Somali clan elders have taken up peacemaking initiatives in the war-torn nation. They invited other clan elders and political leaders to a meeting in Borama to negotiate peace agreements for Somaliland.

Author: Rakiya Omaar

Date: May-June 1993

From: Africa Report(Vol. 38, Issue 3)

Publisher: Africa-America-Institute

Document Type: Article

Length: 2,693 words


Somali clan elders have taken up peacemaking initiatives in the war-torn nation. They invited other clan elders and political leaders to a meeting in Borama to negotiate peace agreements for Somaliland. However, the UN’s lack of support for the elders’ initiatives could thoroughly derail peacemaking in Somalia. In addition, the Somali government’ failure to provide effective leadership, coupled with serious economic depression and continued political instability, could also stymie the peace efforts.

When northern Somalia first broke away as the Republic of Somaliland, it seemed at first to provide a peaceful paradigm for the strife-torn south, until it too was riven by clan rivalries and warfare. However, without the intervention of foreign forces, clan elders have been inching toward a diplomatic solution whose success probably hinges on the international community providing much-needed assistance.


The Best Chance For Peace (Somali Clan Elders Push For Peace)With the UN- and US-led multinational forces nowhere in sight and away from the media spotlight, there have been a few diplomatic breakthroughs in the breakaway Republic of Somaliland (northern Somalia). Somali clan elders have used their authority and diplomatic skills to push through a series of peace initiatives at local levels. In the town of Borama, the Council of Elders (Guurti) met in March and April to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal for Somaliland and to set the political framework for the two-year transition period due to expire in May.

These vital initiatives, which spring from the heart of Somali society itself, build upon painstaking grass-roots reconciliation efforts and enjoy widespread popular support. The Borama meeting is not only the best chance for peace in the north; the forces it represents could be a model for Somalia as a whole.

But now the greatest threat to the peace initiative may be the United Nations. Instead of supporting such initiatives, the UN nearly derailed the Borama meeting by announcing plans to send forces to Somaliland. There have already been demonstrations in both Hargeisa and Erigavo against the deployment of troops. Elders whose participation is crucial to the prospects of stability have also condemned the plans.

Despite the significance of local peace initiatives, the government’s failure to provide leadership, the dire economic situation, the fear and instability generated by fighting between various militias can unravel the work of elders. The dispatch of troops without prior consultations in the absence of sensitivity to the real political issues and without concrete evidence of a long-term commitment to economic reconstruction can only subvert the important, but fragile political process currently underway.

Up to now, the main impact of the intervention, with its massive influx of U.S. dollars, has been a severe cash crisis in Somaliland. Immediately, the exchange rate between the dollar and the Somali shilling fell by 50 percent resulting in a sharp fall in revenues from livestock exports, on which the economy is based. Aid budgets, limited as they are, were also badly affected. (The rate has since improved.)

The decision of Somaliland to secede was taken in May 1991 a few months after the overthrow of Mohamed Siyad Barre, under intense popular pressure from the largest clan in the region, the Isaaqs. Throughout the 1980s, the leadership of the Isaak anti-government armed movement, the Somali National Movement (SNM), had consistently argued that they were not seeking secession. Many believed this would be a mistake but they were also anxious not to alienate the other anti-Barre forces and international opinion. But the rank and file had long argued in favor of a break.

In the months before the overthrow of Siyad Barre, negotiations between the SNM and the principal anti-government groups in the south were expected to restore peace and lead to an equitable share of political power and economic resources. But the decision of southerner Ali Mahdi to declare himself president within days of Barre’s overthrow reinforced fears among northerners that they were condemned to political insignificance and lack of control over their affairs. The showdown came at the SNM congress in Burao in May 1991.

Ordinary Isaaqs had felt increasingly bitter toward the south, the seat of government which they blamed for their comparative under-development, lack of political clout and their sufferings throughout the 1980s, particularly the horrors of the 1988-89 war. These grievances were heightened by the massive influx of Ethiopian refugees after the 1976-78 war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden. Government policies favored Ogadeni refugees and led to the creation of armed militias among the refugees who preyed on Isaak civilians living along the Somali-Ethiopian border. The result was the establishment of the SNM in London in April 1981.

The government’s response was to launch–and sustain–a furious assault against the SNM’s civilian base of support. Interrogation, torture, and imprisonment became widespread. Discriminatory policies crippled business practices. Nomads, seen as the economic and manpower base of the SNM, were singled out for a brutal campaign of murder, rape and extortion. Anyone who could emigrate left the country, and support for the SNM grew. Many of its recruits were the boys who left as schools turned into war zones.

