Enhanced Policing Is Critical to Sustain Military Victories
Recent victories over the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab in Somalia have boosted the confidence of the Somali government’s forces and its allies, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya and Ethiopia.
However, al-Shabaab hasn’t simply fled the areas where it has been defeated, but has resorted to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks, suicide bombings and grenade attacks. The people in the ‘liberated’ areas are now living in fear of reprisal attacks from the militants and doubt whether the government could provide them with sufficient protection. Thus, the significance of enhanced policing in these areas increases.
Al-Shabaab once controlled most of southern and central Somalia, but has been steadily losing ground in the offensive by the allied forces. Two weeks ago, Somali government and AMISOM forces gained control of the town of Afgoye, the last remaining al-Shabaab stronghold near the nation’s capital Mogadishu. Freeing Afgoye from the rule of al-Shabaab is of significant strategic advantage in that it gives the government control of a route linking Mogadishu with Baidoa in the south-west and with ports in Kismayo and Merka. It also enables access by aid workers to an estimated 400 000 internally displaced people along the corridor.
The capture of Afgoye is thus considered one of AMISOM’s most important successes since its deployment, whereas it is a severe setback for al-Shabaab, as Afgoye was the group’s second most important strategic stronghold after the city of Kismayo. The ultimate target of the allied forces’ offensive is capturing the port towns in southern Somalia, particularly Kismayo, which has been the major source of al-Shabaab’s financing and supplies.
However, the military gains by AMISOM apparently didn’t stop al-Shabaab from carrying out suicide bombings and grenade attacks. The militant group said its withdrawal from Afgoye was a tactical move and that it would continue with hit-and-run assaults. During the week Afgoye was captured, the group was responsible for various attacks in the district. On 31 May, it detonated three explosions in the town, two of which were outside a police station. On 29 May, al-Shabaab ambushed a convoy of the Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, killing and injuring members of the presidential guard. During May alone, insecurity resulted in the death of 209 people and injury of 265 others across different regions of Somalia (www.Somaliareport.com).
One of the critical steps in the course of transforming the liberated areas from a state of conflict to a post-conflict scenario is to enhance local policing – ensuring communities’ security through the enhanced presence and performance of the police. The principal role of maintaining security in those areas freed from the rule of militant groups needs to be transferred to the police. This is mainly because most of the security functions in these locations are supposed to be related to law enforcement. The top priorities in policing the newly liberated communities are, first, to gain public trust in the government’s ability to provide them with protection against potential attacks from the militants and their sympathisers, and second, to employ due process of law in handling those suspected of criminal offences, including suspected al-Shabaab members and its supporters.
The experience of being a ‘stateless’ society for so long has certainly led to a public perception that the government will not provide people with sufficient protection. Individuals and groups who may think to have benefited from the statelessness, as well as those who may either have been affiliated to the rebel group or worry that they will be linked to it, could sabotage the government’s efforts to build public trust and confidence. A significant proportion of the public that has no experience of the regular practices of law enforcement may also resist the law enforcement measures. Many may still think or fear that al-Shabaab will come back and take over, and thus may refrain from collaborating with the government and its law enforcement institutions. Overcoming these challenges requires a robust public relations programme, together with better and more effective day-to-day policing.
Employing the due process of justice and compliance with the rule of law in handling suspected al-Shabaab members and supporters will be crucial in winning public trust and support. This determines the extent to which the public will collaborate with the government. Many individuals could be indirectly affiliated to al-Shabaab or any other rebel group, owing to relationships with family members or blood relations directly involved with the group. In dealing with suspected individuals, therefore, police must be careful not to disregard the fact that many Somalis attach great importance to such social ties. If not, this will lead to public hostility.
A failure to provide protection, a lack of professionalism and ineffectiveness in law enforcement, the failure to respect the rule of law and insensitivity to sociocultural realities on the ground while treating suspects, victims, and the general public could therefore have a negative effect, leading to public discontent with the government and sympathy towards the rebels. As the Somali experience shows, rebel groups reinventing themselves or new groups suddenly appearing shouldn’t be ruled out.
In this regard, it is time to start the process of transforming the Somali police, reshaping its conception, governance, norms, and management. This requires a delicate balancing act between exercising and advancing democratic values and maintaining a secure society. The police officers’ levels of professionalism will have a significant impact on achieving such a balance. Therefore, police recruitment, education and training, leadership, remuneration, appraisal, and promotions within the police need to be revisited to ensure that they promote professionalism and democratic values, but still remain in touch with the realities on the ground.
Carefully designed recruitment and selection mechanisms that involve scrutinising the public profile of each candidate, background checking, systematic screening tests, etc. should be followed in hiring new officers. Training programmes should include, in addition to the regular police competency courses, systematically designed and implemented lessons and extracurricular activities that could help the officers understand the implications of Somali realities for law enforcement practices, and the attitudes and behaviours expected of the police officers. Above all, establishing a proper police payroll system and arranging for the allocation of appropriate budgets to replace the current unsystematic and sporadic practices of remuneration are critical.
Tsegaye D. Baffa is senior researcher in the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.