Tuesday, October 16, 2007
His real name was Gilbert Bourgeaud, although few actually knew him by that name after his exploits became known. Some knew him as Andre Maurin or perhaps by one of his other dozen assumed names. The one that stuck, however, and the one which the world would come to recognize, was Bob Denard.
Denard was one of the most prominent "Congo Mercenaries". Self-styled a colonel, his actual military training and rank was that of a corporal with the French Navy in Indochina. After he left the French military he went on to become a policeman in French Morocco. It was during his time in Morocco that he was sent to prison for 14 months for involvement in an assassination attempt against French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France. While he was eventually acquitted, it was the beginning of a long and shady career as a professional soldier-of-fortune.
Denard was openly and fervently anti-communist. He was also always on the side of French colonialism and, while he claimed he was working for and was occasionally promoted by, the French government, no secure link was ever made.
What Denard did accomplish, although somewhat arguably, was the transition from pure mercenary to something more akin to today's private military contractors. While he definitely did what all mercenaries do, (engage in and promote warfare for money), he had something which could be described as principles. He believed in the side he took - on most occasions.
Denard, whether he was actually working for the French government or not, always seemed to be on the correct side of French foreign policy. Whether he was simply able to read French interests and find a way to gain employment or whether he had the secret nod of the French government will probably remain a mystery. What is known is that, in 1977, he appeared with a force in Benin in a failed coup attempt. The government of France, while disavowing any knowledge of Denard's involvement did admit that they were aware of other French allies support of the coup. Denard, however, was considered to be freelancing and the French government would eventually make him stand trial for his involvement.
Denard eventually turned up in the Comoros Islands, a small and impoverished country in the Indian Ocean. He overthrew the government there four times. During a period of over ten years, Denard actually ran the Comoros Islands while working through a figurehead and commanding a 500-man presidential guard which maintained strict control of the country. During that period Denard accumulated a wealth through various business enterprises, converted to Islam and became a Comoros citizen.
Conveniently, Denard used his position of power in the Comoros to launch military campaigns against Anglola and Mozambique. His native country, France, apparently did not disapprove of his presence in the Comoros and, in fact, took advantage by using the Comoros Islands as a "washing machine" to work around international trade embargos with the then apartheid regime in South Africa.
Denard was eventually removed from the Comoros Islands by the French themselves, having sent three battalions of troops to evacuate him to South Africa. He later returned to conduct his final coup d'etat and was arrested, without a fight, by the French security service, the DGSE. During those events, Denard never commanded a cohesive force of much more than a company.
Denard eventually stood trial for his failed coup attempt against Benin and for two coups in the Comoros Islands. He was also implicated in the murders of Comoros president Ahmed Abdallah and later, president Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim, although no direct involvement was ever proved. In the former case, in which there was a lack of material evidence but sufficient testimony to see Denard convicted, the family who had brought the case suddenly withdrew their testimony and Denard was acquitted due to lack of evidence. In the latter, Abdulkarim suddenly died and, although the family believed the death was suspicious, no postmortem autopsy was ever conducted to verify their claim of poisoning.
Denard was eventually found guilty under French "gang activities" legislation and sentenced to five years imprisonment which, on a appeal, was reduced to four years, three of which were suspended. By that time Denard was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and was not required to serve the one year required.
What did come out during Denard's trials was the fact that the French DGSE (secret service) was not only aware of Denard's activities but might well have paid him for his various roles in some conflicts. When the French judge, passing sentence on Denard, provided his reasons, one of the mitigating factors was the fact that the French government was aware of Denard's role in the 1995 coup attempt. Denard may well have been acting on behalf of the French government or, at the very least, conducting his activities while they looked the other way. The French courts certainly seemed to believe that, while Denard was a dangerous and unwelcome individual, he may well have been employed as an agent of the French government during most of his adventures.
If that was the case, Denard and his activites should serve as a warning. Blackwater and Erik Prince fall into the same category.
If Denard was not working for the French government, he was freelancing with their tacit approval and it too should serve as a warning. Blackwater will become no different if there isn't a halt brought to their activities.
Denard was the godfather of private military companies and far from celebrating his life we should be thankful for his passing. He left us nothing to celebrate.
Now, if we could only be rid of "Crazy" Mike Hoare. Then the legacy of the "Congo Mercenaries" would truly be dead.