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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Tough guys: Iraqi and foreign members of a private security firm stand on a rooftop in Baghdad. Some experts estimate that there are 4,000 South Africans fighting in Iraq.
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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.

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.

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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.

The question of "third-country nationals," as they're called in industry lingo, has become a recent point of controversy in the already contentious debate over private security contractors and how the US government is using their services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Erica Razook, a legal fellow with Amnesty International USA, says foreign employees of American private security companies are even less accountable for their war zone behavior than US employees. The question of what laws govern private security employees came into the spotlight when guards with Blackwater USA killed 17 Iraqis during a shootout in September. Razook says even fewer laws would apply to third-country nationals.

"Hiring employees from other countries adds layers of complexities," she says.

African governments are wary of private security companies and employees – a suspicion fueled by the continent's history with mercenary groups.

Since the end of apartheid, which left a number of highly trained, white South African fighters without military work, small private armies have operated regularly across Africa. They've helped government soldiers combat rebels in Sierra Leone, fought against Angolan rebels for control of oil fields, and have been accused of smuggling arms throughout the continent.

Today, some experts put the number of South African private security forces in Iraq at 4,000 – one of the largest national showings after Iraqis and Americans. The South African government has debated in recent years passing legislation that would prohibit South Africans from working for most private security companies, which are grouped with mercenary groups under the proposed law.

"The world is allowing the private security industry growth to run ahead of regulation and legal frameworks," says Len Le Roux, the head of the defense program at the South African-based Institute for Security Studies. "Where does private security stop and mercenary begin?"

American private security firms, many of which are run by distinguished former military officials, distance themselves from mercenaries.

Gen. William Odom, a retired three-star general and the director of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, criticizes the way the groups have been regulated and have operated, but he also says that private security firms are better able to respond to and use advancing technology in conflict zones than are large, bureaucratic institutions such as the Army. And he says he is not surprised that these groups are going to different countries for personnel.

"Very often you want to go into a country where they don't like Americans, but third-country nationals do OK," Mr. Odom says. "And you've got a lot of people loose out there looking for a job."

In Namibia, the fallout over SOC-SMG is continuing.

At least one public official has publicly denied his role with the company, and Nangolo is pressing for more information about how the company started operations here in the first place.

"But overall, we say good riddance," Nangolo says. "For us, this was a security threat."

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