In Somaliland, clan elders have used traditional practices to bring peace, guided by the Somali proverb: “If you want to dismantle a hedge, remove one thorn bush at a time.” The same methods might not work as well with the warring factions in Somalia, but they—unlike what Rakiya Omaar sees as misguided efforts from outside—are an African solution to an African problem.

By Rakiya Omaar

Clan divisions are the fault lines along which Somali society fractured during more than a decade of political manipulation and bloody conflict. But in Somaliland, the northwest region that declared its secession from Somalia in May 1991, clan elders have used the clan system and its traditional practices to end armed conflict, establish a framework for resolving future disputes, bring about a peaceful change in government, and provide a foundation for rebuilding civil society.

The most enduring and account­able elements in Somali society, clan elders, have displayed tact, persistence, and patience—in sharp contrast to the heavy-handed international actions in southern Somalia. The contrast between these two approaches raises profound questions about the nature of power, authority, legitimacy, representation, good governance, conflict resolution, and outside interven­tion in war-torn countries.


Many of the recent conflicts in Somalia/Somaliland have been between neighboring clans, making the violence an intimate affair that traumatized communi­ties. Traditional codes of conduct were broken: family relations were severed, marriages dissolved, and friend­ships ravaged. Grief, anger, shame, guilt, and fear of reprisals poisoned relations.

Somali communities must find new ways to live together. Somaliland has chosen a unique path—a grassroots process that has made peacemaking a collec­tive responsibility. Unlike the United States/United Nations approach in Somalia—the politics of involvement without responsibility—elders, religious leaders, poets, businessmen, former military officers, politi­cians, intellectuals, women’s groups, private voluntary organizations, and most important, ordinary citizens of Somaliland, have been mobilized to negotiate, finance, and implement an agenda for peace. There have been frustrations and setbacks, but the result, and the process itself, have been a remarkable display of civic maturity.


In the late nineteenth century, the colonial powers divided the Somali peninsula into five zones: the British established the Protectorate of Somaliland in the north and occupied the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (now Kenya’s Northern Province); the French took Djibouti; the Ethiopians the Ogaden region; and the Italians the remainder along the southern coast. Until the late 1970s Somali nationalists united around the aim of combining these territories into a single state.[1]

Somaliland gained its independence from Britain on June 26, 1960. Five days later it united with newly independent Italian Somalia to form the Somali Repub­lic. For Somaliland, this irredentist dream was also expected to deliver important economic dividends, including—most important of all—the recapture of vital grazing lands ceded to the Ethiopian government by Britain in 1897.

But the euphoria of unification could not mask growing friction over the attempts to amalgamate, with no preparations or planning, two regions with different economies, different judicial, administrative, and edu­cational systems, and different languages for conduct­ing business (English and Italian).[2]

The government was centralized in Mogadishu, and economic and political opportunities became concentrated there. After unifica­tion the north lost most of its seasoned politicians, educated cadre, and leading entrepreneurs to the southern capital. Increasingly, northerners blamed the south for their economic and political marginalization. They complained that foreign assistance was spent mostly on development in the south, while government policies crippled the north’s economy.

Regional demands for a more equitable share in national resources and a higher political profile were important in creating and sustaining a sense of injustice in Somaliland. But the actual decision to leave the union had its roots in more than a decade of extraordinary violence against the largest clan in the northwest, the Isaaqs.

In July 1977 the military regime of Mohammed Siyad Barre, which had come to power in a 1969 coup, invaded Ethiopia to regain the Ogaden, an eastern desert region settled by Somali-speaking people. The Somalis were repulsed in March 1978—a defeat that had far-reaching political, economic, social, and psychological consequences in Somalia. Unsure of the loyalty of either the army or the people, Siyad Barre retreated into the security of his own family, his Marehan clan, and the related Darood clans of the Dulbahante and Ogaden.

After the war, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis fled Ethiopia. The government organized armed militias among the refugees, ostensibly to return to liberate the Ogaden. In fact, the militias terrorized local Isaaq civilians. Isaaq delegations visited Mogadishu, arguing the government to end the atrocities. When they failed, Isaaq officers deserted the armed forces and organized a unit to fight the militias, which led to further cycles of violence.

