Cover Image
close this book The Somali conflict
close this folder Part V: Somaliland: peace-building
View the document 1. Secession and cessation
View the document 2. The Boroma conference
View the document 3. Post-Boroma
View the document 4. Demobilisation
View the document 5. Shir Nabadeedka ee Sanaag: 'The Sanaag grand peace and reconciliation conference'
View the document 6. Conclusions and recommendations

1. Secession and cessation

On 26 June 1960, Somaliland obtained independence from Britain. Six days later, on 1 July, under the premiership of Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, Somaliland united with the former Italian Somalia to form the sovereign Somali Republic. In May 1991, following the overthrow of Siad Barre, the Somali National Movement (SNM) declared the secession of the northern regions to form the independent 'Republic of Somaliland', the territory of which corresponds to that of the former British Somaliland Protectorate. In May 1993, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was elected President of Somaliland.

The people of Somaliland are of the Issaq, Gadabursi and Ciise (Dir), and Dolbahunte and Warsengeli clan-families. The latter two belong to the Darod confederation of clans. The Issaq, which formed the backbone of the SNM, are the most populous clan in Somaliland.

The declaration of Somaliland secession went against the previously stated policies of the SNM, who had insisted that they sought only to change the Barre regime. The decision to declare independence at the Grand Shir ('gathering') of northern clans in Burco, in May 1991, resulted from a popular expression of opposition to further rule from Mogadishu. This was an understandable reaction to the suffering inflicted on the Issaq people by the Barre regime during three years of war, and to the manner in which Ali Mahadi's USC assumed power in Mogadishu.

Reinforcing this decision may have been a realisation that the original goal which led Somaliland into unity with the south was no longer tenable. The decision in 1960 to unite with Somalia was driven by nationalistic aspirations to join all the five Somali territories into a Greater Somalia. In that Greater Somalia, the Issaqs stood to reestablish direct control over the Haud grazing areas, which were ceded by the British to Ethiopia in 1954, and which are vital to the pastoral economy of the northern clans. The defeat suffered by the Somali army in the Ogaden war of 1977 destroyed any presence of achieving that goal. Years of operating a guerrilla campaign from within Ethiopia and the mass movement of Issaqs into refugee camps in the Haud in 1988 may have persuaded people that the needs of the northern pastoralists for unhindered access to the Haud grazing lands can be better achieved through cooperation with Ethiopia rather than unity with the south. It may not be wholly coincidental that, prior to Burco 1991, the last Grand Shir of the northern clans occurred in 1954, in response to the British decision to cede the Haud to Ethiopia.

The restoration of Somaliland sovereignty brought an end to three years of war. Abdulrahman Ali 'Tuur', Chairman of the SNM, was elected President of an interim Somaliland government, with a two-year mandate.

The transition from war to peace was not easy. Given the traumatic experience of the Somali people and the schismatic nature of Somali political culture, it is not surprising that conflict returned to Somaliland. The initial euphoria of independence was shattered by an outbreak of fighting in Berbera in December 1991 and Burco in January 1992. The conflict, which stemmed partly from a struggle over the control of Berbera port and its revenues and partly from old rifts within the SNM, lasted for some eight months. It was eventually concluded through a political settlement on 7 October 1992, at the town of Sheik, brokered by the Somaliland elders. In May 1993, the Somaliland national committee of elders (the Somaliland National Guurti) went on to conclude a Conference on National Reconciliation in Boroma, at which a new President for Somaliland, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, was elected.

