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Author Archives: Michael Warren

Plural Security Insights at ECAS 2017


By Tessa Diphoorn

In June, scholars from across the world came together in Basel to discuss and share their research experiences on the African continent. As an interdisciplinary and regional endeavour, the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) 2017 comprised diverse panels, insightful keynote lectures, captivating documentaries, and numerous networking opportunities. Plural Security Insights organised a panel, entitled Security in the city: Experiences of security pluralism in urban Africa, with the aim of exploring how urbanization, and particularly informal urbanization, relates to the provision and governance of security. Scholars were encouraged to analyse the complex intersections between state-authorized and non-state-authorized actors and the varied terrains on which security pluralism is constructed and instantiated.

The first speaker of the panel was Alice Hills, Professor of Conflict Studies at Durham University. Her paper, “Making Mogadishu Safe,” discussed how Mogadishu offers a laboratory in which to explore security pluralism in an urban environment. Unlike most analyses of Somali security governance which focus on either high-level developments involving the international community’s plans for Somalia’s stabilisation or on informal policing actors such as clan militia, her approach identified several points at which they interface.

The second paper, “Policing Urban Rwanda: Roles and Responsibilities,” was presented by Hugh Lamarque, a research fellow at the Centre of Urban Studies in Edinburgh. In his lively presentation, Hugh analysed several criminal incidents to emphasize the breadth of actors and the extent of intra-communal monitoring and self-policing that takes place in Rwandan cities and the ability of state representatives to coordinate local actors in the maintenance of public order.

Clara Neupert-Wentz, a research fellow from the University of Konstanz, discussed the diverse roles of traditional governance in Africa in the third paper of the panel titled “Security in Spaces with Multiple Authorities: Traditional Governance and the State”. Based on largely quantitative data, the paper suggests that traditional governance can have an important effect on internal security, albeit contingent on the relationship to the state.

The panel ended with a paper on Angola, presented by Antonio Frank and Akinyinka Akinyoade, two researchers from the African Studies Centre in Leiden. In their paper, they presented their upcoming research that will analyse the relationship between Angola’s national police and non-state security providers.

Combined, this panel reaffirmed the pluralised nature of security, the diverse roles that various state and non-state actors play in providing security, and the different ways in which they interact. The diverse localities and disciplinary backgrounds of the presenters further emphasize the assortment of security provision across the African continent and highlight that more research on urban security in Africa remains to be relevant and welcome.

Dr Tessa Diphoorn is Assistant Professor at the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. She recently started on a new NWO-funded (Veni) research project, “Policing the Police in Kenya: Analysing state authority from within.”

New article in Stability: International Journal of Security and Development


Plural Security Insights is pleased to announce that Megan Price and Michael James Warren have published an article, “Reimagining SSR in Contexts of Security Pluralism,” in Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. The article draws on the network’s 2016 research on security pluralism in Beirut, Nairobi and Tunis.

The article can be found at this link.

Contesting plural security in El Salvador: The gang truce in retrospect


By Chris van der Borgh and Wim Savenije

In March 2012 it was revealed that the two principal street gangs in El Salvador (the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18) had signed a cessation of hostilities or truce, facilitated by  the Salvadoran government. For the government, the truce was a new way to deal with the ‘gang phenomenon’. Instead of cracking down on gangs, it assumed that the security problems in El Salvador, which were in part the result of gang violence and extortion, cannot be solved without some kind of involvement of gangs themselves. The endorsement of the truce process by some high level officials of the Salvadoran government and their willingness to take measures to support it, were key in creating the political space of the truce.

Over the past decades gangs have become influential non-state actors claiming a kind of ‘territorial control’ in a large number of (mostly marginalized) neighborhoods and with a significant capacity to use violence and to extract resources. Street gangs have existed for a long time in El Salvador, but its characteristics changed and the number of gang members steadily increased after the civil war came to an end in 1992. The new gang phenomenon has been deeply influenced by the massive migration of Salvadorans to the US. Returning youngsters from the US ‘imported’ the American gang culture into El Salvador and most local cliques were absorbed by gangs originating from the US; especially, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. In 2013, sources near the gangs estimated that there are around 60,000 gang members in the neighborhoods and approximately 10,000 in the penal system.

