Africans in Afghanistan: When War Zones Become Lands of Opportunity

Thousands of skilled workers from Africa are willingly facing danger in remote areas of Afghanistan for high-paying jobs supporting coalition troops.


US marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photograph by isafmedia.

Helmand Province, Afghanistan:

Beyond the primal beauty of the Southern Afghanistan desert lies the unknown for newcomers, military and civilians alike. Sand and rocks spread further across that vast sea of sparsely inhabited nothingness than the eye can see. For the troops stationed in the Helmand province, the unknown coupled with the deserted surroundings speak danger.

This infamous province – a Taliban stronghold and site of frequent fighting between insurgents and NATO troops during the now 10-year-old Afghan War – has been welcoming a new breed of visitors: former soldiers turned personnel security providers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, engineers, cashiers, information technology experts, mine specialists, or finance and administration officers. Many are Africans, who constitute the bulk of migrant workers in the area, along with civilian personnel from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia), and Asia (India, Philippines).

Outsourced wars, outsourced workers

The increased military presence of the US, EU and other countries involved in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force after 2009 resulted in a major shift in roles. As the overextended military focused on taming a local insurgency, tasks that were once the exclusive domain of trained military personnel started to be offered to civilian skilled workers. Civilians contractors came to provide the workforces necessary to maintain and run dining facilities, Morale Welfare and Recreation centres, military berthing, and equipment repair and replenishment shops.

Ethiopian Henok Tessema, 33, now lodging in the civilian section of a Helmand Province military installation, made his way to Afghanistan following a routine online job search. Tessema had been juggling four part-time positions working as a financial administrator and accountant in Harar, and saw the vacancy at the Central Asia Development Group as an opportunity to consolidate four part-time positions into a single one.

An interview in Ethiopia was set up within days and arrangements for his trip to Afghanistan within weeks. In August 2011, Tessema moved to the Helmand Province on a year-long contract and eagerly expressed his willingness to extend his stay if asked.

The Central Asia Development Group is a multi-national corporation based in Singapore that specialises in engineering, construction, aviation and international development. Its services are tailored to the military community in Afghanistan, making interaction with US service members a big part of Tessema’s daily routine.

“I was surprised to see how different they are from soldiers in other places,” he recalled. “They’re very humble, that’s my observation.”

An economic El Dorado in disguise

Cosmas Njuguna can be seen greeting US Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy, and Jordanian Army personnel with fist bumps and a grin nearly every day of the week in the Helmand province military base where he lives and work. Danger, several rejections and the long journey from Kenya failed to stop the 27-year-old Nairobi native from taking his chance in Afghanistan.

Njuguna was enrolled in an Information Technology programme at university in Kenya but due to a lack of funds, he cut his dream of earning a degree short and looked for work. “I tried to go to America but was denied a visa, so I settled for the next best thing: the Middle East,” he explained. So, like thousands of Kenyans before him, he moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Meagre wages and harsh working conditions in Dubai, however, forced him to once again look elsewhere. Eventually, he turned to one of the largest US-based private military contractors in Afghanistan, DynCorp. “A friend told me about them recruiting people,” said Njuguna, “I applied online several times and fought for that job before they called me for an interview.”

Now a dining facility assistant manager, Njuguna’s perseverance paid off as he was rewarded with a job a year after his first attempt. Notwithstanding his long hours, modelled on that of the military personnel he supports, and the less than desirable living conditions, he decided to stay past the initial one-year time frame. “My family depends on me, there’s always something they need help with, so I’m staying until it’s time to go” he said.

The contingency African migrant worker: a growing trend?

“I’m happy with the job I found here,” says Ethiopian electrician Abenet Bekele, 30. “I was in Kandahar earlier this year and saw fighting, bombs explode and people get hurt; this is better.” Until May 2011, the Addis Ababa native was struggling to make a decent living in a footwear factory. Then his sister, who had spent a year working as a civilian contractor in Iraq, suggested he tried Afghanistan.

He gained employed with Sama Al Andalos, a small Iraqi company headquartered in Lebanon that dispatches African workers to the Helmand Province and other areas of Afghanistan. With only a few months left in his contract, Bekele – like the Kenyans, South Africans, Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans who have turned into contingency migrant workers – is preparing to extend his stay and work as long as the opportunity is available to him.

With combat operations in Iraq drawing to an end, thousands of African migrant workers face the choice of either returning home to lower-paying jobs or use the skills they have acquired in a contingency environment elsewhere. For many, Afghanistan is the new frontier, at least until coalition troops withdraw from there as well.

Companies providing skilled workers for work in risky situations are likely to grow. The role of such corporations currently goes far beyond the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan and has extended to global peacekeeping missions and emergency humanitarian programmes. As the role of contingency migrant workers evolves, and the reliance on such workforces in situations of conflict and crisis increases, African migrant workers seeking better opportunities than those available to them at home will remain a hot commodity.

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