In 2002, several NGOs in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, came together to establish neighbourhood watches to fill in the security gap needed to secure communities and properties amidst the Somali conflict.
The Somali conflict, which is one of the longest ongoing conflicts, stems from the mounting dissatisfaction from Somalia’s stagnant, nepotistic and oppressive government policies. This conflict was particularly influenced by former President Mohamed Siad Barre, who was in power from 1969 to 1991. President Barre staged a bloodless coup to become president and went to extraordinary lengths to maintain his dictatorship. He began with the creation of an alliance composed of three Doraad sub-clans: Marehan, Ogaden, and Dhulbahante. The members of this alliance, known as the MOD alliance, dominated all branches of government and military. The superiority of the MOD alliance allowed for the sub-clan’s interests to become national interests. In addition, President Barre ensured that the three sub-clans benefited economically from his presidency.
With his group of supporters, he began implementing oppressive policies targeting opposition groups. First, he worsened tensions between the Doraad and Isaaq clans and their respective sub-clans. This policy commenced shortly after members of the Isaaq clan were suspected to have partaken in the failed military coup in 1979, after the devastating failure of the Somali-Ethiopia war. As a result, Siad Barre sent Doraad sub-clans and their militias, who are found mainly in South-Central Somalia, to antagonise the Isaaq clan, mainly found in the unrecognised independent country of Somaliland. His oppressive policies also targeted Islamic groups, since they were very vocal about their frustration with the government. In one instance, when prominent Islamic leaders voiced their concerns regarding the government’s policies and staged a protest in Mogadishu, ten leaders were executed and many other supporters arrested.
Nearly twenty years after Siad Barre staged a coup, both secular and religious opposition groups arose against the government, marking the beginning of the Somali Civil War in 1988. After fighting on multiple fronts in all corners of Somalia, on 27th January 1991, coalition forces ousted Siad Barre, forcing him to flee to Southern Somalia, and eventually to Nigeria. The fall of president’s dictatorship created a power vacuum that caused many actors, including the opposition groups that ousted the regime, to fight against each other for power.
Since 1991, there have been international and local initiatives aimed at creating and maintaining peace and stability in Somalia. The grassroots strategies, which have had more success in achieving this objective, have been running either independently or congruent with the international process. Most of these processes have integrated the local traditions of employing the expertise of the Guurti, also known as the clan elder, to mediate conflicts between clans and sub-clans. At a national level, some elders have been appointed to select more than a thousand delegates who have elected the 275 members of the House of the People of the Federal Parliament of Somalia.
The Guurtis have also played a key role in the creation of the neighbourhood watch in Mogadishu, an alternative security mechanism aimed at reducing the security threat in the capital. Upon the request of several Guurtis, some NGOs including Civil Society in Action (CSA) and Women Pioneers for Peace and Life (HINNA) started the neighbourhood watch initiative (ciidamada madaniga). At its conception in 2002, it was an extremely important service because it provided a service that the Somali Federal Government could not deliver. At the time, and still today, the federal government has been competing with warlords, terrorist organisations, insurgents and other non-state actors for the authority of the nation.
Therefore, the neighbourhood watch was deemed a necessity by the various communities in the capital city. The initiative relied on the traditional concept of community policing by civilians to protect the interests of the community. Since the initiative was supported by the people, the inhabitants raised resources to pay for expenses that would be necessary to sustain the neighbourhood watches. The NGOs involved attempted as much as possible to educate the ‘officers’ about rules of engagement and code of conduct. Running parallel to the neighbourhood watch, other NGOs helped the reintegration process of militia members back into the community.
Both initiatives were met with strong opposition from warlords operating in the city. First, the warlords saw the neighbourhood watch as an encroachment to its sphere of influence. Since the fall of Said Barre, warlords have provided security for the community at an inflated cost. The growing influence of the neighbourhood watch affected their sphere of influence and source of revenue. Also, warlords saw the rehabilitation program as a threat to its military capability because it was reducing its recruitment pool. As a result, many of the warlords actively sought to limit the impact of these programs. The warlords who gained political power by being part of the Transitional Federal Government fought for the disarmament of these initiatives. Unfortunately, in some cases, they successfully forced the neighbourhood watches to disband.
Despite the strong opposition from opponents of peace and security, the neighbourhood watches have continued to provide necessary services in not only in Mogadishu but also in other parts of the country. This alternative security service came at a time in which the federal government could not provide such a service. Fifteen years after the first neighbourhood watch was created, it is unfortunate that the conditions within the country have not significantly changed. Although the current government is the strongest federal government since 1991, due to the help of the African Union, it still does not have the capacity to provide security to every corner of the country.
While the neighbourhood watches have proved to be effective is providing some security in Mogadishu and other parts of the country, the NGOs spearheading these initiatives must answer a critical question. What will happen to the ‘officers’ of the neighbourhood watches if the Somali Federal Government develops and increases its capacity to secure its citizens? These individuals have dedicated their lives to serving their community and are being paid by the community to provide such a service. If there is a functional police presence in the country, the neighbourhood watches will become obsolete, which will mean that these dedicated individuals will lose their source of income.
There are two viable solutions that these NGOs should consider. First, NGOs should have communicated with the government in order to ensure the neighbourhood watches are formally trained and integrated into the police force. Second, NGOs should start a capacity building initiative that trains the ‘officers’ with skills that will be useful in the progress of Somalia. Either way, this conversation needs to be happening soon in order to lessen the impact on the ‘officers’ and their families.