Strategies for Reconciliation: Cultural Heritage for Building Peace


Tête-à-tête with Dr Kusum Gopal, UN Technical Expert by Zaidyn Sikainga, Aamiina Faarax Caydiid, Bekele Habtom, Garem Afewerki, Abisimil Khalif Ghedi and Chanday-Gladness Warsama in London

Q: The Horn region comprising our countries–Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, includes Sudan and Kenya is known by various names  in Somali, Geeska Afrika,  in Ethiopia and other regions– Oromo Gaaffaa Afriikaa, Amharic, Al-qarn al-‘Afriqa,  Tigranya: With knowledge of our shared intangible heritage–we want to have peace, conflicts within and between our peoples here to be resolved, no more hunger a life of freedom, equality, justice and prosperity and opportunities, a life full of hope! How do we start?

A:  To begin with, for successful, long term solutions, the historical reasons for any conflict need to be traced and acknowledged in order to situate it in the present: what are the explicit causes of its origins, its history? What are the issues, the nature of animosities between people, communities, regions and nations, we see prevailing? In order to understand comprehensively and, to formulate interventions with governments support, we need to undertake ethnographic research for peace building; sustainable development, a catch all phrase and a necessary goal is integral for good governance cannot happen without peace.

The Horn region has always enjoyed extremely powerful egalitarian traditions among the diverse pastoral, agricultural and nomadic communities inhabiting the landscape over millennia; democratic traditions of conviviality, interchange, interdependence and, relatedness in their interactions. Imperatively, thus, in each instance, it is also necessary to frame, to explore and, to understand how people and communities lived in the lands of their ancestors, how they related to each other, to their environments and the belief systems; how these relationships led to the deployment of land, its resources accompanied by ceremonials and rituals. And, we often find numerous pre-colonial traditional institutions which had evolved over time through consensus; they guaranteed individuals and communities safety nets; certainties with accepted codes of ethics and social responsibilities amongst themselves which, as we discussed earlier came to a definitive end with colonial rule and, the new orders it brought with it: colonialism established centralised, inevitably coercive, divisive forms of control that drove out all competing systems of law. What has transpired since Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea declared their independence is that the colonial laws and repressive forms of social control remain embedded within systems of governance and continue to fragment the lives of people; further forms of governance introduced has only exacerbated this situation as we have discussed earlier. These colonial formal systems of justice have been in competition with informal systems and customary religious practices; they do not respect the traditional conceptions of procedural and substantive justice. There is an urgent need for governments to acknowledge the need to legislate and, to discuss areas where co-operation can establish spheres of negotiation and opportunities to improve lives of all citizens in this region.  Discriminatory laws can be redressed through public and inter-regional discussions with both the states and national governments; a recognition of the specific tensions generating conflicts.

Here again we need to establish not just recognition but, urgent restitution of indigenous peace building practices by communities  at the official levels which incorporate traditional belief systems — these are common to the Horn region —  we know as discussed earlier — “intangible cultural heritage” covers an infinite variety of manifestations of a living culture as opposed to the material products-movable or immovable- tangible heritage– that have been the object of international protection in the past. What is of particular value for conflict resolutions are the social methods of dispute settlement that would be understood by the  parties concerned; the format can combine other forms of traditions such as offerings of gifts and shared rituals,  typical forms of musical expression; literary and oral traditions; poetry, languages, theatre, and mime; religious traditions and rituals; crafts and skills; choreography and costumes; agricultural practices; indigenous medicinal practices linked with knowledge of plants;  So many forms of immaterial cultural heritage have one feature in common; all of them provide elements to define the identity of a cultural community with its specific social and intellectual processes and distinct world view. This specificity characterizes the relevant cultural community in relation to the broader framework of the sovereign State; its speciality or uniqueness becomes an appealing symbol of communities identity—protection, the peoples, groups and communities which are the creators and bearers of intangible cultural heritage. Most importantly, its pivotal influence lies through education–the transfer of knowledge, skills and meanings; the transmission or communication of heritage from generation to generation—all of which are shared common traditions in the Horn region which must be co-opted into International laws.

