Security: Do not rush to arm guards, bolster their smart power abilities

Security guards march during a procession to mark Labour Day at Tononoka grounds in Mombasa
Security guards march during a procession to mark Labour Day at Tononoka grounds in Mombasa

The debate of arming private security guards has been on lips of many Kenyans since the January 15 terrorist attack on dusitD2 at 14 Riverside Drive, Westlands. Proponents

have called for

the arming of the private security guards. In May last year, long before the attack, Interior CS Fred Matiang’i announced government plans to arm private guards to fight crime, describing them as “the first line of defence”.

Hard on the heels of dusitD2, Private Sector Regulatory Authority director-general Fazul Mohammed urged the government to vet, train and arm guards in six months.

However, the government should not rush to arm private security.

Instead

it should look into other alternatives to engage the private security more effectively.

Soft power is the ability to influence without the threat of force. This is contrasted to hard power, which may come with the arming of the guards. What is needed is smart power, a subtle blend of force and intelligence-driven responses associated with soft power.

Arming nearly half a million private security guards has the potential of adding fuel to the already festering problem of proliferation of arms, both licit and illicit, in civilian hands.

According to Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, Kenyan civilians own over 750,000 firearms as of 2018, up from 680,000 in 2016. Notably, that is many folds more than what the military and police have combined. Of these, only 8,136 are registered, with 99 per cent of other arms held illegally.

If all guards were to be armed, this would push the estimated number of arms in civilian hands to 1.25 million guns. The visible imbalance in the control of firearms between the police and civilians carries the risk of increasing crime across the country.

ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES

It is imperative that Kenya thinks of alternative strategies of integrating private security guards to the growing state-based infrastructure of fighting terrorism. Kenya’s 450,000 guards working for over 2,000 registered security companies should be transformed

into the

first

line of preventative action. Although they are nearly eight times more than the number of police officers, they are — and should not be seen as — not the “the first line of defence” in hard power terms. This would demand a total militarisation of the private security sector.

Had the use of smart power and soft power been effective, educating private security on gathering intelligence and passing it on to foil or neutralise attacks, perhaps dusitD2 would never have happened.

Before the 14 Riverside Drive attack, the vehicle used by the terrorists was seen in the area, and attackers and their agents were already tipping and softening the guards.

If fully equipped with state-of-the-art technology to detect and deter terrorism, Kenya’s private guards can help gather and share intelligence with the relevant government agencies on potential terrorist threats.

But it is important to seal the holes by reviewing the pay of private security guards to reduce the “kitu kidogo” phenomenon in the industry.

If a guard is well paid, it might reduce the chances of corruption. In the current context, if armed, some unscrupulous guards risk hiring out their guns to criminals or using them to terrorise innocent citizens, turning good intentions to menace.

Discipline and patriotism are key to guards becoming the frontline in effective counter-terrorism. Training guards in the National Youth Service might become necessary to inculcate discipline in the rank-and-file of our guards.

Beyond guns, guards should be seen as part and parcel of transforming the entire Kenyan population into the first line of preventive action against radicalisation and terrorism, as millions of Kenyan civilians take to detecting and reporting suspicious people and activities to authorities.

A step towards citizen-based preventive action strategy is the Nyumba Kumi (10 household) Initiative recently introduced by the government to complement existing community policing frameworks. The sustainability of counter-terrorism rests on civilian awareness and support.

The author is strategic communications adviser at the African Policy Institute, Pretoria/Nairobi