Sunday, December 05, 2021
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Traditional Elders: A Cancer or cure for the current weak Governmental systems in Somalia?

By Abdullahi Said Mohamed (Dubesare)

According to social contract theory, every community that lives together tends to create a system they trust with their ruling affairs. Before the modern governmental system, same as with other communities, the Somali community had traditional elders such as Kings, Garaads, Sultans, Islaans, Malaaqs, Ugaas, Nabadoons, etc. Their ranking power depends on the prominent tribe’s structure. These traditional elders had the final decision to go to war or make peace with other tribes. When the modern Somali Government was established, their power decreased time after time as the Somali governmental system and institutions strengthened.

Traditional elder- Somalia

After the collapse of Siyad Barre’s regime in early 1991, both public and private institutions have also ceased to exist. Ever since the collapse of the central government, the power of the traditional elders re-emerged and played significant roles in ruling the affairs of the Somali community, not only limited to reconciliations but also participating in the provision of essential service delivery.

In the last 30 years, the Somali people with the support of the international community have been struggling with state-building and reconciliation, where the traditional elders have also been given the central roles of deciding and shaping Somalia’s governing systems. No one can deny that the traditional leaders have positively contributed to Somalia’s state-building and reconciliation process, because the country could not have reached some sort of peace and stability without their involvements. However, their contributions were coupled with substantial challenges and setbacks.

Hence, this essay focuses on the relationship between Somalia’s current weak governing systems and traditional elders. Typically, traditional elders have been trusted with almost unlimited power to participate in Somalia’s politics and state-building. According to Shidad (2018, P. 5), “In the politically collapsed system of Somalia, the people have lent trust to the office of traditional leaders owing to the tradition’s respect to the office. In the light of this natural or circumstantial inclination, a lion’s role has been given to the elders’ office in the efforts of seeking solutions for the political problem throughout most of the last 27 years.”

Since Somalia’s federal government, federal member states, regional and district administrations could not agree to hold and implement one-person one-vote election and decide on their constituent’s local election, especially on parliamentary and the presidential positions and that’s why these powers currently lie under the traditional leaders. Somalia has taken 4.5 clan-based power sharing that elect the president. Before the last election in 2016, parliament members were directly nominated by the Traditional elders after consulting with sub-clan elders who gave the positions to whomever they saw was fit for it. In 2016, a political agreement was made that determined that 51 Electorates will elect each parliamentary seat of 275 seats of the Somali Federal Parliaments, and the traditional elders selected these 51 electorates.

In fact, I remember, in 2016 a university professor who was interested in politics shared with me a story, where every time he wanted to discuss his sub-clan elder for his interest in a parliamentary position, in order the elder to pick up his call he needed to transfer around 200 USD via mobile money (locally named Sahal). Shockingly the elder was not interested to answer the call unless he hears the ring tone of the transfer message (money).

The 20/21 election was much complicated than the 2016 indirect election, and the process has taken a very long time with countless consultations. Finally, a political agreement was reached on Sept 17, 2020, between the federal and local states, which was then approved by the Federal Parliament. This agreement, although similar to the previous indirect election, nevertheless, it has been enhanced, where the electorate had been expanded to 101 electorates for each seat and the election locations has been increased from one city to two cities for each state. Also, this time, the traditional elders will not only elect the electorates because the civil society organizations will take a role in the election process as well.

The main question that needs to be answered is how civil society organizations can select a clan-based electorate? 

Even though the traditional elders have actively participated in the country’s state-building and reconciliations, their involvement was not without the expense of the community who trusted them to represent them on their behalf. Unfortunately, the traditional leaders were a great source of corruption for years and still, they are.

Prior to the 2016 election, the traditional leaders had a complete control of who becomes a member of parliament through corrupt processes. They used to receive bribes from various people who were interested in politics, and the highest bidder used to win. As mentioned above, in 2016, the election process got improved, but they directly selected the electorate instead of the Members of Parliament. Although that was intended to reduce corruption,it was not that much different. Still, the elders were taking bribes from almost anyone who wanted to be a part of that electorate or even candidates of a Member of Parliament and presidential candidates who wanted to influence the electorate’s selections to support a specific candidate of their choice to win. Same corrupt cycle!!

