David Odhiambo was one of the blue-uniformed security guards tasked with protecting Nairobi’s Westgate Mall one year ago when four heavily armed terrorists attacked. The work David was paid to do — search purses and bags, mostly — earned him two bullets in the head, injuries that cost him his job.
Nairobi has tens of thousands of guards like Odhiambo. They guard banks, restaurants, malls and homes. They aren’t armed and when criminals or terrorists attack, they are often the first casualties. Two bullets fired by al-Shabab’s four mall attackers grazed Odhimabo’s scalp. At least 67 people died in the assault on Sept. 21, 2013.
“The guys, I saw them. They were very close to me, and I laid down on the ground when they started shooting,” Odhiambo said in an interview with The Associated Press in his tiny, one-room home which he shares with his wife and four children. “I’m lucky. Even while I was lying down then I was praying to my God because there was nothing I could do.”
Somalia’s Islamic militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. The attackers died in the siege. Later four other men were arrested and charged with aiding the assault and they are on trial. Earlier this month, nearly a year after the mall attack, a U.S. attack in Somalia killed the head of al-Shabab.
One year after the mall assault, Odhiambo is without a formal job and many of the Kenyan capital’s shopping areas remain protected by unarmed, poorly trained security guards who aren’t equipped to fend off assaults. Though, as a result of the Westgate attack, new contingents of armed security forces have been stationed at major malls. No similar attack has since taken place.
Kenya authorities said they have been on high alert throughout September as the anniversary of the Westgate attack approached. Earlier this month in Uganda, authorities said they foiled a planned al-Shabab attack.
Security experts say Kenya and the East Africa region remain vulnerable to attacks.
“There are too many targets, an infinite number of targets if you will. There are schools, there are hospitals, hotels, shopping malls, open air markets,” said Matt Bryden, the former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea and an expert on al-Shabab. “Al-Shabaab is prepared to hit soft targets and there is nothing any government can do to protect everywhere all of the time. The best defense is intelligence.”
The job of unarmed security guard is one of Kenya’s most dangerous. Nearly 50 guards have died in armed attacks this year alone, said Isaac Andabwa, the secretary general of the Kenya National Private Security Workers Union. Another 100 have been seriously wounded, he said.
With grenade, bomb and gunfire attacks increasing in Kenya, guards should be trained in explosives and surveillance and be given bullet proof vests and possibly guns, he said.
“You cannot guard the Village Market with a baton,” he said, referring to an upscale mall near the U.N. offices and the U.S. Embassy. “You are only creating more insecurity and putting lives of the people there in danger.”
David Odhiambo was the first Westgate victim taken to hospital. After surgery to remove the bullets from his head, he stayed there for two weeks and President Uhuru Kenyatta visited him. Five weeks after Kenya’s worst-ever terror attack, his employer, Securex, wanted their $190-a-month security guard back on the job, Odhiambo said.
“I felt I was not capable and they said if I felt I could not do the job I should resign and that’s what I did,” said Odhiambo, who now makes $3 a day selling charcoal. “This hip, I can’t stand for long, and even walking was a big problem. I saw that if they were forcing me to work then they didn’t care about me.”
When a guard dies in the line of duty, his family is given just over $900 as compensation, Andabwa said. That is the amount that Odhiambo was given when he left his job at Securex, he said.
Securex denied forcing Odhiambo back to work.
“We gave him his dues as stated by law. We did not force Mr. Odhiambo out of the company. We received a request from him to resign. We are very sorry about what happened at Westgate. It was beyond our control and we do not have any ill motives toward him,” said Brian Sagala, Corporate Liaison officer at Securex, a regional private security company.
Despite the danger, the long hours and the low pay, Kenyans clamor to get security guard jobs, Odhiambo said, because there are so few job opportunities available. It takes Odhiambo 10 days of selling charcoal to pay his children’s monthly school fees. So if the chance to work as a security guard comes around again, Odhiambo said he would take it.
“Yeah, I would do it to support these kids,” he said. “I have no other resources.”