The women of Wajir who made peace against all odds

Cover of the book ‘Forced by Fate & Driven by Faith: The True Story of the Wajir Peacebuilding Process’ by Nuria Abdullahi Abdi.

What you need to know:

  • A look at ‘Forced by Fate and Driven by Faith’ by Nuria Abdi.

The cliché that old men declare war but send young men who have little to do with it to die on the battlefield is always a reminder of the pointlessness of war. Today’s wars are even more futile considering that fewer of them are really about one state seeking to conquer another.

They are more or less about resources – water, minerals, oil etc – or about fights for power to control access and distribution of such resources. Yet, today’s states have the capacity to exploit such resources and distribute the resultant income ‘fairly’ than was available to just a century ago.

However, for many reasons, including greed, inability to plan, prejudice, or ignorance, even modern, established and supposedly stable countries experience internal disputes between clans or neighboring communities; sometimes over something as innocuous as a border between two villages.

This was the case in the then Wajir District, of the then Northeastern Province of Kenya (today Wajir County) in the early 1990s. The clan conflict in the district was principally ignited by politics, local and regional, although other factors were also at play at the time.

Some politicians sought to manipulate the 1992 elections and win power by inflating the population of their clans. How? They imported voters into their constituencies. Political power translates into job opportunities and more resources for one’s people. Inevitably the losers would be disgruntled.

In a border region such as Wajir, and with weapons being easily available from Somalia, whose government had just collapsed, armed conflict predictably occurred. Families lost men who were combatants in the conflict. Insecurity affected women.

Young men got sucked into the conflict not just to defend their clans but also because there were spoils of war to share or payment from those who funded the conflicts. Violence seriously affected life in Wajir district as bandits controlled access into and out of the town and theft of livestock increased.

It is thus not so surprising that women – who were victims in many ways including losing their relatives, husbands and sons – decided to join forces with the youth to initiate a peace process. This is the story of Forced by Fate & Driven by Faith: The True Story of the Wajir Peacebuilding Process by Nuria Abdullahi Abdi (Talitha Graphics, 2023).

This is a story of daring, resourcefulness, faith and commitment to do good to the community. This is a story that any community trapped in internal conflict should borrow from. For the efforts by the women and the youth of Wajir produced a model peacebuilding program that has served the community well to date.

How did this happen in a society where ‘power and prestige is the preserve of men?’ Pastoralist societies tend to privilege men over women because the men largely own livestock, which is the key source of the family’s livelihood.

Such social arrangements would continue even when some pastoralists enter the modern economy that is based on the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, with wealth being denominated in other forms than animals. Thus, in the Wajir case, though there were women who were traders and professionals, they were still expected to be deferential to their men.

However, it is the professional women who first felt the need to start a peace process in Wajir when the conflict reached the town market. Considering the significance of the market as a meeting point for all clan members who go there to buy and sell commodities, it was difficult for any persons, including those not involved in the conflict directly, to avoid the consequences of the clashes. This is one of the factors that motivated the women professionals to ponder the possibilities of a peacebuilding process.

The initial talks involved individuals approaching others from across the clan differences, the supposed ‘enemies.’ The author writes, “We planned and organised ourselves into various groups with specified target groups to meet: the women, youth, elders, religious leaders; while others met the security team to explain our plan on how to intervene and stop the violence. All group members were tasked to talk to their immediate clan members however difficult it was. It was not an easy task and some of the members would share their experiences during the reflections sessions.”

What Forced by Fate & Driven by Faith is that any conflict can be resolved using ‘local’ resources and initiatives. The women and young people who decided to be involved in the search for peace in the Wajir conflict understood that it was their present and future that were threatened.

They knew that the violence in their neighborhood would eventually affect all citizens of Wajir, whether one supported the combatants or not. There would be no peace. Business would be disrupted. Livelihoods would be affected. Families would collapse. Those with means would migrate. In other words, the community of Wajir would be disrupted and dispersed.

But peace doesn’t come easily. War benefits its funders, combatants and suppliers or even buyers of loot items. In the case of the Wajir conflict, it was clearly difficult to pursue peace given that the drivers of the process were women. Weren’t women supposed to stay at home and serve their husbands and families? Weren’t women supposed to listen to men and elders instead of speaking to men? Who were these young men and women who claimed to be peacemakers and peacebuilders? Who gave these women and young people the authority to speak on behalf of the community? These and many more are some of the questions that the initiators of the Wajir peace process experienced.

Yet peace would eventually win the war, in a manner of speaking, in Wajir. The women and youth managed to get the young and old, men and women, government officers, civil society officials, religious leaders, among other parties affected by the conflict to promote peace and condemn conflict.

Eventually, “leaders from the major clans, namely twenty-five elected and opinion leaders from the Degodia, Ajuran and Ogaden clans, respectively, as well as five leaders from Garreh and Muralle clans met to deliberate on the causes of the continuing internecine strife with a view to bringing the problem to and end.” That end was the signing of the Alfatah Peace Declaration on September 29, 1993.

That peace in Wajir has often been breached since then. But the seeds of the peacebuilding initiative sowed in 1993 have germinated and borne mechanisms for addressing such eruptions. Absence of war doesn’t mean that there is peace, as the saying goes.

Realistic peacebuilding is an ongoing process. It demands eternal vigilance from all members of the community, especially women, as Forced by Fate & Driven by Faith suggests, because they are the most affected when there is a conflict in the community.

- The writer teaches literature, performing arts and media at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]