The Grand Yoff popular security committee in Dakar (Senegal)

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The problem of urban safety in “disadvantaged urban areas” and the emergence of popular security movements: The Grand Yoff Popular Security Committee in Dakar (Senegal).

Presented by

 (Urban manager, Specialist Consultant for developing cities)
 (Mediator/social communicator, supervisor of the Grand Yoff Vigilance Committee)

April 2000

The development of African cities (especially sub-Saharan cities) has been happening extremely quickly during recent years.  The urban population growth rates between 1960 and 1980 were three times the highest rates experienced in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.  In fact, “the population of sub-Saharan Africa tripled between 1980 and 1990, and the number of people living in cities increased eight fold, rising from 20 million to close to 155 million.  Even with annual rises dropping in the 90s, there will probably be 260 million people living in cities in the year 2000 and one African in two will live in a city by 2020”.
This rapid urbanisation is beginning to have a number of impacts on people’s daily lives in terms of access to basic services and to work amongst other things.
As a result of financial difficulties, violent protests and the “urban crisis”, the devaluation of the CFA franc, structural changes in society, unequal exchanges and exterior pressure, urban poverty has risen sharply especially in the large neighbourhoods on the edges of cities.
In fact, this fast and uncontrolled urbanisation in developing cities has led to urban violence reaching worrying levels in many areas.
The “Safer Cities Programme” is part of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), and defines urban violence as “a multi-faceted phenomena which includes theft/damage of other people’s property, impoliteness, violent crimes, drug trafficking, domestic violence, and the trafficking of women and children.  Urban violence does not simply create a feeling of insecurity amongst the citizens but tears the social fabric of the cities, threatening the foundations of democratic institutions, eroding the social capital of the poorest people, and creating urban ghettos in the most disadvantaged areas.”  In the large African cities such as Lagos (Nigeria), Kinshasa (DRC) Abidjan (Ivory Coast) and Dakar (Senegal), violence and crime are becoming daily factors for the cities’ citizens.  In fact, not a day goes past without the press reporting an attack, an armed robbery or a theft.  In this way in these cities you can see thieves or supposed criminals in the midst of their work (attacks on the streets of Dakar, lynchings in the central market of Kinshasa, torture in Lagos, gang warfare etc.).
Besides these social issues, there is also a rise in a different type of violence which is widespread and has its own specific aims.  This can be in a political, trade unionist, military, ethnical or religious form.  This is the case when young people take to the streets to protest against a regime, as was the case throughout Africa in the 80s (Mali, Senegal) and more recently in the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Gambia.

Some types of violence are directed at foreigners and may be xenophobic (“foreigners considered as scapegoats for the failure of nationals who are forced into poverty and unemployment etc.”), racist or nationalist demands to have access to the “nation’s wealth” (as is the case in Zimbabwe with the land disputed between natives and white farmers).  Violence can come from those who are supposed to be ensuring the security of people and property (i.e. the revolt in the former Zaire in 1991 where the security forces claimed a rise in their salary).
These waves of violence can be widespread and lead to civil wars, urban guerrilla fights (Brazzaville, Congo), or lead to a violent change in regime.  In this document we are only interested in at the forms of insecurity that the PNUD defines as related to crimes against property, impoliteness, violent crimes, and drug trafficking.  Amongst these crimes, we will limit ourselves to a phenomenon common across Senegal and which is known as “armed aggression”.
Therefore, it is necessary above all to see how this form of urban violence arises in the poor neighbourhoods of Africa (i.e. the example of Dakar, Senegal) and to analyse the local responses, particularly those from the local people.
In order to illustrate this, we will see how young people from Dakar, in the form of a committee, make it their aim to ensure that their district is safe.

After having briefly described Dakar’s example of urbanisation, we will now look at a Local Security Committee before looking at the lessons that can be learnt from this and reflecting on future paths to take.

 I. DAKAR: “an urban giant”:
Dakar has a total population estimated in 1988 to be 682,489, with 52% of people under 20, an active population representing 44.7% of the total population, and with the commune de Dakar covering an area of 82.5 km2.  Dakar is bordered by the Pikine Department and by the Atlantic Ocean.  Without room to expand, the region is feeling the population rise.
Forming part of the most densely populated region in Senegal, the commune holds the record for the highest density with 8,303 people/km2, greater than that of the Dakar region which has 2,707 people/Km2, although the national average is only 35 people/Km2.  Certain areas of the city, located on the edge are heavily populated.  They normally comprise neighbourhoods which are known as “popular” due to the way they were built, the conditions their residents live in, and in particular the density, which provides this nickname.  This is the case for the neighbourhood of Grand Yoff which had a population in 1988 of 43,750, with a total of 2,901 houses, each one housing on average 15 people.  Houses may shelter several families and are commonly called “home” by their residents.  With an average area of 150m2, the limited size of these homes is apparent, but residents are isolated in these neighbourhoods which are built around narrow, un-lit streets and dead ends (ideal locations for attacks).  With low schooling levels, an “authority crisis” (parents, State, society), employment and under-employment endemic in society, the residents must struggle by themselves.
Throughout Dakar today, popular committees can be seen taking responsibility for ensuring the safety of neighbourhoods, depending on financial contributions, help with production, volunteers and commercialisation.
The residents of Grand Yoff who are not part of such organisations recognise the vigilance committees of such organisations in the Djidah neighbourhood.