Governmental policies vis-a-vis gangs have changed over the past two decades. The general trend has been from a relative neglect in the 1990s, to an emphasis on zero-tolerance approaches at the beginning of the millennium, to a certain recognition that more integrated approaches are needed. However, there exist strong pressures in Salvadoran society to securitize gang policies, presenting the gangs and the threat to security they present as requiring extraordinary – often emergency – repressive measures. The Funes administration in El Salvador (2009-2014) initially sought to do the opposite and to desecuritize the gang policies of the previous right wing ARENA governments that it replaced, but soon resorted to repressive measures to deal with gangs. Therefore, the news that a truce had been signed in March 2012 came as a surprise, and so did the fact that the minister of Justice and Public Security had endorsed and supported the truce initiative.

In a recently published working paper we analyze the truce process that started, advanced and unraveled largely in a one and a half year period. We argue that what started as a small window of opportunity, eventually failed to materialize due to a general distrust in the gangs and government policies. The implicit recognition of ‘gang power’, which was part and parcel of the truce and the (implicit) assumption that those responsible for the violence should be involved in the reduction of it was viewed with skepticism by the media and a majority of the Salvadoran population. The government was accused of negotiating with criminals and terrorists and supporting a ‘pax mafiaso’. The inclusion of non-state actors in the development and implementation of a new security policy, and the ‘plurality’ of the truce initiative, were key points of contention in public debates.

In our paper we show how despite the widespread popular skepticism, the truce did actually count on substantial political support from the main political parties during the first year, until May-June 2013. However, this support was very fragile. The political endorsement for the truce was mostly the result of the initial spectacular reduction of homicides, with 41% in the months after the truce was signed. It proved hard to criticize these rather impressive results. However, this did not imply that it was  easy for the supporters of the truce to develop a coherent ‘pro truce frame’ that found resonance in Salvadoran society. And there was only limited capacity to build an infrastructure that supported the maintenance and continuation of the truce. The truce therefore remained highly vulnerable to critique. After the Public Prosecutor and the Catholic Church had heavily criticized the truce in April and May 2013, and in a context where the electoral campaign for the country’s presidency got going, political parties made a turnaround and started to renounce the initiative. In a very short period of time, the support for the truce evaporated and the window of opportunity of the initiative closed.

The case of the Salvadoran truce shows the complexities of an initiative that can be seen as an ad-hoc ‘plural security initiative’. The very fact that this was indeed a plural initiative, in which non-state armed actors and the government cooperated, was seen as unacceptable by many and even viewed as a new security threat in its own right. Thus, the very legitimacy of the initiative, and the credibility of the participants were questioned from the very beginning. This cannot come as a surprise, since the truce was largely developed and negotiated ‘backstage’, the exact terms and agreements were not known to the public at large, and mechanisms to monitor the initiative were lacking.

However, we argue in our paper that the statement that the truce has totally failed may be too bold. The truce was too complex a process to bring in such an overall negative verdict. The truce showed that both within the government and within gangs the support for the process was mixed, ranging from support, to skepticism and opposition. And although many aspects of the truce failed, it nevertheless yielded some interesting results that should be critically evaluated and assessed.

A key lesson of the Salvadoran truce is that the support for these kinds of ‘plural security initiatives’ are very limited and that a sizable reduction in homicide rates is not always enough to build a political platform that is able to garner support. A truce process whose outcome is the institutionalization of a form of hybrid security, was unacceptable to a majority of the Salvadorans. Initiating a truce process as a means to restore state control might be more acceptable. But this would require more transparency and clear rules stipulating the cooperation between government officials and gang structures, at local and national levels, and specifying how the rule of law will be restored, as well as how that process will be monitored and by whom.

