Nairobi Diaries 4: The Private Security Industry
One night in Nairobi, after watching the play Cut Off My Tongue (which I blogged about before here), my friend and I shared a taxi back. It was about 9:30 pm, and my lodging (owned and run by Catholic nuns from Germany) had a 10 pm curfew, so we came to my place first to drop me off. I didn’t get out of the taxi right away because I hadn’t seen my friend in several years, and we were still chatting. Suddenly, two tall men rapped their knuckles harshly on the taxi window. They wore ill-fitting uniforms, and one was armed with a large automatic rifle, which he held carelessly, while the other had a handgun on his belt. ”What’s the matter?” he asked us. Good question, I thought to myself. My friend answered, “Oh nothing,” and pointing to me, she continued as if this sort of confrontation were nothing unusual, “I was just giving him something.” They turned and walked away.
Who were these men? Soldiers? Police? No, they worked for the private security company hired by several of the residences in that neighborhood, including the place where I was staying. And I want to repeat, the place where I was staying was run by nuns. Considering that the nuns’ compound already had a gate and a security guard, why this extra layer of surveillance and show of force? And why did they have such big, automatic rifles? (The short barrel shotguns used by American police officers are, I would think, a bit more handy for urban environments than large, automatic rifles.)
During my trip, people would always ask me the usual questions: “How are you enjoying your stay?” “What do you like the most?” and finally — and always — “What surprises you most about Kenya?” I usually evaded answering this last question, but I have to say, what surprised me most is the character of security. I am used to thinking of cities as streets with buildings, but that is not what Nairobi is. Rather, it is made up of compounds. One compound after another after another. Residences, shopping malls, offices — you name it — were all gated and guarded, and from what I could tell such armed private security is not only expected, it’s even legally required. I was told by everyone I asked about this never to walk outside the gates… I mean NEVER, whether I was with people or not. Although my “delegation” was staying only a 10 minute walk from one of our destinations, we were driven there (a 15 minute drive, ironically, because of the nature of one-way streets.)
When we went out to the rural areas, things were much different — more relaxed, fewer walls, fewer armed guards. We could walk around… in the daytime… kind of.
So, the constant feeling of risk and danger surprised me, but actually it surprised me only a little. Kenya had just gone through a violent civil conflict, so I expected there to be a lot of security around. What surprised me more was that all of this security was private rather than public. To me, private security seems both more expensive than public (more expensive because less efficient) and also less accountable to whom it is supposedly meant to serve: the people. I talked with one person who had once worked for such a security firm — and it seems typical for young men to earn money for college by working as security guards — and discovered that the security companies are usually European or American.
The fact that these companies are foreign made me want to research this topic further, as the private security industry seems to me to be a very complex phenomenon, and if I had a lot more time, I would. But for now, from a quick search on the internet that I did for the sake of this blog, I found that some books have been written about it. And from what I can tell, not only has there been a significant increase in private security in Kenya over the past decade or so, but that this increase is worldwide. See here, here, and here. And for those of you who like to play the stock market, note that the financial community considers private security to be a growth industry. See here, here, and here . So um… like, hey… the sooner you invest, the sooner you’ll be able to afford that Caribbean vacation or maybe even save enough money to pay for your child’s college education. Considering that the cost of education is rising right along with the demand for private security… well… hmmm.
I remember reading about the rise in the private security industry around the world since the early 1990s in both of Naomi Klein’s books — No Logo and Shock Doctrine — but I hadn’t realized until now how central the phenomenon is to the processes of globalization. Its centrality seems to me to be significant evidence against the claims of those cheerleaders for free market globalization such as Thomas Friedman (not to mention IMF economists), since it’s an aspect of globalization that Friedman left out of his rather self-indulgent globetrotting tails. And naturally all of this scares me for quite a number of reasons. First, the corporations are multinational and therefore less subject to the laws of any single government or to the concerns of local communities. Second, they are expensive, and this means that Kenyans are investing less of their money in their own industries or in public infrastructure. Third, unlike the publically run police, private security is for profit — which means (1) that there is a market incentive to increase demand for security and (2) that there is an incentive to reduce the cost of labor. Already, as you can see here, companies are underpaying their security guards, and it doesn’t seem wise to me (or to the Kenyan journalists) to have a lot of underpaid men with machine guns hanging around.
How do we analyze the evidence? Well, it is easy to notice how the growth in the security industry happens side-by-side with its cheapening. But what is less easy to do is to figure out the economic causes of demand — whether such causes are “natural” market forces or artificially fostered. Am I suggesting that such multinational private security corporations actually encourage ethnic violence in order to increase demand? No, that would be a bit paranoid. But it is a paranoia that is shared by many and is becoming the basis for many movies being made these days — a new genre of film that I call the “global thriller” in one of my other blog posts here and in a forthcoming article in a film studies magazine.
But yes, I do think that the private security industry will exacerbate rather than solve the problem of ethnic violence, and the reason I think that is not because I believe these companies (all based in Europe and America, i.e., the so-called “first world”) are conspiring to provoke violence in the so-called “third world” in order to enrich themselves, but because the day-to-day decisions they make and the priorities they have reflect the wrong mindset. Their priorities will always be profit and the protection of the people who pay them, and not the positive development of the whole community. They are, in a word, evil — not evil by conscious intention as most people understand the word, or even by unconscious intention, but rather by their lack of intention.
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