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Tool Category B: Non-Official Conflict Management Methods
4. Indigenous Conflict Management Mechanisms
(Community-Based/Traditional/Indigenous Mediation; Community-Based Conflict Mitigation; Grassroots Approaches to Peace)


  Indigenous conflict management and resolution mechanisms use local actors and traditional community-based judicial and legal decision-making mechanisms to manage and resolve conflicts within or between communities.


  Local mechanisms aim to resolve conflicts without resorting to state-run judicial systems, police, or other external structures.

Expected outcome or impact

  Local negotiations can lead to ad hoc practical agreements which keep broader inter-communal relations positive, creating environments where nomads can graze together, townspeople can live together, and merchants can trade together even if military men remain unreconciled.

Additional results of local conflict management occur when actors who do not have an political, social or economic stake in continuing violence come together and build a "constituency for peace." In some cases, this can undermine the perpetrators of violence, leading to the development of momentum toward peace.

Local mediation typically incorporates consensus-building based on open discussions to exchange information and clarify issues. Conflicting parties are more likely to accept guidance from these mediators than from other sources because an elder’s decision does not entail any loss of face and is backed by social pressure. The end result is, ideally, a sense of unity, shared involvement and responsibility, and dialogue among groups otherwise in conflict.


Relationship to conflict prevention and mitigation

  Local mechanisms intervene to resolve community disputes before they escalate to large-scale violence or to prevent a resumption of violence after a period of calm.



  Generally one or both parties to a dispute request intervention by an elder, the elder council, or other community member. Occasionally, elders unite and take the initiative in forming a local council to represent the community’s interests.


  Community members involved in the conflict participate in the dispute resolution process. These community members can include traditional authorities—elders, chiefs—women’s organizations, local institutions and professional associations.


  The elders function as a court with broad and flexible powers to interpret evidence, impose judgements, and manage the process of reconciliation. The mediator leads and channels discussion of the problem. Parties typically do not address each other, eliminating direct confrontation. Interruptions are not allowed while parties state their case. Statements are followed by open deliberation which may integrate listening to and cross-examining witnesses, the free expression of grievances, caucusing with both groups, reliance on circumstantial evidence, visiting dispute scenes, seeking opinions and views of neighbors, reviewing past cases, holding private consultations, and considering solutions.

The process may be time-consuming and encourage broad discussion of aspects that may seem unrelated to the central problem, as the mediator tries to situate the conflict in the disputants’ frame of reference and decide on an appropriate style and format of intervention.

The elders or other traditional mediators use their judgment and position of moral ascendancy to find an accepted solution. Decisions may be based on consensus within the elders’ or chiefs’ council and may be rendered on the spot. Resolution may involve forgiveness and mutual formal release of the problem, and, if necessary, the arrangement of restitution.

International agencies can promote local dispute resolution mechanisms to ensure that local actors participate in conflict management by partnering with existing local institutions. External players such as humanitarian organizations, UN officials, peacekeepers and official delegations can empower local mediation groups by:

Acknowledging their relevance, meeting with them when visiting an area and securing their input into planning.

Building on traditional structures for peace and conflict resolution, and using those structures in dealing with ongoing conflicts.

Developing a strategy for identifying conflict resolvers and peacemakers within each cultural group in the operating area, validating and empowering existing conflict resolvers, and creating opportunities for their interaction with other communities.

Helping local partners to evaluate some of the traditions and approaches to peacemaking that worked in the past, and thinking through how they can be helpful today.

Learning what external actors can do to bolster mechanisms and actors to increase their effectiveness, or at a minimum, to avoid eroding or undermining them or their authority.

Sponsoring forums to develop comprehensive strategies for conflict mitigation activities in the region.

Conducting workshops to focus on processes by which local groups can be empowered to help themselves in managing conflict.

Providing an opportunity for NGO and government personnel to explore applying community-based conflict mitigation by learning from the experience of practitioners in the field.

Paying attention to traditional customs, cultures, and roles, and learning the community structure in areas where external actors are operating programs, including the role of the elders, women, and other leaders, especially non-military leaders.

