Role of Clan Elders Seen As Key to Somali Peace
Relief officials and Western diplomats are seeking to involve traditional leaders in development efforts, and often rely on them to resolve disputes
BELET UEN, SOMALIA — ONE night last October when armed bandits were terrorizing people in this desert town, two traditional chiefs restored calm with the help of modern technology.
The two chiefs, representing the two main clans here, got on short-wave radios belonging to relief agencies and negotiated an end to the violence that was threatening to turn one clan against the other.
When the radio negotiations began, "there were explosions everywhere," recalls John Main, an employee here with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "By morning it was quiet."
Across Somalia, relief officials, Somali analysts, and Western military officers and diplomats are looking for ways to build on such examples of regaining stability through local authority. They are seeking to strengthen the hand of traditional leaders as a means to restore a peaceful society, including the involvement of clan leaders more in the distribution of relief materials and decisions on local administration.
Robert Oakley, the United States special envoy to Somalia, is encouraging local chiefs, elders, religious leaders, and other nonmilitary Somalis to help set up local security and relief committees in places where there are US troops.
In this small town in central Somalia, local relief officials and the Canadian military are working closely with local elders on questions of food distribution and security.
"Wherever the Ugas [the name used in this region for chiefs, or senior notables of the clans] have influence and their authority is not usurped, you will have tranquility," says Said Samatar, a Somali professor of African history at Rutgers University, in Newark, New Jersey, speaking in a telephone interview. Local peacemaking
Ugas, and their counterparts in other clans in other regions, helped broker a cease-fire in Mogadishu in March 1992, long before any foreign troops arrived in the country, says Abukar Abdi, an Somali ICRC employee here.
Here in Belet Uen, even the looters usually obey the chiefs, says Hassan Moalin Isse, administrator of the International Medical Corps (IMC), and nephew of one of the two main Ugas.
In Oddur, another town in central Somalia that has seen relative calm, traditional elders still hold sway over other forces. And in the generally peaceful northwest of Somalia, which declared itself independent in 1991, both military and political leaders still follow the directions of the chiefs and elders, says Geoff Loane, ICRC's relief coordinator for Somalia.
The presence of foreign troops in Somalia has allowed a re-emergence of traditional leaders "to a limited extent," but must be followed up with a disarmament of the Somali military leaders, Professor Samatar says.
Additional ways of strengthening the role of traditional leaders include establishing a one-body central parliament of elders with veto power over state policy, and channeling relief goods through them, Samatar says.
The ICRC is always looking for legitimate, "neutral" traditional leaders to work with, ones "not directly involved in politics," Mr. Loane says. But asking chiefs to execute detailed decisions on food distribution would force them to make difficult political decisions between clans. And that would "undermine their responsibility," he says. Jellabahs and guidelines
In a small, carpeted room here, Abdullahi Mohamed, a red-bearded Ugas of the Gugundabe, a sub-clan of the large Hawiye clan, sits on the floor next to a bed. He wears a long white jellabah, or robe. Nine men sit in chairs or on the carpet with him.
"This is the way I help make peace," he explains, gesturing around the room. "There are sessions like this, as you see, to discuss the nature of a problem. I make guidelines. The people listen and follow the guidelines."
"We use a democratic process," he says. "I'm the 21st Ugas" in the family. "I couldn't be the 21st if [the process] were undemocratic."
Ugas are chosen by local elders from within a family that was selected sometimes hundreds of years ago, says Mr. Isse of IMC.
Ugas Abdullahi says Somalia's military leaders "will never make peace." He suggests leaving them out of the peace talks. "The clan elders can finalize the process."
The main military leaders of the country, of course, do not share this view. Fourteen factional leaders, including warlords Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and Mohamed Ali Mahdi, were brought together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month to begin political talks. A second round of talks, sponsored by the United Nations, is scheduled for March 15.
A few dusty blocks away, along narrow, unpaved back streets, Ugas Khalif, said to be the most powerful of the Ugas in this region, sits casually on an old stuffed chair in the gravel courtyard of his small home.
Asked how he settles problems involving armed looters, Ugas Khalif says: "I call the clan of the looter and call the victim and they negotiate in front of me." Gunmen have not usurped his power, he says, "because people respect me."
Ugas Khalif, according to Somalis here, is the principal chief of the Hawadley, the dominant ethnic group in Belet Uen and another sub-clan of the Hawiye. He has the ability to call together elders of different clans, residents explain.
"We have often referred our problems to the Ugas," says Nadine Puechjuirbal of the ICRC operation here.