Private security contractors look to Africa for recruits
Namibia kicked out two top officials of an international private security firm this fall amid claims the firm was recruiting fighters to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Human rights activist Phil ya Nangolo started hearing rumors in the fall about an American security group opening shop here, with plans to recruit thousands of former Namibian soldiers to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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Many ex-fighters, he recalls, were excited about the arrival of the Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group (SOC-SMG), an "international force protection" company with clients that include the US Army and Marine Corps. After all, this sparsely populated country in southwest Africa struggles with a 35 percent unemployment rate, and thousands of the country's former independence fighters are jobless.
But Mr. Nangolo, the director of Namibia's National Society for Human Rights, was concerned.
Over the past few years, in Namibia and Uganda, Mozambique, and Burundi, and scores of other impoverished, war-torn countries, American private security companies have increased efforts to hire former fighters for work in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hot spots, according to researchers, human rights activists, and those in the private security industry.
Companies and their supporters say this recruitment drive is simply globalization – a way for businesses competing for lucrative security contracts to get talent at a lower cost. They point out that they are bringing jobs to struggling countries and are helping boost developing economies.
"You need to compete against other companies that are going to third-country nationals," says Doug Brooks, president of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, an industry organization for private security companies. "And you're giving a Namibian 100 times his national salary."
But Nangolo and other human rights activists believe this new trend is exploitative as well as destabilizing in a region that is trying to move beyond its violent past.
"I told them [Namibia's former fighters], 'You are being sold,' " Nangolo says. " 'This is a type of human trafficking because of the socioeconomic condition you are in.' "
The Namibian government seemed to agree with Nangolo, who filed a legal protest saying SOC-SMG was violating Namibian laws against mercenary activity. On Oct. 12, the Namibian government expelled from the country two top SOC-SMG officials, and ordered the company to shut down all of its Namibian business operations.
"The involvement of Namibian nationals in such armed conflicts has serious short- and long-term national security implications on the interests of Namibia at home and abroad," information minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah said at the time.
SOC-SMG did not return phone calls asking for comment, although local newspapers reported that the government had originally given the company permission to set up a branch in Windhoek, the capital.