Supporting or developing local venues for mitigation and mediation and allowing enough time for those processes to take place.

Using traditional authorities to implement activities other than conflict-resolution activities, such as development or relief programs. This can help jump-start intra-community dialogue that had broken down.

The role of women. Women play a unique role in conflict management and resolution in some societies. External agencies can recognize the importance of this role and promote the inclusion of women in negotiations through measures such as:

Holding regional workshops to promote dialogue among women.

Sponsoring training to develop women’s conflict resolution skills.

Assisting women’s groups interested in developing peace education and civic education materials for use in schools and the media.

Facilitating the evolution of regional women’s organizations as mechanisms for information-sharing and coordination and to maximize participation of women in reconciliation and development processes.

Influence of poetry. Poetry is a celebrated art form in many societies. Poets are highly respected in the community and have been traditionally involved in peacemaking. In many cultures, poetry is widely understood and enjoyed, and has the power to influence opinion. In inter-clan peace conferences, distinguished poets recite poems advocating peace. Poetry in places like Somalia can help move people toward either war or reconciliation. Poetry can help identify grievances, argue for causes, rights and responsibilities, and justify the views and demands of different groups. The modern parallel of the traditional mechanism of poetry is mass media’s effect on public opinion.

Religious figures. In many traditional societies of the Horn, religious men are somewhat dissociated from society at large. They are considered separate from warriors and are the repository of traditional wisdom and sometimes the vehicle of religious judicial systems, such as shari’a law. This special place in society makes them an ideal link between feuding groups who might otherwise have be unable to establish a dialogue.

Local peace conferences. Overall cross-clan peace conferences should be preceded by a combination of subclan deliberations about grievances, issues and representation, and a series of cross-subclan deliberations and consultations. Through this process perspectives are gathered, procedural steps are negotiated, and the basic parameters are set for moving toward a more explicit forum, guided by the elders’ council (called the guurti in Somalia). The larger forum or peace conference can take the form of large, usually public meetings, which involve lengthy speeches and the extensive use of poetry. Preparing for and holding such a series of peace conferences commonly takes four to six months. Throughout the process, elders prepare, moderate, listen, and often arbitrate procedural problems They help formulate an eventual consensus of the clans. Various inter- and sub-clan deliberations occur on the side simultaneously. Key authority structures of conflicting parties must be included in the process, including traditional, military, administrative, and religious leaders.


Cost considerations

  A local peace process is generally low-cost. Local efforts may be financed through community sources, or may require external, including international, support (especially in the initial stage of rejuvenating such mechanisms).Excessive levels of external support can be detrimental to the integrity of the process.

Other resource considerations

  A non-threatening, familiar setting is needed to encourage attendance. Agencies can incur expenses in providing support and education to assist in promoting or re-establishing local mediation efforts.

Set-up time

  It is critical to respect local timeframes for planning and implementing indigenous peacebuilding processes. These can be lengthy. In some cases grassroots conflict resolution structures may be dormant because of social upheaval linked to the conflict. In this case, the structures can often be revived relatively quickly.

Timeframe to see results

  Indigenous processes are long-term interactions; mediation continues until a solution is found that is acceptable to all parties. These are not quick fixes. This may take more time than outside observers are accustomed to, and the discussion of "important" issues will generally occur only after other obligatory topics have been handled. Some peace conferences can go on for months. However, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms can bring about long-term reconciliation.

Conflict Context

Stages of conflict

  Indigenous mediation of disputes can occur at any stages of a conflict, from on-the-spot mediation to prevent a violent outbreak to efforts to mitigate the more violent aspects of the conflict to efforts toward reconciliation after the dispute has escalated to violent conflict. These processes can take place before formal peace structures have been established.

Traditional forms of mediation and legal sanctioning often appear in the aftermath of widespread conflict when no other mechanisms for social regulation exist. This is particularly true in the case of failed states such as Somalia, the Southern areas of Sudan or Zaire, where indigenous mechanisms, some ad hoc, others traditional and long-established, provide order where the outsider’s eye sees only chaos. In many areas of Somalia including parts of Mogadishu, Shari’a courts are enforcing law and order, a welcome novelty for residents who have been deprived of a functioning judicial system for years.


