The Common Good
January 1994

Building Peace in Somalia

by John Paul Lederach | January 1994

Earlier this year I was present at a series of U.N.-sponsored national
reconciliation conferences addressing the Somali conflict.

Earlier this year I was present at a series of U.N.-sponsored national reconciliation conferences addressing the Somali conflict. At a conference last spring a close Somali friend, participating as a delegate representing Somali non-governmental organizations, met in the corridor his cousin, the chair of one of the key political parties in Mogadishu.

"Mr. Chairman," my friend cajoled his cousin with typical Somali humor. "How is it that you warlords think that one of you has the right to be president?" He was referring to the political haggling and resulting impasse that seemed to set in at every Somali peace conference over what clan and ultimately what person would rise to the presidency. "Don't you know," my friend continued, "that without a frame the roof of a house collapses."

"You know as well as I," the chairman replied, "that the key to a healthy body is a good head. I have never seen legs walk or arms move without a head."

"Dear cousin," my friend replied with a deep note of sadness, "the legs have been crushed, the arms are bled clean. There is no body to be head of."

The metaphoric discourse both captures the dilemma of Somali peacemaking and reflects the outcome of the national conference, where the accords process formed a national transition committee and a means of re-establishing local and regional councils. Since March, the high-level national transition has (predictably) collapsed, but the local and regional councils have slowly solidified.

The eyes of the world, however, have been riveted on the fighting and intrigue of Mogadishu and the personalization of the Somali tragedy. Lost to the cameras was a broader perspective and clarity on a strategy for sustainable reconciliation.

The Clinton administration has recently moved to reorient its policy on Somalia. The new rhetoric shifted away from personalizing the conflict, an approach that had seemed destined - by virtue of culture and context - to make outlaws of an entire sub-clan of the Somali family. It moved away from a policy driven by military enforcement and toward one of political discourse and negotiated settlement.

UNDERLYING the rhetoric, however, are the pangs of the well-known fears that have underlied the Somali crisis of the past three years. These can be articulated in three fundamental concerns.

First, trickle-down approaches to peace in Somalia are destined to fail. While the Clinton policy shift toward jump-starting political negotiations is important, it appears aimed at moving quickly toward renewed national talks.

Such a strategy places primary emphasis on seeking accommodation between factional and militia leaders, which has the function of putting district and regional processes on a back-burner and diminishes the role of elders, religious leaders, intellectuals, and women who play an important moderating influence on the political leaders. In fact, sustainable reconciliation depends largely on the opposite: the need to build an infrastructure for peace, starting with deliberations between contiguous sub-clans over issues of resource sharing, social control, cease-fires, and the establishment of legitimate representation.

Second, Mogadishu is not the center of Somalia. Over the past three years, the international community has approached Somalia with a Mog-centric attitude. The Clinton policy seems oriented toward re-establishing order in Mogadishu as the key priority for peace in Somalia, as if Mogadishu is Somalia.

In fact, the inverse is true. A key aspect of the long-term solution likely will be a highly decentralized model of governance that places high value on local and regional autonomy and strict accountability on centralized authority.

Third, there is no quick fix in Somalia. The Clinton administration and the international community in general have operated with untenable timeframes driven by domestic and external agenda, not by the realities of Somali culture and context. Increasing military troops and then setting a fixed point for their withdrawal are less likely to encourage peaceful political transition than to create a vacuum for increased sub-clan fighting and jockeying for central power.

These are the fears. There are also hopes. One hopes that the international community moves toward clearer and more explicit acknowledgment of district and regional peace processes, including the important Grand Peace Conference guided by clan elders in Somaliland, and that we find direct ways of supporting these efforts. They are, in the long run, the legs, arms, and body of peace.

Somalia should push us to think about disarmament as socio-economic transformation - a process of reconstruction and alternative employment - instead of seeing it as a static phase of military imposition and separation. Highly charged, internal conflicts like Somalia invite us to develop an alternative vision for well-trained, internationally legitimated, nonviolent peacekeepers, a "peaceforce," that can accomplish the needed tasks of observation, delivery of aid, and protection of civilians without introducing increased levels of weapons.

JOHN PAUL LEDERACH is director of the international conciliation program of the Mennonite Central Committee.

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