Uganda’s Top Export: Mercenaries
May 12, 2016
The African nation makes more money from military contractors than coffee
By David Gauvey Herbert*
Uganda, in East Africa, is home to 37 million people and one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s perhaps best known for the dictator Idi Amin, who came to power in 1971 and murdered 300,000 of his countrymen during an eight-year reign. Although the country borders tumultuous South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda today is an island of relative political stability. The economy hums. Shopping malls bloom around the capital. Its people, to generalize, are deeply religious, family-oriented, and averse to profanity. Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda the Pearl of Africa in part for its friendly people.
It’s also one of the leading providers of mercenaries—or “private military contractors,” as the security industry prefers to call them. They are at once everywhere and nowhere. On TV, a company called Middle East Consultants runs advertisements looking for able-bodied young men to send to Dubai. Talk to taxi drivers as you bump along dirt roads in the capital, Kampala, and each has a friend or cousin or neighbor who raves about the fortune he’s made guarding some embassy or joining the war in Iraq. But official numbers and interviews with the kind of multinational companies that go to countries such as Uganda to find soldiers are hard to come by.
In Iraq, Ugandans protect U.S. diplomats in Baghdad and Basra. They also guard businessmen and aid workers in Afghanistan and Somalia. They patrol government installations in Qatar and will likely stand watch when the country hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Some recruits have drilled at an elite counterterrorism training center in Jordan funded by the Pentagon. Others are sent abroad with virtually no training at all, just a requirement that they stand at least 5-foot-7.
A decade ago, after con men began running employment frauds on mercenary hopefuls, the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development created the External Employment Unit, an agency meant to track men leaving to serve abroad. Milton Turyasiima, a ministry officer, runs the unit from a cluttered office in a dimly lit, bureaucratic warren in central Kampala. Asked detailed questions about the business, Turyasiima demands a written request for figures but then never responds. He does provide a list of the country’s 43 licensed recruiters.
List in hand, I go off to find some. One of my first stops is Saracen Uganda, the local affiliate of the South African security company Saracen International. The parent company was founded by veterans of Executive Outcomes, a private military contractor whose March 1995 assault on a guerrilla insurgency in Sierra Leone inspired the movie Blood Diamond. Saracen’s Ugandan offshoot was criticized in a 2002 United Nations Security Council report for training rebel paramilitary forces in the DRC. One of the company’s founders is General Salim Saleh, the half-brother of Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni.
A boda boda—a motorcycle taxi—ferries me to Saracen’s sprawling compound in the neighborhood of Kansanga. Down a dirt alleyway and through a heavy metal gate, the grounds host an incongruous mélange of verdant greenery, retrofitted troop transports, wrecked SUVs, job applicants, and rifle-toting guards. Six people are waiting to speak with a recruiter, hoping to score one of Saracen’s roughly 3,000 domestic jobs guarding banks and malls in Uganda, or one of its more lucrative posts in Somalia and Iraq, where Saracen is sending mercenaries.
In the visitors log, under “purpose of visit,” recent guests have scrawled “SOC,” “SOC,” “SOC.” A security contractor based in Minden, Nev., SOC has held a share of a multibillion-dollar contract to guard U.S. diplomats around the world since 2010. Its website shows on a world map that SOC is active in Africa. Where, exactly, it doesn’t say. Spokesmen for SOC and the other global security companies mentioned in this story declined to comment.
From the lobby, I spy a middle-aged white man working in a back room. He makes brief eye contact and then retreats around a corner. When I finally sit down with Jeffrey Mugisha, a Saracen project manager, he tells me that SOC maintains several employees at Saracen’s compound, led by the man who slipped away, whom Mugisha refers to as “Mr. George.” Saracen, he says, supplies SOC with more than 500 guards in Iraq, each of whom earns about $900 a month.
Armed guards are Uganda’s top export. Mercenary remittances surpassed coffee exports in 2009, according to the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development. Interpol’s Kampala bureau conducts roughly 1,000 background checks on Ugandans heading abroad for security jobs every month, “just to make sure we are not sending foreign fighters,” says Asan Kasingye, Interpol’s local chief. (By “foreign fighters,” he means international Islamic State recruits.) That figure doesn’t count the guards working in countries that don’t require checks nor guards who secure bogus credentials, fail to renew their Interpol-issued permits, or are illegally trafficked. A conservative estimate is 20,000 Ugandan mercenaries working abroad right now, according to Interpol figures and industry insiders.
It’s difficult to determine how many Ugandans have been killed working as mercenaries, as this isn’t a record maintained by any authority. There have certainly been deaths; I was told of four anecdotally on my visit. In March 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 1,635 civilian contractors had died in Iraq since the start of the conflict. The same report counted 142 deaths since September 2001 among four large contractors, including SOC—all of whom have recruited heavily in Uganda. However, the report doesn’t detail the nationalities of these casualties nor where they died.
Some of the local companies are now quite large. Askar Security Services was the first recruiter to supply Western contractors during the Iraq War, finding thousands of guards to defend watchtowers and protect convoys. The company, owned by Kellen Kayonga, the sister-in-law of President Museveni, has its headquarters in a massive, gated compound. On the wall in the lobby is a framed photograph of Vice President Joe Biden inspecting Askar guards in Iraq.
