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Restoring the Foundation of the Somali Police Force
Monday March 5, 2018
By Waheid Siraach

Somalia would benefit substantially from police reform, especially one that adopts a civil policing system where officers work for the people rather than the state, and perform their job duties in an impartial, ethical, and professional manner.

The nation’s inherited military-style policing system is flawed, and efforts to restore the old system have derailed, as the current police force is markedly disorganized. The system is outdated and simply out of touch with what the Somali population needs. Not only do members of the Somali Police Force (SPF) lack transparency, but they are also paid little and given minimal educational and training opportunities. In addition, the SPF works regularly with international agencies when it ought to be self-sufficient. The system is in dire need of reform.

History of the Somali Police Force

To truly understand the complexity of the Somali policing system, one must examine its history. The Police Corps of Somalia was the product of forces the British and Italians employed during the colonial period. When Somalia gained independence in 1960, SPF was created as a national law enforcement entity jointly run by the Police Corps of Somalia and the British Somaliland Scouts. Officials also organized a mobile group called the Daraawiishta Booliska, which was meant to keep order in the nation’s rural areas. The group is now defunct. 

The SPF was an official branch of the Somali National Armed Forces (SNAF) until 1991, when Mohamed Siad Barre, former president of Somalia and SNAF commander-in-chief, was overthrown. (Today, the SPF is still part of the armed forces.) Barre, like many other military rulers of the past and present, wanted to consolidate power throughout the nation; to this day the SPF answers to the state rather than the public.

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In short, Somalia is grappling with a centralized, top-down, government-controlled military policing style that does little to benefit the public. While with the help of generous international donors and the new Somali civilian governments—there have been four in the past 10 years— have begun the process of rebuilding the nation’s police force, the SPF is still dysfunctional and in many ways invisible.

 Where the SPF Falls Short

The SPF hasn’t undergone reform to the degree Somalis had hoped. As Somalia’s main law enforcement body, the SPF has a limited presence outside Mogadishu, the nation’s capital city of about 3 million people—and even in Mogadishu, it has minimal control because the National Intelligence Service Agency (NISA) executes various policing functions.

The SPF struggles with insufficient policies and procedures, resources and infrastructure, as well as oversight and transparency. As such, the force must aim for better-trained officers, specialized and ethical police, and greater accountability. Sixty-percent of SPF’s 6,800 officers are above the rank of officer, and there is no structure or hierarchy in place to protect public interest and safety. In addition, low salaries and inconsistent pay leave members of the SPF 

dependent on the government politicians; and as a result, less inclined to serve the public. Indeed, some police officers are paid less than Somali housemaids. The force also relies heavily on international support to supply equipment, training, and salaries; to be truly effective, however, the SPF ought to be self-sufficient.

In his “Peelian Principles,” Sir Robert Peel dictated that an ethical police force must consist of neutral civilians, cooperate with the public and remain impartial to the government. And yet, in Somalia, the police force is in large part a military force simply performing certain police duties. The SPF is entirely lacking in structure, authority, education, and leadership—areas where reform is needed most.

But for reform to be successful, Somalis need to take charge and decide what they want their law enforcement system to look like. Do the citizens of Somalia want to go back to the old military system, which they fought against, and resulted nearly three decades of civil war? Or would they prefer something better—something new and transformative, customized to accommodate their needs and the welfare of future generations? Somalia, after consulting with experts from nations with effective policing systems, must develop and implement a policing plan that reflects its needs and budget.

The force needs to change in a number of ways, some of which may prove challenging in the short term. Between 3,500 and 4,000 law enforcement officials—approximately 50 percent of the SPF—have no formal education; many Somalis do not view policing as a professional job that requires an advanced degree and training. But law enforcement work is so much more than putting people in a training facility and teaching them to march and salute. Police officers do not simply carry AK-47s and sit on the backs of pickup trucks, providing security to important people; the process is much more complex. 

Like any professional field, a career in law enforcement requires extensive education and rigorous training. Officers deal with both street and white-collar criminals—and they cannot allow the latter to outsmart them. They are required to write detailed legal reports, communicate with prosecuting attorneys and courts, and conduct preliminary and advanced investigations. The job is complex, and as a result, effective law enforcement agencies require a bachelor’s degree of their police officers.

To drive reform, and to ensure effectiveness and efficiency within the SPF, those who are unequipped to fulfill their job duties should be released (gradually and with effective exit strategy) so the force can mobilize its resources and serve others more consistently—by ensuring a living wage and consistent salary payments, for instance, and by investing in better training and equipment. Twenty percent of those in the SPF are of retirement age or disabled, but still on the force because there is no pension plan or other source of income at their disposal. While a painful decision, strategic layoffs would prove beneficial in the long term by increasing revenue, jobs, and resources.

The threat of the al-Shabab terrorist group further highlights those places where the SPF falls short. The group presents a major barrier to Somalia and international security, and while the police force is responsible for protecting people from al-Shabab in the cities, the SPF does not even have the resources to protect itself. In December 2017, an al-Shabab suicide bomber killed 18 police officers and wounded 15 others at Somalia’s main police academy. 

