The Role of Traditional Elders in Peacebuilding

Somalia is often characterized as a homogenous country- ethnically, culturally, and linguistically. There are four predominant clans in Somalia (Dir, Darood, Isaaq, and Rahanweyn). Kinship (clannism) in Somalia determines one’s social status and it's a mechanism in which Somalis socially organize themselves.

The role of traditional elders in Somaliland and Somalia differed; as such, after the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime, Somalia has fragmented into conflicting clan factions while Somaliland, through traditional clan peacemaking mechanisms, succeeded in establishing an independent state.

Somalia’s civil war provides important insight into traditional conflict resolution methods. Intra-clan conflict emerged in Somalia after the fall of Siad’s regime. However, while traditional elders in Somaliland mediated the conflict, in Somalia, the local elder’s role was undermined. In Somaliland, the traditional elders held multiple conferences to reconcile and mediate between fighting groups and most of the conferences have been successful in producing peace. The conferences held in Somalia, outside of the country, didn’t yield the same results, but others argue that if credible and trusted local leaders were to get involved, Somalia would have enjoyed more stability and peace.

Unlike outside external mediators, “insider- partial mediators” play an important role in Somalia’s context. Huda Ibrahim from St. Cloud Technical and Community College published a paper in 2018 titled “The Role of the Traditional Somali Model in Peacemaking” she argues that “insider- partial mediators” are more likely to be involved in the mediation process until the conflict stops and are more likely, with their local legitimacy and moral authority, to resolve conflicts faster.

Traditionally, in Somalia, clan leaders are responsible for resolving a range of issues i.e. criminal offenses like murder and theft. The elders listen to cases and decide who is guilty and what the appropriate punishment should be. Somali clan leaders work as arbitrators and mediators between clans and sub-clans.

Elders are respected by their community based on their age, cultural knowledge, spirituality, and virtues like wisdom and patience. Respect and age, less so, are two traits that are often considered important for mediators. Clan elders earn their status by having “a lifetime reputation as being an effective negotiator, a trusted mediator, an orator, or a wise and pious man” as Huda Ibrahim puts it.

Mediators are preferred to be good communicators, with fair judgment, and knowledgeable of religious teaching and practices. Clan leaders are clan representatives and their role is to work as arbitrators, mediators, and peacemakers.

In Huda’s words, Clan elders are effective mediators because they;

(a) live in the conflict setting;

(b) enjoy trust and respect;

(c) wield moral and traditional authority and moral persuasion; and

(d) have a relationship with the community”.

In local community meetings, known as “shir” which is similar to peacemaking circles, elders engage in an open, democratic, and consultative process and this allows for the peacemaking process to be inclusive of local voices. The shir process sometimes lasts weeks or months until all the root causes are addressed and an agreement can be reached.

The success or failure of a mediation rests on the credibility of the actors involved. Therefore, since elders enjoy wide authority and trust, their mediation efforts are often successful. Also because elders have relationships with conflicting parties, they easily gather the information they need to help the fighting parties to reach an agreement.

To understand the elder’s peacemaking process, they are required to know the local customary law. The customary law known as (heer) is a set of unwritten laws that dictate the values, obligations, customs, and rights between and among clans. These rules cover “domestic matters, social welfare, political relations, property rights and the management of natural resources”.

In rural areas, customary law is used to resolve 80-90% of conflict cases. On the other hand, compensation (Diya) or blood money, is money paid to the family of the murdered as a form of compensation. This practice is derived from Sharia law in which the family of the deceased is given compensation from the family of the offender. The family of the deceased can choose to forgive the offender from undergoing the death penalty in exchange for receiving compensation.

If the compensation isn’t agreed on or isn’t paid on time, conflict often erupts and a vicious cycle of revenge and killings might ensue. Whereas the principle of forgiveness and amnesty which has religious bases, is another mechanism elders use to mitigate clan feuds.

Traditional elders in Somaliland encouraged fighting clans to forgive one another during the peace talks, and the principle of “xalay dhalay”, which roughly translates to “born yesterday”, was applied to pardon clans and militia groups of their wrongdoings as if everyone involved in the conflict never existed before, but was born yesterday. In this way, they open a new page and the resentment, bitterness, and hate are dissolved.

