Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Does Somalia need tribal elders?


We now know leaders are made and not born. In African tribal communities, predominantly male leaders publicly known as either 'chiefs or chieftains', 'tribal elders' or 'communal heads' wield considerable wealth, respect, and power to an extent they have their rightful places in the legal and constitutional frameworks of their respective governments that give them executory muscle to handle matters pertaining to declaration of war, restoration of peace, and judicial deliberations, if need be. Thus, they run double-faced parallel foundations that sometimes do more harm than good to the communities they serve and to the constitutions they pledge allegiance to. We learn from the history of slavery and slave trade how African chiefs played great roles in the selling and enslavement of their own kith and kin and how they monotonously depleted the natural resources that collectively belonged to those under their commands.

While chieftainships in some peaceful African states spearhead social integration and coherence, oversee spiritual and religious commemorations and the observation of political stability, what boggles the mind is the sorry state of the devastated sparsely populated nation of Somalia whose sense of pride dissipated when tribal chiefs and warlords took over control of its affairs beginning 1991 when the central government collapsed leaving behind a big power vacuum.

Depending on clan, dialect, region or locality, Somali tribal elders are known by various names. Most commonly and before the emergence of the modern state of Somalia in 1960, a powerful leader could be referred to as "Boqor", "Ugaas" or "Suldaan" which implied they enjoyed Kingly statuses. Ahmed "Gurey" or "gran" (the left-handed), a man whose identity and nationality is shrouded in mystery because he is claimed by several Abyssinian tribal groups, enjoys greater popularity among Somalis because he is regarded as the most powerful leader in Somali history and therefore is categorized as king and a religious figurehead. Most of the wars he fought were directed at the Christian kings of Abyssinia. The man the British Empire nicknamed "Mad Mullah", Muhammad Abdille Hassan, was a "Seyyid" as he epitomized a religious figurehead and not a king. Mad Mullah fought vigorously for over twenty years until his sudden death in 1829 in the village of Imey in the predominantly Somali inhabited Ethiopia-occupied Ogaden region. Seyyid Muhammad Abdille Hassan had direct military and diplomatic cooperation with the Mahdi of Sudan; he performed pilgrimage in the Holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia at a time when few dared travel great distances ; he received his religious education in the Middle East and he is regarded to this day as the best poet Somalia has ever had. Thus, his elevated profile, his poetic eloquence, his struggle for Somali nationalism, his unchallenged worldly adventures and his military prowess remain challenges for modern Somali men to this day.

In contrast, men who play the roles of "Malaaq", an inferior designation commonly reserved for tribes inhabiting the central and southern regions of Somalia, wield little power and influence. Lately, Malaaqs have become popular in several central restive regions, in Mogadishu and its environs. Their proliferation among rural communities has hampered the effective delivery of humanitarian supplies by relief agencies whose employees often become victims of extortion, assassinations, and abductions because the types of administrations these Malaaqs oversee are dependent on the strength of highway robbers and armed hooligans drawn from a wide range of hardcore criminals whose livelihood is dependent on the subjugation of law and order. The scramble for land and competition for dwindling resources have seriously hampered the powers of most Malaaqs who, due to worldly temptations, finally jump on the bandwagon to fully participate in any conceivable illegal activity as a last resort.

Amazingly, most Somali transitional governments collapsed because they could not receive the unanimous or collective blessings of the multifarious tribal structures operating in the country. Some powerful tribal leaders threw their weights behind the transitional governments of their choice. Others rejected them forthrightly because of difference of opinion or categorically refused to endorse any entity due to the existence of tribal schisms with the respective head of state or with his immediate trusted lieutenants. Ironically, when the military junta was in power, Somali tribal chieftains or tribal elders hardly received any attention in the government-controlled media. They started emerging and receiving ethnic recognition after 1991 when law and order dissipated.

Currently, the largest and most famous clan-based tribal leadership in the center of Somali conflict is the so-called Hawiye council of tribal elders headed by Ahmed Dirie. Despite the existence of Somali tribal elders since time immemorial, there has never been a time in recorded Somali history when community heads failed to reconcile warring tribes other than today where tribal animosity has become an incurable affliction whose remedy has evaded divine admonitions, jurisdictions, and interferences of the international community, friendly and neighboring states, saintly scholars, and even the peace-loving layman. The irony is that even Somali academics and government heads of our modern era fully support tribal elders and revere them so fondly such that they are considered to be living saints.

Ironically, all previous reconciliation efforts blessed by these tribal leaders were either short-lived or ended in disarray. Somali tribal elders have no offices to operate from; many are illiterate; because they are not deeply religious, they cannot be categorized as Imams; they are never elected by popular vote; all came to dominate the throne of authority by way of inheritance or through automatic succession after the eventual death of next of kin.

In a male dominated society like that of Somalia, often, no mention is made of an incumbent female tribal elder or chieftain. Somalia's most idolized female leader is the historically famous Arawelo-an astute woman mentioned in oral literature who was notorious for castrating male offenders. The national origin of Arawelo is in doubt though popular opinion states that she was of Portuguese descent and not Somali as many would want us believe.

Since Somalia's tribal elders have a hand in the prolonged conflict, is it not wise to reduce their powers and the considerable influence they have in society? In my view, the era of tribal leadership is over and without an iota of doubt, I am overly convinced that tribal chieftains are the major cause of Somalia's two-decade civil disobedience and that this position of influence should be abolished whenever a stable Somali government emerges from the ashes of destruction.

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