Gatekeepers in Mogadishu, Somalia provided more than 460 newly displaced families with just two tents, which cover an area of about 600 meters only. Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI — After delivering aid to internally displaced camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu earlier this year, in an area known as KM 13, the government-run Somali National Drought Relief Committee followed up and found that the situation had not improved for the camp’s inhabitants. Starvation and illness persisted at high rates, despite food and medical deliveries. The aid workers then started to see the same food and medical aid they had delivered to residents popping up for sale in the local markets.

The committee soon discovered that intermediaries had intercepted the aid and turned it around for profit, Dr. Hodan Ali, senior medical advisor with the Somali National Drought Committee, told Devex.

As more Somalis flee food scarcity and insecurity, humanitarian groups are increasingly concerned about gaining access to the internally displaced. The biggest impediment remains militant group Al-Shabaab, which continues to control swaths of the nation’s territory.

But another, less visible obstacle, centers around “gatekeepers,” self-appointed middlemen who serve as negotiators between IDPs and the humanitarian sector.

Gatekeepers, also referred to as mukuel mathow, or “black cats,” can include landowners, district officials or businessmen who control access to land used by IDPs, creating makeshift camps that they manage, in exchange for some kind of payment, whether it be cash or a portion of the aid received by IDPs. They dilute aid flows, determining who receives it, and can restrict access of entry and departure to the camps. Sometimes, they provide services such as security, latrines and water trucks.

“There has, to a certain extent, been a commodification of displacement,” said Gerard Waite, the International Organization for Migration’s Somalia chief of mission. “It creates an unusual layer of difficulty in ensuring that assistance flows to these camps.”

Some gatekeepers go as far as to send trucks into drought-stricken areas to collect desperate people and transport them to their property in urban areas, where they then appeal to the humanitarian sector for aid, said Ali.

“When displaced people are in these surroundings, they are completely at the mercy of these merciless people,” she said. “It’s modern day slavery.”

As the number of IDPs in the country continues to mount, gatekeepers hold enormous sway, at times restricting the ability to provide and effectively monitor humanitarian relief, said Waite. Dealing with gatekeepers has largely become a necessary evil for the humanitarian sector in Somalia, but some actors have developed strategies to deal with the issue. Experts say that the best long-term solution is to empower local governments to take more ownership over the camps, while in the meantime improving the accountability of the gatekeepers.

Complicated relationship

The gatekeeper dilemma is unlikely to go anywhere soon. An estimated 2 million people are now internally displaced within Somalia, including those who fled before the current drought, many of them living in urban areas, mostly Mogadishu and Baidoa, according to the International Organization for Migration. 

According to the U.N., Mogadishu has one of the highest IDP concentrations on the African continent. Insecurity in this setting, particularly on the outskirts of the city, means international humanitarian agencies have limited access to IDPs, forcing them to rely on remote service delivery.

The prominence of gatekeepers has risen in the past two decades in the absence of government institutions, according to a report from the Rift Valley Institute and the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies. The famine of 2011 introduced a “boom time” for Mogadishu’s gatekeepers, it said. There are currently about 130 to 140 gatekeepers in the city, according to consultancy firm Tana Copenhagen. These gatekeepers have varying levels of influence and roles.

Gatekeepers are often connected to dominant clans in a region, exploiting displaced people from minority groups, according to a report released Tuesday from Refugees International. The report recommends that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which leads protection efforts in the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster in Somalia, drive analysis of local power balances and then work with the cluster’s Humanitarian Country Team, to inform the response around that analysis so that aid is not placed into the hands of individuals aiming to profit from the system. UNHCR plans to deploy an information management officer to support data gathering and analysis.

Despite the frustrations involved with the gatekeeper structure, there is also recognition in the humanitarian sector of the pivotal services that some of these gatekeepers provide to IDPs. In the absence of government-run camps, gatekeepers provide access to land and sometimes private militias for security.  

“Gatekeepers provide a level of service and security that no other actor is able to provide in places like Mogadishu,” said Abdurahman Sharif, director of the Somalia NGO Consortium.

In one effort to make the most of the arrangement, the U.K.’s Department for International Development has funded a project aimed at pushing for more accountability in the gatekeeper relationship. Implemented in 2016, Tana Copenhagen trained 10 selected gatekeepers and introduced a formal certification process to recognize the informal camp managers who are making efforts to respect the rights and protection needs of IDPs. The project then assesses progress in areas including reduction in violence, efforts to advocate against child marriage and awareness on female genital mutilation.

The government’s role

The International Organization for Migration is working on capacity building programs with the government of Somalia to encourage it to establish camps that it controls, providing security and fluid access to international organizations, in place of the gatekeeper-run camps.

Earlier this year, IOM and the UNHCR created a Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster partially in response to the gatekeepers phenomenon. It is working to improve the situation by training gatekeepers on humanitarian principles and setting up complaint and feedback systems so that displaced individuals can provide feedback on the services they receive. The cluster also aims to ensure that IDPs have access to information about the situation without having it first been manipulated by a middleman.

This month, the cluster held a workshop that brought together gatekeepers, U.N. agencies, NGOs and government agencies to discuss how they can work together to ensure that better services are provided and access to the camps is not blocked.

Ali said that Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre has announced that individuals serving as gatekeepers would be prosecuted, which has helped to deter some types of activity. But it will be difficult to police this, because many of the gatekeepers operate on Mogadishu’s periphery, where security concerns complicate monitoring, she said.

After the Somali National Drought Relief Committee realized that the aid they were delivering was ending up in the local markets, the committee began working with the regional government to set up gated camps, with restricted access. The IDPs were then transferred to these camps. To prevent the commodification of the food aid, the committee set up kitchens that served only hot food, which is harder to resell in a market. The health personnel began to bring in all of the equipment and medicine they needed into the camps every day, leaving nothing behind at the end of their shift.

But there are still regional administrations and local municipalities without the capacity to take ownership over the management of IDPs. In such cases, NGOs and international agencies are largely forced to interact with the gatekeepers in order to provide aid.

“It’s whatever works at this point,” said Ali. “I think the security issues circumvent a lot of policies from being put into practice. Humanitarian groups want to take the route with the least conflicts.”

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.