Why 10,000 Ugandans are eagerly serving in Iraq

Thousands of men and women from poverty-stricken Uganda risk their lives for $600 a month in Iraq.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Looking for opportunity: Ugandan recruits hoping to work as private security guards in Iraq undergo basic firearms training in Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 15.
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    Ugandan employees of the US based security services company EOD Technology stood listening to instructions during a training session in Mahmudiyah, Iraq.
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Under a relentless equatorial sun and the gaze of her Zimbabwean instructor, Juliet Kituye quickly reassembles her AK-47. Next to her, a young man in a ripped red T-shirt discharges imaginary rounds at an invisible target.

On a disused soccer pitch in the suburbs of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, 300 hopefuls are being put through rudimentary firearms training. Many of the recruits are raw and their drills occasionally lurch towards slapstick. One trainee lets the magazine slip out of his automatic rifle and onto the red earth, someone else about turns right instead of left. All of them share the same dream, however: going to Iraq.

As President Barack Obama announces plans to withdraw US troops from Iraq, thousands of young Ugandans are increasingly desperate to be sent to the war-torn country. Already, the Ugandan government says there are more than 10,000 men and women from this poverty-stricken East African nation working as private security guards in Iraq. Hired out to multibillion-dollar companies for hundreds of dollars a month, they risk their lives seeking fortunes protecting US Army bases, airports, and oil firms.

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The war in Iraq is the most privatized conflict in history. Since the invasion in 2003, the US Department of Defense has doled out contracts worth an estimated $100 billion to private firms. Covering a vast range of services from catering to dry cleaning to security, one in every five dollars the US spends in Iraq ends up in the pockets of the contractors, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. Increasingly these jobs have been outsourced to developing countries.

It is clear why the US contractors came to Uganda. As an impoverished former British colony, the country is awash with unemployed and English-speaking potential recruits. Its pliant government was an early member of President Bush's "coalition of the willing," and with a lingering 20-year insurgency, it also has a glut of experienced army veterans, who made up the initial contingent of Ugandans in Iraq.

More important, hiring Ugandans is cheap. Since the first Ugandans were sent to Iraq in late 2005, competition from other developing countries in Africa and the Indian subcontinent has seen the government cut the minimum wage from $1,300 to $600 a month. That compares with the $15,000 that one industry insider estimated an American guard could make each month. Nevertheless, competition is fierce, and for those Ugandans who land a job, Iraq can prove a bonanza.

Paul Mugabe is back in Uganda for a month. For the past year, the sinewy, nervous young man has been guarding the American Camp Diamondback at the airport in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, and soon he will be heading to Baghdad.

"It's not like Uganda. You sweat and sweat and sweat," says Mr. Mugabe, a former soldier in the Ugandan Army. "It is the most dangerous place in the world. It's even worse than Congo."

With the money he's earned during those 12 months, back in his village Mugabe has built himself two houses, bought a bar, and increased the herd of cows his father left him to 30.

"You should see the size of my banana plantation," he smiles. When he returns from another year in Iraq, he should have saved enough money to cover a wedding and the traditional bride price needed to find a pretty wife, he says.

But despite his nascent business empire and hopes of love, the fact that he is putting his life on the line to help US companies make massive profits is not lost on him. "If I am earning $600 a month and these companies are making billions, it is not fair," he says.

For Uganda, however, another country's war on a continent far away has proved to be lucrative. "The Iraq opportunity brings in about $90 million dollars, whereas our chief export, which is coffee, brings in around $60 or $70 million a year," says the former state minister for labor, employment, and industrial relations, Mwesigwa Rukutana, now minister of higher education. That figure is mostly made up of remittances.

But domestic criticism has been fierce, with some equating the system to human trafficking or slavery. Reports of abuse, ranging from poor conditions and changeable contracts to sexual assault, have appeared in the media.

"Unlike in the past when there was the slave trade, no company comes here and recruits anyone against their wishes. It is willing worker, willing employer," Mr. Rukutana says. "If anyone thinks the conditions there are bad or that he is going to be exploited, no one is compelling him to go." Rukutana says that only one Ugandan has been killed in Iraq, while others say more have died.

If anyone understands some of the hardships of working in Iraq and the industry it's spawned, then it is Moses Matsiko. Mr. Matsiko has spent nearly four years working for a US firm in Afghanistan and Iraq. In late 2006, a convoy he was escorting through the town of Fallujah was ambushed. He was shot seven times but survived. Two American colleagues he was with were killed.

But far from shy away from the dangers of Iraq, Matsiko has embraced its opportunities. In 2007, he started his own company to train and send guards to Iraq and now has over 1,200 in the country.

"My experience in Iraq is that despite having been shot seven times, it is very great," he says. President Obama's withdrawal plans have cast a shadow of doubt over his future business plans. But that has just forced Matsiko to start looking opportunities elsewhere.

"If all goes well, then I hope to be sending people to Afghanistan in the near future," he smiles.

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