African Solutions for African Problems [Part 2]

Ali Jimale Ahmed

And it is here where I propose to shift the terms of the debate. The call, oftentimes, prioritizes peace-keeping efforts that are in the main meant to correct, mend, or bolster a broken system. Peacekeeping more often than not points to a simple fact, namely, civility and bonds are given to the dogs. The peacekeeping precept or effort, then, is a way to create a breathing space for the combatants in the hope of reviving those broken communal bonds, and bringing back a sense of national consciousness. My argument in this speech is to imagine the terms of the debate a bit differently. Peace and its dividends are not lost on the African people. Societies are aware that with peace come prosperity and a modicum of stability, that war and the threat of war instill fear and unease in the minds of people. A Somali adage has it that “Men’s real ‘gogol’ or bed is peace. (“Rag gogoshii waa godob la’aan.”) Only in the absence of fear of retribution would men be able to sleep well, in peace.  The operative phrase is “godob la’aan” (without a prior or unattended “injury.” That is, the victim’s relatives were not given any form of solatium or compensation for this injury.

In short, it’s obvious that without peace, no human would be able to function in society. What I would rather propose is that we imagine a time before the conflict, when conflicts could be averted, in much the same way we could build dikes and barriers to proactively protect a city, a country, from flooding. Again, a Somali proverb says, “Daad inta uusan ku soo gaarin ayaa la iska moosaa,” meaning, before flooding strikes or reaches you, make sure that you protect yourself against it. It simply means: to prevent flooding, construct levee dikes or walls. (Put simply: Prevention is better than cure.) Now how do we avert the dangers of imminent conflicts, those that are in their inchoate stages? I once proposed the formation of an institution that could signal the advent of conflicts. That is, an institution that could alert us to the coming of the storm.

In African traditions and cultures, we find a plethora of poems and oral narratives and even snippets of anecdotal sayings that, collectively understood, could signal a sound warning system against communal violence. In Somali society, anyone who had a modicum of knowledge of Somali lore could foresee the gathering storm in what some thought was a distant sky. All we had to do was pay attention to and heed well the poetry and stories that populated the Somali consciousness. How did clans view themselves and their others? Many intellectuals who claimed to possess progressive and socialist ideas at the time demonstrated the chasm between their professed ideologies and their daily living and practices. Alas, some could not even see how they were implicated in their actions and ideologies. The rest of society, especially those who were thought to be on the margins, the bulk of the nation, was not to be duped. They could see through the elite’s political skullduggery. The Somali masses could concur with the words of the Congolese [Zairian] woman, who, perplexed with the excesses of the political establishment, lamented: “When will this Independence come to an end?” (The anecdote could be part of the ignored or unattended apocryphal narratives that dot the landscape of African culture.) The lament was more of a disappointment with how those in power were conducting themselves and the affairs of the nation. In short, she had a practical consciousness, to borrow from Raymond Williams, one that made her see through the empty rhetoric of those leading the nation. And here is where I am going with this: had we heeded the lady’s prophetic verdict on Mobotu and his goons, perhaps the Congolese people could have spared themselves the pain and anomy that later ensued or came on the heels of the collapse of the regime. The same is true of the Somali case. In the early 1980s (1983, to be exact), I gave a talk at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles on Somali language, culture, and politics. In the Q&A section, a student asked me if I could sniff the air and tell them what I thought would become of the SDR in the coming ten years. In retrospect, I am amazed by the ease with which I responded: “A vicious civil war will engulf the whole country and Somalia will disintegrate.”  There were two or three Somalis in the audience, and I was surprised that none took issue with my assertion. How did I know, since I never claimed to possess a crystal ball? My early interest in Somali culture, coupled with what was going on in parts of the country, especially the turmoil and oppression that citizens in Hargeysa and other places were going through was decisive here, unless one preferred to sink his head, ostrich-like, in the sand, it was obvious that the situation was untenable, and that, sooner or later, something had to give. I would hazard a thought here: the Rwandan situation would not be that different than their Zairian and Somali counterparts. I posit that that if we could listen carefully to the poetry and oral narratives in Kinyarwanda, or its parent language Rwanda-Rundi, one would find hints, threads, or snippets that point to the brewing storm that led to the genocide. Traditions are made by humans; while circumstances create humans, humans are not mere sponges that absorb with no change in the makeup of the sponge. Thus, it is important to listen with our ears, our hearts, our being. “Do you hear me doesn’t mean “Can you hear me?” Rather, it means “Do you understand me?”

The call for a return to African culture and tradition to solve African problems should entail knowing what the source and its derivatives are. The return also takes a simple fact into account: neither the returnee nor the source is the same, because of the dialectical nature of reality. It is here that we need a new way of theorizing about the past, one that would compel us to steer clear of romanticizing the past. As I said before, any attempts to resuscitate the past should be mediated by wit. The past thus called on would yield positive results/fruition.

