US links to the men. A week later, however, an FBI agent and a Customs official from the US embassy in South Africa came to Harare, offering to assist Zimbabwean authorities in their investigation. The offer was refused.

The men’s lawyer, Jeremy Callow, and Zimbabwean independent press and civil rights groups loudly complained that the accused had been tortured into admitting their alleged crimes. The magistrate was persuaded to order that they be interviewed only in the presence of their lawyer.

Cover Stories

Harvestfield’s Wallace readily admitted that his missionaries shipped guns to Lubumbashi in early 1997. This happened to coincide with the time the White Legion was also moving into Lubumbashi. "They carried weapons for protection," he claimed, "but never fired them in the Congo. They shot at gun ranges in Zimbabwe."

He acknowledged the men belong to his 14-member congregation, located in a quiet, northwestern neighborhood of Indianapolis. The address turned out to be a two-story brick house he’d been renting for seven months. The living room, also the headquarters of Harvestfield Ministries, was reportedly adorned with African statues, wall hangings, and decorative pieces. No signs identify it as the Harvestfield church, and an AP reporter saw no visible religious items.

In January, James Wood, a former US defense official, told the London-based Economist magazine that mercenary outfits "tend to be Ôvirtual companies,’ sometimes no more than a retired military guy sitting in a spare bedroom with a fax machine and a Rolodex." They are often "paid in oil or mineral concessions and the profits accrue to companies, registered in tax havens where their links to the mercenaries are hard to trace."

Shortly after the Harare arrests, Enrique Bernales Ballesteros, the UN Human Rights Commission’s special rapporteur on mercenaries, announced that the "worsening activities" of mercenaries in Africa is affecting political stability. But Callow complained that his clients were being tried in the press. Stories sought to link the men to several high profile crimes, including the killing of tourists in Uganda and the bombing of Angola’s embassy in Lusaka. These charges, as well as an alleged map of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s offices found on the men, proved highly questionable.

Meanwhile, the incident became a propaganda bonanza for Mugabe. The arrests came one week after one US and five British diplomats were accused of spying and expelled from DRC. Mugabe had finally found a compelling explanation for his decision to spend $1 million a day to prevent the collapse of governmental authority in the DRC.

Defending the Mission

Many Christian churches are, of course, concerned about peace and security. But their interest in this case is different. At the moment, they’re at the forefront of the campaign to ban land mines and end the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons that sustains violent crimes and bloody conflicts in the region. They say weapons in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and drug-traffickers make large sections of the region extremely dangerous for civilians, relief and development workers, church workers, and even military peace keepers.

"We are witnessing perhaps the greatest threat to the people’s right to self-determination in Africa since the end of the anti-colonial struggle," said Abdel-Fatau Musah, head of the Conflict Unit of the London-based African Research and Information Bureau, speaking at a London conference on the Campaign Against Mercenaries in Africa last June. "With the failure of the state, the collapse of any semblance of national economy or security in many states, the way is being paved for the re-colonization of the continent."

In the midst of Central Africa’s despair, many Christian churches are discovering the essence of their mission. In September 1998, an emergency meeting of Churches and Christian Councils in Southern Africa and the Great Lakes Region was held in Lusaka, Zambia, to discuss the crisis in the DRC. Participants issued a joint statement that said: "As the church of Jesus Christ, our mandate stems from the Biblical imperative to proclaim the sacredness of life, and uphold justice with mercy by speaking the truth in love. We are concerned that under the culture of violence that prevails in the region, lives and property are being destroyed and economic resources wasted."

Throughout the continent, churches are becoming increasingly irritated by "missionaries" with no home mission boards, especially those who work outside local ecclesiastical structures or para-church organizations and don’t have the decency and common sense to obey local laws and appreciate the sensitive issues of their host countries.

The message Africans are sending out today is that the continent is no longer the playground for adventurers.

Odhiambo Okite, a Kenyan journalist, reports on the role of the African Church in public affairs.