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By Mwangi Mwaura

Security and policing of public spaces as well as the traditional policing task of “watching” and keeping public order, are increasingly now shared between private security actors and the police in Kenya. This is more convenient, and less expensive especially as the country faces challenges of violent extremism from Al Shabaab and its local networks.

However, data from research carried out by the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS) shows that the politics of private security in Kenya misses bigger issues, in regards to their roles in preventing and countering terrorism. This emanates from the misguided situation where questions of security guards capacities and accountability in policing, most of the time dwells on the now traditional ‘to arm or not to arm’ debate.  

Without a doubt, private security personnel play a frontline role in state security as their work in the post September 11th world has evolved from merely ‘watching’ spaces and buildings to being more involved in policing. Despite this recognition, regulation of this industry is yet to take shape. So far legal frameworks have been developed and the Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSRA) established but just how to hold or assess accountability of these firms and their employees is an issue yet to be adequately addressed.

In Kenya, private security actors now come in all forms and complexity, offering different range of services from guarding individuals and property, business security analysts to duties of actual combat. Even with this, data on just how many private security firms and employees there are in the country is hard to obtain. From the CHRIPS study, it became also apparent that there is limited understanding of the role, place and influence of the private security sector in countering violent extremism. Most participants, including security guards, could only state the traditional role of watching, both literal and using devices such as scanners as their role.

Further, due to the largely unregulated nature of the industry, services offered by different firms are not standardised. The National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) has developed a standardized training curriculum which is yet to be rolled out to cover the entire industry. Contextual then, Kenyans have had mixed experiences with private security personnel most of which happens at building entry checks. On account of negative profiling based on ethnic grouping or dress code, many of the study’s participants complained of the services in general.

Salient also are concerns over management of personal data by private security firms with the increased installation of CCTV cameras in buildings they manage. With reported incidents of this data being used to profile individuals and to aid crime, holding the companies accountable has become more urgent, but rarely addressed as the Data Protection Act is yet to be fully enforced. The Act provides that such data is processed in a way that adheres to privacy of the subject but falls short in stating how long such data can be retained. Further, there is minimal guidance in who can access the data. This indicates the gap that exists in examining accountability of private security actors.

Clearly then, the private security debate and in particular on their role in countering violent extremism needs better revamping and contextualization on what exactly the firms do and how they do it. Standardized and continuous training of personnel is needed to boost their capacity to adhere to policing in human rights compliant ways as well as a legal framework that stands to test their accountability in their functions.

Mwangi Mwaura is a Research Intern at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies. This opinion piece was published in the Standard newspaper, November 2021.

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