Resentment intensified as preferential treatment for the refugees in services, jobs, and the allocation of land reduced Isaaqs to the status of second-class citizens in their own region. On April 06, 1981, a group of Isaaqs in London announced the creation of the Somali National Movement (SNM), dedicated to the overthrow of Siyad Barre’s regime. Soon afterward, Isaaq officers defected to Ethiopia. It was the beginning of a long and bloody decade.

The government’s war against the Isaaqs was directed at a specific military enemy, the SNM, and its “supporters,” an adversary whose definition grew broader by the day. Isaaq civilians bore the brunt of government tactics designed to make the countryside inhospitable to SNM forces.

The government tried to isolate the movement by depopulating villages, disrupting its food supply, and creating other logistical problems. Livestock was slaughtered, crops destroyed, villages razed, and land mines strewn throughout the region. Civilians were detained and tortured or fled the country to escape a life of arbitrary abuses. Summary executions became common. Schools turned into war zones as soldiers and Isaaq students fought a bloody war of attrition.

Psychological warfare was central to the strategy to root out the opposition. Relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors were pressured to spy on each other, wives were encouraged to divorce husbands who had joined the SNM, and families were punished for mourning those who died in action. “Uncooperative” Isaaqs were denied jobs and credit or had their businesses closed.

The SNM operated from bases in Ethiopia with Ethiopian support. This abruptly changed on April 3, 1988. Facing military disaster in the wars in Ethiopia’s Eritrea and Tigre regions, Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam signed an agreement with Siyad Barre to close down the movement’s military operations in Ethiopia in exchange for Siyad Barre’s withdrawal of support for the forces confronting Mengistu. Cornered, the SNM responded in May by launching surprise attacks against the town of Burao in Somaliland and the provincial capital, Hargeisa. Unable to crush the small force of 5,000, the government turned its frustration against Isaaq civilians.

For days government forces pounded the residential districts of Burao and Hargeisa with artillery, antitank fire, and aerial bombardment, triggering the flight of almost the entire Isaaq civilian population. The atrocities knew no bounds or borders. Troops murdered, raped, and robbed people as they tried to escape, and planes strafed them even after they had crossed into Ethiopia. Tens of thousands died from disease in the Ethiopian desert. Seventy percent of Hargeisa was leveled.

From June 1988 to January 1991, Isaaq towns and homes were systematically plundered by soldiers and pro-government civilians. Ironically, the looting helped pave the way for peace and reconciliation, since little of material value was left to fight over.

Its offensive defeated, Mengistu allowed the SNM to withdraw to Ethiopia, its ranks swollen with Isaaq men and boys from the refugee camps. International publicity about Siyad Barre’s savage campaign in the north deprived the regime of its oxygen—foreign aid. Opposition elsewhere in Somalia intensified as new movements took up arms. In September 1990 the three principal movements—the SNM, the southern-based Somali Patriotic Movement, and the United Somali Congress in central Somalia—agreed to coordinate their military and political tactics. Their efforts succeeded; Siyad Barre fled Mogadishu on January 26, 1991.

Somaliland, One Thorn Bush At A Time
Somaliland – Women celebrating the declaration of independence for the Republic of Somaliland in 1991. Although Somaliland has achieved a higher level of stability in the ensuing years than the rest of Somalia, its independence has never been accepted internationally. Copyright: Hamish Wilson/Panos. Photo date: 1991


The three movements had pledged to hold a national conference after Siyad Barre’s departure on the future political map of Somalia. But these maneuvers did not impress the SNM rank and file—the refugees—who were intent on severing ties with Mogadishu. They had crossed the Rubicon of secession in May 1988. The scale and ferocity of the war in the north had nurtured a visceral hatred not only of the regime but of everything it represented, including the union.

The unilateral decision by Ali Mahdi Mohammed of the United Somali Congress to form a government, without consulting the SNM, was the last straw. The SNM leadership, anxious not to antagonize the other anti-Barre forces and the international community, waffled until popular opinion forced a showdown at an SNM conference in Burao in May 1991. Secession was formally declared on May 18.

For some nine months, Somaliland enjoyed a heady optimism and relative tranquility. The economy took off and residents began the task of reconstructing what had become a wasteland. But the confidence was short-lived. The first SNM government, a haphazard creation without coherent administrative structures, had no clear policies on national priorities such as disarmament and demobilization, security, the economy, or reconstruction. Accusations of political bias in the distribution of ministerial portfolios paralyzed the government and resulted in disputes between clans. Both the government and its civilian and military opponents squandered their time and energy in settling personal political disputes.

