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Reshaping the Somali police to suit the new constitution
15 November 2012

Tsegaye Baffa, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Nairobi Office

Recent developments in Somalia, especially the continuing victories over al-Shabaab, adoption of the new constitution, inauguration of the federal parliament and election of the head of state, have sparked hopes of peace and transformation in the country, despite the multiplicity of challenges still ahead. These developments provide momentum to institute a legitimate and effective national security infrastructure. It is thus an ideal time to reshape the Somali police force to adhere to the new constitutional dispensation. This process involves the realignment of ongoing police reform efforts and the formulation of new reform strategies based on the constitution.

The new constitution declares that ‘Somalia is a federal, sovereign, and democratic republic founded on inclusive representation of the people and a multiparty system and social justice` (Article 1, No. 1). The constitution is believed to reflect modern democratic norms in that it enshrines fundamental human rights by guaranteeing all citizens equal rights regardless of clan or religious affiliation. Some, however, speculate that potential conflicts could limit the effective realisation of individual rights, owing to fact that the constitution is founded on the principles of Shari`ah and Islam is the state religion. There are also those who believe that the constitution is too ambitious and detached from the realities on the ground.

The democratic nature of the new constitution dictates that policing in Somalia should be democratic too. Police in a democratic society is governed by the rule of law, which values human dignity, and not by the wishes of a powerful leader or party; is publicly accountable; and is representative of the people it serves. Democratic policing requires being politically neutral; giving priority to protecting the safety and rights of individuals, groups and the general community; and providing the public with professional service that is orientated towards service delivery and not the use of force.

The Somali constitution provides a framework for the protection of fundamental human rights, the formation of representative governance structures, and the public accountability of the security forces. The ‘Principles for the Security Forces` (Article 127) address the major issues pertinent to democratic policing. By providing for the establishment of ‘Independent Commissions` (Chapter 10), including for human rights, anti-corruption, national security, and an ombudsman, the constitution supports the principle of public control over the police. The constitution affirms that Somalia will have federal and regional police forces (Article 127, No. 4 and 5), which further demonstrates the explicit interest in power distribution and decentralisation.

On the other hand, there is a contradiction inherent to policing in democracy that could become the most formidable dilemma Somalia faces. This relates to the conflicts between liberty and order: maintaining social order while respecting individual liberty. Democracy embraces concepts like freedom, privacy, individual rights, etc., whereas policing often incorporates functions or interventions of control, enforcement, restriction, etc. that embody the use of force and the constriction of freedoms. Accordingly, police in a democracy is required to maintain a delicate balance between advancing democratic values and maintaining a secure society, which could become even trickier considering the realities of Somalia.

Somalia has been bogged down by severe internal conflicts, remaining lawless for decades. A generation of Somalis have grown up in a conflict-ridden and lawless environment. Various communities have lived for decades mired in mutual animosity and distrust, and many individuals have benefitted from this lawlessness. Piracy and other marine crimes prevail on the Somali coast. Al-Shabaab is still in control of the greater part of the country, resorting to unconventional methods of combat to make the liberated areas unstable. Almost everyone has access to arms. The list goes on. In a nutshell, the overall situation in Somalia appears to dictate prioritising the maintenance of law and order over the exercise of democratic values. However, a failure to maintain those democratic rights guaranteed by the constitution will lead to further conflict and disorder. Hence, both requirements (maintaining a secure society through enforcing law and order, and upholding and exercising democratic values) have to be fulfilled despite the difficulties in reconciling the inherent conflicts between the two.

To this end, building police institutions that meet the requirements of policing in a democratic society alongside efforts to advance a civilised political culture will be imperative. This involves reshaping the philosophy, governance, norms and management of the police force to foster professional, politically neutral, and constitutionally legitimate practices.

First, a new ethos of policing needs to be forged that embodies basic democratic values such as the rule of law, equality before the law, and accountability to both the public and the institutions that represent the public. In this regard, it is important to develop moral and ethical standards that determine how the police functions of combating crime and maintaining order are carried out without compromising the principles of democracy and good governance. Second, police recruitment, training, leadership, remuneration, appraisal and promotion should be reshaped to promote professionalism and the institutionalisation of democratic values. Third, normative and structural frameworks that protect police leaders and officers against direct political interference should be established.

Police officers in every society are granted the powers and authority required for the effective discharge of their responsibilities, though these powers are neither infinite nor arbitrary. The police mandate to use force may tempt police officers to abuse power in their own interests as well as those of the authorities controlling them. When patronage has been entrenched in a political system, as in Somalia, it renders the principles of equality before the law and politically neutral service delivery inconceivable. The transformation of the police in Somalia thus needs to be paralleled and even preceded by general political transformation; otherwise it cannot be realistic.

The police reform should follow a carefully designed process with a clear understanding of what it entails and how it should be undertaken. Although lessons from the experiences of post-conflict police reform in many other African countries could help, there is no single best model to simply replicate. The Somali case has its own peculiarities from which detailed directions and mechanisms to reform the police should emerge. This requires a thorough analysis of the historical and emerging realities of the Somali conflict, the nature and magnitude of crimes in Somalia past and present, and the measures appropriate to resolving such crimes, taking the socio-political realities of the country into consideration. A quick fix will not work: there must be a process of careful prioritisation of the different measures needed and key steps in the entire course of the reform. Focus should be on both the long-term goal of transforming the police and the short-term need to effectively combat current crimes, and so balance ensuring security now with enhancing security in the future.  

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