It’s a dog’s life for guards forced to sleep in Uhuru Park, eat dog food

Guards march during a past Labour Day celebration. [PHOTO: COLLINS KWEYU /STANDARD]


At a remote corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, six men bask in the afternoon sun. Two are fast asleep while the rest gaze blankly into the skies.

Several metres away, another preaches to seemingly inattentive passers-by and onlookers, an upturned cap in his hand stretched out just in case anyone wishes to make some offering.

 Unlike hundreds of other civilians relaxing in the park, these men, albeit unknown to each other, are here for a unique, yet outrageous reason. They are private guards working for respected security firms in the country and will by night form the first line of defence in protecting lives and multi-billion shilling investments against criminals, if not terrorists — with only rungus (clubs) in their hands and a strong spirit. But unable to afford even bus fare to travel home daily, they opt to kill time in the park, waiting to report to their workstations come nightfall.

 This is just a hint of the deplorable state that characterises the lives of majority of the more than 400,000 private security guards in Kenya. With a stretched police force of just over 70,000 officers for a population of 40 million people, the guards have stepped into this vacuum. But the sparkling uniforms some don while protecting sensitive installations, banks, courier services, offices, embassies and malls are deceptive. Beneath the clothing are desperate souls of individuals who are exploited, underpaid, hungry and angry. Despite being exposed to criminals, most guards are untrained for the job.

 Their union reports that 200 guards are killed in the line of duty every year, with thousands others sustaining various degrees of injuries.

 When they finally agree to talk, the guards at Uhuru Park admit that they are badly exploited; the highest paid earning just Sh7,000 monthly. “We have been finding each other here for up to 20 days a month but never knew we were all guards. We don’t talk about our jobs,” says one of the men, a trained P1 teacher who, like his colleagues, seeks anonymity for fears of victimisation by his employer.

Exploitative employers

 Laban Shibambo, 65, paints a deplorable picture of the sub-sector. He worked for one of the leading security firms in Nairobi for eight years till he was fired recently after publicising his plight. “I started with a net salary of Sh2,800, which had gone up to Sh6,300 by the time I was laid off,” he told The Standard on Saturday. With a family of nine to feed upcountry, and no other employment opportunity coming his way, Shibambo, who was all through assigned to a night shift guarding a top mobile phone dealership firm in Nairobi, gradually developed survival tactics as the meagre pay proved inadequate.

 “I stayed at Kawangware and would slowly walk to and from work for about two hours daily. On various occasions when the landlord locked my house over unpaid dues or I felt too tired, I would come to Uhuru Park, spend the day relaxing alongside my fellow ‘sufferers’ and report to work in the evening,” he says.

“This is a trend adopted by many other guards, some who take to ‘preaching’ in a bid to earn extra coins and end up quitting the job to start their own churches.”

 Yet, lazing in a public park all day was not his main worry. “I would buy roasted maize or groundnuts worth five shillings and take it with water. That was enough for the night,” he recalls.

 His colleagues at Uhuru Park admit leading a similar lifestyle. Like Shibambo, one confesses that he is at times reduced to tears on seeing how a German Shepherd dog at his place of work is treated. “The dog has a chef assigned to it and is much valued than him. It is fed on fresh meat, milk, bread and soup while I watch, running on empty. I have not been trained to handle animals, but I would be left with the fierce dog by my side every night, sometimes with instructions to feed it. You can guess the rest,” he states shyly.

 Shibambo says his wife would always call him to inquire if his perennial failure to visit his family upcountry was a result of an extra-marital affair, with his explanations of poor pay proving implausible to her. Many other guards we talk to admit to leading similar deplorable lifestyle.

The Standard on Saturday has established that most private security firms offer little, if any, professional training to the guards, exposing their clients to serious security risks. “Most of them are clueless about their work. They just undergo casual training that primarily involves marching around for one or two weeks. One thing they ensure they are taught without fail is how to salute the bosses at the place of work,” says Isaac Andabwa, the secretary general of the Kenya National Private Security Workers’ Union.

“They have no detailed training whatsoever on defence, protecting life and property as well as public relations.”

This is confirmed by guards from various firms, who say some of their colleagues report to work minutes after recruitment. “When a guard resigns or is fired and there is no one to fill the vacancy, we have seen people called and ordered to report to work straight away. But we are all taught how to salute bosses as failure to do this paints a negative picture of the employer among clients,” reveals one guard who works for one of the top security firms in the country, manning the main entrance to one of Nairobi’s leading retail outlets.

Andabwa, whose union has a membership of 40,000 guards, blames their poor welfare on exploitative employers. He notes that while most leading security firms pay an average monthly salary of between Sh5,000 and Sh18,000, the situation is despicable in many mushrooming security firms. “Some, despite securing multi-million shilling contracts with clients, pay as little as Sh800 a month. This is way below the minimum wage.

“Most employers have also ignored a provision in the labour laws that they provide insurance cover for their employees,” he says.

With the high inflation rate, he says some guards have had to go without food while doing critical work. “It is a pity that one can guard or escort property worth billions of shillings daily while hungry. Many others walk home after work. The sector is full of highly demoralised workers,” says Andabwa, himself a trained former guard.

He calls on the government to enforce minimum wage to give unions a better platform to negotiate for better pay. He said some security firms do not offer their employees off days, leave alone annual leave. Andabwa also protests the ill equipping of guards. He gives the example of the police who escort cash in transit, who are always armed, unlike the guards.

“We also have mobile response teams with no weapons while dealing with armed thugs. All these guards are dangerously exposed in case of a shootout,” he says. Andabwa said there’s the need to provide bulletproof vests to all guards while they are on duty. “Guns should be also given to specific individuals, with priority given to guards in critical facilities such as airports, seaports, embassies, law courts, banks and major supermarkets,” he says. “Those with guns should be undercover and in plainclothes providing cover for their colleagues. The firearms will help them take on criminals before police show up,” He advises government to invest heavily in private guards since their role complements that of police. “Reforming the police alone is doomed to fail as we are way below the UN ratio of one officer for every 400 people,” he avers.