Type of conflict

  Traditional mediation is effective in dealing with interpersonal or inter-community conflicts. This approach has been used at the grassroots level to settle disputes over land, water, grazing-land rights, fishing rights, marital problems, inheritance, ownership rights, murder, brideprice, cattle raiding, theft, rape, banditry, and inter-ethnic and religious conflicts.

Causes of conflict

  Traditional mediation is effective in addressing the mistrust and animosity that can be the local root causes of conflict.


  Grassroots mediation depends on an existing tradition of local conflict management mechanisms, even if these are currently dormant.

Credible local people must be willing to undertake the role of traditional mediators.There must be a pause in the violence. Traditional mechanisms are often ineffective when the conflict is in an acute phase, especially if the conflict is violent and widespread.


Past Practice

Within the Greater Horn of Africa

  Somalia. Somalis turned back to clan and subclan structures to meet basic needs, including security, with the state’s disappearance and breakdown into warlordism. While the reascendency of clan politics in Somalia encouraged certain patterns of conflict, traditional mechanisms were revived and adapted to resolve interclan killings and conflicts over resources. Lineage elders, who led smaller units within the clan, returned to prominence and the mediating authority of Akils—heads of lineage groups—was reestablished. Their functions expanded into the vacuum left by the collapse of the national government. According to a survey of traditional local structures commissioned by the UK-based NGO ACTIONAID, such structures have enabled Somalis in some areas to break the momentum of war.

Peace Conferences. In many areas residents have achieved agreements to end fighting through local peace conferences. These peace conferences brought together and were guided by the elders of interdependent subclans. The conferences dealt with immediate concerns, made local leaders responsible for interclan fighting, and helped identify appropriate representatives for clan concerns. Once such local agreements were secured, it was possible to repeat a similar process at a higher level with a wider set of clans. These processes included a reliance on elders, lengthy oral deliberations, creation of a forum or assembly of elders, and negotiations over access to resources and payments for deaths between clans.

Clan elders authorized peace conference agreements but other traditional leaders—politicians, military officers, religious figures, poets—have played crucial roles in the peace process. Religious figures such as sheikhs and wadaads (Islamic scholars) have peacemaking responsibilities, with authority based on the esteem with which they are held as spiritual leaders. Spiritual leaders are seen as ideal, neutral arbiters who have allegiance to universal Islamic values that transcend clan loyalties. They do not settle disputes themselves, or sit in judgment; this is done by councils of elders. The responsibility of religious figures is to encourage rivals to make peace. Delegations of renowned holy men participated in all major peace initiatives between clans in Somaliland.

In such a context, outsider efforts to identify national leaders or convene peace conferences creates only a superficial structure instead of a process which builds on Somali traditions and structures. The UN political affairs division belatedly shifted from its earlier concentration on a top-level national peace process for Somalia through a series of conferences of political and militia leaders to a more bottom-up method, including efforts to establish local and regional councils.

In May 1993, elders from numerous sub-clans in the economically and strategically critical Mudug region of the central Somali rangelands undertook a peace initiative. UNOSOM was not involved and chose not to recognize or support the conference, fearing that General Aidid had hijacked the process. The conference involved community and religious leaders, businessmen, students, and factional representatives and produced a largely successful ceasefire. The agreement involved the return of property, the withdrawal of militias, and the opening of roads. The commercial imperative for peace is the most important factor in the continuing stability in the region. After over six months, a national (Somaliland) peace charter was agreed upon, and basic provisions for law and order were formulated.

Somaliland. Other examples of this process were implemented in the northwestern region, known as Somaliland, which seceded from Somalia in 1991. All clans in Somaliland and some of the large sub-clans, as of late 1993, had their own Supreme Council of Elders, known as guurti. This Council acts both as legislature and executive, and is responsible for responding to questions within the clan and for arbitrating with other clans. Peacemaking initiatives in this region have been relatively successful compared with the rest of Somalia.

