In September, 2007, a group of mostly European and American businessmen gathered for an informal drink at one of the five star hotels in Nairobi after attending an international humanitarian conference in the city.
It was a unique gathering of businessmen as they represented the highest level of leadership in the legitimate business of war, peacekeeping and humanitarian logistics support in the world.
In the informal meeting room was among others Doug Brooks, the President of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), a voluntary membership group for private security, peace support and humanitarian companies.
There was also Chris Taylor, the then Vice- President for strategic initiatives at the former US government contractor in Iraq Blackwater (Xe Services LLC), formerly the Director of the Harvard Defense and Security Initiative at the John F Kennedy School of Government and now CEO at Mission Essential Personnel that provides intelligence and translation service to the US Department of Defense. Also at the informal bonding session were representatives from PAE Government Services— another US contractor, Military Professional Resources Initiative (MPRI)— a defence company, and Universal Guardian Holdings, a global risk mitigation firm that provides integrated security products, among others. Since then, Kenya has become the hub of specialised private security companies that offer armed defence services to the private sector and governments.
Kenya hosts companies like Agility (humanitarian logistics), Salama Fikira (specialised security), SENACA Special Services (specialised security) and Ridgeback (specialised security) among dozens of other companies most of which are run by Special Forces veterans from the United States, the British and South Africa armies.
For example, one of Salama Fikira’s principal officers Rob Andrew worked in the SAS of Britain, one of the world’s most elite Special Forces that carry missions in high risk war situations. The other is Conrad Thorpe who has served with the British Royal Marines and the Special Boat Service. Both are decorated with Order of the British Empire (OBE) honours.
Terry Downes, the CEO of SENACA East Africa is a former member of the Irish Army’s Special Forces Anti Terrorist Unit. The company also employs close protection officers with experience in protecting high profile individuals like former US President Bill Clinton, musician 50 Cent and sports people like Mike Tyson.
Another group of resident companies includes recruiting agencies like Sentry Security and Silver Ray Ltd that recruit Kenyans with experience in the military or the police to act as armed guards for United States and British personnel and facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. These companies are fully licensed by the Ministry of Labour indicating the government’s support for such talent export.
Then there are individuals and companies and non-governmental organisations, whose core work is to facilitate ransom negotiations with the pirates operating in the Indian Ocean. The negotiators are paid by the vessel owners. As latest as last month, a global oil company hired more than 100 ex-Kenya Navy servicemen to escort oil tankers along the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The ex-servicemen are being paid US$400 for every day they are involved in an escort mission, indicating the lucrative nature of emerging private security jobs.
Kenya-based Africa Shipping Lines is providing armed maritime security escorts for vessels in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Oman.
The fact that most of these companies have set up in Kenya or came to scout for business in the country in the last five years is indicative of the country’s growing importance as the hub of the peace operations business across the region. Kenya’s choice as the base of specialised security companies is attributed to the growing security needs by governments, humanitarian groups and business organisations with interests in conflict zones like South Sudan, northern Uganda, and parts of southern and eastern Ethiopia, Somali and the Indian Ocean.
The Business Daily established that some companies have also extended their services to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and are willing to offer personal and asset protection services in areas as far as the Niger Delta in Nigeria.
“The increased reliance and use of specialised security companies is likely a reflection of the demands of the private and international sector to provide security services that the traditional providers are not able to give,” said Mark Schroeder, the Africa Director of the global intelligence services company STRATFOR.
“In many countries, the capabilities of the police are stretched, and they are less responsive to what the private sector needs. The policemen and soldiers are generally poorly paid and under-trained, and facilitating the needs of the private sector with what the traditional security forces can provide, is a time-consuming process,” he said in an interview.
Unlike a decade ago when such companies would have been outright outlaws in the eyes of African government, today, the continent is embracing specialised private security companies, partly because of the efforts of groups like the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) whose global engagement efforts with the governments and the United Nations have helped develop standards of operations for specialised security companies.
ISOA’s precursor organisation, International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) helped remove the “mercenary” tag in companies mostly associated with military veterans providing legitimate, government-sanctioned security services.
The UN set the pace in early 2000s when it contracted military companies in Sierra Leone. Currently, the US government and its agencies regularly contracts dozens of such companies to provide security services in Iraq and Afghanistan.
ISOA together with the Swiss Government, the UN and the International Committee for Red Cross coordinated what is known as the Montreux Document—agreement between signature countries on obligations regarding private military and security companies in war zones.
Seventeen countries, among them Angola, South Africa and Sierra Leone have ratified the document. The intention is to make it an international convention. “The UN Working Group on Mercenaries has been working on a draft convention on the topic, but there question about where it will go from here,” said Doug Brooks, the President of ISOA.
As the world waits to see the movement of the Montreux Document, the big question is how countries like Kenya will eventually regulate emerging security providers whose services are quite different from the traditional guarding job.
The challenge for Kenya is that even the guarding services industry is not regulated, with debate going on the proposed law that is expected to bring in a level of integration in intelligence sharing between the Police and such companies and also allow the guards to carry arms.
According to Schroeder, the specialised security sector is growing because in many Afrcan countries including Kenya, police services are overwhelmed.
“It’s just that the organisation of the police services is less responsive to the needs of the private sector than what private security companies are able to facilitate. It is a bureaucratic impasse.
Private security services can quickly come to an agreement of what they can and cannot provide. Reaching such an agreement can be done in days if not hours. Tapping into what the police services can provide might take months of petitions, explanations and paperwork, and the private sector often does not have that kind of time ,” he said.
There is speculation that most African countries including Kenya may not immediately act on regulation of the specialised security companies—not until an incident triggers that decision.
South Africa was the first on the continent to come up with regulation of private military security companies after many its citizens went to provide private security solutions in countries like Sierra Leone, Iraq and Angola, among others.
But in the United States, use of specialised private security companies, known as contractors is no longer a debate; it’s a reality that has gone on for several years,— thanks to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, the US State Department reported recently that it will almost triple its use of private security contractors to 7,000 by the time the military leaves Iraq by December 31, 2011.
Private contractors will be performing critical security-related functions once performed by the military, including convoy security, recovering killed and wounded personnel and downed aircraft.