Somaliland:The Gadabursi Chieftaincy: Should It Be Revived?
02 June, 2013
Somaliland:The Gadabursi Chieftaincy: Should It Be Revived?
Somaliland:The Gadabursi Chieftaincy: Should It Be Revived?
“Nin aan kuu furaynin yuu kuu rarin” (A man who is not going to help you unpack your camel should not be organizing the load for you unless he plans to journey with you.). Somali proverb.
The members of the Gadabursi community in Canada and the United States were moved by the nostalgia of a long gone tribal chieftaincy whose decline began shortly after the arrival of the British and the departure of the Turks and Egyptians—both allies of the chieftaincy. The fall of the chieftaincy progressed gradually as the Gadabursi were sandwiched between the Reserve Area (upper area of what is now Somali regional state of Ethiopia), French Somaliland (Djibouti), and British Somaliland (Somaliland). The chieftaincy, in effect, died in the 1930s (see Revival of the Chieftaincy: A system that works) as Ugas Nur, the last head of the chieftaincy began to shuttle between Britain, France, and the Ethiopia. Ugas Nur, unlike any other chief, was chosen by an assembly of one hundred elders of the Gadabursi tribal assembled under a tree rather than by hereditary right to a throne. When tribal issues got tangled, the elders would say, “Geedka inoo geeya.” (Let’s discuss it under the tree.). This adhoc gathering of elders toward the end of 1800s officially abolished a centralized hereditary right to the Gadabursi throne. It also effectively set in motion the beginning of the end of Ugas Nur’s hereditary reign. The last testament of this beloved poet of great social and political acumen was to accept, and thereby usher in the end of the chieftancy as a hereditary, non-elected position.
He did not sing in tune with the new colonial arrivals and subsequently was at odds with the British, French and Ethiopians. There were times when he made serious blunders. His movements were restricted, and the British told him “You can’t have two masters.” France and Britain were vying over a demarcation line that was to be drawn over the port of Zeila, each trying to win over the tribe that had jurisdiction over the port and the land surrounding it. The British waited for an opportunity to create a rift within the family chieftaincy (Reer Ugas). They succeeded by 1900 when Elmi Warfaa, a cousin of Ugas Nur, was sent to Zeila to negotiate with Britain’s governor and several other individuals about protecting British interests, being a loyal tribe, and making decisions about the future of their land. What Elmi and his delegation signed comprised a set of instructions about what the Gadabursi should do for the British. The content of that document is clear, but that is a story of its own. Whether Ugas Nur was upset with what Elmi did, or whether Elmi had ambitions of his own is not clear. What is important about the document is its effect on the chieftaincy arising from the disagreement and resulting division between Elmi and Ugas Nur. Shortly after the document known as the Gadabursi Treaty of 1884 (although I call it instructions and orders for the Gadabursi) was signed, Elmi was appointed by the British to be the chief of the Gadabursi in Somaliland.
Elmi’s defection and the creation of a pro-British chieftaincy officially led to the downfall of the original chieftaincy, confining Nur to the Reserve Area side and Elmi to British Somaliland. The actions of Reer Ugas and the interference of Britain were the primary factors responsible for this breakup. Sporadic violence continued within Reer Ugas well into the 1930s. The other Sultans and head men of the wider lineages continued to quietly and efficiently govern their respective clans after the break-up of the original chieftaincy. Mahad-ase and Habar Arfan continued to govern themselves with their Sultans and headmen, leading the tribes through an extremely difficult and tumultuous period of attempting to maintain peace while serving as the go-between among their respective tribes and the British authorities.
An attempt was made by the British in 1957 to reinstate the chieftaincy of Rer Ugas. E.W. Westmorland Wood, British District Commissioner of Borama and Zeila brought up the issue with the Chief Secretary of the British government and the Commissioner of Somali Affairs. They declined to reinstate the chieftaincy due to the internal disputes of the tribe. The British colonial government did not settle the dispute. They declared that the chieftaincy issue should be settled at another time by the Gadabursi. Unfortunately it was not accepted by many of the Gadabursi lineages.
The chieftaincy continued to exist in name only as the Gadabursi in Ethiopia were not allowed to govern without the control of Ethiopians; and in Somaliland without the control of the British. By the nineteen seventies Ugas Doodi (father of the current Ugas Abdirashid) and several other tribal elders were assassinated by the notorious Ethiopian dictator, Menghistu Haille Mariam, for allegedly supporting Somali unity. Another fifteen years went by without appointing an Ugas, although Jama Muhumed was the figurehead and symbolic guardian of the chieftaincy in the absence of a formal Ugas.
In 1985 Ugas Abdirashid, a young student not quite ready for tribal affairs, was designated by family members in Mogadishu to continue with the name of the chieftaincy. The young Ugas fled from Mogadishu during the Somali civil war of 1991 and lived in Canada for many years without exercising any tribal authority; and without a deep understanding of the tribal system with its constantly shifting alliances.
