Can Neighborhood Watch Ease Somalia’s Insecurity?

A firefighter sprays water to extinguish a fire after a suicide car bombing outside the Criminal Investigation Department. Mogadishu, Somalia, July 31, 2016. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP Photo)

An al-Shabaab bomb that killed 10 people in a Mogadishu beach resort in August highlighted the city’s chronic insecurity. This will be in even sharper contrast in the run-up to Somali elections scheduled for October this year. One option on the table for international donors looking to help disrupt terrorist networks is to expand neighborhood watch groups. Based on the record of a Somali-driven project in Mogadishu’s Wabeeri district, this represents a locally acceptable, sustainable, and value-for-money approach.

Somali neighborhood watch groups have historically been little more than vigilante or protection groups designed to manage criminal violence rather than terrorism. But much has changed over the last two years. The Wabeeri example could serve as a model for enhancing Mogadishu’s broader security. It also provides valuable insight into the relationship between counterterrorism and broader security and development aims.

How Neighborhood Watch Works

Mogadishu is a notoriously insecure city, but 2015 saw the introduction of a new security plan addressing gaps in the federal government’s ability to gather community intelligence needed for counterterrorism operations there. While previous plans of this nature have been top-down products that failed to deliver on their promises, the 2015 proposal acknowledged the role of the city’s individual districts. It adopted the neighborhood watch concept as a primary pillar and also recommended copying the reporting structure of the watch scheme developed by the mayor at the time.

Designed to mobilize communities, it consists of a structured approach to gathering intelligence at the local level. The scheme appoints community representatives responsible for recording sightings of suspicious individuals, vehicles, and weapons, with the resultant information fed to a team that collates and analyses the information to create a picture of security-relevant activities, before passing intelligence to agencies such as the Somali Police Force, Ministry of Internal Security (MOIS), and National Intelligence Agency (NISA). The process links the police force’s Community Policing and Public Relations Division, the city’s district commissioners, and the Benadir Regional Administration.

Reporting from the scheme shows that in November 2015 there were 44 arrests attributable to neighborhood watch sources, 49 weapons seized, 41 suspicious persons identified, and 17 suspicious vehicle reports resulting in actionable intelligence. March 2016 figures show that 2,152 public complaints were received, resulting in 1,492 cases being solved. In the first three months of 2016, 58% of complainants were women, 34% were children, 6% were elderly men and women, and 2% men.

Although these figures are affected by the fact that 80% of ordinary crime is resolved through the customary xeer legal system, the police force’s ineffectiveness, and NISA’s unwillingness to disclose the results of its investigations, it’s worth noting that no other branch of the Somali federal government produces comparable security statistics.

Mogadishu has a number of policing projects designed to rally local communities. At the same time as the mayor’s scheme was promoted, the MOIS introduced a “know your neighbor” campaign, while the African Union Mission in Somalia rolled out a community policing program designed to build partnerships. Yet Wabeeri’s scheme remains the most developed of these: its equipment needs have been identified and the processes used are now consistent across a range of districts.

Located northeast of Mogadishu’s international airport, Wabeeri is a densely populated district of 19,250 inhabitants plus 10 internally displaced persons camps housing 15,000. Its neighborhood watch scheme is Somali-driven but supported by the United Kingdom as a means of increasing counterterrorism-relevant reporting to Somali authorities. While the potential to improve community safety is important, the goal is to allow police to play an enhanced role in counterterrorism and increase the influence of district commissioners. This offsets the influence of the NISA, while improving communication between the federal government and local people.

At first glance, the Wabeeri scheme looks unsustainably labor-intensive. Best imagined as a pyramid, it builds up from street committees representing groups of 10 houses to neighborhood committees representing five street committees (50 households), sector committees representing four neighborhood committees (200 households), ward committees representing four sectors (800 households), suburb committees representing four ward committees (1,800 households), and a district committee representing four suburbs (7,000 households). Yet all posts are filled by volunteers, the majority of whom are women (polygamy ensures that most households are run by women), while six paid “field workers” are tasked with organization.