Q: You have stated intangible heritage as an important entry point for dialogues of peace building. Could we discuss Somalia? Which pre-colonial institution could help in peace building?

Let’s discuss Xeer, the traditional legal system of Somalia comprises a set of unwritten laws that all clans respect. It comprises social and penal codes. It is not based on fixed precedents; each judge is allowed to formulate their own doctrines and legal principles based on their knowledge of law and wisdom, but other than that there is no formal training. Thus, waa inoo xeer you have set a new precedent and you will be subject to it thus, individuals and communities always avoid setting bad precedents and have respected xeer. In Somali tradition, secular or civil law waranle co-existed with the Sharia religious wadood; different groups within Somali society have different interpretations of xeer. Wise Elders usually heads of the extended families within clans, known as the xeer begti serve as mediator judges and help settle cases, taking precedent and custom into account. In these groups, each member is responsible for the crimes of another, and must accordingly bear some fraction of any decided punishment. Within this system only the victim or immediate family of a victim can bring criminal proceedings to xeer mediation. In xeer crimes are defined in terms of being transgressions and violent acts such as rape, murder, bodily assault, also, theft, and defamation of character, and transgression of property rights. Material compensation is given to the victim or victim’s family ensuring the protection of vulnerable or respected members of society such as the elderly, women, children, poets, guests and religious people; obligations to the family such as the payment of a dowry to a bride; the rights of a widower to marry the dead wife’s sister and the inheritance of a widow by the dead man’s brother; the punishments for elopement; the division and use of natural resources like water and land. If the accused is found guilty, some form of material restitution must be paid. If restitution cannot be given, a diyya or retribution is due, measured in terms of livestock, usually healthy female camels, to be paid to the victim or the victim’s family.

There is no concept of imprisonment under Xeer. In some cases, elders may advise that neither side seeks restitution or retribution. In each case the goal is to reach consensus between the parties, with arbitration traditionally taking place under a large tree or the town hall. Such valuable indigenous practices must be given primacy to settle disputes, encourage dialogues. Importantly, xeer is compatible with existing international Human Rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, global citizenship, indeed, most certainly for sustainable development. These systems include commercial transactions and contribute to the social capital-for example, hagbed, indigenous trust-based credit sharing mechanisms which Somali communities rely upon.

Even today, scholars note that local leaders of brotherhoods customarily asked lineage heads in the areas where they wished to settle for permission to build their mosques and communities. A piece of land was usually freely given; often it was an area between two clans or one in which nomads had access to a river. The presence of a jama’ah not only provided a buffer zone between two hostile groups, but also caused the giver to acquire a blessing since the land was considered given to God. Tenure was a matter of charity only, however, and sometimes became precarious in case of disagreements here Xeer is negotiated. There are few jamaat in other regions because the climate and soil did not encourage agricultural settlements. Membership in a brotherhood is theoretically a voluntary matter unrelated to kinship. However, lineages are often affiliated with a specific brotherhood and a man usually joins his father’s order. Initiation is followed by a ceremony during which the order’s dhikr is celebrated. Novices swear to accept the branch head as their spiritual guide.

Certainly, development is not synonymous with economic growth: it is inseparable from intellectual, emotional, moral, social, political and spiritual existence- all of which constitutes culture! Human beings are always in culture. And, it is a travesty as much of the intellectual elite and bureaucracy not just in the Horn region but also, in the Indian Subcontinent and elsewhere remain deeply alienated from the rich, millennial, syncretic heritage of tolerance and conviviality. We further need to emphasise that the Euro-American model derived from its Utilitarian/ Cartesian Positivist heritage are just other folk models.

Q:  Any other examples from Ethiopia?