A series of inter-clan reconciliation conferences began in 1991 and gradually advanced to district and regional levels. Two elders’ conferences in Boraama and Sanaag brought together communities and their leaders from northern Somalia in early 1993 to address conflicts in those areas. Both led to a significant reduction of tensions in Somaliland. The Boraama conference created a national security framework for Somaliland, developed an interim constitutional structure, and facilitated a peaceful change in government. The agreement held until October 1994, when fighting erupted between the government army and an opposition militia. The Sanaag conference managed to keep the peace in Erigavo at least two years despite major external pressures.

John Paul Lederach identifies ingredients that were critical to the success of the Boraama meetings: a series of local clan meetings preceded the conference, the meetings were initiated and conducted by clan elders, and the process was rooted in the place of conflict. The Boraama conference cost roughly $100,000 for five months, a minute fraction of the weekly cost of the UN’s mediation efforts in Mogadishu, Nairobi and Addis. The key pieces, according to another observer, Rakiya Omaar, were in place: "community support, participation in and ownership of the process, common goals, legitimate representation and a long-term process." The Boroma conference received international support, as did the follow up conference in the Sanaag region. However, most other successful clan conferences in the north were financed by the community.

Sudan: the Ikotos Conference. The Eastern Equatoria province of southern Sudan is a melting pot of ethnicity, including the Lotuko, Didinga, Boya and Toposa. Historically, cattle rustling is endemic in the region and goes beyond Sudan’s borders into Kenya and Ethiopia. Intercommunal conflict had increased in the Lotuko areas following the SPLA split in 1991 because of constant clashes for control of certain areas and the rise of banditry and large-scale cattle raiding. In response, the two major Christian churches of the region, the Catholic and African Inland Church, joined together to write a Pastoral Letter which was read during Christmas ceremonies in 1994. The Letter emphasized the local Lotuko concept of emwara (reconciliation). Leaders of the Catholic Diocese of Torit began visiting villages to discuss the emwara concept. In January 1995 the Diocese hosted a peace conference in Ikotos, involving roughly 7,000 participants, including chiefs, teachers, youths, and SPLA leaders and members. The conference resolved many issues; for instance, escalating dowry prices were a reason for increased cattle rustling, so the conferees agreed to reduce the dowry from thirty to ten cows. Those caught raiding would be fined double their take. Compensation for wrongful death was set at 22 cows. Traveling outside one’s home village with guns was disallowed, with confiscation of the weapon the penalty. Soldiers would not be allowed to visit villages without specific orders from their commander. As of mid-1995, the agreement was holding for the most part.

Sudan: the Akobo Conference. The Akobo Peace Conference was called to address serious intra-tribal fighting between the Jikany and Lau sections of the Nuer in Eastern Upper Nile, southern Sudan. The Akobo Conference followed a tradition of conferences which from the 1940s codified and subsequently modified Nuer traditional law. The conferences served to maintain Nuer culture and steer the community’s response to new challenges. No similar conference had been held since 1973.

The Conference lasted from mid-August through late September 1994 and included eighteen delegations of mediators, 500 official delegates, and about 1500 observers from the Jikany and Lau. The Conference included ad hoc committees, traditional courts, an open floor for input, a technical committee to recommend ways forward, and a secretariat. Malual Wun Kuoth, a chief for 44 years from Western Upper Nile, presided over the Conference.

The Conference sought agreement over the use of resources which had been the cause of violence. Pasture land, water, and fishing areas all had been subjects of conflict because the civil war had cut off traditional grazing and fishing areas for many Nuer. Squeezed onto shrinking lands, access to resources had become an increasingly troublesome process as more communities fought over a steadily reduced pool of resources.

The agreement was signed by ten Luo and twelve Jikany chiefs. It set forth provisions regarding sharing water, grazing lands and fishing points and the maintenance of peace and security. Any violator of the agreement was to be apprehended. The covenant was sealed by the sacrifice of two bulls, rituals conducted to demonstrate divine support, and violators were cursed.

Women played a particularly effective witnessing role at the Conference, acting as an informal "truth commission." As maan naaths (mothers of the nation) the Nuer women would shout down any man whose testimony contained falsehoods. The shame of the women’s hoots drove a number of men to revise their testimony to avoid the embarrassment of being tainted as liars.

