“If you want 100
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 counterterrorism training center in Jordan funded by the Pentagon. Others are sent abroad with virtually no training 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 multibilliondollar contract to guard U.S. diplomats around the world since 2010. Its website shows on a world map that SOC is active in
in Qatar, with hundreds—perhaps thousands, he hinted—more on order when the country hosts the World Cup. A poster behind the receptionist warns applicants that salaries will be paid in local currencies, not coveted U.S. dollars.
Ugandans are influential in the business on other continents, too. Sisto Andama, a nephew of Amin, was early to the guard trade. After politically connected rivals undercut his business in 2006 and engineered his arrest the following year, Andama fled the country. He now lives in Maryland, where he’s the director of African operations for Beowulf Worldwide, a security subcontractor based in Valparaiso, Ind. He handles 750 men, mostly in Afghanistan, and hundreds of contractors working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Command across the continent.
Since the hiring boom began during the Iraq War, Ugandan newspapers have made much of the fortunes being made.
and mistreatment were “despicable.”
In 2004, SOC was looking for men to send to Iraq, and it approached Askar Security’s Kayonga. In Uganda, her employees were essentially mall cops. To enter the lucrative but dangerous new war market, she turned to Andama, a former army captain, to recruit and train a guard force.
With Andama rounding up men, Kayonga reached out to Moses Matsiko Baryamujura, a member of her tribe. Matsiko was a young freelance journalist moonlighting as a security guard with Kayonga to make extra cash. Although he had no military experience, Kayonga persuaded SOC to hire him in the first wave of Ugandans it sent to Iraq. She hoped a fellow tribesman would be her eyes and ears on the ground.
Ugandan guards quickly became known in the security industry for being cheap and relatively reliable. They became a preferred endpoint in a supply chain of people that began at the Pentagon. EOD Technologies, an ordnance-disposal company based in Lenoir City, Tenn., that diversified into guard work and later merged with another company to form Sterling Global Operations, won $813 million in contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2015. In January 2006 the company signed an agreement with Beowulf Worldwide, which in turn contracted with Askar Security. (In April, Sterling changed its name to Janus Global Operations.) That’s how the likes of Matsiko and other inexperienced men ended up performing critical tasks in America’s wars.
Ex-guards are everywhere in Kampala. Some drive cabs or run shops bankrolled with Iraq windfalls. Cornelius Tukahebwa was a hotel janitor when a local guard company recruited him. He received two months of training with an AK-47 at a parade ground near Kampala’s Baha’i temple and then shipped out. After four years in Iraq, he returned to Uganda, bought a car and land, built