Indeed, there are several specific knowledge systems:  Lets discuss Demer. The scholar Gebre Selassie Kahsay notes that the elder known Abat Nebsi, God Father and Abo-Selam: father of peace who settles disputes or reconciles people who are in conflict. There is also Akeitot: government nominated or appointed officials in the Demer: the general assembly. There is also Dibarte a females institution; Tsebel, the basic political philosophy of the people was firmly rooted in the principle of Kanchi, which literally means equality. The community has different sayings that assure its equality. For instance, Redaiwa Mahariy qanchi Weom, which literally means irrespective of differences in their names,” persons by the names of Redai and Mehari are equal. In addition to Demer of the Wajjarat community in Tigray, Zawald of Raya Kobo in northern Wollo, Gereb  of the Endamohon: every community has such traditions where respected elders who may be religious heads are mediators.

Further, these indigenous knowledge systems manifest themselves through different dimensions. Among these are agriculture, medicine, security, botany, zoology, craft skills and linguistics. It is important to recognise that these communities have developed complex indigenous technical knowledge of agroforestry and animal husbandry with social networks and barter systems through adaptation to their environment. This knowledge system, has been used by the communities as a bulwark for adaptation and mitigation against the effects of a changing and increasingly variable climate. The Afar and the Issa Somalis, (indeed other communities here too), for example, have a lively and informed understanding of their environment and the possibilities it provides for living; they have long created a workable livelihood within several different ecological zones to satisfy their economic needs. They have also established economic specialization and regional trade, particularly in grain and livestock between farming and herding sectors. These indigenous knowledge systems were used to administer peace, harmony, and order amongst people and their physical environment. Therefore, protection of cultural heritage ensures the protection of indigenous traditional knowledge, of plants, animals can, therefore, help to conserve the environment and promote sustainable agriculture and food security.

Q: Currently the main conflict between the countries is about territorial demarcations and boundaries? How can this be dealt with? What can be done?

Yes! Border issues remain extremely contentious resulting in a legacy of immeasurable turbulence; extraneously imposed, monistic identities/ perceived allegiances continue to counter cultural diversity as it is regularly experienced and accepted. Well, the root causes of inter-personal violence one of the greatest threats to humanity can be traced to these events. During the Congress of Berlin in 1884-85, the entire continent was randomly partitioned (with exception of Ethiopia and Liberia) by European countries with Belgium, France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Holland and Spain controlling 90% of Africa by 1902. These arbitrary boundaries function to separate and to exclude, the incidence of identical cultures on both sides of an international boundary holds significant implications for post-partition (post-independent) interstate relations, indeed, deep rooted loyalties compel inter-community relations whether or not the community is wholly located within a single country or split between countries—artificially created linguistic boundaries and patterns of allegiances. In the Horn region – Britain, Italy and France were engaged in outwitting each other to exploit by settlement and colonisation –and this posed a direct threat to the territorial integrity of Ethiopia.

Imagine how trying it must have been for Emperor Menelik II in Ethiopia to stand alone and assert her sovereignty. That Ethiopia would remain free of European domination was difficult to reconcile with by European powers who were keen to occupy it. However, the decisive military defeats by Ethiopia of Italy in 1882 and, later of Egypt prevented it from becoming a Protectorate or a Colony. But regardless, the Emperor was forced to deal with the British insistence to push further into Haud from British Somaliland. Such pressures colluded to allow the Italians to annex Märäb Melläsh — which they re-named Eritrea. The scholar Bahru has noted the deep anguish of the Eritrean intellectual, Blatta Gabra-Egziabher Gila-Maryam, who severely reprimanded Emperor Menelik in for handing Märäb Melläsh, part of Tigray province, the cradle of Abyssinian civilisation to the Italians; it had been served as a lucrative transit station in the trade between Egypt and India, but also across the Red Sea trade between Abyssinia and Yemen. Indeed, his grandson and successor, Iyyasu, one scholar notes vowed not to wear the imperial crown until he had re-united Eritrea to the motherland. Patrick Giïkes ‘s mapping of this region indicates the illegal expansion along the border of Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia.  The Italians took advantage of Ethiopian administrative absence to advance their area of control by a few miles on an annual basis which resulted in the Wal Wal incident- the invasion of 1935– territorial aggrandisement along the Eritrean border  between the Takazzi and the Merab rivers, despite the 1902 Treaty. This matter was brought up after the 1998-2000 war in April 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) communicated its decision to officially demarcate the border between the State of Eritrea and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: the colonial boundaries were honoured by the boundary commission. Ethiopia claimed, with considerable justification EEBC had failed to understand the surreptitious Italian colonial administration or, even consider its proscribed activities.

