HASTINGS, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - In a patch of freshly cleared bush a short drive outside the capital Freetown, U.S. trainers look on as Sierra Leonean troops crawl over red laterite soil and square their rifles at imagined targets.
It is a sign of how far this West African nation has come since the end of its own war in 2002 that Sierra Leone now feels stable enough for peacekeepers to be trained for conflicts elsewhere.
“We had here the largest peacekeeping force ever in terms of per capita,” said Michael von der Schulenburg, head of the U.N. presence that peaked at 17,500 but is now down to just 70.
“Now they are giving something back.”
Sierra Leone has already sent a company of 130 soldiers to Sudan’s Darfur region. But the move this month to start training a 510-strong, battalion-sized unit for possible foreign deployment takes the ambition into a new league.
The country’s own civil war began in 1991, when fighters of the Revolutionary United Front invaded from neighbouring Liberia. Funded by Sierra Leone’s lucrative diamond fields, the conflict lasted for over a decade.
Conscription of child soldiers was widespread. Commanders fuelled their teenage charges on “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder.
Today Sierra Leone is at peace and, although the country’s infrastructure remains dilapidated -- with pot-holed roads and ramshackle telecommunications -- iron ore and offshore oil deposits are stirring investor interest.
However, with gross national income per head a mere $340 (216 pounds) a year, much of the six million population still lives in crushing poverty on less than a dollar a day.
Youth unemployment is endemic, and young men hawk green coconuts or black market foreign exchange on Freetown’s streets. A back-up electricity generator remains a business necessity.
Reform efforts to professionalise a rag-tag, war-swollen army have seen the Sierra Leonean military reduce in size from between 16,000-17,000 to 8,500 since the coming of peace.
Key to that effort was IMATT, the British-led international training initiative whose “Leicester Square” headquarters serve as a reminder of the British troops whose intervention helped defeat the rebels and pave the way for a cease-fire.
Those selected as potential peacekeepers are now being taken under the wing of the American Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program, which pays private military contractors to train African armies.
“It kind of makes the MOD (Ministry of Defence) a little less dependent on the general capacity of the government,” ACOTA team leader Robert Walsh said of the financial benefits to Sierra Leone of the program.
Not least, troops deployed for UN operations can expect to earn $1,032 per month, Walsh said -- a vast improvement on the current $59 monthly salary of a private soldier, many of whom also lack any barrack accommodation.
When troops deploy under the UN aegis their governments are reimbursed for expenses, and the budgeting allows for spending more lavish than African militaries can typically afford.
Western military sources put the reimbursement for the first company-level deployment to Sudan at around $3 million. When the larger unit deploys -- the location has not been confirmed but a likely destination is south Sudan -- that figure would be much larger.
That compares to an annual budget for the entire military of $10 million. It also opens up a new source of foreign currency: even Sierra Leone’s exports of diamonds -- currently its most valuable commodity -- totalled just $78 million last year.
Back at the training ground at Hastings the soldiers -- many of whom fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war -- are finding the program a stark contrast to their previous combat experience.
“There is a lot of difference between the rebel fight and the military training,” said 31-year-old Lance Corporal Hassan Conteh, a former rebel. “In terms of the rebel fight we just do things at random, without good control.”
Economist and author Paul Collier, who has written widely on African security and development themes, described the project as a “sort of win-win” for Sierra Leone and international peacekeeping, often reliant on soldiers with no combat record.
“It relieves the financing problem, it gets the army out of the country, so they’re not sitting there plotting a coup d‘etat,” said Collier. “Because they come from a combat experience they might be quite good.”