Sudan: other locally initiated peace conferences and agreements.

Immediately after the Akobo Peace Conference, the South Sudan Independence Movement/Army (SSIM/A, the rebel authority in the area) held a Convention which endorsed the resolutions of the Conference.

Grassroots peace conferences in Eastern and Western Torit District involved the Catholic church and community leaders.

The Dinka-Misseriya peace agreements in the transitional zone between north and south have more or less held for commercial and deterrence reasons for seven years, but more recently are under extreme threat.

The Jikany-Lou Nuer Reconciliation Conference was held in Akobo, South Sudan between July and October 1994.

In the Upper Nile area of southern Sudan, World Vision helped provide relief supplies and food to support a peace conference among local leaders.

Burundi. In Burundi, the British NGO ACTIONAID has been working with local groups in Ruyigi province to promote the conflict-mediation activities of wise men within the community, known as Abashingantahe. The effort really started after the 1993 massacres when ACTIONAID decided to integrate elders in an emergency relief program.

ACTIONAID was unable undertake the activity in the more stable period preceding the violence because the Government of Burundi has traditionally been very strict in controlling how foreign groups could interact with local groups, especially community-based groups. Despite a 15-year history implementing development programs in the Ruyigi, ACTIONAID was not allowed to work with elders; elders were unable to take any initiatives on their own because of official hostility. Prevention work was impossible.

In the wake of the massacres, ACTIONAID undertook a massive emergency seed distribution program aimed to enhance food security, to encourage refugees in Tanzania to return home for the planting season and to jump-start intra-community dialogue and mediation activities by delegating distribution tasks to committees headed up by Abashingantahe. Goals were to empower the elders within the community and disempower those spreading the message of hate and intolerance. While the effect of the effort is unclear, ACTIONAID has retained the idea of elder involvement in the form of "Peace Committees" in its longer-term participatory development programs.

Other examples. The role of elders and elders’ councils are crucial in local peacemaking in the Ethiopian and Somali societies as well:

The Qabri Dahar conference in Region Five (the Ogaden), which brought together a significant cross-section of the Ogaden’s political and traditional leadership, stopped the planting of land-mines, reduced tensions between the army and local population, drew many of the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF) fighters out of the bush, increased commerce, and temporarily brought some consensus about the future of the region.

In Somaliland, by solving the disputes at the level of traditional social organization, elders were able to deprive the politicians of the possibility of making war, and thus help to create the conditions of peace.

In 1990 a group of Somali intellectuals in Canada and the US set up an organization known as the Somali Peace and Consultation Committee (ERGADA) to empower local structures in peacemaking in Somalia. This organization received support from a Swedish NGO, the Life and Peace Institute (LPI).




  Indigenous conflict mitigation mechanisms can address some of the proximate factors that help fuel conflict at the local level—access to land or water, competition over foreign assistance—and can provide appropriate, sustainable and long-term solutions. While local peace processes are not likely to stop a large conflict, they can help prevent small disputes from escalating into larger conflicts.

Many communities perceive conflict resolution activities directed by outsiders as intrusive and unresponsive to indigenous concepts of justice, and prefer to resolve conflicts within the community. Conflict management mediators from the local community are generally more sensitive to local needs than outsiders and are immersed in the culture of the violence-afflicted community. Their activities are rooted in conflict’s context, address some of its immediate causes, and can bring long-term solutions. They can draw people away from the conflict, breaking its momentum.

Indigenous conflict management and resolution mechanisms aim to resolve conflicts locally, preceding or replacing external dispute resolution and thereby reducing reliance on external structures. Traditional mediation helps the community keep control over the outcome of the dispute. Implementing this approach does not require sophisticated party structures or expensive campaigns; it provides a low-cost, empowering means of resolving conflicts within a relatively short timeframe.

In many societies, elders have traditional jurisdiction in facilitation, arbitration, and monitoring outcomes. Local conflict mediators typically possess moral status, seniority, neutrality and respect of the community; they are acceptable to all parties and demonstrate leadership capacity. Resolutions are generally accepted and respected by all concerned parties.



