Walk into almost any building in Nairobi today and you are sure to undergo at least a cursory body search.
This is the legacy terror group Al Qaida left 20 years ago today, when it bombed the American Embassy, killing 224 people and wounding more than 4,000 others.
Since then, most building entrances are manned by uniformed guards, who search visitors with metal detectors and record their names, ID and phone numbers.
Ubiquitous private security guards and regular street patrols by uniformed policemen have made Nairobi an openly militarised city.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i announced in May that the government was considering arming private security guards, but some people felt it would be ill-advised, given the guards' low level of training and skills.
“I would say that only about 10 per cent of the over 400,000 security guards in the country are properly trained. Most firms focus on their guards’ physical fitness but neglect other aspects such as assessing and neutralising threats,” said Kepsa Security Sector Chairman Silvanus Sewe.
He noted that the guards' poor pay is also more likely to make them complicit in insecurity rather than motivate them to work effectively.
Ms Rose Rioba, a tax adviser in Nairobi, says the thoroughness with which guards search her depends on the establishment she is visiting, the car she is driving, and her passenger(s).
“Guards tend to be lax when one is driving an expensive car. I have also noticed that women are searched far less thoroughly than men. For instance, there is more scrutiny when I have male passengers compared with when I am carrying only women,” she said.
She added that she has doubts about the guards' competence: “Sometimes I wonder, what if I actually had a weapon; would they find it and know how to disarm me?”
A security guard working in the central business district admitted that he cannot readily recognise a grenade but insisted that he is very good at spotting people who behave suspiciously, so he always asks them to leave. He also let on that the scanner in the building where he works has been out of service for a while.
This superficial nature of the security in many buildings points to a laxity that could have serious consequences.
But while acknowledging that security guards could do with better training, Mr Sewe insists that their presence alone is a deterrent to crime.
Meanwhile, Maj (rtd) Twalib Mbarak, now in private security, said: “Before ’98, we thought of terrorism as something that happened in other countries. We had to immediately wake up as a country and realise that we were very much a target, and that we had to start protecting ourselves.”
“The culture among security experts and citizens changed. Kenya became a lot more militarised, with armed security officers on the streets, who can pick you out at random and ask for your ID. People accepted this because they were much more aware of the ever-present risk to their lives,” he added, noting that security agencies have improved their intelligence gathering and sharing and now approach security as a multiagency effort.
But there is a long way to go. Corruption, for instance, allows undocumented foreigners to enter the country using fake documents. And the high unemployment rate makes idle and frustrated youths easy targets for radicalisation.