One British writer puts it, ‘The origin of the present conflict in Eritrea may be traced back to the period of British administration which lasted from I941 to 1952 and this needs to be researched further and officially discussed. This remains a sore point and has led to militarisation of Eritrea and unstoppable refugee influx into Ethiopia and also, in Afar Danakil –where people seek refuge despite the hot temperatures. Also, Puntland, which has had a semi-functional administration since 1998, laid claim to significant parts of the east-ern Somaliland regions of Sool and Sanaag on the basis of clan links and now become independent. Puntland, in which the Majerteen are the dominant clan, claims the areas inhabited by the Dhulbahanta and Warsengeli clans. Also, in 1960, three of the five separate territories inhabited by Somali speakers remained outside the republic. These were the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the French Territory of the Afars and Issas (later Djibouti). These made up three of the five points of the Somali star on the flag of the republic. The republic was composed of the other two points, British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland, and it promptly claimed the other Somali-speaking territories. Somali irredentism has thence become a central politically disturbing element in the Horn of Africa, and it still remains a disturbing memory for all its neighbours, particularly Ethiopia and Kenya. Al Shabab, now controls most of Somalia’s southern half. In recent months Djibouti states that Eritrea has occupied Dumeira  mountain and Island following the withdrawal of the Qatari peacekeepers.

These conflicts have left wounded societies and communities suffering the most need to come to agreements. Identify the challenges and opportunities from the territories in the areas of truth, justice through dialogues addressing concerns specific to the Horn region. To resolve these issues almost concurrently, there should be meetings on the contentious borders and the conflicts which account for the ongoing turbulence and militarisation. There needs to be a discussion on the shared heritage that overlaps borders—sharing of resources and waterways. Indeed, cultural heritage goes beyond the territorial dimension of sovereignty. As scholars have noted, cultural heritage is linked to the human element, representing the symbolic continuity of a community/society beyond its contingent biological existence. Thus, the obligation to respect cultural heritage is closely linked with the obligation to respect human rights; the recognition of this human dimension of cultural heritage must encompass not just the protection of cultural heritage as the creativity of a given people or community but also, safeguarding the very social structures and processes that permit its regeneration and transmission.

Q: Yes, Emperor Iyyasu, was seen as a threat by the Europeans, ad in 1916 was dethroned by them on charges of apostasy!  In Ethiopia there is great respect for the Solomon’s dynasty. Could you comment on its significance?

Without doubt, there will always be greatest reverence and admiration for the charismatic, perspicacious, late Emperor Haile Selassie (and his ancestors) not just in Ethiopia but in Africa and beyond. He was fiercely protective of the people all communities and the land; foreigners were not allowed to colonise this region; all the wars they fought were victorious. The armies defeated Italians, Egyptians, Somalis etc. They prevented Ethiopia from becoming a Protectorate/ a colony!  It was not easy to remain independent while the rest of Africa was being colonised- and, also, we must bear in mind, the British and the French did not assist in the aerial bombing by the Fascists during the 1930s and the Emperor was forced to flee or risk imprisonment and death as did some members of his family. He sought to improve Ethiopia- educate the people, set up schools and a University, modernised travel Ethiopian Airways and also commissioned a USD10 Million study for setting up hydroelectric projects and inaugurated two. He wanted Ethiopia to modernise in keeping with Europe and the USA. He fervently sought to unite the Horn region through co-operative measures for the use of resources.  He also founded the OAU- Organisation of African Unity giving it its permanent office in Addis Ababa. He was keen to unite Djibouti to Ethiopia and took measures for a successful referendum but his demise prevented such an outcome. What is most important is that he symbolises even today as the spirit of Africa against exploitation, imperialism and racism. In 2000 there was a public burial for him by the government which sought public support for its governance that says it all.