Imagine for a minute the role the following African traditions still play in the lives of people: the Gada system of the Oromos in Ethiopia and elsewhere, the Rwandan Gacaca, the Kgotta system in Botswana, and the Geedka Xeerka in Somali tradition. (Remember, I said: Somali tradition; I differentiate here between what I called elsewhere discourses of the nation and discourses of the state.)

The Oromo in Ethiopia had over the centuries a socio-political system that ensured the smooth running of their affairs. In Gada: Three Approaches, Asmarom Legesse writes:

What is amazing about this system is its visionary power. The Oromos early on understood the importance of taking turns; in other words, the importance, to speak in contemporary jargon, of term limits. But the system also views community leadership in a holistic manner; thus, the amalgamation of the political, economic, and ritual matters of the community. This ensures that the gada class in power does not remain aloof or become ensconced in ivory towers somewhere in the capital. When the term of a group expires, the outgoing administration gives its blessings to the new incoming gada class. This ensures a smooth transfer of power in all its facets. We cannot underestimate the soothing effect this kind of system would have on the psyche of those waiting for their turn. It ensures stability.

That said, I want to emphasize and reiterate the need to avoid all forms of romanticizing the past. The gada system also had negative side-effects, whether intended or not. Again, in the words of Legesse, “Before assuming a position of leadership, the gada class is required to wage war against a community that none of their ancestors had raided. The particular war is known as butta and is waged on schedule every eight years” (81). That aspect of the tradition is something we could live without. We could prove our machismo and bravery through more constructive channels.

I’ll touch briefly on the remaining three systems—kgottla, gacaca, and the geedka xeerka. The kgotta is in simple terms a “meeting place,” specifically a community forum held in a chief’s court. The idea is to ensure that people contribute to the running of their affairs, and in the process solidify the ramparts of “social harmony” (ka gisano, in Tswana). The application of the other two systems is important in that both systems came to the rescue of their respective users. The gacaca is a Kinyarwanda word meaning a kind of grass on which people sit when they need to discuss or adjudicate matters of interest to the community. This system came in handy for Rwandans trying to heal the painful experience of the 1994 carnage. The court system inherent in the gacaca deliberations expedited the process of reconciling victims and perpetrators of the genocide. It is partly a kind of talking therapy in which the victims speak their minds and let off steam. The villains also own up to their crimes, and in the process attempt to come to terms with their past. The important element which accentuates its effect is the presence of the two parties in the same space, within hearing distance of each other. The villain can feel and palpably perceive the extent of his/her actions on the victim. Yet this is not to institute or maintain a kind of victim-victor stasis. The exercise is meant to learn from the past and put in place some mechanism that would guard against a repetition of past injustices, against future blunders.

The geedka xeerka is a venerable Somali tradition that all kinds of Somalis have practiced over the years. Xeerbeegti or guurti (those steeped in customary laws) meet under the shade of a tree, whether it’s a galool, or Yaaq or mukki, etc. After the civil war, the people of Somaliland decided to gather under the shade of a symbolic tree to chart a new vision for their people. The gathering met in the important and blessed town of Boorama. After months of deliberations, a verdict was hammered out, and Somaliland came into being. Under the shade of the geedka met representatives from all walks of life. The system ensured that discussion and civil discourse carried the day. (Perhaps this is a model for other Somalis in Somalia to emulate. I have been on record that I have no objections to Somaliland and its efforts to achieve independence and hopefully joining world bodies. It is in our interest that Somalis live amicably and as good neighbors. As a Punjabi proverb has it, “When halter and heel-ropes are cut, do not give chase with sticks but with gram (grain).” We must acknowledge that ruptures have taken place, and ruptures are steeped in contradictions; and contradictions have a history. Unless you can understand the pain of the other, you won’t be able to empathize with humans. Ethical imperatives compelled me to call Hargaysa the Somali Guernica—almost 20 years ago.

(That said, I would be remiss not to add that I foresee a time when nations and groupings in a region might be compelled by life’s vicissitudes and vagaries to seek shelter in numbers. But that should not be precipitated through compulsion and force or even unnecessary and unproductive tug-of-war. The more the status quo drags on, the more intransigence becomes entrenched.)  What do the traditional systems mentioned above have in common? They all refer to a gathering of citizens under the shade of a tree or sitting on soft bristle grass, or, in modern parlance, meeting under the symbolic shade of a modern conference hall. The intention or objective of the gathering is to come to terms with the reality on the ground. The intention is to solve a problem. The intention is to rethink the issues by reinventing or reinterpreting existing traditional fora, with a view to reinventing ourselves. The gada and geedka have similar etymological roots: both refer to shade and shelters, and, synecdochically, share with the other two systems the search for truth and reconciliation through a process of intense and honest meeting of minds. Taken together, the four systems exhort people to find solutions to their problems by availing themselves of mechanisms already built into the structure of their traditions. By tradition is not meant something that is out of date, antiquated. Rather, as V.Y. Mudimbe writes in The Invention of Africa, “tradition (traditio) means discontinuities through a dynamic continuation and possible conversion of tradita (legacies).

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