Lastly, in Somaliland local mediation efforts were successful because the elders have the trust and respect of the community, they enjoy moral and traditional authority, and they have personal relationships with the conflicting parties. These factors allow elders to resolve conflicts and promote peace within.

Mark Bradbury, in his 1994 book The Somali Conflict: Prospects for Peace describes the concept of Traditional Elders in the Somali context as the following;

“The institution of elders (sing, oday; pi. odayaal,; as council odayasha) and their role in Somali society can be confusing to a non-Somali. It is often not clear who is an elder, when he (it is always 'he') is an elder, how he becomes an elder, and what authority he possesses.

Somali pastoral society has no hierarchy of political units or political and administrative offices. Investing an individual with power goes against the egalitarian nature of Somali society. It is only at the level of the clan that one finds a post approximating to a leader or chief, known as a Sultan (among the Issaq), Garaad (meaning 'wisdom', among the Darod), and Ugaas or Boqor (among the Darod).

The position of Sultan is hereditary, although it is not always the first-born son who inherits that position. Not all clans have them, nor are they indispensable; in 1992 the Habr Yunis Sultan was killed in a house of disrepute in Hargeisa. Where they exist, they are a symbol of the unity of the clan over its constituent lineages. This symbolic role is reflected in the inauguration of a new Sultan, which should always take place in the rainy season, a time of prosperity.

A Sultan enjoys respect, but not reverence. His personal qualities are as important as his position in determining his authority. At the same time his structural position, above sectional lineage differences, enables him to function as an arbiter and peace-maker, mediating relations with other clans, and settling disputes within his own clan. His authority, however, is often symbolic. In a peace meeting (shir nabadeedka) it is the elders who undertake the negotiations, while the Sultan approves the results, in his position as head of the clan.

Unlike Sultans, elders are found at all levels of lineage segmentation. A father is, for example, the elder of a nuclear family. All adult males at every level of segmentation can be elders, with a right to speak in council (shir). In principle all can have an equal say. In practice some elders are more influential than others.

The position of an elder is not hereditary. Over time it may become hereditary, as people may prefer elders of one lineage to play a leading role in lineage affairs, for fear of upsetting relations. The akil (from the Arabic wakil, 'deputy'), for example, or elder of a diya-paying group, often passes from father to son. Sheik Ibrahim, Chairman of the Somaliland National Council of Elders (guurti), comes from a long line of elders, the founders of Hargeisa, guardians of the Sheik's tomb, and is respected for his religious knowledge.

Elders are sometimes described as 'chiefs'. It is misleading to call elders chiefs, for it suggests a traditional position of authority which does not exist. They achieve their positions through a variety of attributes, of which age, wealth, wisdom, religious knowledge and piety, political acumen, powers of oratory, or a combination, are important. However, in this acephalous Somali society, an elder is a representative, who receives delegated authority, rather than assuming it. In council meetings they are delegates or emissaries of and for their clans, whom they represent and by whom they are supported.

An elder's authority is the reflection of a number of different qualities or skills. Different elders will have different roles in different situations. Certain elders have greater knowledge of, for example, genealogy, xeer, or politics than others. These skills will be better used in some circumstances than others.

For example, when two clans are to meet to discuss peace, they will send to each other lists of delegates for the meeting. Each side will know whether the other is for peace or not by the names of the delegates, because their character, kinship and political leanings will be known.

Elders operate, not secretly, but in open councils (shir), which all adult males, or their representatives, may attend. A shir can be summoned at every order of segmentation, as required. They are called to discuss relations between groups, to work out xeer contracts, to settle disputes, or to decide upon war or peace. Elders are professional negotiators and mediators in all clan matters and it is from this position that they have been able to assert their authority in Somaliland.

Other people in Somali society who have a role in peace-making are the wadaad, or Sheiks, the men of religion. They play no role in lineage politics, having only spiritual authority. Owing no allegiance to clan interests, they are ideal mediators.” (Bradbury, 1994, pp.68-69)