Photo credit: Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld
Photo credit: Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld

"They stand for justice": communities in action in Baidoa

The city of Baidoa in south-west Somalia has experienced significant instability and change over the last 30 years. We spoke to community members in Baidoa about their experiences and the work they are doing to rebuild a fractured society and create sustainable peace. 

“For the last 30 years of my life in Somalia, I have witnessed destruction, displacements, disease and famine. When I was growing up at that time, my parents took care of me with a lot of difficulties. There was no government in place and no proper administrative system.”

Ibrahim, 37, is a tailor living in Baidoa, a sizable city in Somalia with a population of over 1 million*, including vast numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). It is also the capital of South West State, making it a strategic location known for its agricultural production.

During the civil war, Baidoa was subject to violence and insecurity enacted by the Reewin Resistance Army (RRA) who sought to create an independent Southern Somalia. Somalia’s civil war, triggered by the collapse of the central government in 1991, brought violence and high levels of displacement across the country as various armed factions struggled for influence.

Fatuma, a women’s leader and mother of nine, describes her devastating loss during the conflict. “It was war after war. We went through destruction [enacted] by Somalis. Clan militiamen were searching homes, stealing and raping women. I had my child on my lap and they wounded my child with a knife. There were no hospitals or medicine available so my child died. They took all our belongings and clothes. I didn’t become a refugee because I had no money to leave Baidoa.”

Abdirizaq Mohamed © Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld

"I was based in Baidoa during the war, I have never gone out of Somalia. We faced many problems since there was no government to maintain rule and order."

Father of four Abdirizaq Mohamed explains how the civil war in Baidoa impacted his life, “It has affected me so much. I was based in Baidoa during the war, I have never gone out of Somalia. We faced many problems since there was no government to maintain rule and order. We got displaced several times from Baidoa to nearby villages and also got displaced from the areas we fled to. There was fighting between clans and sub-clans. These wars have left us with lots of problems. I got injured on the leg; it is as a result of that stray bullet in June 1995 from the militia of [Mohamed Farrah] Aidid of the Salballar administration. The bullet got stuck and injured my nerves, paralysing my leg.” 

Fatuma continues, “During the famine, women had to manage to take care of their children. Men didn’t provide for the children, it was the women who provided by selling fuel, firewood, and selling cereals, they were hardworking. Because of the hardship they went through, they learnt about doing business. You now see them in the markets selling vegetables, bread, lemons, and clothes, basically, they sell everything. They provide food for themselves and compete with their peers. They are very hardworking.”

Today Baidoa experiences relative stability compared to previous decades. Despite periods of insecurity as a result of various conflicts, notably between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, and Al-shabaab from 2006 to present, as well as political uncertainty during the establishment of South West State as an official federal member state of Somalia, some members of the community in Baidoa now express a feeling of precarious calm.

“Currently we are in a relatively settled situation, so we thank God. After a long time with temporary [governance] structures, we have now reached a situation where regional governments and the federal government have working relations,” Ibrahim explains. Yet on a day-to-day basis, many Somalis continue to face high levels of insecurity and injustice. This is particularly acute for women and minority groups.

Community in action

In December 2016, Saferworld and partners began a five-year project supporting communities in Somalia to address the security and safety issues they face in their daily lives, and improve their relationships with local authorities and government institutions. In Baidoa, we partnered with Isha Human Rights Organization (IHRO)  who have an established relationship with the community of almost 20 years.

CAF meeting in progress in Baidoa © Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld

The first step of the project involved setting up community groups, titled community action forums (CAFs), made up of men and women volunteers who act as community-based focal points in their neighbourhoods. Initially three groups, each made up of 20 members, were set up in Baidoa. Four years on, there are now six groups - 120 CAF members in total - working across the city. Their role involves leading projects that promote safety and peace in their area and helping to resolve community conflicts. CAF membership crosses all clan lines and includes elders, youth, women and people with disabilities.

Abdirizaq Mohamed is a member of one of these groups: “Our plan was to first make the community understand the importance of peace and security. Personally, I was very happy with the initiative because we needed to give the community lots of information on these issues. We created lots of awareness to make them understand that they own everything together, we live together as one community.”

The CAFs took part in trainings on advocacy, community security, budgeting and finance, gender and conflict sensitivity in the community. The groups then conducted research in their neighbourhoods to identify priority concerns. In Baidoa, as seen in other project locations, gender-based violence (GBV), access to justice and land disputes were prominent worries for both settled communities and IDPs. These findings were used to create action plans for how to address these issues, which have since been updated twice a year.

CAF Chairperson Abdirizak Adan © Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld

Abdirizak Adan, a CAF member and chairperson who played a fundamental role in setting up the groups explains, “Every Thursday we have a CAF meeting, although sometimes there are other emergency meetings, in case we have urgent issues to handle either in the IDP camps or with the community. If it’s not possible to have the meeting in our office, we meet where the community need us.”

