The Newest Security Contractors in Iraq: Ex-combatants from Sierra Leone

January 15, 2010
This is a joint posting with Julia Barmeier. A British private security firm, Sabre International, is sponsoring the employment of Sierra Leoneans for security jobs in Iraq. According to its own website, the company holds multiple aviation security contracts for three airports in Iraq (Baghdad International Airport, Mosul Airport, and Najaf International Airport). Having undergone two weeks of preparation training, 400 to 1,000 Sierra Leoneans have already been sent to Iraq (and possibly Afghanistan) with a waiting list of over 10,000 who are interested in participating in the program. According to reports, the West African workers will receive $250 a month, $200 of which will be directly deposited into a bank account in Freetown. Compare this to the per capita Gross National Income in Sierra Leone in 2008, which was $320 a year. (Meanwhile, Sierra Leone Members of Parliament are petitioning for monthly salaries of $4,000-$6,000!) It’s no wonder thousands of people have signed up for this program: they are receiving a little less than 10x the amount they would earn in their own country! (Sierra Leone currently ranks 201 out of 210 countries in terms of its GNI per capita). Their salaries will not be taxed and they will be given free accommodation, free medical facility, free transportation, and free insurance. While a fabulous salary in Sierra Leone, their U.S. citizen contractor counterparts are averaging $100,000 a year, possibly in similar roles. In this regard, Sabre might be saving a tidy sum. Post-conflict recovery researchers like Paul Collier and former CGD post-doc Chris Blattman emphasize the need to engage ex-combatants in productive activity, in other words, create an economic incentive to cease violence or prevent a relapse into conflict. This program is fulfilling this purpose. For example, news reports say the agreement welcomed by Youth for Middle East Overseas Group, which has apparently pressured the government of Sierra Leone to allow youths to seek work in Iraq. Said Secretary-General Akim Bangura, “Finally, we are breathing a sigh of relief over the positive outcome. We have fought a successful battle and I have been arrested a couple of times for leading campaigns for jobless youths to find jobs in Iraq. I am happy it all ended this way.” On the other hand, the program perpetuates the environment of violence that surrounded these youth in Sierra Leone. While the country officially ended its decade-long civil war in 2001, it is still ranked among the most fragile countries. Of blood diamond and child soldier fame, the conflict in Sierra Leone was severely brutal and bloody, where rebel activity was characterized by hacking off the hands and feet of victims. It is unclear what kind of effect employment in a similar-but-different conflict region will have on these program participants. Are agreements like these providing legitimate employment alternatives for ex-combatants? Or are they perpetuating reliance on conflict-related activity? Also, with unemployment rates at 18% to 30% in Iraq itself, why doesn’t Sabre seek local workers to fill these spots?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.