Correspondingly, in October 2017, an al-Shabab truck bombing killed nearly 500 Somali citizens in Mogadishu. Crime runs rampant in the city: murder, assignation, robbery, corruption, extortion, and money laundering are far from uncommon. It is the SPF’s responsibility to deal with these crimes, and yet the force lacks the technical capacity and skills to address them. (As is, few citizens take the time to file police reports.) The SPF must therefore undergo an extensive transformation.

International Capacity-Building Initiatives

 While the international partners assisting Somalia have been successful in reducing the presence of al-Shabab—and in addressing Somali politicians’ erratic behavior and in-fighting— their capacity-building initiatives have fallen short. Designed to strengthen Somali institutions (particularly those in the criminal justice sector), the flawed Somali law enforcement system— and the lack of technical capacity, experience, and skills of the NGOs spearheading these programs—have hindered any sort of progress. Many NGOs design projects that look good on paper, but deliver nothing tangible.

Not only that, most capacity-building initiatives offer no real value to Somalia; they simply create job security for the NGOs. The employees of NGOs are typically internationals who make lavish salaries, and they don't necessarily want to help Somalia because doing so would translate to a loss of grants for their organizations. Locally, NGOs are known for driving minimum impact and maximum profits, which leaves the Somali people feeling hopeless and the generous donor countries frustrated. Some of these countries are even pulling their support due to lack of progress.

NGOs, however, are not fully responsible for this lack of progress. Somalia is responsible for its own shortcomings, and the nation cannot thrive until it stops relying on others and starts reforming its institutions using its own resources. While it is acceptable in some cases to let other countries fill the gaps, the SPF and other Somali institutions for that matter cannot depend on foreign nations’ tax dollars. Besides, Somalis have more resources at their disposal than they and others think. Somalia, after all, is the only nation in history to have survived without a government—for nearly 25 years, at that—while receiving limited international assistance. 

Somalia has a thriving public sector; a wealth of natural resources; and resilient, entrepreneurial people. The Somali people can undoubtedly take the reins and build a strong, effective policing system. To this end, improvements are within reach, and the New Policing Model—endorsed by the Somali government and international donor countries—is a step in the right direction. The model was discussed in detail at a 2017 United Nations Assistance

Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) conference in London, and divides the Somali policing system into two levels: federal and state, with a total of 32,000 trained officers. 

While decentralization is a positive sign that will encourage local communities to take ownership of their police departments, there are many unanswered questions that could lead to another failure. For instance, there was no needs assessment conducted (taking factors like State population, crime rate, and sustainability into account) to justify the specifics of the New Policing Model and its proposed 32000 officers. These unanswered questions include but are not limited to the following:

        How will the 32,000 police officers be distributed at the federal and the state level?


        Who will these police agencies respond to—state governors at the state level and the president at the federal level? How independent will they be from these politicians?


        Which laws will these agencies enforce? Will the federal penal code be enforced throughout the country? Most states don't have their own penal code—how will this be addressed?


        Who’s responsible for providing local police services to the nation’s Capital—Federal or Mogadishu’s local government?


        Where, how, and by whom will police officers be trained?


        What are the specifics regarding pay, pension, and sustainability? How about prosecutors, courts, and prisons? Has the criminal justice system been evaluated as a whole?


        What about civilian support staff, like accounts, human resource managers, IT, etc? 

These questions must be explored before the New Policing Model is implemented. Without addressing them, the system may be destined to fail.

Solutions for a Better Policing System 

In summary, an effective police force will come with a complete overhaul of the SPF. The Somali government must take responsibility and begin to prioritize public safety by allocating funds responsibly. Police officers also need to be paid consistently to work effectively and ward off corruption, and the SPF ought to focus on increasing transparency and training opportunities to ensure a well-structured organization.

Above all, the Somali people must be willing to change where change is necessary. A complete systemic analysis must be conducted, taking the above-mentioned factors into account, by all parties involved in the overhaul of the SPF: independent criminal justice experts and anyone else accountable to them. New state police systems must be based on ethical policing principles; officers must work for the public and enforce the law with strong civilian oversight, all while remaining free from corruption and political influence. 

To create a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability, decentralization is key—there must be an obvious separation between the police and the armed forces. Agencies that will

continue working together, such as the various law enforcement agencies divided by jurisdiction and authority, should have specific guidelines detailing how they will collaborate. Similarly, legislators must create new laws and update existing ones at both the federal and the state level. And, in order to attract young, honest people with university degrees, law enforcement agencies must offer decent salaries and make the profession fulfilling for everyone involved. 

The overhaul is not going to be easy, and tough decisions will have to be made. But it can be done. To promote a stronger policing system, the SPF (the nation’s top law enforcement body) must:

        Restore the field capability of police forces, providing the tools and resources officers need to succeed on the job.


        Build sufficient police capacity throughout Somalia, releasing NISA and the military from their role of policing these areas.


        Develop the skills capability of police forces so officers can perform a full range of tasks.

Ultimately, ethical law enforcement agencies are the backbone of every advanced nation. Not only do these forces ensure citizens’ physical safety, but a sound police force can also help promote constituents’ emotional and economic welfare. Improved security and stability will lead to more jobs, more revenue, and a greater investment in Somalia.

Waheid Siraach is a police officer in Minnesota. In 2015, he travelled to Somalia for a year to assist the Somali Police Force (SPF). He continues to engage with Somali leaders from all levels and closely follows the development of the Somali police.

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