Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
Back to Somali roots

Hussein Ablele
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just as Somalia's disastrous status quo seems unceasing, punditry on how to mitigate it abound. The most prolific on this are the diaspora Somalis, who take to the pen daily, publishing their two cents on the matter on Somali websites. Some, genuinely moved by the tragedy, can’t help try to be useful in this way. The only way, far removed from the carnage, which is all within their power. This exercise also dispenses to them, I suspect, a modicum of self solace in theirs and their country's misfortunes! While others engage in these writings as a continuation, by other means, of clan politics and warfare on the ground in the country, which have been the source of Somalia's pitiful state.

Whatever the situation, much of the prescribed solutions, to me at least, miss way off the mark. This is simply because many of us Somalis do not take the time to analyze the problem from a “Somali” historical and traditional prospective. Ironically, we may all agree on the disease which Somalia suffers from today is of Somali origin. It is the old virus variety, aided by modern weapons and foreign interests, of clan politics. Clan or subclan politics and conflicts are not new, for these have been with us since we formed a Somali community early on. What we have forgotten, however, is that along the way of Somali social developments, we also mastered and put in place effective ways to deal with them.

Somalia has been a state since 1960 only, but Somalis existed for more than a thousand years before that. Before independence, we were also clans and subclans. How did we get along? Then, as now, there were wars and rumors of wars; there was blood shed among Somalis, among clans and subclans for a myriad of reasons. We should ask ourselves: how did we manage then to stop them? The answer is very clear for any one who is open to see it; it is encoded in Somali traditions. Naturally, we Somalis had successfully utilized elders (odayal) who exercised Somali common laws (xeer). Before you laugh at this, I must remind you that we Somalis still live in subclan clusters, just as our ancestors did, with our elders and religious clerics (wadaado). “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” as a wise person once said. But, Somali tradition and law systems never left to chance resolving any arisen problem among Somalis. In fact they still apply and often applied successfully, even in this difficult time.

Obviously, the use of the elders and Somali xeer is not readily a substitute to a modern state and its politics or functions. Although, in a better, more advanced and enlightened Somalia and Somalis, we might find, one day, many of our Somali, long held traditions and laws have all along been more than good enough to be incorporated in a modern Somalia. For instance, the English House of Lords or the US Senate all means the house of “elders.” Even if you study the original source of western democracy, which was the Greeks, you will find people —led by their elders—who out of necessity developed a system to keep order in their society. Somalis have not been any different; Somali future anthropologists and sociologists, as already compiled by western scientists in these fields in many volumes, will confirm this fact. Without being boastful and too proud, our ancestors had been very clever and exceedingly imaginative in customary laws. Overtime, they worked out these laws of general (xeer guud) and particular to specific community (xeer tolnimo). They perfected the process to carry they out, complete with judges (odayal), jurists (xeer boggeyaal), investigators (guurtiyaal), attorneys (garxajiyaal), witnesses (murkhaatiyal), verdict (gar) and a policeman (waranle) to enforce it to boot; all assembled on need bases in a makeshift, under a tree or in an open sky courts! Somalis do not facetiously say “xeer baa inaga dhaxeeya” (the law is in between us or bounds us). Western societies may have eventually developed statutory laws for their modern governments, but until the 18th century they used effectively common laws not that dissimilar in many respects to ours. One more thing, the amazing thing about the Somali customary laws has been its distinct separation from religion— except in matters of family and inheritance laws on which religion was paramount—and politics. “Diinta waa labaddali karaa, xeer se lam baddali karo” (one can change his religion; one cannot change the law). This Somali saying clearly shows how religion is a matter of a private, individual business, while the law is communal and public, subject to all.

