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|ISSUE 45 November 30, 2002||
O, My Tribe, Make Me a King or Just a Sultan: The Proliferation of Traditional Leadership in Somaliland
by Yussuf Abdillahi
On 19 September 2002, the Arap Sub-clan had a new king crowned in Bali Gubadle district of Hargeisa region. Almost a month later, a long procession of cars, buses and trucks, full of people waving tree branches, welcomed the new king to Hargeisa and toured with him along the streets of city. Earlier in the same month, the Habarjeclo sub-clan had their own new king crowned as well, in Sanaag region.
The latest coronation of the two kings in Bali Gubadle and the Sanaag region can be seen as a part of a growing trend towards the acquisition of traditional titles (Sultans, Kings or Aqils) in Somaliland.
One may legitimately wonder what ends do those titles serve at this juncture of our political development.
Since Lord Ludwig of the British imperial government developed his policy of indirect rule early in the last century, traditional leadership has been growing with a vengeance throughout the colonial territories of British Africa. Indeed, what Lord Ludwig achieved was not as such to encourage the reproduction of this leadership as to legitimize them in the eyes of their peoples. Lord Ludwig’s policy obliged the colonial Administrators to rule through the indigenous kings, emirs, chiefs and other traditional leaders where that leadership was already established, and to create them where they were not. It is my assumption that both of the above processes were manifested in colonial Somaliland, the British utilizing some of the few local leaders available, while creating many others, to administer the country through them.
In the postcolonial period, the various sub-clans in Somaliland produced a trickle of traditional leadership. That trickle turned into a torrent, however, following the declaration of secession from the rest of Somalia in1991. Some of the various sub-clans in the country doubled (and sometimes tripled) the number of their Sultans, while some others appropriated themselves to new titles altogether, like the fashionable title of a ‘king’. The number of Aqils also exploded.
Several factors account for the exponential growth of traditional leaders in Somaliland. Chief among these is Borama peace and reconciliation conference. For the first time in the country, the Borama conference of 1993 granted the traditional leaders a separate legislative chamber of their own in the system. By granting the traditional leadership a role in the highest decision making institution of the country, it was a matter of time before the different sub-clans reacted in the Somali way and multiplied the number of their traditional leaders. In a political system that rewards traditionalism, having a new King or a Sultan also becomes a symbol of eminence for some of the sub-clans. Not all of those multiplied traditional leaders, however, necessarily end up in the House of Elders (the Guurti). In fact, most of the members in the Guurti do not carry traditional titles.
There are several characteristics that most of the new leadership shares. In contrast to their earlier counterparts, most of them were not selected by all their sub-clan, but by some segments of them and, as such, lack wider legitimacy in the eyes of many of their kinsmen. In addition, because of their greater numbers, they are less prestigious than their earlier counterparts. They are also less junior in age and are more formally educated. In this connection, the Dhanxiir of Jamhuriya newspaper once had a field day about a PhD holder in medicine, Dr. xadi, who became the Sultan of one of the Gadabursi tribes. Immediately after his Caleemo Saar, the new Sultan was called upon to attend to a woman who was laboring painfully. The new Sultan, inconvenienced, as he was, had to attend to the patient and deliver a baby!!!
The Somali kings and Sultans differ greatly from their African counterparts in several ways. In fact they are unique in every sense of the word. The Somali Kings and Sultans do not have territorially based kingdoms and Sultanates. They do not have subject peoples and courts, special costumes and robes, nor do they enjoy myths and occasional exotic festivities like that of the king of Swaziland, whose subjects organize for him a yearly procession of young dancing girls, from which he selects a new wife annually!!!
The role that institutionalized traditional leadership plays in Somaliland was recently debated both by the public and the lower House of the parliament. This debate came at a time when the mandate of the House of the Guurti is running out fast. While the effects of traditional leaders on the body politic were more or less positive in the earlier stage of political development, many people question their continued existence as a separate unelected decision-making entity in the country.
Guurti tormentors accuse them of their seeming dependence on the government of the day. They argue that it was always the Guurti that extended the mandate of unpopular governments in the past and that the potential to do that again exists today. They also accuse them of their apparent lack of understanding for the complex issues that modern social governance demands. In contrast, Guurti proponents always remind us their stabilizing role in the political system and their mediation skills in times of social and political conflicts.
Whichever side of the argument we adhere to, traditional leadership is bound to stay with us in the near foreseeable future.