People in a day …
Outside Middle East Consultants, where people come every day to apply for jobs abroad and check for vacancies
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.
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 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.
During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to marry his light-footprint invasion strategy with freemarket 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
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.