Improving citizen–state relationships through community action in Somalia

5 December 2021 Hamse Matan Improving citizen–state relationships through community action in Somalia

As a five-year project to improve the relationships between communities and authorities in Somalia draws to a close, Saferworld’s Somalia Learning Coordinator Hamse Matan explores the main changes we have seen as a result.  

Building strong relationships between citizens and government is challenging in the Somali context. A pervasive culture of distrust and violence, as a result of Somalia’s lengthy civil war, has polarised communities and disrupted social cohesion. We, the Somali people, have lived this first hand.

To tackle this urgent problem, over the past five years Saferworld has been working with three organisations – the Somali Women Development Centre (SWDC), Somali Women Solidarity Organisation (SWSO) and Isha Human Rights Organization (IHRO) – on a project to build and strengthen positive bonds between communities and police, government and other authorities.

Our joint project was led by 17 Community Action Forums (CAFs) – groups of volunteers (340 in total) set up in neighbourhoods across Baidoa, Kismayo and Mogadishu – who committed themselves to improving security in their communities. Each CAF group is made up of three leadership positions and sub-groups of members that focus on specific issues such as women’s safety and conflict resolution. The groups have met twice a month over the course of the five years.

From the beginning, the CAF member selection process – for all levels of membership, including leadership positions – drew on existing robust relationships, connections and structures in the community; we worked with village committees (local groups found across Somalia) and then focused on developing their skills and growing their reach rather than creating new structures. We added extra members from minority groups to ensure the groups were inclusive.

I have seen these groups go from strength to strength, and witnessed significant improvements on safety and security issues.

Community–police relations

At the start of this project, we talked to communities to learn about the fractured relationship between them and the police as part of our initial conflict analysis. “Some years back because of fear, the public and the police were far apart in terms of co-operation…The community used to run away from the police, fearing they will be shot,” explained a police head in Baidoa. This mistrust was echoed across all three project sites during our conversations.

Four years later in 2020, community members were not as fearful of the police. Fifty-four per cent of the 332 community members we surveyed in Kismayo, Baidoa and Mogadishu said that formal and informal security authorities are now more responsive to the needs and rights of the people – an increase of 19.3 per cent from the start the project in 2016. Fifty per cent also said they feel more confident influencing security providers’ priorities, compared to 30 per cent before.

This change is as a result of work done to address the lack of communication between Somalis and the state. In Mogadishu, for example, the CAF and a local Police Advisory Committee (PAC – a voluntary group set up to improve police–community relations, also established with Saferworld and partners’ support) held a series of meetings and campaigns to bring the public and the police closer together. In these meetings, the community advocated for the importance of establishing police posts inside their wards (neighbourhoods). As a result, police in Wadajir district expanded their security services from one police station to three police posts and 11 police checkpoints across the different wards. These posts work to solve minor conflicts and regularly patrol inside the wards, creating a safer environment for communities in Mogadishu.

Creating meaningful spaces for women

In a context where traditional patriarchal norms and gender disparities mean that most community structures are dominated by men, Saferworld’s community security approach – led by women and men working together – has challenged the status quo. We ensured that women make up 50 per cent of all CAF leadership positions, giving them an equal role to men in identifying community security needs and in deciding how these needs should be addressed. Forty-six per cent of all CAF members are women. These women, of all ages and backgrounds, play an active role in mediating disputes, liaising with authorities and taking part in community projects.

What’s come out of this inclusive process has been really interesting. After women CAF members identified sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a major safety concern, the CAFs worked to improve the referral pathways mechanism that ensures survivors of SGBV can access timely support. The CAF in Mogadishu acted as a vital link between the community and SWDC’s legal aid and psychosocial programme that provides a complete package of assistance. This support has created a bridge for women to better seek formal justice through the police and the judicial branch.  

The CAFs also advocated for dedicated women’s desks at police stations to create safe spaces for women to report concerns, which also improved levels of trust and cooperation. As a result, 37 women police officers were trained and deployed in Mogadishu, and 30 in Baidoa.

Bringing policy makers and communities together

In the past, it was challenging to bring government and communities together, due to a lack of understanding about the role that communities can play developing policies and laws, and negative perceptions on both sides. We wanted, and so did the CAFs, to make sure that improvements in relationships between them were long-term, and last beyond the project lifespan.

In March 2021, after continued efforts by Saferworld and partners including multiple face-to-face meetings, policy makers took part in their first meeting with the Baidoa CAF. The ongoing participation of 12 Members of Parliament in these meetings means that community issues are being shared directly with relevant stakeholders and ministries. Through this link to Southwest Committee Members of Parliament, the Baidoa CAF is recognised by decision-makers and given legitimacy.

The Ministry of Justice has also recognised issues raised by the PACs and has established a new structure called the ‘Correction and Technical Committee’ to respond to concerns about conditions in Baidoa’s central prison. In Kismayo, a policy on detainee rights is being developed with community representatives – a first for the state of Jubaland. The policy committee includes Ministry representatives, the commissioner of custodial police, police spokespersons, and PAC members, who ensure that detainees’ rights to food, clean water, healthcare, education, light and a place to rest are formally respected. The committee plans to finalise this policy in the coming months.

Overall, this project has been a monumental task. It has shown the value of investing in building trust between the state and the community at different levels. This is particularly the case for communities that have experienced years of instability and trauma, marginalised people (including detainees) and women who have faced grievous injustice, to legitimise their voices on a political level. I am very proud of the CAF and PAC’s growth and contribution to a peaceful Somalia, and look forward to seeing what they will do in the future.