This post builds on a new paper by Wim Savenije, available here.


Mukhtars in the middle: Connecting state, citizens and refugees


By Nora Stel

Lebanon’s political set-up differs significantly from that of the region’s monarchical and authoritarian countries. Its consociational system is both remarkably protracted in its sectarianism and distinctly volatile in its elite bargaining. Lebanese governance, consequently, is characterized by a multiplicity of (both state and non-state) political authorities and a plurality of (both de jure and de facto) political institutions. Lebanon, in short, can be considered a “hybrid political order” in which “diverse and competing authority structures, sets of rules, logics of order, and claims to power co-exist, overlap, and intertwine.”

In such a hybrid political order, authorities that can bridge the polarized political landscape and navigate the deadlocked bureaucracy and its informal parallel institutions are particularly important to maintain some form of stability and political coherence.  Such mediating authorities are most significant in the local space of the urban neighborhood where “the street” becomes increasingly detached from “the state”—or at least from any constructive connotation with stateness. While Beirut is the seat of government power, the city is fragmented and state authority is spatially contested in many of its neighborhoods. For instance, various political parties rather than state institutions control both the access to and the perception of many of the capital’s neighbourhoods. The institution of the mukhtar, which is often attributed a connecting and consensual quality, might be particularly relevant in this context – even more so under the current pressure exerted by the flow of refugees, and thegarbage crisis.

An Institution between Redundancy and Resilience

The mukhtar is an elected neighborhood- or village-level state representative. He (and in very exceptional cases, she) is responsible for issuing residence documents and personal status papers (granting birth and marriage certificates, preparing ID cards and passports, and authenticating photos). In a broader sense, he safeguards social relations in the community and represents his constituency vis-à-vis other state institutions. As such, it is the “lowest” and “localest,” but also the most proximate and spatially intimate tier of the Lebanese state structure. The institution, installed in an 1861 Ottoman administrative reform, now falls under the ministry of Interior and Municipalities. Nevertheless, it is organizationally independent from the municipality. Mukhtars directly report to the district governor (or qaimaqam). In the absence of substantial decentralization, this independence from the municipal administration enables mukhtars to function as a counterweight to mayors (but also generates competition between them).

In a comprehensive study of the status of mukhtars and their role in strengthening civil peace, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) highlighted the historical importance  of these leaders as community mediators. It concluded that, despite a continuous relegation of mukhtars’ tasks and responsibilities, their relevance as “reconciliation magistrates” still holds potency today. Yet, many observers argue that the post-civil war reinstallation and development of the municipal structure have reduced the relevancy of the mukhtar.

Under the Ottomans, the mukhtar primarily managed taxation and oversaw the (financial) affairs of the village or neighborhood. These responsibilities were further extended and codified in the “Mukhtar Law” issued in 1928 under the French Mandate. This law outlined the duties of the mukhtar in the realms of public administration, finance, real estate management, general security and justice as well as agriculture and public health. While the 1928 law was never amended significantly in a formal sense, the position of the mukhtar became marginalized during the civil war, and his work is currently limited to local administrative tasks, and social leadership.

Consequently, popular references nowadays often paint mukhtars as redundant “relics,” stewards of a hollowed-out institution, which has lost much of its traditional authority, and that largely attracts political and economic opportunists. My research findings, however, contradict such assumptions. In two separate research projects I was engaged in, mukhtars surfaced as crucial figures in local governance. The first research project, conducted through expert meetings, and in-depth interviews with local governance actors in 2015, regards a scoping study exploring neighborhood-level security arrangements in the urban setting of Beirut. The second project draws on ethnographic research, and in-depth interviews conducted between 2012 and 2014, to explore processes of local ordering around informal Palestinian “gatherings” in the suburban context of South Lebanon.

