Sierra Leonean ex-militias as local threats – and providers of global security in Iraq
In the wake of 9/11, failed states in Africa are increasingly regarded as spaces of threat to global security, as they can potentially serve as staging grounds for radicalisation and terrorist mobilisations. Sierra Leone is often considered to be the ultimate symbol of state failure. Hosting a surplus population of marginalised ex-militias considered a major threat to security, national and international interventions have aimed to demobilise and reintegrate ex-militias into ‘civilian lives’. In recent years, however, private security companies providing services for the US government have found Sierra Leone a fertile ground for the rapid – and cheap – recruitment of military (sub)contractors. This article addresses the outsourcing of security in Iraq to Sierra Leonean ex-militias in order to shed light on the ambiguities that characterise the management of violence and the discrepancies between local and global security provision.
Camp Lion 2010, Photo: Maya Mynster Christensen
In Camp Lion (May 24, 2010)
‘This is my rifle. This rifle is everything to me. This rifle is my life’. So Sierra Leonean recruits are instructed to repeat by their training instructor. It is a motto they used to employ during the civil war when they took active part in violence and combat, but as they are on their way to Iraq to guard the premises of American military bases, it is ascribed new significance. The recruits are excited. Many have been boasting about their military expertise, but when lined up in groups to demonstrate their weapon handling skills, reactions are mixed. The recruits begin to display anxiety and question each other: Will the bullet protection they have acquired through their initiation into militia movements be powerful when confronted with a new modality of warfare and another type of enemy? Do suicide bombers have magical powers? How does one detect a suicide bomber? And why do they choose to kill themselves? Some start to cry when asked by their instructor to pick up the AK47, while others tremble too much even to hold the weapon. For many, it is the first time they hold a weapon since the end of the civil war.
We are in Camp Lion, a temporary military camp set up close to the international airport in Sierra Leone by a British private security company, Sabre International. It is the first lesson for 140 hopeful recruits who are to be trained for their work as private security contractors in Iraq. Perhaps paradoxically, the camp is named after a former jungle camp in eastern Sierra Leone where the rebel movement (RUF) was based during the war. Yet it is no secret – not even to the security company employees – that a large number of the recruits are former rebel soldiers, and not regular ex-soldiers, as the company’s recruitment process required. And many of them are members of the notorious West Side Boys militia (WSB), against whom employees of the same security company fought in the final phase of the civil war when they took British soldiers hostage. Soon they will be on their way to Iraq, though; this time to assist the Americans in their ‘war against terror’ and in their fight for ‘democracy’.
Markets for violence and the recycling of militias
In the wake of 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq invasion, the private military industry has boomed. Privatisation of security and military services has resulted in a diffusion of authority away from the state to international and regional institutions and firms, and in reconfiguration of global security into complex assemblages linking state and non-state, public and private, and military and civilian actors (Duffield, 2001; Abrahamsen & Williams, 2009). Concurrently with this reconfiguration, failed states are increasingly regarded as spaces of threat to global security, as they can potentially serve as staging grounds for radicalisation and terrorist mobilisations.
Sierra Leone is often considered to be the ultimate symbol of state failure, as it radically challenges the Weberian definition of an ideal state maintaining a monopoly on legitimate violence. The outbreak of the long-lasting civil war (1991-2002) has been explained as a product of injustice and with references to the weakness of a nation state that was unable to offer physical and economic security to the majority of its citizens (Keen, 2005). It is also against this background that the reform of a failed state became a key target for international agencies when the civil war was declared over on 18 January 2002. In order to prevent a renewal of conflict, and in accordance with an intense desire for statehood, the promotion of ‘good governance’ became an important agenda set by international donor agencies. Simultaneously, the demobilisation and reintegration of militias into so-called ‘civilian lives’ was considered a key milestone in the internationally steered peace process, as the large surplus population of ex-militias and ex-soldiers was considered a major threat to national and regional security.
In Sierra Leone, however, markets for violence are emerging alongside peace building, because there is an ongoing demand for military labour, not just locally, but also regionally and globally. At the global scale, one of the emerging markets is a product of the increasing tendency to outsource security to private actors. In this regard, private security companies consider Sierra Leone a fertile ground for the rapid – and cheap – recruitment of military (sub)contractors. As evident from the above scenario in Camp Lion, this demand for cheap military labour produces a recycling of Sierra Leonean ex-militias who – despite being considered local threats – come to operate as providers of global security.
