Outside an imposing residence in Runda, an upscale section of Nairobi, Kenya, two men in black-and-orange uniforms stand guard. A few feet away a patrol car idles.
Its radio communication systems are patched into an alarm centre in the city and to an identical car parked near a police station two miles away to ensure quick reaction to trouble.
Fifteen miles away in low-income Jericho, there are no uniformed security guards or patrol cars. Police response is slow or entirely absent. Crime rates are high. So too is vigilante violence against suspected criminals.
The difference between the two communities, of course, is money. In Runda, security is provided by well-outfitted private companies, while in Jericho the people rely on government police forces that are under funded and poorly equipped.
Officers are often short on vehicles and fuel. Pay and morale are low and corruption is rampant.
Ensuring the security of people and their property is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of any government. But the absence of police protection for the majority while private companies guard the wealthy few is common all over Africa.
Historically African police units were tools of colonial repression, Adedeji Ebo, who oversees the security sector reform team in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, told Africa Renewal.
Only a few countries have successfully transformed their police into service institutions. “That is a fundamental deficit about policing in Africa,” Mr. Ebo observes. “Rather than being associated with safety, the uniform is often seen as a source of fear and oppression, abuse and extortion.”
And that is when the uniform is seen at all. The United Nations recommends one police officer for every 450 citizens but Kenya only has one for every 1,150.
Tanzania has one officer for every 1,298 while in Ghana the ratio is one for every 1,200. Not all African countries struggle to provide enough police, but even that can be a problem.
Nigeria, for example, has more than 370,000 police officers, a police-to-citizen ratio of 1 to 400. But more often than not , reported Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams, researchers at the University of Wales in 2005, the police are themselves a significant source of insecurity, since they are “often engaged in criminal activities — particularly corruption and extortion.” Nigeria’s police are also feared for their excessive use of force.
As the gap between the population’s need for security and government’s ability to provide it widened, wealthier citizens have turned to the private sector.
The number of private security companies has mushroomed. In Nigeria, some 1,500 to 2,000 security firms employ about 100,000 people. Kenya has about 2,000 companies.
But because private security officers are generally not allowed to carry guns, security firms often informally “hire” police officers to accompany their patrol vehicles.
At first glance such cooperation may appear to help both the police and security firms be more effective. However, as researchers have discovered, these arrangements can actually reduce public security instead of improving it.
‘Privatization of public policing’
One study found that the police in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rather than strengthening their ability to protect the public, instead “sought to enter the commercial security market.”
In 2003 an agreement between the police and private security companies allowed the firms to hire armed state police to conduct joint patrols and respond to alarms.
The agreements, usually drawn up with local police officials, rarely contribute to the police budget, noted Mieke Goede of the South African Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS).
“Rather the money is most likely to disappear into the private pockets of the commanders of the police departments with whom the contracts are signed.”
Police officers sent to work with private firms also get “bonuses” of between $25 and $50 per month from the firm, more than most officers’ salaries. Mr. Goede reported that some companies “even pay ‘their’ policemen a similar salary to their own employees …and consider them ‘their employees’, rather than state personnel on loan. Such police officers … can be replaced at the [security] company’s request.”
The problem with such “partnerships” between private and public security institutions, many experts say, is that they remove the security forces from the public domain to the private arena, where they become available only for those who can afford to pay.
This only reduces the already low public expectations of police and further reduces the legitimacy of already weak governments in the eyes of their citizens.
ISS researcher Sabelo Gumedze believes that privatizing public safety might actually increase crime.
As the “wealthy barricade themselves behind higher security walls and install increasingly advanced alarm systems,” he said, “crime moves to the poorer neighborhoods, where the ‘pickings’ may be less enriching, but more accessible.”
UN promotes reform
The solution says the UN’s Mr. Ebo, is extensive reform of African police forces to achieve professionalism, enhance capacity and improve effectiveness. “Strong oversight of police institutions is necessary,” he says. “But most important is for people to feel that they have a part to play in that oversight and that the police are an institution over which they have control.”
Peace and security is seen as vital to Africa’s development goals and police reform is high on the UN agenda, particularly in countries which are recovering from conflicts and where the world body is already working with governments on security issues.
But with many governments reluctant to involve outsiders in what are seen as sensitive internal matters, reform efforts are often led by local non-governmental groups like Nigeria’s Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN).
As Susan van der Merwe, the South African deputy foreign minister, told the Security Council in May 2009, reforming African security institutions is a “process that requires continuous attention and political will.”
Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa