Westgate: Kenyan guards on the frontline
Nairobi, Kenya – Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, stands empty and surrounded by a high steel fence. A few bullet holes dot the pale orange paintwork but little else remains of the carnage of the second worst terrorist attack in Kenyan history.
Al-Shabab, the armed group in neighbouring Somalia, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it was their response to the Kenyan military’s interventions in their country.
Now through gaps in the fence, gardeners can be seen tending manicured flowerbeds. One year on, the atmosphere is that of quiet refurbishment rather than the horrors of a massacre that killed at least 67 people. Shops and bars in the vicinity of Westgate are full and thriving, and the mall is expected to reopen soon.
A world away from the affluence of the Westland neighbourhood, where Westgate is located, is a small one-room home in the Kawangware slum in the west of Nairobi. Two children sit on a sofa – Michael, 11, is engrossed in a game on a mobile phone and his 8-year-old sister, Gloria, keeps smiling shyly and hiding behind the curtain that separates the sofa from the sleeping quarters.
Their father, Maurice Adembesa Ombisa, was a 35-year-old private security guard employed by Securex and contracted by Westgate Mall. He was Westgate’s site supervisor and, on September 21, 2013, upon hearing a commotion in the mall, headed towards it and was gunned down.
Like other private security guards in Nairobi, Ombisa worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week for the minimum wage of 10,912 shillings ($123) and without overtime or sick pay. It was a thankless job that ultimately cost him his life.
In a world that focuses on the rich or white foreign victims of such attacks, Ombisa’s photo, laid carefully on the table in the family home, is a reminder of all the people who never make the headlines after such attacks.
Earning a pittance
The children’s mother, and Ombisa’s widow, is Eunice Adembesa Ombisa. It is understandably hard for her to talk about the day she lost her husband. She says that he reported feeling unsafe at work and that he feared he was going to die while on duty.
After Ombisa’s death, Eunice began working as a cleaner, travelling into central Nairobi and earning a wage that barely covers the rent and the children’s school fees. “Life is hard,” she told Al Jazeera. “It is just so hard now.”
Private security guards are everywhere in Nairobi. They stand outside banks and office blocks: searching bags before people enter hotels or mini-marts; shepherding people through metal detectors (which may or may not work); and guarding ATM machines.
According to the Kenya National Private Security Workers Union (KNPSWU), the number of guards has mushroomed since the attack, and there are now approximately 300,000 guards employed by some 429 private security firms – vastly outnumbering Kenya’s police force of 60,000.
Employers range from giants like G4S to “briefcase” companies that have no office and just contract out casual employees on wages as low as 6,000 shillings ($68) a month. Kenyans, both those working in the industry and those hiring guards, acknowledge that much of the industry is providing “security theatre” – a show rather than actual protection.
Referring to his uniform and baton, Dennis Wanjala, a guard who has worked in Nairobi’s private security industry for over eight years, asked: “How can you protect a bank with only a shirt and a stick?”
One firm with a strong presence in Nairobi is Securex, which employed Ombisa. A heavily branded firm, its guards wear distinctive navy blue uniforms decorated with red and yellow. At the busy company headquarters, cars marked with the company brand are lined up in the parking lot and guards come in for their assignments.
One such guard is Stephen Juma Injusi, a tall, quiet man from the west of Kenya. He worked at Westgate for six years and was on duty on the day of the attack. He described Ombisa as a friend and that he was his supervisor.
Injusi survived Westgate, waiting over an hour for reinforcements as he guided people to safety. He received two weeks of counselling after the attack before being sent back to work as a guard on a different site. Injusi described the horror of Westgate as something he cannot forget. Asked what he had to protect himself with against the gunmen, he pointed to his top pocket and said: “My whistle.” He then pointed to his side and added: “And my baton.”
While the question of providing guns for guards on specific sites is controversial, the issuing of protective stab and bullet proof vests could easily be routine. It is something that the KNPSWU is campaigning for.
Isaac Andabwa, General Secretary of the KNPSWU, believes that if Ombisa had had been wearing a bullet proof vest, “maybe he could have taken cover, and maybe he would be alive today”.
While security firm G4S does supply sections of its workforce with body armour, smaller companies do not because of the cost. “Smaller firms are locally based and their income per capita is low so it is a question of costs,” explained Colins Luvai, head of investigations and compliance at G4S Kenya. “These security gadgets are costly and they don’t have the financial muscle to invest in them… They don’t want to spend; they want to make profit.”
It is a cost-based analysis that rates body armour more expensive than human life – especially when there is no legislation to allow the families of the dead guards to claim compensation.
But after the deadly siege on Westgate, private security companies may soon be unable to gamble with the lives of their employees. The era of woefully underequipped, underpaid, and undertrained private security guards faces a serious challenge from the KNPSWU, which is pushing for a law to provide structure and standards in this dangerously deregulated industry.
Andabwa outlined the need for security provisions to be regulated and professionalised: “Security guards are the first line of defence in any incident. Terrorism is here to stay, it is not vanishing tomorrow, so we must prepare ourselves.”
Without controls on who is setting up security firms and what they are training people in, Andabwa pointed out, the industry could become its own threat to state security.
“Training will create professionalism. Once we have professionalism we can improve standards and the quality of our service to the client. This in turn will affect pay, which benefits the whole of society as guards are able to better provide for their dependants. But to get this we have to be organised in the union,” Andabwa told Al Jazeera.
The union’s recruitment drive since the attack has been supported by global trade union UniGlobal and has seen membership in the KNPSWU increase by over 8,500 in the past year. It is now the second-largest union in Kenya and a force to be taken seriously.
Across Kenya, private security guards continue to check bags, cars, raise the alarm and thanklessly die in defence of life and property. At Westgate and thousands of other sites, they are now also agitating for basic rights and respect.