The SNM, based in Ethiopia, launched surprise attacks against Burao and Hargeisa in late May 1988, under pressure from the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia to move its military operations away from the border region. The government in Mogadishu then turned its full fury against Isaak civilians. Thousands were slaughtered in their homes as government soldiers conducted house-to-house searches. Several towns particularly the provincial capital of Hargeisa, were subject to intense indiscriminate artillery shelling and aerial bombardment. Within weeks, more than 400,000 civilians sought refuge in the harsh Ethiopian desert.

The refugees began to return home in February 1991 after Siyad Barre was forced out of the capital, their numbers swollen by the thousands of Isaaqs fleeing the war in Mogadishu. Fears of SNM retaliation against the non-Isaak clans in the north which had supported the regime–the Gadabursi, Dulbahante, and Warsangeli–encouraged many of them to leave for Ethiopia, especially after SNM forces destroyed the town of Dijla in February 1991. At the Burao Congress, the SNM reached a decision to pursue a policy of reconciliation with non-Isaak clans. This has encouraged non-Isaak clans to play a critical role in mediating intra-Isaak disputes. The decision to hold the meeting at Borama, the principal Gadabursi town, was of symbolic importance.

Many of the returnees have settled in Hargeisa, a city devastated by the war. More than 70 percent of the buildings have been destroyed by shelling and landmines. Anything that could be looted was taken. There is no electricity, no telecommunications or banking system. Landmines kill and maim people and livestock and have set back recovery of the agricultural sector.

Today, many towns are a testimony to an extraordinarily cruel war. In former security service offices in Hargeisa, skeletons with rope tied around their hands or feet are all that remain of the Isaaq men who were rounded up after the SNM attack. There are thousands of bones left on the outskirts of the city, the remains of those who did not make it to Ethiopia. Gabiley is surrounded by the hills where many were executed, simply for being Isaak.

The decision to secede was followed by a six-month honeymoon. Despite the reluctance of foreign governments to recognize Somaliland, the poor response by the international community in providing assistance, the absence of a strong central authority, the lack of functioning administrative structures, the collapse of infrastructure, and the shortage of experienced administrators, the economy took off and spirits were high. Visitors commented on the relative security. The port of Berbera, the economic nerve-center of the region, was bustling, importing building materials, essential foodstuffs, and exporting livestock.

But it was to be a short honeymoon. The fall of Siyad Barre exposed the SNM’s organizational weakness and its total failure to have planned for the post-Siyad period. The SNM government which took power in May 1991 under the presidency of Abdirahman Ahmed Ali has been stunning for its lack of leadership and the absence of coherent policies on the economic front, education, or law and order. It has repeatedly ignored the pleas of elders and ordinary people to create a unified army out of the different clan militias.

Nor has it made any serious attempts to formulate a policy on disarmament. Much of its energy has been squandered on factional squabbles between and among politicians and military officers. Its failure to organize a referendum on independence does not reassure non-Isaak communities or facilitate international recognition.

Tensions between the militias of the Habr Yunis and the Habr Jelo in Burao erupted in three days of intense fighting on January 12, 1992. Civilians from both clans who took no part in the fighting fled the town en masse. The fighting stopped only after both Isaak and non-Isaak elders intervened at considerable personal risk to their own safety. They used their own shirts when they ran out of white flags. They stayed for 28 days to negotiate an end to hostilities. The government, accused of complicity, did nothing to preempt or stop the fighting, ignored the plight of the civilian population, and refused to support the elders’ mediation efforts.

Far more serious was the outbreak of hostilities in Berbera in late March 1992 between the militias of the Habr Yunis and the Isse Muse who dominate Berbera. Intense shuttle diplomacy by elders came to nothing in the face of the government’s determination to use the conflict as a proxy war, a means of settling political scores with some of its key opponents. Again, civilians most of them Isse Muse, fled in search of safety. The fighting also spread to Sheikh.

The Best Chance For Peace (Somali Clan Elders Push For Peace)Economic activity, which had slowed down after the fighting in Burao, ceased altogether. The port came to a standstill, and the major roads between Hargeisa and Berbera and between Berbera and Burao were closed. The tension spilled over into Hargeisa, where throughout the summer fear of war was palpable.

The fighting was a severe psychological blow for civilians, sapping their confidence in the future. The economic consequences were disastrous. Export of livestock and the collection of port dues, essential for the government’s resources, both came to an end. People lost the will to repair their homes and discouraged relatives from coming back.

The betrayal of the hopes for Somaliland by some power-hungry politicians and military officers has pushed traditional elders to take matters into their own hands. Conflict resolution within clans and between clans has always been the responsibility of elders. But their authority was greatly enhanced during the years of armed struggle.