In 2019, the CAFs in Baidoa dealt with 155 cases: 36 related to land disputes, 21 issues of domestic violence, 24 neighborhood disputes, 11 cases of GBV, 12 safety concerns, and 51 other interventions.

Responding to the needs of the community

"They always bring together the community, holding seminars for them. People who live in different corners of the town... they have brought them together."

Ibrahim is a community member who has been in regular contact with his local CAF group. “Although it’s difficult to bring people together, [the CAFs] have succeeded. I very well remember when they were established. Their work is also very much visible in the community, for example, is sanitation and hygiene – cleaning the streets. The lighting system – they have put lights in places that had poor security, on the roadsides they have planted trees. They always bring together the community, holding seminars for them. People who live in different corners of the town who didn’t know each other well before, they have brought them together. Now they know each other very well.”

Berdalle CAF work with the community to clean streets © IHRO

CAF member and women’s rights advocate Fartun Ali focuses on the needs of women in her community. “Men and women share equal members of the CAFs (ten men and ten women). When a woman is assaulted, the women members visit the victim. When we need support, we seek help from female police officers who are based at the station to provide security for us. Myself, I like putting effort into working with women. These project helps me to realise the needs that many women at present have.”

Rebuilding a relationship with the police                                  

Decades of instability and a lack of formal institutions in Somalia have created a deep mistrust between communities and police. A fundamental pillar of the CAFs’ work has been to strengthen this relationship and create a sustainable environment where people and the police work together.

Mohamed is the Head of Police for Berdalle district in Baidoa, and regularly coordinates with his local CAF. He explains, “Some years back because of fear, the public and the police were far apart in terms of co-operation. Al-shabaab use to throw bombs and other weapons and regularly attacked Baidoa. The community used to run away from the police, fearing they would be shot. But now the police and the community have become like a mother and father, whereby they share responsibility.

Head of Police for Berdalle disrict Mohamed © Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld

Today, we work with the CAFs every day and night. At any time, whenever you call them even at 3am, late hours of the night and tell them there is an issue somewhere, they respond immediately sending three or four persons, they see the area, speak to people and start working on the problem. We work together and if need be, the police will apprehend [suspects] and then take them to the police station where we apply the law.

"The station we are now operating from was constructed by our CAF, with the support of communities in Berdalle and Baidoa, they bought all the required materials..."

The station we are now operating from was constructed by our CAF, with the support of communities in Berdalle and Baidoa, they bought all the required materials, including timber and roofing. They also brought us the furniture that we are using now in the office. For me, it’s important to work with the CAF, since I realised that they stand for justice.”

As well as the CAFs, the project also brought together groups of volunteers focused specifically on police-community relations, called police advisory committees (PACs). The PAC in Baidoa advocated to the district police commissioner the need to establish a female desk at local police stations to handle the GBV-related cases, referred from the communities to the police. The police commissioner, with the help of other agencies and institutions including AMISOM, successfully established these desks which now are used as a safe space for the affected women and girls in Baidoa, and has reduced the culture of silence as survivors come forward to seek legal representation and counselling.

Sustainable change

After years of working closely with the community and building a foundation of trust, the CAFs are taking their work to government officials at the local and district level. In 2019, they conducted 12 meetings with the district administration to discuss the security issues they regularly encounter and to gain support in their work. A meeting with the Baidoa District Commissioner (DC), Hassan Moalim Ahmed Bikole resulted in an agreement that members of the police and local government officials would attend the CAFs bi-weekly meetings to work more closely with communities.

Research by the CAFs in Baidoa showed land disputes as one of the major drivers of conflict in Baidoa and the urgent need to develop effective land laws in South West State. After the CAFs brought this concern to the relevant authorities including the Ministry of Public Works at state level and UNHABITAT, a land law was developed and approved by the cabinet and is currently waiting for parliamentary approval.

The CAFs note the value of government support. “Initially the project started at the roots of the community. If the government administration of the districts, regional, state and federal-level give support to this, it will be a project that can be sustainable,” Abdirizak Adan explains.

“What has been done has brought a lot of change. Even when we encounter very dangerous issues, we call and inform the concerned authorities and now they handle it very well. That has brought us peace and a better life,” says Ibrahim.

Fartun notes, “With tribalism, which is common in Somalia, uniting communities has a great impact. If the project size is increased and expanded to other states and duplicated in the towns, I can say it will have a great impact across Somalia.”

As for the CAF members themselves, there is a sense of pride in the work they continue to do. “My family members are very much aware of my position and work. Since people come to my house looking for me and ask my wife to wake me up sometimes if am asleep to help them solve disputes, they know I work in settling people’s disputes and security problems. I hope my kids will learn from me, just like the camel caravan following the lead camel,” Abdirazaq Mohamed concludes.

Following the onset of COVID-19 in Somalia, the CAFs have also played a vital role in protecting their communities against the spread of the virus, creating awareness in their neighbourhoods and distributing protective gear. Their effective response is due to the embedded nature of the groups in the community, using their established influence to share vital information in a rapid and truthworthy manner.