However, the Solomonic dynasty’s chief endowment lies in its continuity safeguarding Ethiopia’s millennial heritage not just as spiritual custodians of the Orthodox Christianity but also, of syncretic co-existence. Egypt had converted to Islam but Ethiopia remained Christian largely through the efforts of her rulers whose governance invoked the divine right principle. The legend of the Ark of the Covenant being brought by Menelik I has a powerful resonance among all communities; the most important carriers of such local identities were the Church’s monastic clergy; St Yared’s music in Geez was officially lauded by the Emperor Gabra Masqal. Further, the Ethiopian calendar and monastic valuations of time and space as discussed earlier strengthened the Tewahedo Church. It seems that constitutional monarchy could have evolved over time as the horn region has deeply egalitarian democratic traditions, had Emperor Selassie had not died in imprisonment in 1974, as has happened in Thailand or Britain where Queen is revered as the head of the church. This move would have a powerful appeal in the Horn region and beyond safeguarding the heritage.

Indeed, the Kebra Nagast as Kaplan has argued, provides a template for the articulation of multiple Ethiopian identities.; it also reflects the syncretism inherent in the Horn region. However, to my understanding what is significant is that in Ethiopia the Head of State, Emperor the Negus J Negest, was perceived to belong to no particular ethnic group, whether Tigrean, Amharan, Shoan, Oromo, or Falasha, As one scholar has argued, the Emperors were seen as  Isra’elawi or ‘Israelites’,descendants of the Aksumite ruling house through Dilne’ad, Tesfa Iyyesus, and Yekunno Amlak, who restored the Solomonic dynasty in I270 A.D. further, scholar notes,– see the notes here: “the mother of  a ruler, who was the link between the palace and the rest of the population, could come from almost any of the communities; intermarriage was encouraged by the palace. Indeed, the mother of the founder of the dynasty, Yekunno Amlak, was a slave of unknown origin, while many queens, including the consort of Dawit (I344-88), mother of Zer’a Ya’iqob (I434-68), were Tigreans. Zer’a Ya’iqob’s wife, the mother of Be’ide Maryam (1468-78), was a Wolamo (Welayitta) from Hadiyya. The queen of the great King Serze Dingil (1563-97), the mother of Ya’iqob (1597-I603), was a Falasha; her sister was the mother of Susiniyos (1607-32); his son, Fasil (1632-67), was married to a European; while the wife of Iyyasu II (1730-55), the mother of Iyyo’as (1755-69), was an Oromo/Galla. Coming to modern times, little is known about the mother of the famous Tewodiros II (I855-68), except that she was a poor Amharan woman, apparently from Gonder and Infraz, who earned her living as a peddler of tapeworm medicine. Her son believed he had royal blood, as did Yohannes IV from Tigray, and his son, Ar’aya, who was groomed to be his successor, was born of an Afar from the Tiltal of the lowlands. Menelk II (1889-1913) of Shoa was born of a woman who was in the service of the parents of his father. Haile Selassie (1930-74) was a son of a Gurage woman, and his queen, Menen, was an Oromo from Wallo. European classifications -ethnic divisions were certainly not entertained by the Emperors in matters of governance, diversity of cultural expressions was encouraged. Inter-marriage among the local communities has also always existed.Thus the Solomonic dynasty has made several positive contributions to Ethiopia, indeed, not just  the Horn region but beyond inspiring anti colonial movements.

Q: We have to resolve conflicts within and these need to be identified. Considerable amount of land has been leased to foreign investors and they are engaged in separatist movements in Tigray for example. Can we discuss this?

Well we see many movements worldwide against foreign investment—and this is regarded as exploitation by local communities- be it in Nigeria, or here. The governments must take this seriously because these movements are an expression of discontent with exploitation and not about secession! Foreign investment companies must be taught local etiquette and, need to respect communities concerns and train and hire locals- salaries should be on par with their own experts. Its ironical that so much land has been leased and billion dollar investments made at the expense of local livelihoods—this needs to be taken seriously by the government before suffering of the populations becomes intolerable.