Based on these studies, this essay discusses the various roles mukhtars have played, are playing, or might play in Lebanon’s precarious governance. The spatial dimensions of mukhtars’ power and their socio-economic and political embedding in neighborhood localities are of particular importance in the following analysis. I argue that it is mukhtars’ physical presence at the local level that underlies their authority. It is their spatial proximity to, and engagement in, neighborhood events and relationships, that generates the social proximity needed for the institutional and territorial ordering of people’s most immediate environments. Although no longer involved in matters such as real estate management and local agricultural and industrial affairs, mukhtars are still tied to their locality by familial and/or property-owning ties that many other state representatives lack. Indeed, it is exactly because their ties with national orders are relatively ambiguous that mukhtars can locally play conciliatory and mediating roles. They are part of the state, but not directly associated with the dysfunctional central government by constituents. They are politicized, but arguably less so than many other state representatives. They have a formal bureaucratic position, but, in many cases, command informal types of loyalty as well.

Beirut: The Mukhtar as “State in the Neighborhood”

In exploring how security is negotiated in various urban neighborhoods, the mukhtar soon surfaced as a key stakeholder. Respondents in our interviews often mentioned mukhtars as crucial mediators in spousal or familial disputes, and street fights. Stressing the importance of spatial presence (and juxtaposing this with the alleged “absence of the state”), an elderly mukhtar from Naba’a indicated that his mere “being there” (on the streets) was often enough to diffuse escalating confrontations between youth. This ability stems from the view that mukhtars are (still) well placed to understand and recognize the interests of different parties and communities and to negotiate satisfactory compromises between them. In addition, mukhtars act as liaisons to the municipal police and the Internal Security Forces (ISF)—especially on behalf of individuals lacking substantial wasta. A mukhtar from Bourj el-Barajneh explained that a group of mukhtars from Beirut regularly meets with police commanders from their respective neighborhoods to share information. He said that when the police come to search a home, or to make an arrest, the mukhtar must be present as a witness and to ensure the respect of basic rights related to privacy and to gender seclusion. Such roles show the importance of the mukhtar for the state’s navigation of local spaces and traditions.

This mediating function between state and neighborhood works the other way around as well. A member of Beirut’s municipal council, despite his derogatory words about the pettiness of many mukhtars, nevertheless indicated that he needed the local mukhtar’s support in convincing a particular constituency of the merits of one of his pet projects. The mukhtar, in the council member’s account, was not merely a social gatekeeper (in the sense that he had to get the people “on board”), but also a “territorial” one as it was the mukhtar, who was expected to convene meetings between residents and municipal representatives, and thus facilitate physical access of the municipal councilor to the neighborhood’s residents.

Mukhtars usually command various forms of human and institutional capital, ranging from political connections and economic clout to local networks (such as active or honorary membership in family and clan diwans, business circles, non-governmental and civil society organizations and religious associations). These institutional resources and connections enable mukhtars to play a bridging role between the community, on the one hand, and state institutions on the other hand.

Most important of these institutional resources is the wielding of what was often dubbed “local knowledge.” Not all mukhtars wield the same social clout. Yet, a diverse range of respondents indicated that mukhtars’ closeness to the “local population,” their “knowledge of local life,” and their connections to “local politicians” are essential to their ability to regulate conflicts. One mukhtar concluded that residents’ feelings of safety stem from “social coherence,” and from “knowing each other.” Mukhtars are often at the heart of these networks in which “everyone knows everyone.” Most importantly, in this regard, is the notion of the “open house” (beit maftuh). The “open house” should be appreciated in the literal and spatial sense, as well as a social tradition. While the mukhtars encountered in the two studies had a separate office space, they all acknowledged that people were welcome to, and actually did, petition them at their private residence “24/7.” The mukhtar from Naba’a, for instance, was convinced he owed his position not so much to his political affiliations but to his families’ long-standing residence in the area and his reputation as a streetwise strongman who knew how to engage various neighborhood “thugs.”

