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Overcoming tensions between communities and the police in Somalia

24 October 2019 Hamse Matan

Despite significant progress on improving policing and governance in Somalia in recent years, there are still tensions between the police and the people they are meant to serve. Hamse Haibe looks at how Saferworld and partners have been tackling this issue head-on by supporting communities in Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa to address their safety needs through police advisory committees led by the people.

When I recently went to visit a community in Kismayo, I heard from residents about how they felt uncomfortable speaking to the police. This mistrust of authorities is a symptom of Somalia’s long-running conflict since the collapse of the central government in 1991 and the resulting decades of instability. Somalis quickly learnt to deal with their issues outside of formal structures, and to this day they are reluctant to trust or involve the security forces – including the police.

But as Somalis work to build better lives for themselves and their communities, engagement with the police will be essential for long-term change. In 2019 Saferworld began the third year of a project that supports people-led action to address community safety and security needs and influence national change. Following the formation of community action forums in the first two years – groups made up of people that advocate for improved community safety and security – our focus has shifted to rebuilding trust between communities and the police, legitimising the work of the action forums and training police officers to better meet the needs of their communities.

Working with civil society, we established three police advisory committees (PACs), each made up of 12 voluntary members, to serve two main functions – the first is to monitor police conduct at the stations to ensure humane conditions for detainees; and the second is to build a bridge between communities and the police. 

The unique thing about these groups is how they are formed. Anyone is allowed to join the committee, providing they are dedicated to helping their community. The groups include women, former police officers, youth and elders. “The formation process was led by Somali civil society with the close coordination of relevant police administrations,” said Siciid, a member of a Mogadishu PAC. In August 2018, Saferworld trained these groups on relevant laws and standards including human rights, police operating procedures, norms around the use of force by police and detention practices. The trainings also covered how to create action plans for addressing identified issues and documenting activities, and explored advocacy and communications methods. These methods helped committee members more effectively push out their initiatives on addressing security concerns raised during police visits and advocate for higher-level change (as well as advocating for decision makers to respond to the immediate security needs of their communities).

The concept of advisory committees is not new to Somalia. In 2007, the Transitional Federal Government set up police advisory committees to monitor conditions for detainees, with a focus on maintaining their rights and access to basic needs. Despite disbanding several years later, the committees gained widespread support, with many applauding their impact on policing. We sought to replicate this model as a way of putting more power into the hands of communities.

So far, the committees have made over 300 visits to police stations in Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa to monitor prisoner conditions, police conduct and standards. Three committee members must go on each visit, including at least one woman. They do this while continuing to coordinate with the community action forums to discuss issues raised by the community, such as the lack of female officers at police stations.

In August this year, I met Baidoa PAC leaders to get an update on how their work was going. “It has been powerful to see everyone’s voice being heard,” said one member.

In Baidoa, one PAC split up the heavy workload by dividing themselves into four groups – each visiting specific police stations twice a month to cover all ten stations in the area. The chairman of one PAC told me how he has been advocating with the police commissioner in Baidoa, as well as with heads of stations and district commissioners to set up gender desks that provide safe spaces for women and girls who may be survivors of gender-based violence to get appropriate support. The PACs also introduced the use of ‘occurrence books’ where police stations could keep a record of all incidents and cases.

In Mogadishu, security needs in different districts vary greatly. The Deputy Police Commissioner suggested that a single community policing approach would not be appropriate given the different contexts, so they have instead tailored their approaches to reflect the needs of different areas.

Yet this work has its challenges. The condition of prisons is an urgent situation that has seen little progress, despite regular PAC intervention and advocacy. In Baidoa, for example, 138 prisoners are being held in a central prison meant to hold 64. The PACs have been working to provide support for vulnerable detainees through legal and human rights counselling, as well as food and sanitation projects. Binti, a PAC member with a medical background, has been providing medical support to detainees with tuberculosis and malaria. In Mogadishu, PACs successfully negotiated the release of 12 people from detention, some of whom were being unlawfully held.

Another challenge is the high turnover of police officials. This means rebuilding relationships with authorities from scratch, causing delays and disappointment from communities who had high expectations that things would improve. The PACs in Mogadishu also face an increasingly volatile security situation which affects both their professional and personal lives.

Looking ahead, it will be essential to provide more trainings for police who interact with committees and action groups to avoid conflict and resistance to the growing role of communities in working on security and safety issues. The success of this initiative will depend on the collaboration between all involved, to jointly deliver on action plans. I am looking forward to the next phase of the project, in which we will provide small grants to the committees to fund some of their action plans and work towards a more peaceful Somalia.

The ‘restoring stable communities’ project in Somalia is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We work with partners Somali Women Development Centre, Isha Human Rights Organisation and Somali Women Solidarity Organisation.