Everyone wants to help, but before helping it is important to identify with some precision what the problems are, what the causes of those problems are, and where the entry points to addressing the causes may be. The below is our attempt to speak to that.
The Somalia civil war is a misnomer. While it may be a handy icon for a complicated time period, it is neither a uniform nor a coherent conflict which fits neatly into none of the established paradigms of conflict. Indeed, depending on the location and time in question one can find evidence of any of the major conflict paradigms in effect. Resource competition, ethnicity conflicts, political marginalization, and most of the other conflict paradigms can be found in the sands of the Somali desert.
The problem of understanding the conflicts in the Somali region is further complicated by the interaction between and cyclic nature of the different drivers of conflict. Each of the drivers – while largely being identifiable by modern, academic conflict theory – maintains a relationship with the other drivers that waxes and wanes over time and across the map.
Small, isolated conflicts have often remained small and isolated but at other times are able to provide an incendiary effect that broadens an individual dispute into a larger conflict. One of the major determinative factors of whether a particular dispute will oscillate into a larger conflict is the presence of latent disputes that were never fully resolved despite a perceived reduction in the acute tension of the particular, earlier dispute. When this latency between certain groups or within certain areas reaches a threshold, or is accessed by opportunistic individuals (warlords) or groups (insurgencies), a conflict ripe environment is easily conflagrated by the smallest dispute.
Often, the sector vested with conflict resolution in Somali society – the traditional leaders or elders – are able to temper the acute conflict but are not able to fully address the conflict latencies before another driver of conflict lit by another dispute requires the attention of the elders in another locale with different litigants. Breaking this cycle of conflict recidivism has proved to be the truly intransigent problem within Somali society. After working in this sector for numerous years and speaking at length with dozens of elders, we have developed a theory that could possibly work to reduce conflict recidivism within Somali society and would allow traditional leaders to more fully address the latent conflicts. When looking closely at the conflict latency issue that directly leads to high levels of conflict recidivism, one apparent challenge provides a single thread that could help to solve the problem.
Almost exclusively the disputes addressed by the traditional sector result in an oral agreement. Oral agreements present societies with two major risks. The first challenge of providing dispute resolution services in an oral society is that each of the past disputes is susceptible to perception bias. While all dispute resolution activities, and perhaps all societal activities are susceptible to perception bias, transactions which result in an oral agreement have no common reference point which can be a marker for future challenges to this perception bias.
There is another major problem in oral transactions; these transactions lack an objective reference point. When two individuals agree to partner in a business venture and agree to split the profits 50%-50% that agreement may well be immune to perception bias however there is nothing that confines one of the party’s ability to claim that the agreement was actually a 60%-40% split in their favor. These two interrelated problems curtail the beneficial effects of the dispute resolution process by reducing the certainty and longevity of the process which leads directly to increased conflict recidivism.
Within these challenges lie opportunities to increase the elasticity of peace within a given area. Our theory is that if a common, objective reference point for dispute resolution can be established that conflict recidivism will be reduced because the common reference point becomes a touchstone for positive relationships and the objective reference point becomes a touchstone for outsiders to adjudicate any latent or lingering consequences of the original dispute resolution process.