Party affiliations undoubtedly play an important role in mukhtar elections. At the same time, the mukhtar from Bourj el-Barajneh found that parties generally do not interfere in mukhtar elections as much as they do in municipal and parliamentary elections. Residents, too, consider the political affiliation of a mukhtar important but not a defining feature of his position. Who the parties “elect to be elected” mukhtar appears to depend on social as much as political credentials. During such vetting procedures, what matters is not merely what the person has done for the party, but also his linkages to the neighborhood.

In addition, being a mukhtar is a lucrative business: mukhtars often ask for disproportionate payments for the administrative tasks they perform. Yet, in other cases, mukhtars bring resources to the community, waive fees for particularly vulnerable individuals or organize communal events.

It is thus the mukhtars’ physical presence (on both private and public titles) in the neighborhood, their visibility and approachability, which constitutes their authority. This physical embedding in a local community coupled with the function’s institutional centrality—all mukhtars interviewed stressed that mukhtars formed the link between a citizen and the state “from birth till death”—make mukhtars unavoidable. Mukhtars often sit precisely at the intersection of all dynamics that connect the population of a neighborhood, political representatives, and state institutions. Again, this has literal and spatial implications: mukhtars indeed “sit” as often as possible in the offices, homes, street corners, coffee shops, and bars that link them to “their” villages or neighborhoods.

At the same time, it is exactly their political, economic, and institutional ties to the more central echelons of power in Beirut that make mukhtars relevant to the people. It is the formal back up of the state and the informal back up of the parties that grant mukhtars much of their local authority as mediators and liaisons in the first place. Interestingly, however, it appears that the less mukhtars openly invoke these national sources of power, the more resilient their position in the neighborhood becomes. As the mukhtar from Naba’a explained, his role is to de-escalate and contain, to keep things local, and prevent them from spilling over to other localities—an endeavor that is of interest to both neighborhood residents, and central state authorities.

The South: The Mukhtar as Bridgehead to Refugee Spaces and Communities

In local governance arrangements in and around informal Palestinian settlements in South Lebanon, mukhtars also stood out as crucial authorities. Thus mukhtars not only facilitate interactions between the Lebanese state and its citizens, but also function as an interface between the state and non-citizens, here Palestinian refugees. This is especially relevant for Lebanon’s forty-plus “gatherings” which are located on Lebanese land that lack an official UNRWA camp status. Throughout my research, in the gathering ofShabriha, it was clear that the mukhtar in the neighboring village gave vital support to the gathering’s Popular Committee.  This signifies a potentially unique role of the mukhtar in dealing with “facts on the ground,” and in extending what is officially “state governance” into “extra-state spaces,” which are characterized by a deliberate physical and institutional absence of the state.

When, for instance, in 2011, checkpoints were installed around Shabriha to prevent the gathering from joiningthe wave of illegal construction during that year’s governmental vacuum, the mukhtar helped Shabriha’s residents circumvent these blockades. He thus helped lessen the territorial separation implemented by the ISF. During the waste crisis that befell the South in 2012, it was the mukhtar who brokered a deal between Shabriha and the new recycling factory (that initially did not want to treat “Palestinian waste”). When tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians escalated in the summer of 2012, with all the sectarian connotations that entailed, it was the mukhtar’s “open house” that brought the various sides together again after a period in which “no one from one side [of Shabriha] went to the other side.” In line with this, the mukhtar was often characterized as ‘the person on the ground,” “the man in the middle,” or “the consensus guy.”