Before May 1988, the SNM only had about 3,000 fighters. Unable to feed or equip the tens of thousands of men who joined after May, elders were given the responsibility to support their militias. Throughout the war years, they played an active political role. In recognition of their contribution and because of the continuing need for their skills, the Council of Elders is recognized in the constitution of Somaliland, though their role is not defined.

Worried that the Berbera conflict had paralyzed the economy, discouraged international assistance, and was in danger of engulfing Hargeisa, elders concentrated their efforts on ending the Isse Muse/Habr Yunis conflict.

Their efforts culminated in a meeting of clan elders in Sheikh in October. Their first task was to arrange a ceasefire between the two groups.

Other wide-ranging provisions show a remarkable grasp of the intricacies of peace-making. To discourage dissatisfied individuals from exploiting popular ignorance of the agreement, it called for a delegation from the meeting to visit the rural and urban areas settled by the warring clans in order to publicize the peace agreement. It provided for the right of both clans to move freely in the areas settled by both groups and for the release of prisoners.

Committees with representatives from the Habr Yunis and Isse Muse were established for the areas where both clans reside, in order to settle minor disputes and to promote the peace effort. In order not to create a sudden vacuum, the two militias were allowed to remain in their locations though they were to be organized on a peace-time footing, while security became the responsibility of elders. A special committee was established to work out the specific measures to be taken against the party that violates the accord. The elders of Somaliland as a whole agreed to stand together against the party identified as the cause of future problems.

The elders’ success in bringing peace to Berbera has had dramatic results. Business at Berbera is reaching pre-war levels, with a sharp rise in livestock exports. The price of commodities is falling, partly due to the increase in volume of trade and competition. Nomads are now able to get a better deal when they sell their herds for food. Exceptionally good rains have also contributed to making food cheap and widely available.

Elsewhere patient diplomacy has done much to improve relations between different communities. Sanaag region, where Isaaqs and the Darod clashed in the 1980s, was a potential flashpoint. In addition to the bitter legacies of the war, Darod clans were pushed out of Erigavo by the Habr Yunis (Isaak), which they had held during the war with government assistance. They also lost some of the grazing reserves and water-reservoirs they had recently acquired. Fighting erupted in 1991 and ended when elders arranged a ceasefire. It was agreed to discuss the details of peace agreements in later peace talks.

Four subsequent meetings helped to consolidate this grass-roots process of reconciliation. The first meeting held at Shimbiraale in August 1992 provided for free trade, free movement of people, and the creation of a conflict resolution committee, with representatives from the three groups concerned. The framework for dialogue was then used to settle subsequent disputes over grazing land and the theft of camels.

The improved security situation and the easing of communal tensions immediately brought tangible results to the region. Trade through the small port of Mait increased dramatically, while many new shops opened up in Erigavo. The opening up of trade routes increased vegetable production, improved livestock health, reduced food prices, and increased terms of trade in the exchange of livestock for food, all of which had a significant impact on nutritional standards.

The Best Chance For Peace (Somali Clan Elders Push For Peace)Decisions of the second, third, and fourth meetings echoed those of Shimbiraale. The content and detail of discussions depended upon the nature of the conflict between the relevant groups. For example, at Dararweyne, elders attempted to settle the sensitive disputes between the Dulbahante and the Habr Yunis over grazing land, water sources, and personal property, especially water-reservoirs and private buildings in the main town of Erigavo. The meeting, considered the most important so far was also attended by religious leaders, professionals, members of the militias, and three government ministers.

While a peace agreement was signed without conditions on February 2, 1993, a 50-man team was chosen to work out the practical details. Herds belonging to both groups grazed peacefully together. Broader issues related to peace and stability of the region as a whole were to be finalized at a general meeting of all clans in the region in Erigavo beginning in April.

Despite the stunning breakthroughs at the local level, the potential for serious unrest still haunts Somaliland. The elders’ initiatives and the popular support they enjoy shows that hope and confidence in traditional structures can defeat fear. But it is not enough. No one is more painfully aware of this than elders themselves. “Our task is to ensure security and reconciliation. The government’s responsibility is management, administration, and development, all of which it has failed to deliver,” commented Sheikh Ibrahim, the chairman of the Isaak committee of elders in Hargeisa in July.

Optimism about the Borama meeting, the triumph of discourse over armed conflict, is widespread in Somaliland. But the continued failure of the UN to deal with the political and economic reality of Somaliland threatens to undermine the elders’ peace efforts. Without stability other strong civic organizations will not emerge, allowing unscrupulous politicians and military officers to monopolize the political space, and prolonging hardship and despair about the future.

Rakiya Omaar spent six weeks in Somaliland in 1992. She is the co-director of African Rights, based in London.

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