UGANDA: Recruiting for Iraq

In Kampala, the gates of Askar Security Services in Kamwokya are buzzing with enthusiastic young men and women signing in for deployment in Iraq. They want to take the chance of a lifetime. They cannot wait to test the waters.
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ASK any ordinary American, Briton or Italian whether they would take up "reconstruction" jobs in Iraq, and their answer will most likely be a bold 'NO'.

But here in Kampala, the gates of Askar Security Services in Kamwokya are buzzing with enthusiastic young men and women signing in for deployment in Iraq. They want to take the chance of a lifetime. They cannot wait to test the waters.

Maybe we should not blame them because they are as desperate and vulnerable as they are jobless.

But again, what role is the Government, as the chief custodian of the citizenry, doing to ensure Ugandans do not just go on a blind date?

Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kuteesa said on Sunday that the Government had no role whatsoever. He was, however, quick to add that a meeting between him, his deputy Henry Oryem-Okello (in-charge of international affairs) and the security firm, was scheduled for Monday. Among the issues of contention, he said, the Iraq-bound recruits must crosscheck for their security, terms and conditions of service and "sign that they are going on their own (as private people)."

But as of now, the facts are hazy. It is not clear who is going to foot the air tickets, medical and life insurance for the recruits - who, ostensibly, are going to work as security guards, mechanics, secretaries, etc, in public and private premises in Iraq.

The main go-between in the recruitment is Bob Kasango, a lawyer with Hall and Partners, based at the Workers House. He is doing it in partnership with Askar, in liaison with the US government and foreign firms, including South Africa's Coin Security Group and western-based Kroll Risk Group.

It seems because Western nationals are turning down Iraq "job offers", the global companies have started looking to Africa for desperate job-seekers, who can easily be duped.

With offers of between $1,000 to $2,000 (about sh3m) per month, many Ugandans cannot resist the temptation.

By last week, over 1,000 people, including university graduates and army veterans, had flooded Askar offices. And many more were expected to join the queue. By the end of the recruitment drive, to last three years, over 10,000 Ugandans will have gone to work in Iraq, on contract. The first batch is said to be leaving as early as next week. And none of them is sagacious about the risks.

The funny thing, even the recruits, who are supposed to undergo basic fitness (read military) training, are not aware of the exact terms of the contract.

Neither Askar managing director, Kellen Kayonga nor Kasango could reveal any details when contacted on Sunday. "I am sorry, Mr Ocwich. I am not giving any more press interviews on that issue," Kasango said.

As Louis Otika, a Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) official put it: "The terms and conditions of service must be clearly spelt out." Otika added that he is opposed to compatriots going to work as mercenaries in Iraq. "If they are professional jobs, then there is no problem."

Last week, Parliament asked the Government to explain the circumstances surrounding the Iraq jobs.

"The Government needs to comprehensively study the whole thing," said Nassar Basajjabalaba, the Youth MP for Western Region. To him, he can only support the recruitment if the security of Ugandans is guaranteed. "Life is more important than money," he cautioned.

There are fears that Ugandans, who will be distinctively black-coloured, can be easy targets by sectarian suicide bombers and insurgents who are anathema to foreigners. Going by recent events - 400 attacks every week - no part of Iraq is virtually safe. Since the new Iraqi government was installed three weeks ago, suicide bombers and insurgents have killed about 500 people.

To lift the words of Ephraim Omondi, a Ugandan quoted by BBC online: "I think anyone who goes to Iraq today is committing suicide. The instability brought about by the forced removal of Saddam Hussein has only now made any foreign visitor or worker a target."

For now, the Government is, apparently, thinking that it is a private affair, by private individuals, on private contracts. But if Ugandans go and start dying in Iraq (God forbid) the guns might be turned against the Government for "not doing enough" to stop its citizens heading for danger.

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