The mukhtar’s constructive role was not limited to supporting Shabriha’s Popular Committee inside the gathering, but it also entailed linking the gathering with relevant authorities in the region. He facilitated the communication with a reluctant municipality and police station and hosted social and cultural events that brought together Palestinian and Lebanese communal leaders. Shabriha’s mukhtar was particularly influential due to his personal track-record, the legacy of his father and the concomitant support of his prominent family/clan, his extensive connections with the Amal party, his considerable wealth that allowed him to perform administrative services without charging fees, and his position as head of the regional mukhtar council. His bridgehead position between the Palestinian refugee community, and the region’s Lebanese authorities is strongly linked to his excellent connections to the Lebanese state apparatus, and its representatives. But it also, paradoxically, rests on his perceived independence from these institutions.

As in Beirut, then, it is the combination of national, political, and institutional power, and local proximity that grants Shabriha’s mukhtar his authority. Such local proximity, again, manifests itself in “local knowledge,” but also more physically in hosting communal events and enforcing territorial surveillance. Lebanese respondents widely credited the mukhtar in Shabriha was widely accredited for maintaining a tight watch on his village and the Palestinian gathering, occasionally installing informal checkpoints and commanding a network of informants. This spatial control, interestingly, seemed to be encouraged rather than resented by Palestinians. A communal leader from Shabriha told me that “before we refer to our leadership, he [the mukhtar] must know everything,” thus indicating how they often prioritize briefing the mukhtar over their Palestinian superiors. At the same time, the mukhtar’s constant hosting of and participation in special occasions—ranging from religious festivities to project inaugurations and funeral and weddings receptions—added a more benign side to such surveillance. This reiterates the enduring significance of the more ‘traditional’ or communal aspects of mukhtars’ legitimacy that the UNDP report describes as including a mukhtar’s “family and nobility, his good biography, his generosity and services provided to the villagers, his ‘open’ house that was considered the interface of the village and which received visitors and provided them with food, drink and accommodations in many cases.”

While the relations of Shabriha’s mukhtar with the Palestinian gathering were unusually extensive, similar dynamics surfaced for other gatherings. A mukhtar in Maashouk, for instance, proudly told me he was nicknamed the “mukhtar of the Palestinians” because of his expertise in dealing with the complicated paperwork facing Palestinian residents in Lebanon. A previous mukhtar from Burghliye was also widely known as particularly apt in helping Palestinians navigate the administrative challenges of protracted refugeeness and informal residence. As such, he used to service not merely the gathering of Burghliye, but also Palestinians living in Qasmiye, Wasta, Kfar Bedda and Jim Jim—spaces that municipal representatives routinely (and conveniently) consider outside their mandate.

Reflections: How Mukhtars Can Help Connect State, Citizen and Refugee

The studies discussed in this essay did not explicitly investigate the role of mukhtars in local governance. Rather, mukhtars surfaced as crucial stakeholders in local governance in an unsolicited fashion. This fact alone shows the significance of this figure in the political and social life of urban neighborhoods and villages. The experiences and positions of the three mukhtars interviewed in Beirut in 2015, and the seven mukhtars consulted in South Lebanon in 2012, 2013 and 2014 are not necessarily representative of all mukhtars in Lebanon. These specific cases give an insight on how mukhtars could function in Lebanon, rather than reflecting how they do function. Two implications of mukhtars’ unique potential to invigorate Lebanon’s governance structures merit specific mention here.

First, through their inherently localized presence, mukhtars can play a central role in neighborhood- and village-level governance. While Lebanon struggles with over-spilling regional wars, governmental deadlock,surging socio-economic inequality, reemerging militias, and an unprecedented influx of refugees, the country’s crime levels remain comparatively low. Mukhtars’ contribution to neighborhoods’ or villages’ social coherence might play a role in maintaining  this counter-intuitive local security. Mukhtars can also be instrumental in salvaging what is left of people’s connections with “the state.” As put by the UNDP: “mukhtars are in direct contact with their communities and are aware of their needs, challenges and aspirations. Therefore, the mukhtars are naturally placed to be effective mediators among groups in their local community and between their respected local communities and central government.” In the urban setting of Beirut, characterized by territorial segregation and political turf battles, such mediation is especially in demand.