II. The district of GRAND YOFF and the constraints of ‘peripheral urbanisation’:

 Ø Geographical Location:

Grand Yoff is an urban area situated on the immediate border of Dakar within its expansion zone.
Recently established as a local community ( Law 96-06 on the local communities code), the commune of Grand Yoff is bordered:
– to the North by the airport approach road, between the Patte d’oie roundabout and the junction at the marketplace
– to the South by the Front de Terre road and the Hann junction
– to the East by the motorway, between the Hann junction and the Patte d’Oie roundabout
– to the west by the Voie de Dégagement Nord road (VDN) until it meets the Front de Terre road.

Ø History of the area:

Formerly farming and pasture land for the Lebous traditional village of Yoff, Grand Yoff experienced large urban growth similar to the large shanty-towns in the developing world.  A “spontaneous” zone for families who left the Senegalese capital in the 60s, Grand Yoff ended up becoming the “overflow” district for Dakar and the “arrival area” for people migrating from the countryside.  Its geographical position half way between the city centre and the large outskirts of the city makes it a “central district” for the nearby island of Cap-Vert due to accessibility through good transport connections.  From the image of the “poor district” which originally characterised it, Grand Yoff quickly changed into an “average district” where people from all levels of society and professions lived together.  You can find there practically every ethnic group in Senegal (including people from the neighbouring countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Guinea) and the main religions of Islam and Christianity, which exist together in an exemplary fashion.
The popular economy, or the “informal sector” is well developed in Grand Yoff, with a dynamic market, a number of other unofficial commercial areas as well as several crafts and services (carpenters, tailors, masons, mechanics, etc.)  This sector, a large employer and integral part of the local economy, continues to fill the “zero deficit” from industry (there are few small/medium businesses/industry).  We can safely say that today a large number of flat owners in the area are first generation immigrants (from Europe) and that the native young people have followed the path of immigration that their ancestors took by emigrating to destinations like the USA.  All of this helps to strengthen the image of the neighbourhood.  The socio-demographic evolution is therefore evident by the construction of large tower blocks with represent large private investment.  Despite regular efforts on the part of the local population, they still face multiple problems with local development and trying to improve their quality of live.

In this way there are still weaknesses in the local financing and investment, there are problems with youth unemployment, with low school rates and juvenile delinquency, stagnant water, household rubbish is piling up, and there is a general inadequate urban infrastructure.  It is in this context of major constraints to development that the local people have tried to find solutions relative to the local authorities and find technical and methodological support from NGOs Enda Third World and GRAF.

Ø A dynamic analysis focussing on the local potential:
Local infrastructure and facilities:

* Health:
– 1 general hospital
– 4 health clinics (1 for every 30,843 people)
– 1 maternity clinic
– 4 pharmacies (1 pharmacy for every 30,843 people)
– 3 private clinics
– 1 health education service (1 education and training service for 2,355 young people)
– 1 Re-education Centre for Handicapped children.
– 1 Islamic Social Centre.

 * Education and training:
– 21 primary schools, of which 15 are private and 6 are state
 – 4 secondary schools (general)
– 6 socio-education centres
– 2 professional training centres

 * Sports and Culture:
– 8 football pitches
– 6 basketball courts
– 2 youth centres
Therefore 1 facility for every 2,355 young people.

* Other services:

– 3 markets
– 1 cinema screen
– 7 large mosques
– 32 small mosques
– 2 churches
– 1 civil centre
– 1 police station
– 2 police and armed police barracks.

Grand Yoff is well served by two roads which bisect the area as well as many smaller roads.  This makes the sub-districts more easily accessible, particularly via public transport (‘rapid coaches’), whose prices are affordable for people even on very low incomes.  These facilities greatly help improve the residents’ quality of life.

