Peacemaker or war initiator?

The changing role of traditional elders in Somalia

The changing role of traditional elders in Somalia. Somalia had a strong and undisputed xeer system in which traditional elders were the backbone in dispensing justice, making peace and solving conflicts amicably.

The Xeer (traditional dispute resolution and customary justice system) in Somalia is widely recognized as a code of conduct for settling disputes and keeping the peace between clans and sub-clans.

Traditional elders in Somalia are of different calibres, context-based and vary at clan basis. Different contexts have different names for revered traditional elders that have supreme powers.

The common titles for the traditional elders are: Boqor, Ugas, Imam, Sultan, Malaq, Garaad, Islow, Wabar, Nabadon, Samadoon, Waxgaradd. People with these titles have one thing in common: shunning violence and encouraging peaceful coexistence in the ecosystem under their sphere of influence.

Under whatsoever circumstance, this group of people is expected to preach peace and by executing such noble tasks, traditional elders have amassed respect among the Somalis. In some locations, traditional elders had the authority to enforce their rulings by imposing sanctions and reparations to wrongdoers.

It is believed that good were the days when traditional elders were the rulers. There were solutions to any problem that sprouted, and elders transcended long distances and stayed awake for weeks to find solutions to societal problems.

Traditional elders were impartial in their rulings and there was plenty to eat for people and animals. “oppression and transgression lead to diminishing of Allah’s bounties”.

Due to Somali elders’ historical role in arbitrating conflict and upholding agreements, they are often presented—and indeed present themselves—as neutral groups that are turned to when problems arise in the society. Somalis used to travel long distances to seek the justice of the traditional elders who dispensed actions impartially.

Garta kii wax garadaa loo geysan jiree
“Those with intellect were sources of justice”

To a large extent, everybody trusted traditional elders and their directives were final. Historically, there have been various forms of governance systems in Somalia. They can be grouped into two main categories: clan-oriented chiefdoms with less commanding authority; and better-established statehood-oriented sultanates with revenue source and security force.

After Somalia’s civil war and prolonged unrest, the well-grounded sultanates fragmented into tinier clan-based ones that eventually dismantled into smaller clans. The reasons for the fragmentation can be attributed to conflicts over meagre resources and clan interests which outweighed communal interests.

As the country leapt into federal system, the traditional elders are seen inclined to clan interests. This inclination has reduced the popularity of the traditional elders in Somali society. There are cases in the Federal Member States where traditional elders were bribed during elections. This made them lean towards selecting incompetent MPs into national and State level seats.

The worst situations of image-blurring appears when traditional leaders are seen beating the drums of war. When such popular members of the community publicly announce alarms of war, the masses whom the elders represent, or rule are liable to heed to the call. The armed militias who don’t know why they carry ammunitions are at risk of waging war against the “perceived opponent”.

Many renowned traditional elders have been assassinated when their subjects saw them as foes and one-sided in the political rallying. There are also cases when clans nominate competing elders. When impartiality prevailed, every sub-clan and sub sub-clans have selected their elders so that “he represents the clan interest well”. Many traditional elders do feel disempowered.

Scholars, traditional elders and other elites in the society are by virtue of their social status expected to preach peace and refrain from initiating, fanning or engaging in violence in whatever form. When the Duubabka (traditional elders) are upfront in conflicts the common people in the society will automatically their footsteps.

Mar haddii dhaqankii dhaqaaqay dhintaye maxaa gadaal I dhigay?
Why should I lag behind when the traditional elders are leading the fight?

Traditional elders (Duubabka) have had reputation in the Somali society and still have the revered status, however to the dismay of many Somalis, there are some that tarnish the name of the Duubabka by displaying unethical and uncouth approaches that can bring grave consequences.

Traditional elders (Duubabka) are obliged to shun any form of violence, free from bribery and keep at a social distance from politics otherwise they are liable to side with one party on grounds of interest.

Finally, Somalis need to nominate the best characters (elders) to present them at State and National levels. A character with sense of nationalism, impartiality and wisdom. A character that unifies, a character that promotes peace in any circumstance, a character with good records of peacemaking, a character with authority, a trustworthy character.

Muktar Abdi Hussein
Public Policy