Security threat triggers debate on whether to give guards guns
Posted Thursday, October 27 2011 at 22:00
- Some companies feel there is need for them to have armed units since police cannot be everywhere at once but a security expert says idea is bad as it may result in more killings
At the Majlis Resort on Manda Island, the night watchman carries only a radio and a torch. As dusk falls on the island, a team of local police officers armed with rifles arrives and settles down on the beachfront.
Less than a month ago, Somali pirates kidnapped French woman Marieu Dedieu from this very spot. Now police are here to guard a handful of tourists still remaining in Lamu, because they are the only ones who can do it.
“The government wrote a letter to guarantee there will be permanent night patrols. For the day, I don’t know yet … but if there is nothing else available, of course, I will have to employ armed guards,” says Majlis owner Stefano Moccia.
Somali criminals have breached Kenya’s borders to kidnap foreigners three times in the past five weeks, most recently when two Spanish aid workers were seized at the Dadaab refugee camp.
With Kenyan and African Union military forces laying waste to suspected Al-Shabaab strongholds in Kismayu and Afmadow, the militant Islamist group has been vocal in promising retaliatory terrorist attacks against buildings and citizens in Nairobi.
Police can’t be everywhere at once, and in the cases of kidnappings and terrorist attacks, private security companies are oftentimes the first responders. This means that in Kenya, private security companies must answer a contentious question: Is it time to arm their guards?
“It’s a difficult question, but I think it would be a bad idea. More arms mean a greater risk of people being hurt and killed. In South Africa, companies will say by arming a guard you make him a target for violence because people want to steal his gun,” says Prof Rita Abrahamsen, an expert on African security issues at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
There are at least 2,000 private security firms operating in Kenya, with tens of thousands of employees. Civilians are prohibited from owning automatic or semi-automatic weapons under Kenyan law, and many security companies choose to work with the Administration Police, meaning private security guards in Kenya do not carry guns.
This is a good thing, according to Prof Abrahamsen. She says guards’ lack of training and low salaries — between Sh5,000 and Sh18,000 per month — could create a situation in which more crimes are committed, either by the armed guards themselves or criminals who gain access to the firearms.
“It’s true that guards are pretty ineffectual in dangerous situations, but at the same time one has to ask: If they were more effective, what would be the implications of that? Would there be more deaths? It’s more important to have effective police and military forces,” she says.
Initially criticised for its slow response to the Lamu attacks, including allowing the kidnappers of Ms Dedieu to escape over a 12-hour stretch of daylight, the Kenyan Government has now implemented strong security measures to restore peace in the region.
District commissioner Stephen Ikua says new security outposts and increased military and police patrols are one solution. But he is also calling for private citizens to receive training and firearms.
“It would have helped at Dadaab, and it would have helped here. It’s an area my team is exploring. We might offer some areas where you’re allowed to arm the Kenya Private Reserves, the civilians and the private guards. It works,” he says.
Mr Ikua says permanent solutions are needed, and the government cannot afford to use a light touch when it comes to piracy and kidnappings.
“In remote areas, civilians and private guards are the people who are able to deter and respond before the main forces come in. If we had hit (the pirates) hard the first time, we would not have this problem now,” he says.
One method of getting guns to the guards could be through the new Security Industry Regulation Bill, currently in Parliament.
The Bill calls for a regulatory board to oversee the industry, as well as minimum wages, employee training standards and vetting measures.
Some say the Bill is the first step towards arming private security guards.