Kenyan Somali elders’ mission to negotiate the release of two abducted Cuban doctors with their counterparts in Somalia has placed focus on just how much power they wield.
Dr Assel Herera Correa, a general physician, and Dr Landy Rodriguez, a surgeon, were abducted by suspected Al-Shabaab militia in Mandera Town last Friday. The gunmen took them to Somalia.
Like in other African communities, Somalis have an age-old tradition whereby elders provide homegrown reconciliatory solutions.
And decades after independence, traditional forms of justice continue to play an important role along the Kenya-Somalia border, supplementing government systems, and at times replacing them.
Elders in both Kenya and Somalia have often been seen to dispense swift and inexpensive solutions seen as fair by their community.
There is an unwritten law that elders should not be harmed under any circumstances, which makes it easier for the group from Mandera to enter an Al- Shabaab zone without fear of being attacked.
One can join this group only after attaining the age of 60 and must be of good character. One must also be rich to join this special, powerful club.
Mr Abdullahi Abdi, a Somali elder who also chairs the National Muslim Leaders Forum, told the Nation that elders play a visible role in the community’s institutional make-up.
He says that as clan representatives, elders are often assumed to wield power that can be used to elicit responses from State administrators.
“Since time immemorial, the existence of functioning traditional institutions, such as the Somali Elders’ Council in Kenya and Somalia, has been fundamental. They have played important developmental, administrative and political roles in rural areas,” Mr Abdi says.
“They have consolidated their traditional role as dispute mediators and enforcers of customary laws, which regulate most aspects of social life within Somali clans,” he adds.
Mr Abdi further notes that given the central position of traditional structures in the Somali community, the elders’ role is critical in relations between clans, conflict resolution, resource sharing, and the rule of law.
Selection to the council varies between the two countries, but generally depends on experience, oratory skills, impartiality, ability to compromise and persuade, expertise in xeer (customary law) and religious knowledge.
Mr Ahmed Set, the national treasurer of the National Council of Elders, says Islam does not advocate violent extremism. “We have a strong network of elders in the North-Eastern region that promotes alternative dispute resolutions,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government has again called on the international community to rally behind efforts to combat terror.
Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau told the Nation on Tuesday that everything will be done to ensure the safe return of the medics.
“What we have not seen is the full commitment of the international community, through the United Nations, to help stabilise and bring peace and security to Somalia,” he said, referring to support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom)
Mr Kamau added that there is an urgent need to plug Al-Shabaab's financial sources and improve programmes to stabilise the Somalia National Army.
The European Union, which funds most of Amisom’s Sh20 billion annual budget, has reduced its contribution by 20 per cent, citing commitments in the Maghreb.
Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo