East Africans working for US security firms in war zone

Monday November 23 2009

Ugandan employees of US-based EOD Technology at a security training session inside a US army forward operating base in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, on May 1, 2008. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Ugandan employees of US-based EOD Technology at a security training session inside a US army forward operating base in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, on May 1, 2008. Picture: AFP/Getty Images 

By JOINT REPORT

Thousands of Ugandans and Kenyans are working in Iraq and Afghanistan as contractors for US-based security companies.

They are paid wages far greater than they could earn at home — but far lower than those that Americans and Europeans receive for doing similar work.

Critics refer to the security contractors as mercenaries. Some campaigners seeking an end to the Pentagon’s outsourcing of such operations in war zones say it amounts to human trafficking.

Private security contractors also work in African countries under the aegis of some of the same US companies that employ East Africans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a recent protest in Washington against US security contracting operations in Africa, author Jeremy Scahill called for shutting down of “this whole privatised war apparatus... and to raise awareness of this Bush regime policy that the Obama administration is continuing.”

The US military increasingly relies on private contractors to carry out a wide variety of tasks in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, including Africa, because it lacks the requisite number of uniformed personnel.

With US armed forces entirely dependent on volunteers, the Pentagon would have to scale back its global commitments drastically if it were not able to contract with private security companies.

Emira Woods, the head of a foreign-policy project at a progressive think tank in Washington, says the main objection to private security contracting is that these workers cannot be held accountable for human-rights violations in the same way that soldiers can.

“Security should be the purview of the government exclusively,” Woods says. “Then there are mechanisms for accountability that are absent with private companies.”

On their part, the companies defend their recruitment activities in East Africa as offering significant benefits to those who sign up, their families and society as a whole.

They also reject the “mercenary” label. Douglas Ebner, a spokesman for US-based DynCorp International, which is active in Africa, says critics “misuse the term for political purposes.”

James Mwangemi, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Kenya Army and now an independent security consultant, told CNSNews.com in 2007 that the successful use of armed ex-soldiers as rearguards in Iraq has caused observers to rethink stereotypes.

“Previously, people who performed such tasks were seen as mercenaries,” Mwangemi told the news service. “This is changing, and Iraq has fired up that change.”

Triple Canopy, a US firm that employs several hundred Ugandans in Iraq, says each is chosen on the basis of experience in military or police positions and is then trained for specific duties — guard, driver, mechanic, etc

Working for Triple Canopy has enabled many Ugandans to “support their families at home in various ways — from educating their children and investing in their future to starting their own businesses or providing medical treatment for family members,” a company spokesman adds.

Jayanti Menches, Triple Canopy’s marketing director, describes the Ugandans as “vigilant, reliable and professional workers.”

He says all of the company’s personnel receive “equal quality protective equipment, training, life support as well as morale, welfare and recreation opportunities.”

But Menches cites “contractual obligations” in declining to reveal how much the Ugandans are paid.

A spokeswoman for Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group, a US firm that has brought thousands of Ugandans and hundreds of Kenyans to Iraq and Afghanistan, would also not provide information on the East Africans’ pay rates.

The spokeswoman, Maureen Omrud, did say the Kenyans and Ugandans are paid in accordance with legal standards.

The company also “works closely with the labour ministries in both countries in regard to wages and other conditions,” she added.

Published accounts suggest that monthly wages for East African contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan range between $500 and $800.

They are cheaper than Americans or Westerners — maybe by a factor of five or six.