According to Gettleman (2017), “corrupt clan-based elections are nothing new here. According to several researchers, when President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was selected in 2012, many clan elders were given up to $5,000 each as bribes to choose the clan’s representative in Parliament; but in 2016, instead of clan elders’ picking all the representatives, Western diplomats pushed for a wider, and more inclusive process in which the 275 members of the lower house of Parliament would be selected by clan caucuses of 51 delegates per caucus. Western diplomats said they thought that having 51 votes instead of one for each seat would make bribery less applicable. They now say they were wrong.”

Additionally, at the time of the election, traditional elders never got tired of visiting presidential candidates or accepting bribes from the candidates to bargain, convincing MPs from their clans to vote for a specific candidate.

On the other hand, corruption does not end with the traditional elders. When MPs are selected, they pay a visit to almost every presidential candidate and ask for bribes in exchange for their vote. Although they take bribes from almost every candidate, since vote in secret, they vote for anyone that pleases them or the highest bidder.

The role of the traditional elders doesn’t end there but continues, when the elected president nominates the prime minister, who then appoints a council of ministries, state ministers, and their deputies who are nominated based on the 4.5 clan-based formula. These are nominated from the traditional elders’ recommendations where elders recommend only those, they take bribes from and expect more if given a cabinet position. Any minister who holds his/her traditional elder in leash always stay longer in office.

Apart from traditional elders’ intention to seek or accept bribes to influence the election process, there has been a growing concern that Al-Shabab has agreed with some of the traditional elders, mainly in the southern regions of Somalia, and threatened others to influence the elections and force them to select electorates in Al-Shabab’s favor. Al-Shabab’s intervention and agreements are not limited to elections but also force the traditional elders to negotiate the release of Al-Shabab prisoners held in the custody of federal and state penitentiaries. In an interview with former Minister of Education, Godah Barre, by Hiiraan Online, which was about the conflict in Hirshabelle State and Hiiraan political issues, warned that the militant group Al-Shabab could send as many of its members to Parliament this time around due to government laxity and constant fights with the oppositions. “The opposition and the government are busy fighting each other while the country’s security situation is fast deteriorating, and if the trend continues, most seats in parliament will be occupied by Al-Shabaab.”

That is a mere explanation that shows how corruption that started from traditional elders at the time of election has infiltrated Somalia’s governing systems. This corruption discourages and challenges corruption-free environment where professionals, competent people, intellectuals and the youth to participate and join in Somalia’s current governing systems. What do you think a young professional who has been forced to please his clan elder and pay bribes to the elders (Somali: Afgarasho, Somalia slang word meaning to pay a bribe) will do when he/she comes to the office? Same as indebted politicians who paid all their cash and borrowed some to bribe the elders to take office!

Elders usually claim for any credits by their handpicked personalities in the government, because, the first question asked after a year or sooner by the same elder is mostly, who recommended you for the job?  They often ask you if you have accomplished anything such as building a house, buying a car or land, in other words, what you have you stolen from the government. If you say nothing but have done something for my country, you will be called Waxmatare, “A Somali word meaning useless or stupid” because you did not dare to steal.

The other disappointing fact is that these elders are accountable to no one. The lack of accountability of traditional leaders has produced an indebted money-hungry parliamentarians who shout and criticize the executive branch whenever their belly pockets are empty, and change their positions once bribed. Also, a corrupt executive branch believes having money to bribe the parliamentarians and elders are more important than providing the community the necessary service delivery.

State-building requires different stakeholders. During the previous stages, the traditional elders were essential stakeholders invited to this country’s state-building and reconciliation affairs. But in the current stage, their involvement does more harm than good, and this is when we should have realized that they are cancer to the current governing system in Somalia, and their involvement should be minimized to zero as much as possible.

Abdullahi Said Mohamed (Dubesare)


  1. Said M. Shidad, (2018). SIDRA Institute. The Impact of the Role of Traditional Leaders on Politico-Governance in Somalia: Present Realities and Past Reflections.
  2. Jeffrey Gettleman (2017). Fuelled by Bribes, Somali’s Election Seen a Milestone of a Corruption. The New York Times.
  3. pushing hiiraan to the brink through suppression and military force ex minister godah barre.aspx?utm_source=hiiraan&utm_medium=SomaliNewsUpdateFront

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