Diagram 12: Primary Issaq Clans


1.1 Towards A More Stable Environment

Despite the conflict and insecurity in 1992, the situation in Somaliland, compared with the south, has been very stable. The reason why Somaliland did not dissolve into the military quagmire and famine of the south is explained by a number of factors:29

a) Extent of the War

During the three years of war, the SNM guerrilla campaign was largely restricted to the Issaq territories in the regions of Waqoyi Galbeed, Togdheer and Sanaag. Areas inhabited by the Gadabursi (Awdal), Dolbahunte (Sool) and Warsengeli (Badhan) remained largely free from fighting, and today the towns of Boroma, Las Anod and Badhan remain relatively undamaged. While Hargeisa and Burco were extensively damaged, it meant that killing and destruction of property between the northern clans was limited. In contrast to the south, there was little retribution by the Issaq against the Hawiye, Ogaden, Oromo, Dolbahunte and Gadabursi soldiers who made up the remnants of the Somali army in the north. This helped to prevent a cycle of revenge between the clans, once Barre was defeated.

b) Common Values

For the SNM to be able to convene a conference in Burco between clans who two months previously had been at war assumes the existence of a certain amount of common understanding and trust between the different clans. In Somaliland there is not the same heterogeneity of clans and social organisations as in southern Somalia. Clan territory is more easily defined in the north. The social and cultural values and economic and political interests are closer among the northern clans than in the south.

Some Somalis suggest that the indigenous social institutions in Somaliland were less affected by British colonialism than they were in the south by the Italian administration.30 Urbanisation was much greater in the south than the north, and new forms of habitation, integration and education had an impact on social institutions. Thus, they suggest that the north has retained its indigenous institutions, customs and value systems, which include peace-making, to a greater degree than the south.

The northern clans, Issaq, Gadabursi, Dolbahunte and Warsengeli, are inter-married and have a long history of interaction, including cooperation and competition (hostility and hospitality). As a result the clans and sub-clan have evolved common xeer. Elders have commented that during the war in Somaliland certain basic rules of behaviour (xeer) were adhered to between the northern clans.31 These included the protection of women, children and prisoners. The retention of such values helped later in resolving conflicts.32

Although the SNM was primarily an Issaq organisation, it was able to attract individuals from other clans. Of particular importance is Abdulrahman Aw Ali (Gadabursi), now Vice President to Egal. He was able to mediate between the SNM and Gadabursi and prevent further fighting between the Issaq and Gadabursi in 1991.

Also important is the Dolbahunte Garaad Abdulgani. From 1989, in defiance of Siad Barre and Dolbahunte supporters of Barre, Garaad Abdulgani sought a relationship with the SNM, to prevent an escalation of conflict between the Issaq and the Dolbahunte. Thus local-level diplomacy and peace-making was happening even during the war. This helped to prevent retribution and revenge and an escalation of conflict once the SNM had defeated Barre's army.

c) Common Interests

As the Issaq have benefited from access to the Haud, so too have the other northern clans. The Dolbahunte and Warsengeli have investments in the northern towns of Berbera, Burco and Hargeisa. There is therefore an incentive for peaceful cooperation.

d) Military Sanction

Another important factor is that the SNM effectively won the war in Somaliland. The Issaq are the largest single clan and, having won the war, militarily were the most powerful clan. In Somali pastoral society, military strength, as Lewis (1961) has written, is a final sanction in any relationship. The victors were therefore able to sue for peace from a position of strength.

e) Indigenous Institutions

In marked contrast to the ideology of the former regime, under which 'tribalism' was banned, the SNM constitution recognises the significance of the clan system and, within this, the role of the elders as peace-makers and mediators. The elders have therefore played an important role in reconciliation between the clans.

f) Different Resources

Service infrastructure, industry and agriculture were more developed in the south than in the north. Between 1987 and 1989, some 41 per cent of development aid to Somalia was concentrated in the south. Somalia's main agricultural resources were in the south. The south therefore presented a wealthy resource-base to fight over. From 1991 onwards this was supplemented by relief aid. Mogadishu itself, as the capital and therefore 'centre of power', psychologically, is a prize to fight for. Through the act of secession, the Issaqs made a psychological break with Mogadishu and the south. Mogadishu was no longer an object to fight over. After Hargeisa and Burco were destroyed in the north and much of the wealth had been plundered, there was little else left for people to fight over. Ironically, the conflict in Berbera was sparked off by the resumption of relief aid to Somaliland.

