Does private security mean better security in Kenya?

The rising number of terror attacks and other incidents of insecurity in Kenya have resulted in an increased demand for private security. Steady economic growth and the discovery of natural resources have further attracted more private security companies (PSCs).

It is estimated that there are currently between 2 000 and 4 000 such companies operating in Kenya, which employ approximately 300 000 guards. ‘The Kenya Police Service is currently outnumbered by security guards,’ says Edward Christopher, Chairman of the Kenya Security Industry Association.

Tackling sources of insecurity in Kenya is a major challenge for the government. According to a Kenya National Human Rights Commission report, 3 060 Kenyans lost their lives between 2010 and 2014 to various incidences of insecurity, and the formal security services’ inability to adequately address security challenges has increased the demand for PSCs.

In the wake of 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack, one company, KK Security, embarked on a massive recruitment campaign to address the increased demand for their services. According to Chief Executive Officer James Omondi, the company conducts ‘passing out parades’ of between 60 and 100 new graduates every week. 

The demand for private security has also been fuelled by the current positive economic growth in Kenya, resulting in the emergence of middle-income earners who are now willing to spend money on security. Amar Taylor, of AUA Industries, says this is one of the reasons for current annual spending of between US$50 and US$100 million on security equipment in Kenya.

The Kenya Police Service is currently outnumbered by security guards

With Kenya achieving lower middle-income status in 2012, the economy is 25% larger than estimated earlier. The country’s gross domestic product is currently US$55.2 billion, and with a positive growth rate forecast for the future, the private security sector is expected to grow even more.

Similarly, the extractive industries have attracted both local and international PSCs. For example, KK Security Group, traditionally known for its guard services, has established a new oil and gas division in an attempt to tap into this lucrative market

Undoubtedly such companies play a crucial role in complementing state security services – given their range of services to homes, business owners and vital public and private institutions. However, without regulations, the sector is currently operating in a vacuum. Curiously, the 2014 Private Security Service Bill is still pending approval by Parliament. Not only has this resulted in the rights of PSC employees being contravened, but it also increases the risk of the sector itself becoming a threat to Kenya’s national security.

Private security companies play a crucial role in complementing state security services

The lack of oversight within PSCs, and the lucrative nature of the sector itself, has resulted in stiff competition between service providers, with some companies now offering reduced rates. This has led to resulted in some security guards being exploited, as many employees are made to work for long hours, earning wages far below the required basic minimum wage and without overtime bonuses.

According to Ashley Myers of Wells Fargo, another established PSC, some guards earn as little as US$72 per month. Equally alarming is the poor training, equipment and working conditions of personnel, especially given the increased terror attacks in Kenya.

If they continue to work in a vacuum, PSCs may become a source of national insecurity given the lack of a regulatory mechanism to monitor would-be service providers – including their codes of conduct and employee selection criteria. There is also a gap in cooperation and information sharing between PSCs and national security agencies. This has made the country susceptible to covert operations by international firms that have set up shop in Kenya, as they are neither vetted nor monitored.

For example, on 26 September 2011, three British citizens working for Intelligere (a branch of the British firm XFOR) were arrested in Kenya as terror suspects. Among them was a former Royal Marine, allegedly investigating a couple accused of leaking business secrets of a blue chip company. National security agents were unaware that these highly trained foreign military experts were even conducting an operation within Kenya’s borders.

Without regulations, the private security sector is operating in a vacuum

There has also been an influx of firms established by dubious characters – such as the Aegis Defence Service, associated with Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, a former Scots Guard, who was a key figure in the infamous Sandline Arms-to-Africa Affair. This despite the fact that in 2005, Aegis personnel were captured in a ‘trophy video’ shooting indiscriminately at civilian cars in Baghdad. Another such company, the Unity Resources Group, hired personnel who were involved in controversial car shootings that led to the killing of an Australian professor in Iraq.

Some of these firms have also been recruiting ex-Kenyan servicemen, who are then deployed to war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. This has resulted in large numbers of officers deserting the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in pursuit of lucrative contracts. In May 2014, a state lawyer disclosed that 800 servicemen had deserted KDF since 2011.

This comes at a time when the country is grappling with more and more episodes of home-grown terror, and an increasing number of reported cases of current and former servicemen being involved in criminal activities.

The situation is further compounded by the high number of employees terminating their contracts with PSCs after completing highly specialised and rigorous commando training in places such as the prestigious King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre in Amman, Jordan. In 2012 alone, 70 out of the 250 recruits were sent back to Kenya after completing training involving handling of 13 types of guns and a 40-hour firearms qualification course.

There is no doubt that PSCs play a significant role in filling the gap left by state security services, but there is an urgent need for the regulation of the industry and better coordination between the various security agencies in Kenya. The government should not delay in enacting the 2014 Private Security Service Bill and monitoring the activities of PSCs to mitigate their potential threat to national security.

Hawa Noor, Junior Researcher, and David Wamugo Wagacha, Intern, Governance, Justice and Crime Division, ISS Nairobi.