Human resources and activities:
The total population is estimated to be over 123,372 people (1.47% of the total population of Senegal) with a high percentage of young people (63%), women (57%) and Muslims (75%).
This population is still generally characterised by:
– chronic under-employment
– poverty, which reaches all levels of society
– low schooling levels (high number of beggars, children living on the streets) and a high level of illiteracy (the illiteracy level amongst women in 1995 was estimated to be 78%)
– a high mobility level (emigration to Africa, Europe, USA),
– a dynamism and an incomparable ingenuity (a dynamic ‘informal’ sector)
– a heterogeneity (regional and national ethnic mosaic)
– a love for their neighbourhood (solidarity amongst the native residents)
– a dynamic youth (1 renowned football team) which is also studious (Grand Yoff remains a centre for higher education).

The image that a good number of Senegalese have of Grand Yoff is that of a large swarming suburb which is animated even in middle of the night (and even has bank holidays as working days!)
Some of the sub-districts like Harafat have the image of ‘illegal neighbourhoods’ where all the criminals from the capital live.  Alcohol flows through these ‘wastelands’, where music plays to the rhythm of women practicing the oldest profession in the world.


The following examples, taken from the national newspaper ‘Le Soleil’, illustrate the problem of armed violence in Grand-Yoff.  “After the relative calm of March, armed violence rose dramatically in Grand- Yoff with a high number of attacks carried out in the period 4th-9th April 2000.  In this way, on the eve of the national holiday, a soldier working for the president was assaulted by eight men armed with machetes who stole his mobile phone and 15,000 CFA francs, whilst he was on his way home.”
“The day after, 5th April, a certain B. Sané, from the district of Maka III in Grand Yoff, was suddenly encircled by a group of people and attacked near to the “Mor Fall” primary school, whilst he was on his way to see a friend.  Injured in the head by his assailants, B. Sané was also robbed of a document folder containing money.”
“As for another unfortunate victim, Y. Diattara, who was heading from the ‘Patte d’Oie’ towards the ‘Millionaires’ City’ (still in the Grand Yoff area), he was hit on the shoulders simply so that the individual could steal his mobile phone.”
“The attackers didn’t rest, striking again by attacking a Nigerian national on 6th April at around 9pm.”
“Shoemaker A. I. Emegwlu wasn’t able to do anything when confronted with a group of people armed with knives who stole from him 15,000 CFA francs, as well as his passport.”
“And D. Mendy was the target for three individuals who attacked him whilst he was leaving a bar in the neighbourhood, and stole his wallet, his shoes, his glasses and his national identity card.”
“The number of attacks in Grand Yoff must have been very high on the night of 9th April as F.  Diédhiou returning home with his wife on a motorbike, was followed by three individuals also on a motorbike. Stalked by his attackers, his motorbike was forcefully stolen from him without him being able to see his attackers, who injured his hand.” 
“G. Casset, an employee at ASECNA had his mobile phone stolen around 12:30am by armed men after they attacked him”. 
“Ms A. Cissé had a similar experience at around 6:10 am close to Grand Yoff General Hospital.”
“B. Ndao, a driver was attacked by six armed men, who stole 75,000 CFA francs and his driving licence at around 9pm.”  
“B. Fall, a fire-fighter, was the victim of a violent theft not far from the DJIDA pharmacy where 7 men, stole the sum of 35,000 CFA francs, a cheque book and his watch.”  

These examples show how the level of violent attacks has risen sharply, happening in any place, at any time and to anyone, as if the attackers do not fear anything.  The attackers are normally groups armed with knives, but the leader of the youths more than often will also have a gun.
And what are the reasons that have led to this phenomenon?

Causes of violence:

There may be many different causes, however the main ones are listed here:
– Severe poverty
– crises (economic, social – parental crisis, a social crisis, a lack of national authority, non-respect for institutions)
– Endemic unemployment, a ‘frustrated’ generation which feels like it has been sacrificed and which is trying to carry out some sort of “balancing out”
A weak state, decaying services, obsolete police forces and court systems (police without resources and with corrupt officers)
– Globalisation, the ‘hip hop’ phenomena
– Drugs, alcohol
– the uncontrolled movement of weapons, especially knives
– a sort of “impunity at the high levels” that ends up having consequences on the people’s level (i.e. with unemployed people)
– young unemployed people trying to find easy answers, “undermining authority”
– inadequate communication between governments and local authorities: 2 speeds
It is with a ‘fragmented society’ and when there is complete insecurity that young people try to find ways to end the crisis through “making the areas safer” by using ‘popular brigades’ known as ‘the district security committee’.