A significant proportion of the southern population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. The destruction of the agricultural infrastructure and disruption to cropping cycles by the war quickly left a large destitute population. The pastoral economy of the north, which is more mobile, was less vulnerable to the ravages of war. The refugees in Ethiopia also provided a food chain for Somaliland which helped to stave off starvation.

At the same time there was in the south a larger population of urban destitute, alienated by years of economic stagnation. They provided ready recruits for the warlords - especially the large number of destitute street kids in Mogadishu in 1990. In the south there was also a greater stockpile of weapons to fuel the fighting.


1.2 The Elders and Peace-making

One distinction which many Somalis (northerners and southerners) make between the north and south is that 'traditions' are more embedded in the northern culture than in the south. The SNM constitution recognised the importance of the clan system in Somali society and, within this, the role of the elders. The SNM constitution, therefore, sets out a bicameral legislature with an upper house of elders and a parliament of directly elected politicians. In Somaliland it is the elders who have taken a leading role in restoring peace to the region. The example of the Somaliland elders bringing a chaotic situation under control provides an alternative model for the peace and reconciliation process attempted by the UN in Somalia to date, and is thus worth commenting on.

The institution of elders (sing. oday; pl. odayaal,; as council odayasha) and their role in Somali society can be confusing to a non-Somali. It is often not clear who is an elder, when he (it is always 'he') is an elder, how he becomes an elder, and what authority he possesses.

Somali pastoral society has no hierarchy of political units or political and administrative offices. Investing an individual with power goes against the egalitarian nature of Somali society. It is only at the level of the clan that one finds a post approximating to a leader or chief, known as a Sultan (among the Issaq), Garaad (meaning 'wisdom', among the Darod), and Ugaas or Boqor (among the Darod).

The position of Sultan is hereditary, although it is not always the first-born son who inherits that position. Not all clans have them, nor are they indispensable; in 1992 the Habr Yunis Sultan was killed in a house of disrepute in Hargeisa. Where they exist, they are a symbol of the unity of the clan over its constituent lineages. This symbolic role is reflected in the inauguration of a new Sultan, which should always take place in the rainy season, a time of prosperity. A Sultan enjoys respect, but not reverence. His personal qualities are as important as his position in determining his authority. At the same time his structural position, above sectional lineage differences, enables him to function as an arbiter and peace-maker, mediating relations with other clans, and settling disputes within his own clan. His authority, however, is often symbolic. In a peace meeting (stair nabadeedka) it is the elders who undertake the negotiations, while the Sultan approves the results, in his position as head of the clan.

Unlike Sultans, elders are found at all levels of lineage segmentation. A father is, for example, the elder of a nuclear family. All adult males at every level of segmentation can be elders, with a right to speak in council (shir). In principle all can have an equal say. In practice some elders are more influential than others.

The position of an elder is not hereditary. Over time it may become hereditary, as people may prefer elders of one lineage to play a leading role in lineage affairs, for fear of upsetting relations. The akil (from the Arabic wakil, 'deputy'), for example, or elder of a diya-paying group, often passes from father to son. Sheik Ibrahim, Chairman of the Somaliland National Council of Elders (guurti), comes from a long line of elders, the founders of Hargeisa, guardians of the Sheik's tomb, and is respected for his religious knowledge.

Elders are sometimes described as 'chiefs'. It is misleading to call elders chiefs, for it suggests a traditional position of authority which does not exist. They achieve their positions through a variety of attributes, of which age, wealth, wisdom, religious knowledge and piety, political acumen, powers of oratory, or a combination, are important. However, in this acephalous Somali society, an elder is a representative, who receives delegated authority, rather than assuming it. In council meetings they are delegates or emissaries of and for their clans, whom they represent and by whom they are supported.

An elder's authority is the reflection of a number of different qualities or skills. Different elders will have different roles in different situations. Certain elders have greater knowledge of, for example, genealogy, xeer, or politics than others. These skills will be better used in some circumstances than others. For example, when two clans are to meet to discuss peace, they will send to each other lists of delegates for the meeting. Each side will know whether the other is for peace or not by the names of the delegates, because their character, kinship and political leanings will be known.

