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To arm or not to arm watchmen. This is the big question as the dust settles on the awful terrorist attack on 14 Riverside Drive complex in the Westlands area of Nairobi on January 15/16, 2019.

It is the Roman poet, Juvenal, who captured the dilemma of all times regarding watchmen: “Who will watch the watchmen?”

In the post-Cold War international order, the private security sector has become a growth industry, propelled by genuine fear of insecurity, overstretched capacity of government security services and pressing need by companies and private citizens to protect their property and the loved ones. A private company providing highly trained armed personnel and logistical support, assisting governments and armed forces operating in crisis zones across the world is now an emblem of our age of extremes.

In Kenya, the September 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall drew attention to the urgent need to scale up the capacity of security forces to counter terrorism and protect. Contrastingly, Dusit has put a sharp spotlight on the private security industry as the weakest link in Kenya’s war against terror. Paradoxically, the frequent attacks from the al Qaeda, its Al-Shabaab affiliate and more recently the Islamic State (ISIS) have irreversibly changed the fortunes of private Security as the first line of policing for industry, business and individuals. Since 2008, the industry has become a fast growing venture. Kenya’s 2,000 registered companies have an estimated annual turnover of more than Sh300 billion and directly employ more than 450,000 guards, nearly eight times more than police officers!

The risks posed by terrorism and the need to secure, promote and protect the rights of guards have also highlighted the importance of the Kenya National Private Security Workers Union, whose membership has shot meteorically from just 327 people in 2011 to over 45,000 in 2016.

But opinion is sharply split about the place and capacity of Kenya’s watchmen in the emerging anti-terrorism architecture.

Earlier on, in May 2018, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior, Fred Matiang’i, announced plans to arm private guards to fight crime, describing Kenya’s private guards as “the first line of defence.”

In the wake of Dusit, the Director-General of the Private Sector Regulatory Authority, Fazul Mohammed, announced the arming, vetting and training of guards in six months.

However, arming the guards will demand a serious rethinking, and possible overhaul, of the extant legal framework for regulating private security companies and their cooperation with national security organs.

Specifically, it calls for an innovative rethinking of the Firearms Act (2015), which currently does not allow a private security service provider to use firearms in the rendering of a security services.

However, critics of the arm-the-watchmen thesis are pointing to the multiple vulnerabilities of the watchman in Kenya. Guards are targets of the surge of violent crime and terror attacks. But Dusit and a recent satirical article titled, “Man in the Hood: It’s good to be friends with the watchman” (Daily Nation, July 11, 2018), revealed the vulnerability of guards to corruption, enticements and manipulation by criminals and terrorists, owing to their low pay (often way less than $250 per month), making them more of a danger than a defence.


Proponents of armed guards as “a first line of defence” against terrorism miss a crucial the point. Arming guards is likely to increase their risk from terrorists who will now seek to eliminate rather than to entice them with tips.

Moreover, operationally, armed response to terrorism is usually the last line of defence after the terrorist who has broken through the essential preventive intelligence safeguards. True, it makes sense to see armed guards as a measure to hold fire before the tactical teams arrive. However, by the time the terrorists encounter the guard, they already have superior firepower that can only be countered by Special Forces.

The arming of guards must be viewed within the larger canvas of the dual problem of securitisation of the Kenyan society. In recent years, the number of private individuals licensed to own firearms and growing cohorts of Kenya Police Reservist (KPR) especially in view of terrorist attacks, cattle rustling and other criminalities, has put firearms in the hands of private citizens. Moreover, Kenya is in the thrall of a growing menace of the proliferation of illegal arms. According to Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, Kenyan civilians own 750,000 firearms as of 2018 up from 680,000 in 2016 — more than what the military and police have combined. Of these, only 8,136 are registered, 99 per cent of others held illegally.

Arming guards calls for serious benchmarking with countries allowing arming of private guards. Uganda has armed its guards with low calibre riffles with three to five bullets mainly for self-protection than for countering terrorists.

Although countries like the United States have allowed thriving armed private military and security services, private military and security contractors are subject to a complex set of laws and regulations, and their activities are reviewed and reported on by more than 20 federal oversight bodies and committees.

Dusit unveiled the growing capacity, preparedness and effective coordination by our security forces to detect, deter and defeat terrorism, including foiling a planned simultaneous attack in Mombasa.

Perhaps the first order issue, is not the arming of guards, but the setting up a multi-agency operational taskforce within the aegis of a well-resourced National Counter Terrorism Centre to review the 2011-2019 terror attacks, deepen understanding of the changing face of terror and address the preparedness and participation of the Kenya public in countering violence extremism.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Advisor and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute. This article is an except from the recent API report: “Who Will Guard the Guards”: Challenges and Options of Regulating the Private Security Industry in Countering Violent Extremism in Kenya” (January 2019).