Uganda's Top Export: Mercenaries
Bloomberg Businessweek|May 16 - May 22, 2016

How Uganda became the world's leading source of soldiers.

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 counter terrorism 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 multi-billion 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.

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