Uganda mercenary applicants
Applicants queue for fingerprinting at Interpol, where they obtain the certificate of good conduct that will allow them to pursue a job abroad with a security company.
Photographer: Michele Sibiloni for Bloomberg Businessweek
Other outfits are more modest. Two Niles Public Relations Agency occupies a shabby, two-room office hidden in a sweltering shopping mall. Business stops when Abdulrazak Hussein, the managing director, goes to the storefront mosque next door to pray. When he returns, he’s happy to chat. As a ceiling fan groans overhead, the recruiter prints out a tidy spreadsheet of his 16 contracts to date; one of them is for 500 guards working for Hemaya Security Services, a state-owned company in Qatar, with hundreds—perhaps thousands, he hinted—more on order when the country hosts the World Cup. A poster behind the receptionist warns applicants that salaries will be paid in local currencies, not coveted U.S. dollars.
Ugandans are influential in the business on other continents, too. Sisto Andama, a nephew of Amin, was early to the guard trade. After politically connected rivals undercut his business in 2006 and engineered his arrest the following year, Andama fled the country. He now lives in Maryland, where he’s the director of African operations for Beowulf Worldwide, a security subcontractor based in Valparaiso, Ind. He handles 750 men, mostly in Afghanistan, and hundreds of contractors working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Command across the continent.
Since the hiring boom began during the Iraq War, Ugandan newspapers have made much of the fortunes being made. Returning guards use earnings to buy land, build homes, and start small businesses. Thousands of young men—some army veterans but also civilians, from janitors and taxi drivers to unemployed university grads—swamp recruitment offices with their credentials stuffed in brown paper envelopes.
As Islamic State loses ground, Ugandan subcontractors hope to send men to Iraq to protect diplomats, patrol nongovernmental organization compounds, and guard oil fields. Crumbling security situations in South Sudan and Libya look promising, too. U.S. government contracts are the real payday, though. Wherever the Pentagon next marshals a shadow army of security contractors, an overwhelming number of those hired guns will likely be recruited from the trash-strewn streets of Kampala.
“If you want 100 people in a day, I can get them”
During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to marry his light-footprint invasion strategy with free-market principles. Contractors scrambled to recruit thousands of bodies to fulfill lucrative Pentagon security contracts. “The industry had been growing since the mid-’90s, but what happened in Iraq was so extreme,” says Deborah Avant, the director of the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy at the University of Denver. “All of a sudden everybody needed these people. It was this enormous surge of demand.”
Uganda was a good place to find soldiers. The pro-American government voiced no qualms about its citizens working in Iraq. In addition to speaking English, most of its population is Christian, minimizing the threat, real or imagined, of guards aligning with insurgents. There was precedent, too: Ugandan soldiers, known as askaris, had served in the King’s African Rifles, fighting for the British Empire in both world wars. Best of all, from the point of view of recruiters, Ugandans would accept dangerous assignments for not much money. Army veterans gladly worked for $1,000 a month at a time when the average salary at home was less than $300 a year.
It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Bajun Mavalwalla, a former U.S. Army captain, spent a year at Camp Victory in Iraq, which was protected by Ugandans. The guards inspecting vehicles for bombs were “IED sponges,” he says, and their low pay and mistreatment were “despicable.”
In 2004, SOC was looking for men to send to Iraq, and it approached Askar Security’s Kayonga. In Uganda, her employees were essentially mall cops. To enter the lucrative but dangerous new war market, she turned to Andama, a former army captain, to recruit and train a guard force.
With Andama rounding up men, Kayonga reached out to Moses Matsiko Baryamujura, a member of her tribe. Matsiko was a young freelance journalist moonlighting as a security guard with Kayonga to make extra cash. Although he had no military experience, Kayonga persuaded SOC to hire him in the first wave of Ugandans it sent to Iraq. She hoped a fellow tribesman would be her eyes and ears on the ground.
Ugandan guards quickly became known in the security industry for being cheap and relatively reliable. They became a preferred endpoint in a supply chain of people that began at the Pentagon. EOD Technologies, an ordnance-disposal company based in Lenoir City, Tenn., that diversified into guard work and later merged with another company to form Sterling Global Operations, won $813 million in contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2015. In January 2006 the company signed an agreement with Beowulf Worldwide, which in turn contracted with Askar Security. (In April, Sterling changed its name to Janus Global Operations.) That’s how the likes of Matsiko and other inexperienced men ended up performing critical tasks in America’s wars.
Ex-guards are everywhere in Kampala. Some drive cabs or run shops bankrolled with Iraq windfalls. Cornelius Tukahebwa was a hotel janitor when a local guard company recruited him. He received two months of training with an AK-47 at a parade ground near Kampala’s Baha’i temple and then shipped out. After four years in Iraq, he returned to Uganda, bought a car and land, built a house, and started a tour company. With his newfound wealth, Tukahebwa has won the chairmanship of a local soccer club and an invitation from the ruling NRM party to stand for a political seat. He was shot during a firefight while guarding a Kuwait-bound convoy, and the massive scar on his left shin dissuades him from reenlisting, but he’s happy to activate a phone tree for any recruiter who asks. “If you want 100 people in a day, I can get them,” he says.
