America Is Paying Its Embassy Guards in Kenya a Dollar an Hour
Nairobi sits in one of the world’s tougher neighborhoods – that’s clear from the recent attack on the Westgate mall. But the security contractor hired by the State Department to keep Americans there safe may not exactly be world-class. The company protecting the U.S. embassy in Nairobi pays its guards as little as a dollar ...
Nairobi sits in one of the world’s tougher neighborhoods – that’s clear from the recent attack on the Westgate mall. But the security contractor hired by the State Department to keep Americans there safe may not exactly be world-class. The company protecting the U.S. embassy in Nairobi pays its guards as little as a dollar per hour. In fact, those guards were so poorly compensated by their employer, KK Security, that last summer they went on strike.
Who and how America defends its diplomatic posts has become an enormous issue in the year since the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The local guard force hired by the American government to protect the place fled during the fighting. And those guards were paid $4 per hour — about four times what their counterparts in Kenya are getting.
And while Nairobi is booming economically, it can still be an extremely dangerous place. Western governments have warned of the high risk of terrorist attacks in Kenya for more than a year prior to last weekend’s terrorist assault on a Nairobi shopping mall. It was an incident in Kenya by which most Americans first learned of al Qaeda after the organization bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998.
KK Security boasts that it pays Nairobi embassy guards between 25,000 and 150,000 Kenyan shillings per month – the equivalent of $787 to $1,715. That’s roughly $9 to $57 U.S. dollars a day for that potentially deadly job.
At the low end, it’s roughly the same as what the average Kenyan makes. However, it wasn’t enough to keep KK employees from walking off the job last June in a strike that "disrupted security" at the embassy, according to the African news site The People.
The People reports that KK guards’ wages were closer to $2 to $4 per day when they went on strike. The firm was also accused of withholding wages that had been agreed to in a labor agreement from the last decade.
"The company owes the employees more than Sh116 [sic] million for the period running from June 1, 2012 to March 1, 2013 alone. Employees currently earn a gross pay of Sh 5,490 per month per guard and the [2005 collective bargaining agreement] was agreed after a lull of 11 years, meaning they have gone 16 years without a wage increase," according to The People.
Other reports quote striking guards as saying they make 14,000 Kenyan shillings, or $160 dollars per month.
KK Security did not respond to requests to comment for this story. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security did not reply to queries about the firm by press time.
KK, formerly known as Kenya Kazi Security, has been paid tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. State Department to provide security to American diplomats in Nairobi over the last decade.
Founded in the 1990s, accodrding to its website, KK bills itself as a one-stop shop for anything security- and safety-related across Central and East Africa. It does everything from guarding U.N. agencies in Tanzania to protecting oil and gas installations on the continent. In addition to providing security guards, KK provides a slew of technologies ranging from biometric identification tools and automatic license plate scanners to software that tracks money being sent around the continent.
The blue chip clients listed on KK’s website include the U.S. State Department, the British High Commission, the Canadian government, the EU, the U.N., Sheraton Hotels, Alcatel, Toyota and even Heineken. In 2012, it hired Adam Miller, formerly head of worldwide private security giant G4S‘s East Africa practice, to serve as its commercial director.
"They have a good reputation and if you talk to Kenyans, they’re pretty happy with them in general," said Doug Brooks, a private security consultant with extensive experience in East Africa. "It’s a huge company in Kenya . . . and they’re pretty dominant in East Africa"
KK also attracts its share of controversy. In May, Bill Lay took over the company’s oil and gas division following a two year stint at the Kenyan auto company CMC Holdings, where he "sparked a shareholder war that caused the ouster of a number of directors and strained the company’s dealings with key suppliers," according to Business Daily Africa.
The following month, KK’s guards at the American embassy went on strike.
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.
Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.
Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.
In 2003, Shachtman founded DefenseTech.org, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to Military.com. During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.
Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni. Twitter: @NoahShachtman