In June of 2010, Professor Ahmed Ismail Samatar initiated a separate effort to establish communal kinship bonds based on locality rather than tribe. Professor Ahmed directed community members to come together to harness the positive aspects of kinship and communal harmony, while celebrating clan diversity and affinity to locality rather than loyalty to a tribe. Unfortunately, community leaders and the young Ugas missed the professor’s primary point. Instead of embracing his practical advice, they shifted their focus to a revival of the Gadabursi chieftaincy. Family members of the Ugas rushed to various cities and held numerous parties to gain legitimacy. Other tribal elders in Awdal were confused as to what this meant and how they should react. The two primary branches of the Gadabursi, Mahad’ase and Habar-arfan opposed the installation of an Ugas. They agreed that as times have changed, the idea of a centralized chieftaincy is now relinquished to the annals of history. The Sultans of these two tribes advised other community leaders that it would be more appropriate to have a chief for Makahil—especially since the centralized chieftaincy is dead, each tribe has a primary head, and the Makahil position remains vacant. Rer Ugas (Makahil Dhere) stubbornly resisted the advice of the two Sultans and instead, chose to go after the lower headmen of the two main tribes. The lower headmen vetoed the revival of a centralized chieftaincy and made announcements of recognition during lunch gatherings and parties held for Chief Abdirashid.
The young Ugas sat with several elders reminiscing over the glory days of the chieftaincy. The young Ugas, who is not blessed with much intellect or experience, was unable to gain general public support because he had not said anything noteworthy. In the Somali tradition, the chief would demonstrate wisdom (murti) but the young Ugas hardly says anything except”I pray for rain, milk and unity,” the three symbols of prosperity. Rain is particularly significant during the coronation of a chief as it is believed to bring God’s blessings. Instead of rain however, the clouds briefly gathered and slowly dissipated, leaving the ceremony suspended in the air. When this spiritual suspension is witnessed, it is taken as a sign that internal tribal consensus endorsement is withheld. If weather actually played a role then it was on the mark: the two other guardians of the tribe did not give their approval of the crowning of a single hereditary chief.
Suldan Abdirahman Dhawal and Suldan Samatar–the primary powers and power brokers—completely sidelined him, but were open to having revival of a contract rather than of the chieftaincy. The contract that Dhawal and Samatar made reference to pertains to an archaic law of the Gadabursi governing internal relations among Gadabursi lineages, primarily in regard to general disputes, blood compensation, land disputes, livestock issues and the day to day conflict management. It covers both nomadic and sedentary clan affairs, as well as relations with other Somali clans. If a centralized chief were to be revived then the governing tribal laws require selection of a chief by one hundred head men; and the reinstatement of the Gadabursi sultans. Rer Ugas did not present any counteroffer to settle the matter, but made a show of flexing muscle which they in fact did not possess. They invited officials of the self -proclaimed Somaliland to intervene and reach some sort of settlement. The meeting was reluctantly attended by both parties and overseen by a committee consisting of seven individuals. The committee produced a one page document calling for stability and set forth a four point statement of agreement. First, the Gadabursi would not have one hereditary chief approved by the three primary lineages of the Gadabursi. Secondly the new chief would be the head of only the Makahil, the third branch of the Gadabursi which had anointed him. Finally, any future installation of a centralized chief would have to be agreed to by the sub-tribes, and based on the provisions of their customary law.
The customary law (xeer) has the potential to be great law for governing the chieftaincy. Realizing that potential would require additional revisions to address currently existing problems—as it has not been touched for over two hundred years. Instead of returning to the traditional chieftaincy, the focus should shift to customary law as the tribe collectively faces crises very similar to, and possibly more lethal than during the colonial period. Current challenges involve the use and distribution of resources, including land, water, and oil. Oil and oil ports have become an issue in the context of Somaliland, where Somaliland state largely controlled by one family is eyeing both land and other resources for the sale of concessions with oil companies and other investors. Somaliland is creating a rift in local governance by directly interjecting themselves in what is purely local. This is where the Ugas needs to understand and articulate ideas beyond the “ancestral years.” The Ugas should concentrate on managing the Makahil clan that straddles the borders and is currently without a single hereditary Sultan. This is the context most suitable for the Ugas, especially since the Makahil clan is rallying behind him. Mahad’ase and Habar-arfan, the two other branches of the Gadabursi clan have established their own chieftaincy, which is as old as the Ugas chieftaincy. The only issues connecting the clans are collective efforts involving Sultans, elders and headmen for common kinship interests—and these do not benefit from a largely ineffectual centralized chieftaincy. As the Somali proverbs goes, “you can’t have your fat and liver together (“Xaydha jecliyaa beerka jecliyaa”).
The new contract involving these three constituencies must address all key issues that Somali clans usually compete over—natural and material resources, government representation, allocation of resources, and settlement of disputes. The chieftaincy is not about who should be crowned as a traditional chief. This institution is a political tool that has been used by corrupt former politicians and tribal elders, individuals that are known to have milked former governments by securing government positions, controlling resources, and unfairly distributing benefits of the state by claiming to rein from a ruling class. Such individuals are always running in front of the chief and speaking in every gathering—always seeking to gain endorsements rather than addressing critical needs. These remnants of the former dictator Siad Barre know how to use tribe and tradition to sway to a cause so that it will directly benefit them. They know the art of divisiveness, and use these arts to accumulate fame, wealth and status. Unfortunately Chief Abdirashid was not wise enough to understand that these individuals were leading him into a tribal mine field. They should take stock of the Somali adage, “Without knowing the country, to which you travel, you will get lost; and if you go to a place where you don’t know anybody, you will starve (“Dal aqoon la’aan waa la habaabaa, dad aqoon la’aana waa la qadaa”).