How do we put our traditional assets to use in this current Somali problem? Before I delve into my take on this, it is useful to state that the one thing, above all else, Somalia and Somalis need is to see or hear the violence cease! If your house is on fire, your first task is to save lives in it and put the fire out; only then will you be able to assess the damage and the cost of rebuilding it. Only then you may even contemplate on building a better house, less prone to fires and equipped with fire alarms and sensor-activated water sprinklers on the first whiff of a smoke. First things first; the fighting in Somalia must be brought to a halt. Peace must reign in all its corners. Give me that, and I will give you Somalis willing and capable to move their country back to a more modern and prosperous state.

I believe no other Somali traditional institution is more suited than Somali elders to affect a ceasefire throughout Somalia. Elders are heads of subclans; they have a tremendous weight with their respective peoples and areas. Here is where the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has missed the boat. On July. 2007, the So-called National Reconciliation Conference was held in Mogadishu, where estimated three thousand elders, religious and social groups from supposedly all corners and in betweens of Somalia attended. There were plenty of niceties in rhetoric on reconciliation, nationalism and adherence to religion, but not a concrete empowering plan and a call to action to the delegates. What a missed opportunity that was!

Somalis, especially their elders, do not like to be lectured. What should have been done was to give these elders a clear mandate and a full responsibility put on their shoulders to take ownership of their areas. They should have been put on government payrolls, told to go back and hold meetings, debates and deliberations among their kin to choose their local leaders. They should have been given the chance to secure their areas. Instead, to this day, the TFG appoints people to regions from Baidhabo, the seat of the Somali government. It was laughable to hear many appointed, without their knowledge or being consulted, go on the Somali BBC Radio to reject these positions, for fear of being associated with unpopular entity. Others, having accepted such appointments, became the target of the Al-Shabab terrorists. Thus, some paid with their lives, while even some switched their loyalty from the TFG to the troublemakers. Does anyone doubt that if appointments to local positions were made among locals that they would have been defended and cherished? I think not. This is elementary, 101, Somali tradition, that whoever goes against the interest of the subclan in their domain, let alone kill a member, would have to deal with the fury and fight of the whole subclan.

Even in the heyday of Mohammed Siyad Barre's regime, with strong central government and international superpower equipped-and-backed military and police would not discount the role of elders. I am sure some would assign a sinister motive on Siyad Barre's part to have done that, even though one can easily counter-argue that he was from old school and a well versed in Somali traditions. These elders are there to be activated for the good of Somali cohesion and peace-making! It is well past time for this old, Somali institution to be called on, consulted and empowered. Just few days ago, one of the well respected elders in Beledwayne town of Hiiraan region, Dacar Hersi Hooshow, was gunned down. This man was one of the elders who negotiated a peace deal with the then occupying Ethiopian forces in Beledwayne. His only crime was to have achieved peacefully the Ethiopian withdrawal from a Somali town and back to Ethiopia across the border where they came from. These elders have obviously taken control of the town, at the cost of one of their dearest. If Somali elders can even successfully negotiate international agreements, with an occupying, foreign military power no less, should not the TFG trust a little the power of elders. Nay, the TFG rather must put resources in and a full backing of this tried and tested Somali institution.

This Somali disease will not have a cure in Western medicine, metaphorically and literally speaking! The medicine is not a western style, free and fair elections; not now or even in the immediate future. Nor is the answer the western ways of institution building. The cure has been with us. The Somali institutions still exist, especially in conflict resolution. The so-called Somaliland region, for example, has already employed the wisdom of Somali elders. Right after the Somali government ceased, the people of this region were on the verge of going on a revenge rampage. However, true to their old Somali ways, the elders convened and intervened to prevail on their people's better angels. They set the right tone from the onset. It is no accident they named Somali traditional institutions after their democratic institutions. One of their bicameral parliaments is the house of elders (Guurti in Somali). We must go back to our roots; the antidote to this unending, so it would seem, culture of “violence disease” has been with us all the time. We must examine the current situation in our homeland through the lenses of Somali ways; we must remedy it by Somali methods and methodology. Hello, TFG; are you listening!

Hussein Ablele