  Documentation on the effectiveness of grassroots conflict prevention mechanisms is inconsistent, yet indicates that indigenous mediation may be powerless to address some of a conflict’s root causes—centrally-instigated conflict, predatory behavior linked to exploiting economic advantage, external meddling.

Indigenous mediators often bring important social influence but may lack the power and the means to enforce the resolutions adopted. Advice is only accepted when both parties agree to it, and both parties must feel their concerns were properly addressed. Traditional structures’ power to prevent the occurrence of violence is limited.

Some traditional conflict mitigation efforts may be weakened by age or gender bias—for example, in cases with no women elders, some women may believe that male elders are biased against women and that this will be reflected in their decisions. Indigenous, traditional authorities generally are not progressive elements of social change.

Local conflict management’s potential effectiveness is diminished where traditional authority has eroded and armed authority has increased, since these trends run counter to traditional values and ways of social organization, including those of handling conflict. International agencies’ efforts to build local capacity and enhance participation should question whether traditional authority structures are being undermined, what their role is in keeping the society intact and managing conflict, and whether it is important to make efforts to retain such structures.

Indigenous mediation has a dynamic of its own and does not always respond positively to external prompting. Indigenous mediation requires delicate and knowledgeable management, and external actors must bring an intimate understanding of local conditions.


Lessons learned

  The process of strengthening international and regional institutions has neglected internal solutions. Conflict is inherent in society; so are mechanisms for dealing with it. The decline of traditional authority and its role in conflict mediation has contributed to the development of large-scale conflict (as in Liberia, Somalia and Sudan). In other cases, parties to broader conflicts have subverted traditional mediation mechanisms or included them in the conflict (Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, Burundi).

External initiatives can renew indigenous forms of peacemaking and conflict resolution to restore the balance in society that was destroyed by modern internal war. Such work must rebuild indigenous peacemaking capacity from the bottom up, and from the periphery in. Traditional mechanisms have been less effective in areas where foreign aid resources were heavily concentrated; such aid may have stimulated conflict and undermined local structures and mechanisms. High-profile peace fora financed and organized by external parties may interfere with more than assist in producing plausible settlements, especially if conducted without coordinating with local non-military leaders. At the national or international level, such efforts may require external support, such as logistical assistance, and probably should be accompanied by other actions to prevent the immediate outbreak of violence.

The following are additional guidelines for such initiatives:

Key authority structures of conflicting parties must be included in the process, including traditional, military, administrative, and religious leaders.

Those with moral authority in the community must be central to the process; educated exiles also have a role to play.

External support should be minimal and fill gaps, taking care not to replace indigenous leadership.

These indigenous processes represent long-term interactions between traditional and modern societies, and cannot act as quick fixes.

Donors have become increasingly more partial to indigenous conflict mechanisms. This is not lost on groups anxious to secure donor monies. Groups with unproven, poor or even bogus track records may mushroom in response to the availability of assistance funds. These groups may even acquire a higher profile than bona fide mediation institutions.

The conflict must be placed firmly in historical context for the participants.

External assistance must take care to supplement rather than overwhelm existing local grassroots initiatives.

External actors planning to support local mediation mechanisms must bring local experience, perhaps even anthropological knowledge of the area.


References and resources

  Kevin Avruch, Peter W. Black and Joseph A. Scimecca. Conflict Resolution: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Ahmed Yusuf Farah and I.M. Lewis, Peacemaking Endeavours of Contemporary Lineage Leaders: A Survey of Grassroots Peace Conferences in "Somaliland," ACTIONAID, December 1993.

Transcripts from USAID-sponsored Proceedings on Practicing Community-Based Conflict Mitigation, March 1995.

John Paul Lederach. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Tokyo: United Nations University, 1994.

Mark Adams and Mark Bradbury. Conflict and Development: Background Paper for UNICEF/NGO Workshop. New York, NY: United Nations. April 27, 1995.

William Lowrey, Sudan Case Study: Jikany-Lou Nuer Indigenous Peace Process, June 1995.