One Thorn Bush At A Time
issue 256 - June 1994
HAMISH WILSON / PANOS
One thorn bush at a time
Rakiya Omaar reports from Somaliland on how a peace has been
quietly hatched in one of the world’s most war-torn regions.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to a hometown utterly destroyed by war. Especially not when 70 per cent of your hometown has been levelled to the ground by artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.
I had seen pictures and videos of the wasteland Hargeisa had become after a decade of destruction and neglect. But this did not blunt the shock of my first return visit to the Somaliland capital in June 1992. I was touched by the tenderness with which people tried to help me absorb my impressions without making a drama out of their misfortune.
This year I made a second trip back – and found a rather different Somaliland. In stark contrast with recent events in neighbouring Somalia, the main activity in Somaliland over the past year had been not war- but peace-making. And it had been achieved with precious little outside involvement or interest.
To communicate the scale of this achievement I must fill in some of the background of Somaliland’s recent bloody history.
Up to 1991 Somaliland was a north-western province of Somalia. Local people – mainly of the Isaaq clan – felt they were not getting an equal share of the nation’s resources in a country run from the southern capital of Mogadishu. In 1982 the northerners formed the Somali National Movement to promote a higher political profile.
The response from dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was to launch a sustained campaign of terror against civilians in the region. People were tortured, livestock slaughtered, villages razed, crops destroyed and the area strewn with landmines. Summary executions were commonplace. Thousands fled to escape violent and humiliating abuse.
But in 1988 the ill-equipped Somali National Movement rebels managed to take the cities of Hargeisa and Burao – much to the surprise of the Barre Government which reacted by pounding residential districts with artillery. Thousands died as their homes collapsed on them. Others were shot in their houses or as they ran for cover or tried to escape into the countryside. Soldiers patrolling the exits to the towns robbed, raped and murdered people as they fled. By mid-June almost the entire Isaaq population was either dead or had become refugees in Ethiopia.
When in 1991 Siad Barre was toppled after 21 years of dictatorship there was a feeling of euphoria. Somaliland seceded from Somalia and declared its independence. Relieved to be home, buoyed by the security that prevailed almost everywhere, people began to rebuild their lives. The economy took off, making it possible to begin the formidable task of reconstruction.
But the heady optimism ended abruptly in January 1992 when feuding between politicians and army officers erupted into open warfare, first in the town of Burao and then in Berbera, the principal port and the country’s economic nerve centre.
‘I wept when I saw what had happened to Burao and its people,’ Sultan Abdi, the Vice-Chair of the Isaaq Elders Council told me. When their diplom-acy failed to halt the fighting, Sultan Abdi and other elders went into the battlefield itself to stop the fighting. ‘We could not find enough white flags to wave to get the shooting to stop, so some of us took off our shirts.’
When I visited the port of Berbera in July 1992 it was a virtual ghost-town. People were too discouraged, disoriented and uncertain about the future to start rebuilding their homes. Heavily-armed young men were everywhere. Travel was dangerous. The few foreign agencies had either closed their operations or evacuated their expatriate staff.
With the Government implicated in the fighting, the forces of peace had one option left. They rallied around traditional elders, the most enduring and accountable elements in Somali society. No other civic institution has the political clout or the moral authority of the elders.
HAMISH WILSON / PANOS
Resolving conflict was nothing new for the elders, who are experienced professional negotiators. Their position of elders is not hereditary – their 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, a reputation for fairness, expertise in the political arts of compromise and persuasion, powers of oratory, skill as a poet, piety, religious knowledge, generosity and courage.
Using traditional mechanisms of arbitration, they began a painstaking process to end the armed conflict, establish a framework for mediating future disputes and bring about a peaceful change of government. They began with a series of peace conferences at the local level to iron out differences between clans.
The conflicts in Somalia and Somaliland have taken place mainly between neighbouring clans, making the violence an intimate affair that left communities deeply traumatized. It was a situation that called for patience, persistence and tact in overcoming a legacy of grief, anger, mistrust, guilt and shame.
The elders were guided by the Somali proverb: ‘If you want to dismantle a hedge, remove one thorn bush at a time.’ The order in which problems were tackled was critically important.
Neutral facilitators trusted by both sides provided the parties with lists of the elders planning to attend the conferences from the opposing side. Participants regarded as ‘men of war’ were weeded out, ensuring that the groups who met were confident of each other’s goodwill.
Opponents were first encouraged to meet face to face to confront and overcome the bitterness and suspicions that divide them. To encourage an atmosphere of calm and to create incentives towards compromise, the opening days were devoted to social and religious events: ‘You have to lower the temperature,’ one elder explained. ‘People cannot make peace if there is fire in their eyes and hate in their hearts.’
The goal was reconciliation rather than vindication. Blaming either party as guilty in a public forum is regarded as a humiliation that allows grievances to fester and sets up barriers to concession.
There were no artificial deadlines. ‘What is the hurry?’ asked another 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.’
Starting the peace process at a local level and keeping it within Somaliland was of crucial importance. ‘Because everyone felt involved, everyone felt responsible,’ commented Zamzam Aden Abdi, a Somali relief worker. ‘Every elder will meet at least 20 people a day – in his home, on the road, at the mosque, at the teashop. 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. This could not happen if they were cooped up in some conference centre in Nairobi or Addis Ababa.’
Foreign mediation in Somalia has consistently ignored the fact that disputes over material resources lie at the heart of the conflicts in both Somalia and Somaliland. Unlike foreign mediators, the elders have a long familiarity with the history, geography and ownership of the resources in question. So local conferences concentrated on disputes about land, grazing rights, the return of houses and the exchange of stray livestock – trying to resolve such material questions at the local level before moving onto regional disputes.
The entire peace process culminated in a four-month national conference in Boroma in January 1993 which adopted a countrywide security framework, laid down a national constitutional structure, and effected a peaceful change of government.
HAMISH WILSON / PANOS
The fruits of their efforts were apparent when I went back in January 1994. I was able to travel throughout the country, more afraid of landmines than gunmen. A friend who had contemplated leaving the country in 1992 was grateful he had stayed: ‘We still have a long way to go, but yesterday and today – it is like night and day.’
To describe the elders as the saviours 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 endeavour.
Traders, poets, women’s groups, professionals, religious leaders and army officers were mobilized to finance, organize, deliberate, negotiate, implement and monitor an agenda for peace. 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 elders’ achievements are impressive. This is not to say that political tensions between different regions and clans have ended. But it does mean that there is a broadly-based political framework for resolving disputes in a peaceful manner.
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. The police have virtually no transport or communic-ations system. Thousands of heavily-armed young men – the greatest threat to security, peace and reconciliation – are unable to find 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 would sustain peace in Somaliland has given their criticism a sharper edge.
The Secretary-General of the UN has made it clear that recognition of Somaliland is not on the 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 UN efforts to enforce unity will spark a new war and a new tragedy for the people of Somalia and Somaliland.
Rakiya Omaar is co-director of African Rights, a human-rights organization based in London. She was in Somaliland for six weeks in January and February this year.