IV. Presentation of the Security Committee in the Djidah district:
The creation of the committee:
On the initiative of some residents, mostly youths, a request for support was addressed to a Non Governmental Organisation which has offices in the neighbourhood.  After several meetings, a Local Development Committee was created in 1997 in which local people, after having been trained by the NGO, took part.  In order to cover all of the sub-districts which make up the area, the local committee was divided into 12 sectors.
The objectives of the Local Development Committee are to fight against the following:
 – poverty
 – insecurity
 – unsanitary conditions
 – unemployment (especially young men and women).

This popular initiative has at its helm a resourceful person who co-ordinates the activities.  On location visits were organised to both inform and raise awareness with the families and also to carry out a census of the number of houses that are in the district of Djidah (including the sub-districts of Djidah 1, 2 and 3).  This census showed that there are 76 small sectors with a total of 407 houses.  By taking the average of 10 people per house, we can estimate the population of Djidah to be over 4,000 with a high percentage of young people (with more young girls than boys).
These surveys allowed databases to be created for each zone, to outline the limitations of each area and that the local residents have, and to show what “the main needs of the people” are.  This information (“complaints”) was passed on to the support organisations, i.e. the NGO Enda Graf, and advised the need for the following:
– the launch of a local savings and loan bank to support local initiatives, especially women
– a training centre ( “recovery” for young people during the holidays)
– a French-Arabic school
– a cooperative association for elderly people
– support for young women getting jobs (shops, launderettes, hair dressers, etc.)
– making the district safe.
This popular initiative was brought to the knowledge of the city authorities, who only having recently taken control of the area, wanted to have influence in all large scale local initiatives, going as far as involving their political wards and local elected representatives (there is a troubling coincidence between the number of political wards and the number of Local Development Committee Zones – both being 12).  This “political reclamation” was not appreciated by certain local people (local residents, associations, the support organisations).
Nevertheless the city council launched a commission in charge of the district’s security.
The commission is also going to support the division of the area into 12 zones so it can introduce its “policy” of local security management.  As part of this strategy, the Mayor appears to want to support a popular initiative which involves the militants, whilst avoiding officially being involved and financially supporting the scheme.  Instead, the commission will provide a number of resources (whistles, camouflaged military-style uniform, torches, and membership forms signed by the Mayor’s representative).
Recruiting members of these groups occurs at the local level in each zone and is led by the steering committee, which in turn sends them to the commune or to an area where they will receive ‘training’ from volunteers (former members of the armed forces living in the area).  This involves physical exercise to build up muscle strength and endurance, introducing them to martial arts (self defence), teaching them discipline, and reminding them of the principles of security and prudence.
The steering committee in each zone is composed of a representative of the area, a troop leader, and a local elected representative on the behalf of the city council security commission.
The mission of this committee is to:
– recruit more members
– train the members
– monitor and protect the area

Despite the fears that young people, who even with their good will are not trained policemen, would be too zealous, the President of the security committee underlines the fact that his organisation has a good relationship with the local authorities, especially the police.
As he said “it’s up to us to apprehend thieves and to arrest Indian cannabis traffickers by working with the police, who greatly respect us”.  Asked about the quality of the vigilance committee’s services, a woman stated that “ever since these young people began watching over our safety, we have slept much more soundly”.
However, these positive comments shouldn’t hide the fact that there are certain faults with the vigilance committees, as only the courts have the right to punish those breaking the law.
Moreover, the popular role of the vigilance committees should be better defined and more limited (persuasion, informing the police about suspects, raising awareness) whilst being supervised by the national police force.  A legal status and a legal and health insurance will make them more credible and will allow them to become more professional and become an important employer during times of crisis.


The phenomenon of urban insecurity does not stop increasing and worrying both decision makers and ordinary people.  Furthermore the phenomenon has led to the creation of special state bodies as well as popular initiatives in the form of popular security committees and private security firms.
Whatever the volunteers’ good will may be in these initiatives, they must be monitored and supported by the authorities who must recognise the rights of the public to try and ensure the security of goods and of people throughout the country.  Would it not be wise to turn towards professionalism following the lines of private security services, which would allow them to increase their range of activities and diversify their clientele?
Besides the natural tendency to repress, there are other methods we need to explore which could reduce urban poverty and the associated issues of unemployment, under-employment, a lack of basis services etc.
An analysis must be carried out which focuses on the issue of urban insecurity in order for us to find appropriate responses to the problem.
In the same way, the national intervention resources must be improved.
However, these resources must focus more on prevention than repression and try using innovative ways to involve young people.
If we make a considerable effort with education, other areas must also be explored such as locally adapted training through raising awareness and the state supervision which is necessary for a balance to be found between the work carried out by the popular vigilance committees and by the national police.