The hostilities between and among politicians and former army officers who had defected to the SNM escalated into a tense political standoff. In January 1992 the rivalry erupted into open warfare in Burao between the militias of the Habr Jelo and the Habr Yunis, two Isaaq clans. When their diplomacy failed to stop the shooting, clan elders went onto the battlefield. The fighting lasted only four days and civilians did not participate, but it sent shock waves throughout Somaliland. Civilians fled Burao, displaced in a “brothers’ war” less than a year after coming home.

The conflict spread to Sheikh, located between Burao and Berbera. Berbera itself became engulfed in the war on March 1, sparked by armed confrontations between the militias of Isse Muse and those of the Habr Yunis clans. Somaliland’s principal port. Berbera is vital to the export of livestock, and thus to the economy. At the time the port was the main source of revenue for the government, which made the battle for control that much fiercer.

It is difficult to exaggerate the fallout from the conflict in Berbera. Economic activity throughout Somaliland came to a stop, people displaced from their homes flooded neighboring towns, and communal relations soured as violent incidents increased and the hope of winning the loyalty of non-Isaaq clans within Somaliland evaporated. The few UN and foreign agencies operating in Somaliland either evacuated their foreign staff or closed down. Prospects for international recognition were thought to have received a fatal blow.


The war in Berbera was a moment of truth for Somaliland. The perception that the government had not only abdicated its responsibility to prevent violence but was actively fueling the fighting created a dangerous political vacuum. In the absence of any other civic institutions with national standing, the forces of peace coalesced around clan elders, who represented continuity and symbolized the values of compromise.

Resolving conflicts was nothing new for the elders, who are experienced professional negotiators. The position of elder (always held by men) is not hereditary, unlike that of chief in many other African countries, though over time some families may establish an influential place in their community. The elders’ power comes from the authority their clan has delegated them to manage the clan’s affairs. They are chosen by virtue of personal attributes such as age, expertise in the political arts of compromise and persuasion, powers of oratory, skill as a poet, religious knowledge, piety, wealth, generosity, courage, and a reputation for fairness.

Nothing is secret with the elders. Their discussions are held in open forums that all adult males of the clan or their representatives can attend. They settle disputes within the clan and are responsible for relations with other groups, including declaring war and making peace.

Worried about the independent political base of the elders, the Siyad Barre regime had worked hard to destroy their effectiveness. Once Isaaqs became the target of government repression, some of the elders were bought off or silenced through intimidation and humiliation, but many others stood their ground, providing leadership and solace. It was the war against Siyad Barre, however, that reinforced the bonds. An lsaaq Council of Elders was formed after the mass exodus of June 1988, and it is widely recognized that its work made it possible for the SNM to survive. The elders sent young men from the clan to serve as fighters, and also provided money, food, political advice, and logistical and moral support.

The fighting in Berbera encouraged the elders to embark on a process that would not only stop the bloodshed but construct a broader settlement to ensure security by promoting peace and reconciliation throughout Somaliland. A series of bilateral peace conferences at the local level led to multilateral conferences at the regional level, culminating in a national conference in Borama from late January through May 1993 that adopted a countrywide security framework, laid down a national constitutional structure, and led to a peaceful change of government. (The new president is Mohammed Haji Ibrahim Egal, a veteran politician who served as prime minister of Somalia in the 1960s.)

The experience of Somaliland shows the importance of treating peace-building, peace-making, and peace-enforcing as an integral process. Above all, it proves that peace-building calls for a degree of sensitivity, patience, perseverance, and endurance that only a people whose own survival is at stake can muster.

The conferences always lasted longer than scheduled, as unexpected questions arose that required weeks of negotiation. “What is the hurry?” asked one elder. “The killings lasted for years. We cannot bring the dead back. But we can bring peace. If we hurry and fail, it is not only a betrayal of the future; it shows disrespect to the collective suffering of the past.”

Facilitators trusted to remain neutral provided each side with a list of those from the opposing group planning to attend. The lists were vetted to weed out elders regarded as “men of war.” To create calm and goodwill, the opening sessions were dominated by speeches, the reading of poetry, religious ceremonies, and generous hospitality by the hosts. “You have to lower the temperature,” explained another elder. “People cannot make peace if there is fire in their eyes and hate in their hearts.”