Currently the main cause of internal conflicts in Ethiopia are related to disagreements between different communities over the allocation of waters land rights, or maintenance issues; conflicts between users and the authority responsible for the project over inappropriate design of infrastructure,  relocations, water change, or management issues; conflicts between project between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries; conflict between donor agencies and the recipient country over design, management environmental impact, and financial issues.  Among the pastoralists there are conflicts over grazing rights, over women, over murders and over land. In these cases, demer, and sirits come in handy among the Gonkua for example. They resolve socio-economic problems such as conflict in hizaeti’ (grazing land), farm land, etc. between or among localities. This local by law or Sirit is a rule developed by the community elders themselves. Dibarte, we were informed or shouting in group helps to resolve murder or rape. Dibarte is held both by males and females so that the offended one is afraid of the people. If a big number of people go to the offended person house, the offended household will be afraid of and they make reparations immediately. This illustrates the invaluable role of intangible heritage in peace building at the local levels.

Q: Finally, Dr Gopal how can we begin to resolve this peacefully?

A major challenge is to convince political decision makers to incorporate culture into all development policies, into all public policies, mechanisms and practices- be they related to education, science, communication, health, environment or even cultural tourism! And, supporting cultural sector through creative industries contributing to poverty alleviation and social cohesion. It is extremely important to secure livelihoods for people—remove hunger, provide housing, health in clean environments. Many of the countries in the Horn region have encouraged foreign investments; in addition to keeping aside a percentage, one of the non-negotiable conditions could be to fund social security for all people, also build schools and water on tap. Secondly, protecting the environment as Fatima Jibrell has advocated to salvage old-growth forests of Acacia trees in the northeastern part of Somalia. These trees,  Acacia in particular which can live for 500 years, are being cut down  at an alarming rate to make charcoal– there is a very real danger  that current deforestation will lead desertification. In addition to introducing wind power generated electricity by state run enterprises, planting trees and tending them along with crops would provide employment. Also, 80% of the oil seeds that Ethiopia imports can be cultivated in the country as also fruit and vegetables. Further, free irrigation and soil improvement programmes can be provided.

I think one important step for peace building would be heritage management through ethnographic research. The governments of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Puntland, indeed, if possible include Sudan and Yemen to collaborate for setting up institutions for the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of their shared heritage. We are at the beginning of what could become joint cultural understandings. The shared heritage could begin with experts from this region to set up a joint Archaeological /Ethnographic projects for the entire Horn region. For example, the  critical importance of anthropomorphic and phallic stelae associated with graves of rectangular shape flanked by vertical slabs, as also found in Aksum, central Ethiopia and  the Djibouti-Loyada stelae; the occurrence of nine sites discovered so far in central Eritrea, eastern and central Tigray with evidence of monumental buildings and artefacts in a South Arabian style, as well as Sabaic inscriptions in South Arabian script . This would promote innovative approaches to inculcate the core principles of peace education through the use of traditions and customs that predate colonial rule which can become integral to governance. For a sustainable perspective on the future it is critical that these dialogues connect themselves to current societal challenges– to secure for posterity the gratitude of the communities. Indeed, a conscious application of these principles would be achieved only through the indigenous institutions of empowerment from the grassroots level towards integration for the Horn region.

Undoubtedly, cultural approaches for managing disputes around the world can play a vital role in promoting peace and social order within communities and even nations. It is important to systematise these experiences and utilise them to educate future generations in promoting a culture of peace. A comprehensive approach to community and to citizenship one which addresses people’s ideas about nationhood and belonging, in addition to the quality of their social relationships can lead to significant outcomes for making policy recommendations. There is a serious urgency for good scholarship and discussions for the Horn region from academics and ethnographers resident here which would seek to re-examine the precolonial past. undertake ethnographic with archival research towards the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education of this region’s heritage. The Horn region has a rich legacy with valuable traditions gained by communities experiences over generations; they can be used as tools as guides to set up formal institutions to regulate conflict resolution, reparation and restitution for peace building.

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Dr Kusum Gopal

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