Originally posted on Medium.com on July 2, 2020.
As efforts to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak are rightly stepped up, Somalia risks sliding into deeper conflict that would undo years of incremental, but real progress, if we don’t maintain our support to local peace efforts.
This pandemic, beyond its immediate health impact, is causing drastic changes in Somalia which threatens to undermine the progress towards a more peaceful Somalia. The Federal Government and Federal Member states, foreign donor governments, the UN and international agencies, local peace organizations, and international NGOs must redouble their peacebuilding efforts to overcome these changes.
In Somalia it can be too easy to feel overwhelmed by challenges — the threat of al-Shabaab, natural disasters (a catastrophic invasion of locusts, and deadly flooding), and political tensions between the Federal and State governments. But this ignores the incredible achievements of Somali citizens and the steady work of organizations to build a safer country. Government institutions are reestablishing basic services and improving security, and innovative businesses are giving citizens’ new opportunities for livelihoods.
Important Role of Local Peacebuilding Structures
At Conflict Dynamics International (CDI) we support our partner Somali Youth Development Network (SOYDEN) to establish, train and support volunteer District Peace Committees (DPCs). Since 2009 DPCs have been mediating conflicts for communities in over 30 districts. They resolve issues ranging from family disputes to clan conflicts. The DPCs meld traditional methods of conflict management (traditionally administered by clan elders) with representation from wider social groups including women, youth, and business people working with the police, judiciary and other peacebuilding structures. In the districts where they are active they have become a trusted and accessible means of managing and resolving conflict. The DPCs are currently working to support communities managing some of the effects of COVID-19 by supporting communities to resolve tensions among themselves.
Current Issues in Somalia that COVID-19 is Exacerbating
Some of the areas where the non-health impacts of COVID-19 are already creating challenges to peace in Somali communities include:
Gender Based Violence — the lack of jobs, coupled with the fall off in remittances coming from the diaspora has devastated the livelihood of many Somalis. The link between economic insecurity and domestic abuse is well documented, women and girls in Somalia already live in a country where gender based violence is distressingly common. Rape and violence affect whole communities not only the direct victims, local peace actors as well as women’s rights groups are needed to help manage both the individual and collective trauma. If that trauma is not addressed, it will undermine trust and could manifest in greater conflict.
Increase in Crime — lockdowns, curfews, restriction of movement and other measures have resulted in the loss of jobs especially for people working in informal sectors who depend on daily wages. This could force people to engage in crime for survival and push the already unemployed population, to join al-Shabaab in order to earn a living.
Tensions between Communities and Security Forces — the actions of the security forces, in order to implement the government directive have led to the deaths of civilians. Two people were shot by police after defying curfew, worsening relations between the police/security forces and communities. The killings ignited protests in Mogadishu. The use of excessive force by those tasked to protect people could further exacerbate the already fragile relationship that currently exists.
Al-Shabaab Threat — al-Shabaab still controls significant territory directly and is able to operate in most parts of Somalia. They continue to launch attacks on government officials, security forces, and civilian populations with no regard for the safety measures put in place. In a recent statement by al-Shabaab during a “Consultative Forum Regarding the Jihad in East Africa”, the armed group stated that COVID-19 was brought to Somalia by “crusader forces who have invaded the country”, and have urged their militants to continue fighting.
None of these challenges are new, but they are exacerbated by the situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s natural when a virus is affecting people across the world to focus on the medical response but we mustn’t forget how society is being disrupted. And in Somalia those disruptions have the possibility of reversing crucial progress towards peace.
What Needs to be Done?
Local peacebuilding structures like the DPCs and others often play an important role in conflict management, especially at the grassroots level and have proven to be the preferred conflict resolution method by communities as they are accessible, cost effective and are trusted. They therefore need to be supported to continue with their peacebuilding processes as other humanitarian responses are ongoing.
Train local peacebuilding structures on de-escalation techniques including, but not limited to, conflict early warning and violence prevention, trauma healing, reconciliation and mediation. This will equip DPCs with additional knowledge and skills to handle predominant issues in their communities.
Build and strengthen relations between local peacebuilding structures and the local, state and federal governments to coordinate and strengthen peacebuilding response and reduce tensions.
Respond equally and put more effort on peacebuilding, as delayed response could exacerbate tensions in areas already prone to conflict.
Develop a gender responsive strategy to support communities dealing with the effects of the pandemic through trauma healing and psychosocial support.
Engage women and youth as leaders in the awareness raising and support to communities.
Partner with local peacebuilding structures to help them amplify and raise their own voices as they have in their toolkit everything they need to solve the conflicts at hand.
Adapt to change but don’t slow the peacebuilding response.
Like many organizations that work with communities across Somalia we have had to adapt in the face of COVID-19. The establishment and training of new District Peace Committees is on hold, because we cannot safely convene large groups of people. We cannot at the moment continue to expand the network of these crucial local mediators but we must not abandon those DPCs who continue to work.
Existing committees continue their activities to resolve conflicts, but without large gatherings. Committee members are also supporting government to share health and safety messages in their communities. This unfamiliar landscape and uncertain future requires support to help the DPCs adapt and draw on their existing strengths.
As we move forward, we and our colleagues from government, donors and implementers need to ensure we deal with the societal effects of this disease — we must have structures in place to prevent increased crime and gender based violence spiraling into community conflict. We must work with DPCs to ensure the people of Somalia can come together and tackle the new issues caused by COVID-19 in a peaceful manner and express their grievances without creating more conflict.
We must be ready to redouble our efforts to manage and resolve conflict and face up to trauma once it’s safe to get people together again, and we must support those who are doing this vital work of mediating and resolving conflict even as the pandemic grows in Somalia.
What you can do to help right now — Share this post. Contact us to learn more about District Peace Committees’ work and our other local efforts to help us through this pandemic together with a stronger, more peaceful Somalia.
About the Author: Rukiya Abdulrahman is a Senior Program Officer at Conflict Dynamics International.