Greenwoods is a neighbourhood in Nairobi, Kenya, dotted with diplomatic residences. At the time of my research on public-private assemblages of security provision and the reconfiguration of citizenship in Nairobi, Greenwoods’ residents association was sponsoring a security partnership between the state police and a private security company, Maximum Security. The night patrol team of Maximum Security regularly hosted two police officers, whom the association paid two hundred and fifty Kenya Shillings per shift (about two Euros), on top of their regular salary. At the beginning of each night shift, at around 6pm, the team would drive to the local police station to pick up the officers. This routine, however, did not always play out smoothly.
One Wednesday night in August, I was riding shotgun next to James, who was the driver and the commander of the team. In front of the police station, a sleepy officer pulled open the gate, which, freshly painted in the colours of the Kenya Police flag, was in stark contrast to the overall run-down aesthetic of the place. We drove past the office buildings and headed for the large back yard. Here, the police canteen offered food and other entertainments to off-duty officers.
James pulled the hand brake and Tom, who was sitting in the back, stepped out, leaned against the car and lit a cigarette. A police officer out of uniform was standing a few meters away from us by a small vegetable market stand. He picked up an orange and made the move of pitching it to us. With a joking attitude, Tom, leisurely smoking his Sportsman cigarette, yelled to him: “Jaribu! Jaribu!” – “Try! Try!” in Swahili. Instead, the officer, who knew why we were there, started walking towards us and came up to my rolled-down window.
He leaned on my door and stuck his head into the cabin of the van. He was frustrated and held many grudges against Maximum Security, to which he now gave free rein. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, and the cigarette he was waiving in front of my face seemed very unstable. Burnt ash was building up and he was not flicking it away. “Let me tell you one thing”, he yelled at me. “I will never ever come with this car for two-fifty [250 Kenya Shillings] when NW Security gives me five hundred.” With a closed fist he then continued, “Give me five hundred!” (The fist in Nairobi is a hand gesture for the number 5.) He repeated these exact words ten or more times, like a mantra, and the smell of alcohol invaded the cabin.
In the meantime, James was trying to keep his cool and told Kimani – the police officer – that I was only a researcher, a guest of his team, and not a white manager of the company, as the officer seemed to have assumed. Then he reminded Kimani that before the joint arrangement between his company and the police had begun, the team of Maximum Security had worked quite well without the police officers in the car. He seemed to be suggesting that the police officers were neither particularly wanted nor necessary and that the police would be the ones losing out, as they would not get any extra income without patrolling with Maximum Security. James’ threat, however, sounded hollow, and Kimani merely increased the volume of his ranting. What tipped him was James’ reminder that the extra money for the police officers did not come from his company, but from the Greenwoods Residents Association. Kimani – red-faced – sprang back and waived his hand, shouting “Then go! Then go!” – putting on what seemed to be a caricature of an authoritative facial expression. James probably did not expect such a reaction. Now, a bit shyly and yet also a bit confrontationally, he reminded Kimani that the same association had built and painted the gate of the police station, and that this had been done for the officers’ own protection. The station had also received – I had previously learned – a TV set from the residents. The argument kept going, and although it made me uncomfortable, it was also very entertaining. Another police officer came over and pulled Kimani away from the car, who nevertheless kept looking back and shouting at us.
When Kimani was far enough away, James exploded in fury: “This is Kenya Police!” A police service – he later explained to me – that is often unprofessional, ineffective and inefficient, and whose officers are often aggressive, corrupt and only concerned with making an extra income on the side.
It was time to go. James safely assumed that no police officer would join us for the night patrol.
On our way out, just before the gate, an officer stopped our vehicle and jumped in. He ordered James to drop him off somewhere in the neighbourhood, where he was supposed to patrol on foot. He too started complaining about the same money issue and added to the list some other grudges he held against Maximum Security, addressing me directly. But he was more diplomatic than Kimani.
After we dropped him off, James, who was visibly tired and fed up with the police, could not hold in his frustrations. Having the police officers in the car placed the security guards at greater risk, he said. If they were to meet armed criminals while hosting the police, the former would make the first move and immediately start shooting at the car, knowing of the armed police presence. Without the police, on the other hand, they could get away with just the threat of being shot at. Were the arrangement between the police and Maximum Security to collapse, James argued, the police officers would be the ones to lose out, since they would not get the extra income that they cared about so much. For the security guards, things would remain pretty much the same – or they would be even safer. The police officers, James continued, always complained about everything possible when they were in his car: “Too much light here”, “Too dark there”, “Only one door in the back of the van”, “No national radio”, “No VHF police radio”, “No mattress in the back of the van” – to name but a few. And James could not do much about any of this. In fact, day after day, at the same time, he would go to the police station and try to pick up two officers for the night shift.
 All names of companies, people and places are aliases.
Francesco Colona is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the research team studying “Transforming Citizenship through Hybrid Governance: The Impacts of Public-Private Security Assemblages” in five different cities (Kingston, Recife, Miami, Jerusalem and Nairobi). In his research in Nairobi, he tries to understand — ethnographically — how hybrid forms of security governance reconfigure ways of relating to the state and how they contribute to produce specific political subjectivities. Francesco is inspired by Science and Technology Studies, and through this particularly explores how security technologies and mundane objects are entangled with these processes.
This post is a contribution to ‘Daily life’ in the Somatosphere series ‘Thinking with dementia.’
Read the refraction of the theme here.
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