Weapon for rent: security fears in Nigeria trigger private protection boom

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The white Toyota Hilux van stops at a roundabout in Ikoyi, a district of Lagos, Africa’s largest city. The driver knocks the horn – an aggressive, deafening bark – at the car from which he is now two inches away. A great man has arrived and the message is simple: make room.

The traffic knot swirling around the digital billboard in the center of the roundabout begins to loosen. The tall man – or woman, or their child and nanny – sits in the vehicle behind the Hilux: a black Mercedes G-Wagen SUV with tinted windows, which is dragged by another truck in an almost military shade of brownish green. Inside are police officers, seconded to a private security company. One bends down, AK-47 in hand, and slams the hood of the car next to it. The message is clearer because he shouts it: “Move. Now.”

More laconic-looking police officers can be found outside every posh apartment building in Lagos. They usually hold assault rifles next to their trucks, which are usually parked next to the armored Mercedes, Range Rovers, or Toyota Land Cruisers their bosses drive. When the fat man comes out, the officers go up, sirens blaring, and cut through Lagos traffic like a knife, hammering the hoods of cars as they pass. As the security situation worsens across Nigeria, escort and custody services for high net worth clients in Lagos are booming. According to a tally, around 40 percent of the country’s police officers work for private services.

“Nigeria is currently going through this serious insecurity,” said Ademola Onalaja, managing director of Proton Security Services, one of the country’s largest private security companies. It employs some 9,000 guards, not counting the seconded police. “And therefore the protection of VIPs and national assets is essential for the survival and economic growth of the country. “

Ademola Onalaja from Proton Security Services © Grace Ekpu, for the FT

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Nigeria’s private security sector hard. Businesses that require closing guards, moving to remote work, or reducing operations; lucrative contracts to protect expatriates were canceled when multinationals pulled staff; the pandemic-induced oil price crash triggered a brief recession against a backdrop of generally sluggish growth; and many businesses – who are also potential customers – have become cautious about their spending.

The pandemic has also come amid a general deterioration in security, with violence spreading to almost every corner of the country, from the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast to a resurgent separatist movement in the southeast. A kidnapping epidemic (the term used by many Nigerians is ‘banditry’) that started in the northwest is now widespread in Nigeria, making many of its roads and highways virtually impassable.

But “our business has grown,” says Onalaja, a retired army colonel. The northwest and northeast, two hotspots of insecurity, have been behind some of this growth, while the kidnapping threat spread to the southwest – where Lagos finds – means “you find VIPs looking for more protection services.” . . . now they want to be covered 24/7, ”says Onalaja.

Since private guards are not allowed to carry guns in Nigeria, companies – including local affiliates of foreign-invested groups – make deals with the National Police, who provide armed officers to board the trucks provided. by companies, under the supervision of a private security commander.

Most of the officers guarding the wealthy belong to the Mobile Police (known as the Mopol), a paramilitary unit – originally the riot squads – of the Nigerian police. Police escorts are obtained in one of two ways: through a private security company or, much cheaper, directly from the local police station, which is the route that more and more middle-class Nigerians take. for their interstate movements as security threats increase. .

“Anyone can access it now – it’s not just politicians or VIPs – because of the high rate of insecurity. . . because you don’t want to run into gunmen or kidnappers along the way, ”says Kemi Okenyodo, executive director of the Rule of Law Empowerment Initiative, a non-governmental organization involved in security governance.

On guard: a Mopol escort for a VIP in the chic suburb of Lagos in Ikoyi © Fawaz Oyedeji, for the FT

Officers receive a stipend – typically between N 5,000 and 7,000 ($ 12 to $ 17) per day, depending on rank – and the local command receives an administration fee. But these fees are largely paid in cash, explains Okenyodo, a security and police expert. “So how much income is generated in the end? ” She adds. “What’s the point? Because we always keep complaining that the police are not working.”

Outsourcing of police to private companies took off at the height of the security crisis in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the second half of the 2000s, Okenyodo says. But where it was once ad hoc, it is now institutionalized, with a VIP unit built into the police command structure.

In 2018, the chairman of the then-Commission des services de police, a civilian oversight body, said 150,000 of the country’s estimated 370,000 police officers were attached to prominent figures, including wealthy people and elders. senior government officials. “We cannot afford to have [so much] of the police population in private hands, ”said Mike Okiro, who also served as Inspector General of Police (IGP) between 2007 and 2009, to the State Press Association of Nigeria at the time.

There is little indication that anything has changed. Successive IGPs have called for the withdrawal of police officers attached to the rich and powerful – including the most recent, who in one of his first acts after his appointment in April issued such a directive, less than a year after his predecessor had done the same. .

Nigerian police did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Wale Olaoye, chief executive of Halogen, which with 25,000 employees is the nation’s largest private security firm, says he understands criticism that scarce police resources are being diverted. “In the future, the ideal situation is to lay off some [qualified] companies to bear arms, so that we can create an executive protection unit from private companies and free the [police] do what they do, ”he says.

Olaoye and Onalaja say they hope the government will consider changing the rules. But Daniel Lemmer, director of business operations at Pilgrims Africa, which is part of a British security group that has a branch in Nigeria with around 2,500 employees, doesn’t think that will happen. “[For] African leaders, if you start to arm them [private security staff], what is preventing them from overthrowing the country? There is this fear, ”he said.

“The other part is, how do you actually control all of these guns? It will require quite a bit of a shift in mindset. The military and police are losing enough guns – I don’t think they can afford more guns to be out in the open on the streets.

Lemmer says he understands why people criticize the use of the police to guard wealthy Nigerians and foreigners. But he argues that they serve a vital economic purpose. “The police are absolutely necessary to escort wealthy people and expatriates, because they need to feel safe when they come to the country, when they come to invest,” he said. “If they’re left on their own and their first impression is, ‘I’m not protected, I feel vulnerable’, they might not come back.

“Can you imagine if your high-value clients, visitors and investors get kidnapped? ” he adds. “If there was a wave of kidnappings nobody would go back to Nigeria, so these guys are doing Nigeria a great service. “

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section offering in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investing


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