The elders followed their traditional approach to mediation, guided by the Somali proverb: “If you want to dismantle a hedge, remove one thorn bush at a time.” Opponents are encouraged to meet face to face to overcome the bitterness and suspicions that divide them. Contentious issues are avoided until the participants have established a level of understanding that encourages debate rather than arguments. Common interests—commercial considerations, existing inter-marriages—are highlighted to create incentives for compromise. In this case, developing the trust essential for negotiation helped sustain the peace process by making subsequent breach of agreements dishonorable.

Pragmatism has been the hallmark of the negotiations, which are ongoing. The objective is to arrive at agreements that the parties to be reconciled have already drawn up and adopted – the larger meetings merely reaffirming what the parties themselves know to be an acceptable compromise. The parties are directly responsible for putting the accords into effect. Other groups do not intervene unless asked to do so.

Exceptions are made in the case of serious disputes with national implications, such as the October 1992 Sheikh conference that ended the Berbera conflict. Elders from throughout Somaliland attended, and arbitration committees were established to resolve questions that the two sides, the Isse Muse and Habr Yunis clans of Berbera, could not agree on. All the elders signed the bilateral agreement, to highlight its significance. In addition, they agreed to supervise implementation, and took on the responsibility of punishing violators.

By contrast, the UN-brokered pacts in Somalia have collapsed because there were no mechanisms for enforcing them locally. Nor has there been an effort to develop political structures that would maintain pressure on the signatories to keep their word. In Somaliland, the cornerstones of the agreements are the local joint security committees created in areas of mixed clan populations to monitor and implement the accords and devise penalties for violations. These committees, which consist mainly of local elders, act as a rapid deployment force, responding promptly to developments that threaten the peace—the theft of livestock, the incursion of militias into another group’s territory, and murder.

The government has only recently begun to disarm and demobilize clan militias and gunmen. Somaliland has no army, and the police force is totally inadequate. Armed bandits remain the greatest threat to personal security and general peace. Many clans have agreed not to seek compensation for the death of a bandit. In some accords, the parties have agreed to make the bandit’s family responsible for damages in cases of murder and theft. Instances of habitual bandits killed or handed over to police by their own families—an unprecedented development in Somali society—are not uncommon now.

Somaliland, One Thorn Bush At A Time
Tanks and heavy weapons were assembled for a disarmament parade in Hargeisa stadium, Somaliland on April 27, 1994. This was the second mass disarmament parade to be held during the first half of 1994. Copyright: Hamish Wilson


Peace-building demands intimate knowledge of a community, and its history, economics, and social relations. Most important, it requires an understanding of the politics of its geography. In Somalia the UN consistently failed to grasp the most fundamental fact of all—that material reasons prompted and fueled the violence.

Local conferences dealt almost exclusively with material issues. Disputes over assets—land, grazing rights, the use of wells, the return of houses and stolen vehicles, and the exchange of stray livestock-dominated discussions, either because those problems were the source of historical tensions or because the years of conflict had created new grievances. This helps explain the basis of the elders’ authority: they are intimately involved in the mundane affairs of their clans.

Placing material questions at the heart of the peace agenda at the local level, and implementing the agreements on them before moving on to regional disputes, have been the key to the elders’ success. Improvements in the security situation have resulted in tangible material gains, such as the return of property and the reopening of trade routes for livestock. These economic benefits have in turn improved security; when clans that had been suspicious of each other graze their animals together, trade, social relations, and the exchange of intelligence are furthered, which makes stability more likely and conflict less likely.

Driven by its agenda, the quest for a quick fix, and a timetable shaped by the international feel-good factor, UN agreements in Somalia faltered where it mattered—on the ground. Problems were to be “solved” before UN officials understood the nature of the problem. Less than a month after United States Marines arrived in Mogadishu, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in early January 1993 opened the first political conference for Somalia in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before his organization had any political officers in the region.

The schedule of the subsequent meeting was announced at the January talks. To assume, in such a delicate situation, that artificial deadlines concentrate minds is to invite failure. Many Somalis in Mogadishu cautioned against a speedy process, emphasizing that conflicts had to be resolved at the local and regional levels before national discussions could begin. In Somaliland, the conference between the Isaaq and Darood clans of the Erigavo region was preceded by at least seven separate conferences between the groups over a period of a year.