Second, mukhtars can extend state governance to refugee communities institutionally trapped in “extra-state” spaces, and mediate contact between citizens and refugees. This has been particularly evident in the example of the gathering of Shabriha and other Palestinian settlements I studied in the South. In a series of pertinent working papers, the Common Space Initiative documented similar dynamics regarding North Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, urging the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, and the Lebanese government to “give more prerogatives to mukhtars of the region to play officially a mediation role between Palestinian refugees and the government to solve all issues and problems.” As was demonstrated by a mukhtar from Beirut’s Zoqaq el-Blat neighborhood, who was issuing documents that help to “regularize” the Syrian presence in the neighborhood, this role need not be restricted to the country’s Palestinian refugees, but could be extended to Syrian refugees as well—as also recognized by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In conclusion, mukhtars are deeply embedded in Lebanon’s power relations. They are invested in, and part of the country’s hybrid political order, with all the sectarianism and clientelism this entails. Yet, the institution’sbridging social capital, and its potential to guard, and embody some rudimentary form of public space that is rare in Lebanon is evident. However modest their position, mukhtars constitute an indispensible grassroots component of the administrative, and social glue that holds Lebanon’s different urban fiefdoms, and extra-state spaces together. Considering Lebanon’s virulent governance and refugee crises, therefore, much is to be said for bolstering one of Lebanon’s oldest, and perhaps most pragmatic, state institutions.

Nora Stel is Assistant Professor in Governance and Human Rights at Maastricht School of Management. Her visit to Beirut with Plural Security Insights was made possible by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law; earlier fieldwork in the Palestinian gatherings was supported by Yale University’s Program on Governance and Local Development in the Arab World, the Hendrik Muller Fonds and the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation. This article originally appeared on Jadaliyya.

How violence is manifested in Nairobi’s slums


By Peter Alexander Albrecht

Structural violence is a mainstay of social life for many inhabitants in Nairobi’s slums, where poverty, combined with the need to make a living, force many people to choose a criminal career. The permanent livelihood insecurity and lack of opportunity that many people face, and must find ways to navigate, in turn impacts directly on the levels of physical violence that they experience. A 2006 survey noted “as many as 63% of slum households report that they do not feel safe inside their settlement […] At least one person [per] household [reported] actual experience of a criminal incident over the previous twelve months”.

As explained by a young man in one of Nairobi’s oldest slum, Mathare: ‘In every family there is a gangster, a prostitute and a street kid.’ Moreover, many households are single parent, and children are from an early age expected to contribute financially to sustain the family. In short, overall social inequality, and the poverty and social marginalisation that underpin it, contribute to a context in slum areas where physical violence is expected, and even accepted as a condition of social life. On the flipside, this also means that inhabitants in an area like Mathare use aggression as a survival strategy, and a way of asserting oneself: ‘they know you are gangster – they must know that you are aggressive.’

Unsurprisingly, state-sanctioned policing plays a central, but also ambivalent role in how security is experienced by the population. On one level, they are considered an aggressor. ‘The way they [i.e., the police] treat you in estates [where the middle class lives]’, one interviewee in Mathare noted, ‘is different from the slums. The people in the estates, they are asked, while in the ghetto they are brutalized.’ And indeed, ‘the main aggressor,’ it was noted, ‘is the government and that is the police and the city council.’ This is reflected in levels of extra-judicial killings that are considered to be both high and systematized, and connected to issues of land-grabbing, which in turn involve collaboration between landowners, chiefs, the city council and the police. In 2015 (January – December), the Independent Medical-Legal Unit (IMLU) recorded 126 deaths at the hands of Kenyan law enforcement, the majority taking place in Nairobi. Three-quarters (77%) of the victims were summarily executed, disproportionately targeting men.

