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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.