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AFRICA / The security agents on the continent occasionally contribute to security for certain people in specific areas, but they also mix roles.

Private Security in Africa: From Global Assembly to Everyday
Author: Paul Higate Mats Utas
Publisher: Zed Books, UK

The private security company G4S has 120,000 employees in Africa. With a total revenue of over 40 billion Norwegian kroner, the company is the world’s largest in its industry and one of the largest employers globally. This highlights the extent to which we have become dependent on private security services.

The recently published book, Private Security in Africa: From Global Assemblage to the Everyday, is edited by two experienced security researchers: sociologist Paul Higate from the University of Bristol and anthropologist Mats Utas from Uppsala University. These two editors have given considerable space to the eight other contributors to the book. Higate has only written a summarising introduction, while Utas has limited himself to a short epilogue. This generous approach is understandable since they have managed to gather contributions from some of the foremost experts on (in)security in Africa. For instance, Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams have utilised security assemblage theory over the past decades to analyse the blend of state and private security in Africa. William Reno is known for his thorough studies of the continent’s insecurity, uprisings, and warfare, especially in Sierra Leone.

The book delves into theories and categories. Abrahamsen and Williams have provided a clarifying chapter on how they understand the concept of security assemblage and applied it to analyse the security surrounding the activities of the Canadian gold mining company, Africa Barrick Gold, in Tanzania. While traditional security analyses differentiate between public and private security provisions, the main point of assemblage theory is that such dichotomies are invalid. A greater understanding of security challenges in Africa is achieved by incorporating multiple actors and expanding the concept of security. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s deconstructive/postmodern analyses in the book A Thousand Plateaus (1980), as well as Saskia Sassen’s insistence on expanding analytical categories (such as territory, which encompasses more than just land, but also power, discourse, and claims), Abrahamsen and Williams argue that fluidity and multifunctionality are central to comprehending how security challenges in Africa are resolved. They contend that security must be analysed in detail, empirically and locally, rather than relying on general theories within the field of international relations in political science.

As a historian, I heave a sigh of relief. Political scientists have always been more preoccupied with theories and general trends in societal development than historians, who favour the particular and emphasise the unique over the universal. Now, political scientists can employ a theory that highlights their studies’ specific and distinctive aspects and conduct empirical, qualitative case studies without resorting to dichotomous thinking such as state/society, private/public, secure/insecure, and voluntary/compulsory. By using assemblage, political scientists are approaching historians without feeling as theory-deprived as we do, albeit without adding anything new.

The private security company G4S has 120,000 employees in Africa.

Somalia and Al-Shabaab

In his chapter on present-day Somalia, William Reno argues that there is a significant discrepancy between the rhetoric of security and the actual insecurity experienced by people in their daily lives. While official statements, both from the United Nations and the country’s authorities, suggest that security is steadily improving, the author recounts a series of Al-Shabaab-perpetrated explosions, fatal shooting incidents, and suicide bombings since 2015, demonstrating that this is not the case. He explains how Al-Shabaab infiltrates Somali intelligence and how the regime’s security forces and Al-Shabaab often have conflicting and incompatible agendas regarding improving the country’s safety. Reno persuasively argues that neither the current regime nor Al-Shabaab has the will or capability to create a secure Somalia. He places his trust in private security firms, believing that they can fare better.

Congo and the guards

Peer Schouten’s contribution to security in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) also focuses on the blurred and almost non-existent boundaries between private and state security actors.

The growth of private security agents in DR Congo has been tremendous over the past decade. While previously it was mainly diamond mines and diplomats guarded by private security firms, now small businesses, hotels, and aid organisations also hire security guards. These guards often wear uniforms that closely resemble those of state police or military, leading to frequent confusion. However, private guards are not allowed to carry weapons in the country, which means they must maintain good contact with the police or military to be effective in threatening situations. This contact can be arranged directly with individual police patrols or a group of soldiers, where, for example, an additional unofficial payment is agreed upon to be ready to respond and assist a private security patrol. But such contact can also be arranged at a general/police chief level, where more or less corrupt agreements are made to support private security companies when needed. «The most important thing to have in this industry is not technical know-how, but technical know-who», points out one of Schouten’s sources. Thus, the boundaries between private and state security services become blurred, while the illegal intertwining of the two casts a harsh light on the users of these services.

While previously it was mainly diamond mines and diplomats guarded by private security firms, now small businesses, hotels, and aid organizations also hire security guards.

Safer, and vice versa

Jacob Rasmussen’s text takes a different approach. He has studied the vigilante group Mungiki in Nairobi for several years. Here, poor, often unemployed, and politically marginalised young men have organised themselves to secure their own neighbourhoods. Over time, they have gained partial control over larger parts of Nairobi and protect shops, residential areas, and families. This often involves delicate balances between paying for security and being coerced into paying to avoid being robbed or beaten. Some perceive Mungiki as violent youth gangs, while others view them as security agents for the poor. While some gladly pay for the protection provided by Mungiki, others experience it as direct extortion.

This ambiguity is central to all eight contributions in the book. Security agents, whether state, private, or unofficial, contribute to increased safety for certain individuals, in specific areas, and at times. However, due to their fluidity, flexibility, and blurring of roles, they also increase the degree of insecurity for other segments of the population. Therefore, although the concept of security assemblage does not introduce new radical perspectives to security studies, the contributions in the book undoubtedly provide highly detailed and quality empirical data to enhance the understanding of security in Africa.

Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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