‘Overseas Youth Employment’
In May 2009, Sabre International, a British private security company providing services for the American government, arrived in Sierra Leone in order to recruit ‘ex-servicemen’ – ex-soldiers, ex-police officers and ex-prison officers – for security contracting in Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan. In collaboration with the Sierra Leone government, they announced on national radio that they would be employing up to 10,000 people to secure military strategic sites in what the Ministry of Labour referred to as the ‘Overseas Youth Employment Programme’. As soon as this announcement was made, a mixed crowd of former soldiers and militias, civilians and those somewhere in-between came to the ministry where the initial registration and screening took place. While aware that the programme was what they termed ‘a blind issue’, inextricably bound with doubt and uncertainty, they proclaimed that they were ready to sacrifice, even to kill, to make it overseas. The demand for military labour in new conflict zones would finally give them a chance to contest their experiences of being victims of peace, they believed. And despite having lived through a long-lasting civil war, they did not hesitate to be recruited as armed workers in yet another country plagued by high-level insecurity.
However, mobilised for employment in an environment dominated by ‘white man culture’, the Sierra Leonean recruits came to experience a number of obstacles during their Iraq deployment, relating not only to demanding working conditions and diseases, but most significantly to issues of racial hierarchy. Contrary to what the recruits had imagined, the escape from the African continent did not automatically result in an honourable position or in an indefinite number of attractive possibilities for advancement. On the contrary, the recruits found themselves positioned at the bottom of a racial hierarchy: humiliated, even degraded to the status of slaves – to bodies rather than military labourers. As a result of these experiences, they started to protest: ‘We are mocked even by the Indian workers cleaning our toilets’. Not only were other African contractors paid a monthly salary of 800 USD while they were only paid 200 USD, but their own brothers had begun to fall ill. Some had even died. ‘We are slaves!’ ‘This is civilised human trafficking’, the angry contractors protested.
On 27 May 2010 150 Sierra Leonean contractors were deported from Camp Shield in Baghdad as a result of their protest. Their return was characterised by feelings of doubt, uncertainty, anger and fear. How would family members depending on their income receive them, they worried. How would the government react to their protest? What were their future prospects?
The deportees were not the only Sierra Leonean contractors for whom homecoming was marked by difficulties. Also those contractors who had been deployed for two years, until the termination of their contract, found it difficult to return. Having been employed ‘overseas’, families and friends expected them to return with enough money to help everybody out, to buy land, build houses and make significant investments. However, as few had been able to save little more than 2,000 USD from their earnings, the money quickly dried out. As a consequence, the returnees began seizing new emerging opportunities for employment and deployment – locally as well as globally.
The ambiguous politics of security outsourcing
The recruitment, deployment and deportation of Sierra Leonean ex-militias generate significant questions concerning how the supply of global security affects the production of local security. What happens when thousands of ex-militias return from Iraq with experiences of being degraded to the status of slaves, and with almost empty pockets – considering also that the majority of them do not have much to come home to? Or in other words: What are the implications for local security when emerging global markets for force generate a recycling of ex-militias considered violence-prone and dangerous?
Radicalisation and terrorist mobilisations may be one answer to these questions. While Sierra Leonean ex-militias generally aspire for peaceful lives and livelihoods, they do, at times, turn to militarised networks in the absence of alternative paths towards being and becoming. These networks can be directed for peaceful as well as violent purposes, and they can be deployed in Sierra Leone as well as elsewhere in Africa – and even beyond the African continent. The critical point to be made in this regard is that such processes of radicalisation and mobilisation emerge from the booming international markets for global security, rather than from state failure. State failure, it should be noted, is a political notion based on Western security interests (Bøås & Jennings, 2007) – it is not a ‘thing’ that in itself produces terrorists or terrorism.
When we consider the experiences of Sierra Leonean ex-militias we see how the provision of global security risks reproducing the very threat security agents and institutions seek to protect themselves against. In this regard, we are dealing with a number of discrepancies between local and global security provision, and with ambiguous attempts to manage violence – and the threat of violence. These ambiguities can be conceptualised through the notion of ‘securityscapes’, which are defined as ‘patterns of circulation that result from the efforts of states to control the mobility of subjects considered dangerous’ (Zilberg, 2011: 3). But the point is that these securityscapes, which are produced to rebuild failed states and prevent criminal flows, also facilitate and support the globalisation of violent economies.
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- Bøås, M. & Jennings, K. M. (2007) ‘Failed States’ and ‘State Failure’: Threats or Opportunities. Globalizations 4 (4), pp. 475-485.
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- Christensen, M. (2013) Shadow Soldiering: Mobilisation, Militarisation and the Politics of Global Security in Sierra Leone. PhD dissertation. Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.
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- Zilberg, E. (2011) Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and El Salvador. Durham & London: Duke University Press.