The Long Conversation – Gabra-Borana Peace
A Summary of Findings from the research led by the Pastoralist Shade Initiative
Closely linked with ties of language, marriage and territory, the Borana and Gabra pastoralist peoples of Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia engaged in a violent conflict with one another that reached a peak in the atrocities of 2005. The escalating disputes grew in an entanglement of legal, political and economic tensions that were local, national and geopolitical. Peace was finally restored in 2009 after a process that drew on a combination of tradition and innovation.
In September 2010, a team of elders – two Gabra and three Borana – accompanied by an assistant from Pastoralist Consultants International set out on a five-week journey to research the peace. Meeting men and women, young and old, official and ordinary in Chalbi, North Horr, Dillo, Mio, Moyale, Marsabit and Isiolo Districts, their method mirrored the method of peace – asserting peace and hearing news, generating a detailed understanding of the qualities of peace and clarifying the essentials of how and where it had worked.
The peace was formally initiated by the customary councils of the Borana and Gabra – the gada and yaa – which sent out messages reminding the people of the ancient laws that relate to peace. Customary law (aada) encompasses religious, judicial and cultural aspects of Borana and Gabra life and is widely respected. The messages of peace travelled from the councils to spiritual leaders, judges and clan leaders (jalaab), and on to men and women, herders, townsfolk, elders and youth. The messages moved from one person to another in the form of daimtu, a conversation whose basic form is to ask “Do we have peace?” to remind, “We should have peace” and to ask, “How can we have peace?”
In Ethiopia, the Oromia Pastoralist Association, a new formation of elders with members from all over the Oromia lowlands, had responded to the call of the traditional councils and begun brokering peace in 2007, building on years of effort by its individual elders. In Kenya, the Pastoralist Shade Initiative began to do the same in 2008, in Chalbi, North Horr and Marsabit. On both sides of the border the elders and their assistants helped knit together local agreements, putting out fires and spreading the message of peace and justice. They wove a web that included not only pastoralists, but also townspeople, politicians, administrators and NGOs. Travelling in cars, buses and on foot and speaking on mobile phones as well as face-to-face, they used modern methods to carry out traditional responsibilities.
As the messages spread across the rangelands, a series of extraordinary events began to unfold. Two young men out scouting on the Kenya-Ethiopia border, one Gabra, one Boran, met unexpectedly. First one then the other held his gun above his head. “Why are we fighting?” they asked. They began a series of meetings in the no-man’s land between Dukana and Dillo, at first small and secret and then expanding to include more herders and elders. At around the same time the Ethiopian government gave the traditional process energetic backing. Newly elected MPs on the Kenyan side began to favour talk of commonalities in a marked departure from the approaches of their predecessors.
The messages also met a series of obstacles and distortions. There were atrocities. There were rumours that the peace was false. Peacemakers were accused of spying and feared for their lives. The Ethiopian Government claimed that the insurgent group, the Oromia Liberation Front, was finding local support in the area around Moyale.
Over a period of four years, the elders continued taking messages and holding meetings, including in places where people didn’t want or believe in peace. Finally, when they were confident that agreements had been largely reached, they called pastoralists, politicians and officials to public peace gatherings. The gatherings were done on pastoralist terms, according to traditional rules. One after another, in a series, each meeting built on the last to confirm and expand the area that was at peace. By June 2009 the fighting between Dillo and Dukana came to an end. By July the peace had extended across Chalbi and North Horr in a meeting at Maikona. By August it embraced Turbi, Rawan, Walda and Sololo, places where politics and insurgency had complicated the situation and weakened leadership.
The ‘Maikona Declaration’ is a short statement prepared at Maikona and signed by Gabra and Borana representatives at Walda. It sets out the specific laws that relate to keeping peace. After agreeing to accept ebb, a blessing that allows for amnesty in the traumatic histories of the war, the people agreed to revive the implementation of traditional laws. The implementation involves a combination of traditional and state justice systems, in which thefts and injuries are dealt with by both systems of law operating in agreement. At the Walda gathering, the last in the series, the District Commissioner Chalbi had the Declaration written in English and ordained that copies be pasted on administration office walls across the district.
During the research, people spoke about peace and how good it is to have peace. In the heartland of Gabra-Borana an extraordinary change has come to an area that has suffered years of pain and isolation. Today trade is flourishing, grazing and water is shared, and schools are being built that will be accessible to Muslims and Christians, Gabra and Borana alike. The peace is being kept in a process the elders describe as ‘surveillance’ in which all members of society play a role. Many are confident that strong elders can maintain the peace, even where conflicting political and economic interests are at play. They add that where elders are weak peace will be tenuous. At the edges of the territory there are still violent raids by neighbouring groups of Dassanech, Ajuran, Turkana, Rendille and Samburu. Further south in Isiolo the conflict is severe – a mix of ethnic factionalism and resource annexation on a significant scale.
The research also investigates the possibilities of extending the peace into other areas using the long conversation process. National security bodies in Ethiopia and Kenya and others working on conflict are calling for an extended application of the Maikona Declaration to other areas. At Yabello in September 2010, the government of Ethiopia reported the acceptance of the declaration by 83 communities in Ethiopia. While outsiders have tended to project a belief that the peace is made in meetings and declarations, the study respondents refer overwhelmingly to the long conversation, the message taking and surveillance, and its roots in traditional law. Critics also observe that the situation in neighbouring areas is different; in Isiolo, for example, it is argued that tradition has lost strength, elders’ authority has been weakened, different religions prevail, ethnic groups are more numerous and political-economic dispute is more intense. Despite Isiolo’s complexities, the researchers believe that elders should try to take their peace process there. In interviews in different parts of the district, they found that customary institutions are still appreciated.
The elders reiterate that peace is not achieved by holding public meetings and making declarations alone. It is achieved through long, careful work of message-taking, information sharing, surveillance and implementation of the law. Modern and traditional at once, the process has been hailed as an innovation.