Elders operate, not secretly, but in open councils (shir), which all adult males, or their representatives, may attend. A shir can be summoned at every order of segmentation, as required. They are called to discuss relations between groups, to work out xeer contracts, to settle disputes, or to decide upon war or peace. Elders are professional negotiators and mediators in all clan matters and it is from this position that they have been able to assert their authority in Somaliland.

Other people in Somali society who have a role in peace-making are the wadaad, or Sheiks, the men of religion. They play no role in lineage politics, having only spiritual authority. Owing no allegiance to clan interests, they are ideal mediators. However, they do not settle disputes themselves, judge or make judgments. The role of the wadaad, or sheik, is to add sanction and the seal of religion to the proceedings.

It is also misleading to talk about 'traditional elders', for this suggests an institution. One of the powerful attributes of Somali society is its dynamism and ability to adapt to change. Since the arrival of the colonialists the system of elders has been changing. The colonial administration in Somaliland changed the role of Akils by paying them stipends to act as go-betweens, between the administration and the clans. Under Barre, the government appointed nabadoon (peace-makers), to replace the role of the elders and represent the interests of the government.

During the early SNM guerrilla campaigns, the prestige and influence of the elders was eroded, because the movement was spearheaded by the politicians and military. Elders initially cautioned restraint to avoid bloodshed. It was only after the outbreak of full-scale war in 1988 that elders took an active role, and a council of elders was formed in exile. The elders then became instrumental in organising recruits for the SNM jabhad (guerrillas).

After the fall of Barre, with no functional government or security, people looked to the elders to reassert some control. Their peace-keeping role was a difficult one to carry out, given the numerous young militia and proliferation of heavy weapons in the country. The elders themselves, to whom some of the militia owed some allegiance, were not without their own vested interests.

Elders are chosen not just for their age, but for their ability to negotiate or influence a situation in favour of their clan. That 'ability' can include a number of characteristics, as described above. However, influence can also arise from wealth (and hospitality is a characteristic looked for in elders) or the military strength of the clan. One therefore often hears elders described as 'the biggest deydey (bandits)'. Equally, it can be difficult to make a direct distinction between elders and politicians, as they support each other. A distinction might be that elders deal with 'clan politics', while politicians deal with politics of the state. The dividing line, however, is thin.

It is wrong therefore to regard elders as people who are above day-to-day happenings and intrigues. Indeed, the knowledge of elders is drawn from their dayto-day involvement in matters of the clan. Rather than talking about the traditional institutions of elders, it may be more appropriate to think of elders as representatives, maintaining the 'traditions' of the clan.

In 1992, as the initial unity of independence disintegrated into anarchy, elders were called upon to take some control of the situation. In January 1992, as Habr Yunis and Habr Toljallo militia fought in Burco, elders physically stepped between the parties to stop the fighting. At the same time elders in Sanaag region formed a regional guurti of elders to begin a process of reconciliation. In October 1992, a national guurti of elders stepped in to mediate in the conflict over Berbera. The Sheik conference (known as 'Tawfiq') marked a turning point in the reconciliation process in Somaliland, and led directly to the Boroma National Reconciliation Conference, January-May 1993.

As representatives of their clans, the elders have been able to achieve what they have done in Somaliland only because they were invested with the authority to do so by the people. There was thus, I suggest, a change in 'collective consciousness' in Somaliland during 1992 which enabled people to pull the country back from the brink of a dangerous civil war. In looking to the elders to restore stability, people turned back to their 'traditions' as a source of knowledge and experience for solving their problems.33

The point is that the peace-making role of elders cannot happen without other people, forces and factors to help them. One section of the population who appear to have played a significant role is women.


1.3 Women and Peace-making

There is little understanding of the role that women have played both during and after the war in Somaliland and Somalia. Little has been written about this to date. And yet it is clear that women have played a significant role in a number of ways.

During the famine in the south, women ran food kitchens and food distribution. As one Somali man said, 'During the war, while the youth destroyed, women saved the families'. Since the end of the famine, women have adopted many of the orphaned children.

In Somaliland, women were an invisible front for the SNM, working as nurses and medics. They were a lifeline for the family, taking relatives out of the country. As refugees in Europe they were able to bring out other members of the family and transfer money back to the country. Able to travel more freely than men, they established channels of communication and were extremely important as traders. In the Ethiopian refugee camps, Issaq women established trading networks that involved sending ghee to Djibouti and the Gulf, cloth from Djibouti to Mogadishu, and Somali shillings from Mogadishu to the refugee camps. Some of these networks still exist. Since then, women have been among the main providers of family income, as petty traders selling tea, kat, gold and other items.

In some instances, women have also played a pro-active role in the war.34 Women were active in demonstrations with children in Hargeisa before and in the early days of the war. Most recently in Mogadishu, women have been prominent in the antiUN/US demonstrations of Aideed supporters. Women poets and singers have also actively supported the different factions in the south.35

In Somaliland women have returned from the war with a greater economic independence and stronger role as decision makers, while men have returned chewing even more kat than before. Many of the most active Somali NGOs in Somaliland are headed by women, such as Al Amil, the Somaliland Women's Association, and SOMRA. In Erigavo, one of the most active NGOs is the Women's Family Life Institute. In Mogadishu Idda is a powerful women's NGO. Many women are also active in the new Islamic movements.

Some women express discomfort with this role.36 They were brought up as unequal, but now are forced to take on greater responsibility as bread winners for the family and extended family. As a result they are unable to give as much time to the household or to take their children to the mother-and-child health clinics.

On 7 January 1993 five women were stoned to death in Hargeisa by followers of a Sheik. It is not clear why this happened. Some women believe it was an attempt to undermine the influence of women on the eve of the Boroma conference. Others believe it was a ploy by the government then to silence the Sheik, who had been openly critical of the government. The Sheik was subsequently jailed. While women believe it is unlikely to happen again, it demonstrated to them their vulnerability in this new situation. It is one reason why some women's NGOs would like to see the hat trade reduced. Women have always been involved in the kat trade as petty traders. It is reported that in some cases men encourage their wives to take it up, because it is lucrative. However, it is also a role that is looked down upon. Equally there is concern at the relatively high level of prostitution in Hargeisa among women forced into the trade by lack of other sources of income. One NGO has identified a particular group of teenage women who grew up during the war and became companions of the fighters. They have become ostracised from their families. There is a fear among women that the religious movements may begin to target women involved in kat and prostitution.37

It is clear that women have played a significant role in supporting peace and reconciliation in Somaliland. Some women claim that it was largely as a result of pressure exerted by women that the elders became active in the reconciliation process over Berbera. During the negotiations the Somaliland Women's Organisation organised demonstrations in Hargeisa in support of peace. They were also the only group to openly petition the government of Abdulrahman Tuur to sue for peace. At Sheik they were active in providing the logistics for that meeting, and it is said that some women gave financial support to the guurti. Women have also been supportive of the police in Hargeisa.

Although men are the public face at peace meetings, women claim to be able to influence things, both publicly and in domestic settings. Women will often listen in on meetings, and interject if necessary. Through marriage, women can also be an important channel of communication between conflicting parties. As such they can act to influence both sides in a conflict and may be used as emissaries. Symbolically this female role finds expression in the diya (blood compensation) paid for homicide, which is paid in the form of female camels.

The Somaliland guurti have recognised in their speeches at peace meetings the role played by women. A women poet was, unusually, given the opportunity to recite peace poems at the Boroma conference.38 And in recognition of the role of women should play in Somaliland, in September 1993 Egal appointed a woman as a Minister of State to the Presidency.

The importance that women can have in peace-making is recognised in the following Somali proverb:

Dumarka holbay kay raacaan baa reeya.

Those whom women cheer for surely win.