In turn, extra-judicial killings relate to the general ethos that is perceived to prevail within the police. As one human rights NGO worker noted, the ‘police has never changed, they still insist that their main target is the people; people are the enemy.’ Hence, the saying in Swahili, which remains prevalent within the police today, especially in poor urban settlements: ‘adui wa polisi ni raia, rafiki wa polisi ni bunduki’ – ‘the enemy of the police is the public, the friend of the police is the gun.’ A similar sentiment was expressed in Mathare, as one interviewee noted referring to police brutality: ‘the system is the same that the colonial government used.’ Public-police relations are further complicated by an intricate and sometimes symbiotic relationship between the police and criminals where the latter in some cases bribe the former. This makes marginalized groups exceptionally vulnerable: ‘when they [i.e., the criminals] outgrow their purpose, they are killed by the police.’

Police brutality and community violence/crime rates in general have had a number of practical consequences in how inhabitants of Mathare navigate security. First, local groups have started to actively pursue criminals and hand them over to the police to limit police presence in the slums. Second, inhabitants seek to ‘export’ crime outside the area in which they live. As one interviewee put it: ‘we try to bring change to the community, no more crime, no more violence – go and do your bad things, not within the slums, outside the slums, and we will hide them [the criminals]. They go to the middle class.’

One another level, side-by-side with the grievances against the police, there is also an understanding, even some appreciation, of the police’s violent response to crime and criminals. It is a means to an end in a state system where bribes often get criminals released from detention if they are not dealt with immediately. It was a general assumption among interviewees that poverty causes crime and that it has been on the increase, which in turn makes police brutality more necessary, if not acceptable. ‘The public [in general],’ one NGO worker noted, ‘has that kind of anger against the criminals, so when the police shoot, whether innocent or not, they assume that something good has happened, because they have been terrorized by the criminals.’ This sentiment was to some extent prevalent both inside and outside the slums. It was directly linked to perceived weaknesses of the judiciary in terms of corruption, but also in terms of its slow pace and efficient handling of court cases. Thus, violence, also when resulting in death, may in certain circumstances be considered quick and efficient.

This rationale was equally expressed with respect to mob justice and lynching. In Kangemi – an area on the outskirts of Nairobi with a little over 100,000 residents – lynching was described as a common occurrence, taking place up to an estimated three times per month. In Kangemi the police was described as inefficient rather than violent, and mob justice was considered a community response: ‘the area where I come from, we depend on one another, because if we go to the police, it takes time before they come, and if any crime is committed, they come when everything is finished. So we have a system: if we catch a thief, he is not taken to the police, and we take justice into own hands.’ Rarely will the police make arrests following a lynching. ‘I never saw a follow-up,’ one inhabitant of Kangemi noted, ‘the police come and take the body, write a state, take a photo – just to show that they are concerned.’

What the inhabitants of Nairobi’s slums are left with is a fundamental reliance on personalized or localized security arrangements against both internal and external threats. This does not mean that the provision of security is disorganized, but it does mean that multiple actors simultaneously assert claims on the use of force, and often does so in a violent manner.

This blog post is based on research conducted in Nairobi during March as part of the ‘Plural Security Insights’ project. It draws on data collected during fieldwork for the report Hustling for Security: managing plural security in Nairobi’s poor urban settlements.

City profiles coming soon


With support from NWO-WOTRO, Plural Security Insights is leading a six-month comparative research project, Informing policy on plural security provision in urban contexts: Comparative insights from Lebanon, Kenya and Tunisia. This project is intended to foster more effective security and rule of law policy and practice by producing empirically-based insights on how structures of local urban governance might interact with local security providers in ways that deliver improved outcomes for people. 

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Who’s afraid of plural security?


Favelas in Brazil, high-risk communities in Trinidad, sectarian neighborhoods in Beirut, war-torn Mogadishu, and Nigeria’s second most populous city, Kano: all of these places host multiple actors making claims on the legitimate use of force. The complexity and geographic spread of this topic provided rich substance for a recent event on Plural Security in the City. Bart Weijs provides a quick take on the event.

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