To hail the elders as the saviors of Somaliland is to miss the larger point of their achievement. They succeeded because ordinary people gave them the authority to make peace and promote reconciliation. In turn, they made their .task a collective endeavor. Somali elders put into practice what thoughtful development specialists describe as the prerequisites for sustainable development: community support, participation in and ownership of the process, common goals, legitimate representation, and a long-term process.

The fact that the negotiations took place in Somaliland itself is of crucial significance. Because of their national importance, there was widespread interest in the Borama and Sheikh conferences.

A Somali relief worker who followed both highlighted the benefits of the two-way traffic between elders and the population: “Every elder will meet at least 20 people a day—in his home, on the road, at the mosque, at the tea shop. He tells us what was said and decided; this makes its way into the grapevine. Everyone gives him his or her opinion. He takes our views back to the conference table. The feedback helps to shape the content of the debate and becomes a part of the decision-making process itself … Everyone feels involved. This could not happen if they were cooped up in some conference center in Nairobi or Addis Ababa.”

Carrying the process forward “at home” had other advantages. Guests and hosts were both expected to honor certain codes of conduct, and this in itself was a restraint, because of the fear that bad manners would be held against individuals and groups. When unanticipated problems cropped up, the facilitators tapped reservoirs invisible to foreign eyes. To a group refusing to participate in proposed discussions, the hosts would send elders related through their mothers to the group. “At home” also meant that the conferences were largely financed by the communities of Somaliland and the Somaliland diaspora. While foreign contributions helped the Borama conference, they were for the most pan limited.

Many factors made the negotiations possible, and some are unique to Somaliland. The non-Isaaq clans in the northwest—the Dulbahante, Gadabursi, Warsen-geli, and Isse—had been allies of the Siyad Barre regime. But long before the ouster, influential members of these groups began talks with the SNM in order to prevent retaliation against non-Isaaqs. This helped preempt an escalation of the conflict once the movement had routed Siyad Barre’s army in the north.

In retaking Somaliland, SNM fighters smashed the Gadabursi town of Dilla in February 1991, shaking both non-Isaaq and Isaaq leaders. The SNM called a halt to such revenge attacks. Representatives from the non-Isaaq clans held discussions with the movement in Berbera. In the end, they decided not to repeat history but to close the book on atrocities that took place before the February 1991 cease-fire.

Another important factor in the success of the peace talks is that the SNM, representing the Isaaq, the largest and most powerful clan in the area, had won the old-fashioned way—on the battlefield. A balance of terror would undoubtedly have prolonged the war in Somaliland, at least for some time. The Isaaqs’ decision to pursue reconciliation, despite the anger they felt, was enlightened self-interest; any other choice guaranteed a future shadowed by mistrust, fear, and killings. But some of the enduring flash points in Somalia—for example, the port of Kismayu—can perhaps only be settled by an outright military victory by one side or the other.

None of this, however, can mask the fact that Somaliland has been completely destroyed by a decade of war. Its infrastructure has collapsed. The government has no money. It cannot pay salaries, forcing experienced doctors, teachers, and managers to seek jobs with foreign agencies. Thousands of heavily armed young men—the greatest threat to security, peace, and reconciliation—are unable to find alternative employment. Neither the government nor the public can comprehend the refusal of the UN and donor countries to assist Somaliland. The folly of spending millions to wage a military conflict in Mogadishu while withholding the thousands that could sustain peace in Somaliland has given their criticism a sharper edge.

Boutros-Ghali has made it clear that recognition of Somaliland is not on the UN’s agenda. The war that engulfed Somalia, and the absence of a central government, have delayed the day of reckoning. No one knows what the future holds. What is certain is that any UN efforts to enforce unity will spark a new war and a new tragedy for the people of Somaliland and Somalia.


[1] At the Charter Conference of the Organization of African Unity in 1963, Somalia was the only African state to contest the clause that held colonial borders to be inviolable.

[2] The script for the Somali language was not introduced until 1972.

Rakiya OmaarRAKIYA OMAAR is co-director of African Rights, a human rights group that she and Alex de Waal have established in London.

Current History; Philadelphia, etc. Vol. 93, Iss. 583,  (May 1, 1994): p. 232-236.

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Current History Current History is the oldest publication devoted exclusively to international affairs published in the United States. The journal aims to observe and explain the profound changes transforming every region of the world, providing readers with a better understanding of today’s crucial events and pressing global trends through contributions from leading and emerging experts and scholars.

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