The groups meet every morning and pass observations—of suspicious individuals, for example—to a central office. A district security committee consisting of a commissioner, police force, and NISA district commanders meets once a week. By the end of 2015, 700 people had been trained in these methods. Because Somali literacy levels are low, the training was delivered by using song and acting performances and small-group explanations. The success of such methods in improving social cohesion was confirmed by the district commissioner’s request that her leadership team be included in the program.

Despite its relatively small cost, the scheme requires international support, particularly given plans to roll it out across Mogadishu’s 17 districts. This may be a challenge when international donors, who spend thousands of dollars on anti-radicalization projects, refuse to contribute to basic needs. An international adviser recounted to me how they were unable to obtain chlorine to disinfect cholera-breeding stagnant water alongside a football field that had been funded, for example.

A Sustainable Initiative

The most striking feature of Wabeeri’s scheme is that is Somali-driven. Although affected by the Benadir Regional Administration’s internecine rivalries, it is supported by the country’s president, prime minister, and police commissioner, all of whom have attended high-profile events associated with it.

The scheme is thus sustainable in a way that more technical and internationally driven policing approaches—which require the continued presence of non-Somali advisers—are not. Regardless, some international commentators argue that neighborhood watch should not be supported because those reporting incidents may be subject to intimidation and violence. One such case did indeed result in a woman’s death in 2015. In practice, however, neighborhood watch expresses the value Somalis place on social capital and information sharing.

Although some older Somalis associate it with a repressive form of community policing called hamuunta or “directing the people” (to the state) introduced by the Siad Barre regime in the 1970s, anecdotal evidence suggests that it also reminds them of a period of relatively security. The important distinction is that hamuunta may have been used to manage groups or clans that Barre saw as a threat, and its reporting and methods of control were linked to the military, which is not the case with the volunteer-based neighborhood watch.

A comparable program to today’s neighborhood watch was, however, developed from 2002 by civil society organizations, and was funded by monthly contributions from households. This used security committees and armed community police officers to monitor and manage crime and was very successful. Yet it faded after the formation of Somalia’s transitional government in 2004, which encouraged an expectation that it would be responsible for providing security. The Fostering Neighbourhood and Social Integration Program subsequently launched in 2013 is the precursor to today’s neighborhood watch scheme.

Future Steps

Progress in further developing the neighborhood watch scheme in Wabeeri and extending it to districts such as Abdiaziz, Hamar Jabjab, and Shingani depends on four factors.

First, the scheme’s relationship to counterterrorism needs to be carefully managed. Neighborhood watch is supported by donors such as the UK because it helps to provide intelligence for its flagship project in Somalia, the Joint Operations Coordination Center, which coordinates activity across the country’s security sector. While serving broader security aims, this opens the watch scheme to accusations of spying on the part of local participants and conflation with other programs that may limit interest from additional donors.

In practice, the risk of local Somalis being accused of collusion with international actors is relatively low. Neighborhood watch also provides welfare support, as when women are given a bowl of dhal (their only meal of the day) in return for street cleaning, which helps increase its public acceptability.

Second, mayoral politics and churn in ministerial and senior appointments influences—usually adversely—many aspects of the scheme. Regardless of clan-related politics, elections and officials’ need to recoup outlays before losing their posts, opaque decision-making and short-termism is a fundamental feature of the Somali security environment and should be managed as such.

Third, neighborhood watch needs to take priority over competing projects that also seek to increase security, such as development of geographical information systems to accurately map and identify people and addresses for the delivery of public services. This is not cost-effective because the regional administration’s ability and willingness to provide it is minimal and its representatives are regularly targeted for violence.

Finally, there is a general lack of coordination of policies, priorities, budgets, and activities for neighborhood watch. This needs to be addressed if it is to continue attracting support.

Alice Hills is Professor of Conflict Studies in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.