Tribal elders are capable of bridging the trust deficit between the Somali government and Al Shabab – and they might be the only chance left for peace.
It’s been over three years since I survived a brutal suicide bombing perpetrated by Al Shabab in Somalia. I luckily emerged from the wreckage unscathed, but the ghastly memories of the gruesome scene refuse to fade.
I can still feel the blast and the wave of intense heat on my skin. The power of its vibration was so fierce that its reverberations paralysed the capital city. I remember the stench of the smoke and the rank taste of explosives filling my throat. I can still hear the dozens of innocent civilians lying on the ground, their faces and bodies covered in blood.
Twenty-two people lost their lives that day, and dozens more were injured. While the attack registered as a mere blip in the grand scheme of things, Al Shabab’s relentless and destructive attacks have been chipping away the perennial spirit of the Somali people for over a decade. Thirteen years of carnage, with no possible solution in sight.
Since its birth in 2006, Al Shabab has been regularly orchestrating acts of terrorism throughout Somalia. Widely regarded as second to Nigeria’s Boko Haram in its use of violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, Al Shabab was in 2017 recognised as Africa’s most deadly militant Islamist group by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
In October 2017, the group was credited with carrying out the world’s deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11, claiming the lives of 587 people and injuring hundreds more.
Years before it subscribed to Al Qaeda’s ideology and hardened its callousness and outright brutality, Al Shabab was susceptible to reaching a negotiated ceasefire to end Somalia’s bloody civil war. However, through a series of serious missteps executed by previous Somali governments, the window for a peaceful negotiation was never opened.
Currently, with both sides caught in a protracted political deadlock, refusing to budge to any demands, we overlook the vital role traditional elders can play in guiding the process that can resolve the violent stalemate between Al Shabab and the current Somali government.
Missed opportunities and sidesteps
Al Shabab emerged in late 2006 as a religio-nationalist guerrilla army hell-bent on ejecting Ethiopia’s military occupation from Somalia and implementing Islamic Law. Their initial rhetoric embodied nationalistic objectives. And contrary to popular belief, its charismatic founder, Adan Hashi Ayrow, steered clear of bringing up Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden in his rare speeches. The Ethiopian occupation gave the group all the legitimacy it needed, and public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of Al Shabab.
At the time, Al Shabab was receptive to negotiations, but the Somali government at the time was not. Indeed, Al Shabab’s precondition to achieving reconciliation was tied to the full and unconditional departure of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.
The Somali government—who actively ruled only 5 percent of Somalia’s territory at the time—refused to make any concessions and categorically rejected the offer losing out on the historic opportunity to pursue initial talks that could have led to meaningful negotiations.
Following the killing of Ayrow by an American missile in 2008, Al Shabab’s command structure welcomed several Al Qaeda core members into top leadership roles and rapidly reconstructed itself from a local nationalistic movement into an Al Qaeda-aligned terrorist organisation that purportedly sought to propagate terrorist attacks against Western targets.
With the group’s change in direction, driven by its new leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, came an unwavering position that there can be no negotiations with Somalia’s “apostate” government, arguing that they must either surrender or face destruction.
Somalia has experienced several peaceful transitions of power since Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the country in 2009, but no government has succeeded in revising their ‘no-negotiation approach’ – and not for want of trying. All overtures to Al Shabab have been met with silence.
At two critical junctures during Somalia’s painful and slow road to recovery, misinterpreted signals and opportunities that could have effectively ended Somalia’s protracted civil war were wasted.
Since the killing of Godane in 2014 and the ascension of his protege, Abu Ubayda, the group’s position on the government remains unchanged. Both sides are stuck in a deadlock, unable to shift the dynamics of the conflict. A new approach is required.
Traditional Somali elders’ untapped potential
Traditional and religious elders in Somalia have always played an active role as peacemakers. For instance, in 2008, Oromo elders persuaded leaders of the armed group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to sign an agreement to hold peace talks with the Ethiopian government.
Similarly, during the final years of the South African apartheid regime, religious leaders led by Desmond Tutu successfully mediated first-time negotiations between different factions and the apartheid regime.
In the Somali context, traditional elders have played a significant function in terms of security and social cohesion. They command authority, derived from a historical position within Somali society, that makes them useful in maintaining peaceful communal relationships.
As experienced mediators of Somali customary law (Xeer), they have been instrumental in establishing relatively stable structures of governance, jurisprudence, and security. Puntland and Somaliland serve as demonstrable examples where traditional elders mapped a mechanism to bring sustainable peace.
Since 2010, they have played an essential role in facilitating the defections of senior Al Shabab officials by acting as trustworthy guarantors.
Hassan Dahir Aweys, Al Shabaab’s former spiritual leader, defected in 2013 after having a falling out with Al Shabaab’s top brass. Initially, he was reluctant to surrender but following months of negotiations with government officials–facilitated by traditional elders of his clan–Aweys ultimately surrendered later in 2013 and has been in government custody since.
In a similar vein, Mukhtar Robow, a co-founder and former deputy leader of Al Shabab, surrendered in 2017 to the Somali authorities. Following a similar process experienced by his erstwhile colleagues, traditional elders negotiated a deal with Somalia’s government.
Beyond the defection process, traditional elders’ versatility has been tested under challenging situations; from releasing humanitarian workers captured by Al Shabab to intervening on behalf of captured government troops who were moments away from being executed by Al Shabaab.
Even during Somalia’s last drought in 2017, traditional elders negotiated access to humanitarian deliveries in Al Shabaab-controlled regions.
Yet, their capability as reliable guides to set the stage for a negotiated settlement has been ignored.
Pre-negotiations are more important than formal negotiations. They serve as the “learning process” to get both the government of Somalia and Al Shabab to understand the needs, interests, and expectations of the other side.
In a bid to get Al Shabab to soften their no-negotiation stance and pave the way for enduring peace, it’s imperative for the Somali government to consult traditional elders. Their hereditary representation, vested legitimacy, and perceived integrity are acknowledged by both warring parties and can undoubtedly set in motion a process that could potentially lead to a negotiated settlement.
Dr Mohammed Ibrahim Shire is a Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Centre for Social and Cultural Research. He is the co-founder and director of Somali Faces, an award-winning storytelling platform.