Many ex-guards are looking for more work, having either squandered their paydays or entered the industry late in the wars, after salaries had dipped. David Tumwesigye completed two tours in Iraq from 2008 to 2013, earning from $400 to $800 a month. When I meet him at a downtown cafe, he shows me his weathered passport and a certificate from the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, a state-of-the-art counterterrorism facility in Jordan where he drilled in 2011 with a contingent of Saracen guards. Last summer, Tumwesigye was running around Kampala applying for a new overseas post. He was later hired by Round Off International, a local Ugandan recruiter, and deployed to Somalia, where he’s now part of a 300-strong contingent of Ugandans guarding the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Mogadishu.
After returning from Iraq, former journalist Matsiko started his own recruiting company. He landed his first business during the Iraq War with Sabre International, a company founded by Thomas “Frank” McDonald, a veteran of the British Special Forces and megacontractor Aegis Defence Services. Matsiko says he first agreed to supply 300 guards for a monthly commission of $100 per guard. After medical checks, training, and overhead, he netted $120,000 a year, a fortune in Uganda. In 2009 the New Vision newspaper placed him on its “new money class” list with an estimated net worth of $5 million. He operates Pinnacle Group and Watertight Services.
Finding Matsiko is difficult. E-mails and calls go unanswered. Angelo Izama, a friend and prominent journalist, rings him up. Matsiko’s voice crackles over the speakerphone with promises to meet. I wait days with no word. I visit Pinnacle’s compound, hoping to catch him. Inside the heavy metal gate, there’s a hive of activity—job seekers, uniformed guards, SUVs—but no Matsiko. He rarely clocks in, a sentry tells me. Try the golf course.
As I search for Matsiko, I hear increasingly fantastical stories from local reporters: He’s careful about what he eats for fear of being poisoned by business rivals; his genitals were blown off in an Iraqi ambush. When he finally relents and we meet at the upscale Serena Hotel, Colonel Kurtz he’s not. Dressed in a blue gingham shirt, he apologizes, in between flirting with a waitress, for giving me the runaround. “I used to be a journalist,” he says. “So when I hear a journalist is looking for me, I want to get away as far as possible.”
In Iraq, he says, he killed three or four insurgents and was shot four times in the arm and back. His arm is indeed scarred, but the precise details of the incident are impossible to verify. Business is good, he tells me, though it was better during the occupation of Iraq. Matsiko has 300 guards there and in Afghanistan—a figure corroborated by the Ministry of Gender’s External Employment Unit—and several hundred more in Burundi, the DRC, and the UAE. In Uganda itself he has 400 guards—in rumpled blue fatigues, they patrol the hotel where we meet, the country club where I eat, the banks where I withdraw cash, and the guesthouse where I sleep. He protects the United Nations compounds in Kampala and Entebbe, too.
In the U.S., the debate over armed contractors continues in the same bureaucratic circles that first touted them. The Pentagon likes mercenaries because they can be scaled up and demobilized quickly. The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, however, argues that federal employees are often cheaper than contractors.
Sean McFate, an ex-paratrooper, former military contractor, and author of The Modern Mercenary, says the contractor boom isn’t an aberration but rather a return to medieval norms, when contract warfare was standard. “Contractors are here to stay,” he says. Whether mercenaries are next deployed to combat Islamic State or on battlefields yet unknown, he adds, “they are part of the national security tool kit.”
Ugandan guards graduated from the Iraq War with mixed grades. In 2009 the security company Triple Canopy, based in Reston, Va., allegedly falsified score cards after all 330 of its Ugandan guards at the Al Asad Air Base failed a basic marksmanship test, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit. The case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Ugandans appear likely to continue guarding American diplomats in Iraq and elsewhere. On Feb. 12 the State Department awarded the next phase of its five-year, $10.2 billion Worldwide Protective Services contract to shield diplomatic personnel, guard embassy buildings, and operate a fleet of aircraft and armored vehicles. Among the seven winning companies, at least five—SOC, Triple Canopy, Sterling Global Operations, GardaWorld Government Services, and Aegis Defence Services—recruit or have previously recruited in Uganda.
Operation Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon’s anti-Islamic State initiative, employed 7,773 contractors in the second quarter of 2016, up from 5,000 in the first quarter of 2015. If national armies and their proxies defeat Islamic State, returning diplomats, investors, NGO workers, and others will need protection, much as they did after Saddam Hussein’s government fell a decade ago. Contractors will fill the gap.
Matsiko and the others are ready to supply the bodies. Andama has 3,000 ex-guards on a waitlist for overseas posts. Matsiko stays in regular contact with a local association for returned guards so he can scale up quickly.
Until then, the two men enjoy the spoils of war. Matsiko plays golf three days a week, favors 18-year-old Scotch, and recently served as a judge for the Miss Uganda beauty pageant. Andama leads a quieter existence in suburban Maryland. His son has taken up football.
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