In Riflessioni sul perdono

Dekha Ibrahim Abdi

{phocagallery view=category|categoryid=1|imageid=4|overlib=0|limitstart=0|limitcount=0| detail=4|displayname=0|displaydetail=0|displaydownload=0}


By Dekha Ibrahim Abdi
21st September 2009 Mombasa,  Kenya


This paper will examine reconciliation and forgiveness from all perspectives and in particular from my role and lessons that I have drawn from working at various levels and in different settings, from local to regional processes, over a period of time of 16 years (1993-2009). This will include some conceptual thinking as well as analytical frameworks that have come out of the practice of the day-to-day engagement. Peace practitioners have tried various models and approaches in attempting to transform violent conflict. None of the models totally failed nor totally succeeded. All generated lessons. Learning from these lessons is vital for all levels and across the entire globe.


I have examined the following questions as a guide and using community-based structure in Kenya and Somalia as examples for strengthening the dialogue on the subject of reconciliation and forgiveness:

  1. Peace negotiation are for the most part focused the political and economic dimension what are perception of the necessity of touching deeper and more genuine aspect of reconciliation and how can this be achieved?
  2. What are conditions in which beyond securing the interest of parties to conflict, a process that is centered on a sense of fairness and dignity can be established?
  3. To what degree is forgiveness an essential dimension of reconciliation? At the root of your political culture and religion faith what are principal that either implies or exclude forgiveness? Which verse or saying that is part of your personal spiritual heritage could in your opinion have universal significance?
  4. Does forgiveness require some form of repentance on the side of those to whom forgiveness is offered? Does forgiveness is offered? Does forgiveness have condition or it’s unconditional?

Conflict is a normal phenomenon of everybody’s social life. It helps us builds relationship, make judgments and expands our horizons. What is not normal is for conflict to become the cause of violence. Violence resulting from conflict becomes so common in present times that people involved, affected or victimized started to accept it as reality of daily life.

People or groups’ fighting for their religion often articulates the irreconcilable differences of their religion. Little has been said about the similarities of their needs, hopes and faith. The differences in theology are often articulated instead of the similarities of their faith that speak more of their humanity, connectedness to the divine and the essence of life. The upsurge of seemingly inter-religious, inter-group conflict in many parts of the globe leads to a lively discourse on inter-disciplinary, inter-communal cross-social and -cultural and inter-faith approaches in conflict transformation.

In a violent conflict situation where multiple parties were engaged in violence and used violence as a way and means of retaining their position, reversing the situation is a big challenge. Sometimes opportunities occur of ceasefire when fatigue of conflict and violence permeates all parties and they agree to cessation of hostilities or negotiated or agreed upon or settlement of conflict is reached when each side is ready, thus creating opportunities of further trust building. 

In order to strengthen the relationship that has broken down, one way of trust and confidence building is the journey of reconciliation and forgiveness. This is a long process of searching for community safety and security. It takes time, needs the patience and goodwill of the parties in conflict, their commitment as well as financial resources. It is dangerous, tedious work, and cannot be achieved by one structure. This in my experience is a crucial preparatory phase which creates the environment for further work but is always not understood and valued. This process requires some fundamental areas to be addressed to guide the process of reconciliation and forgiveness .There are key principal issues that need to be addressed and be in place:

1. Confidence in the institution of governance is key – the party in conflict needs to feel safe. This reduces the need for managing their safety and security themselves. Therefore the condition of safety and security need to be guaranteed.

2. Continuous Participation in decision-making – willingness of the parties in conflict is key to the success. Reconciliation is a CONTINUOUS process.  It needs to be all inclusive, taking into consideration the contributions of the diverse actors, including women, youth, militia, Diaspora, and even spoilers as they have influence on the conflict.

In 1992-1993 Wajir district was affected by conflicts between the three major clans in the district and the government structures appeared incapable of responding effectively.  The conflict spread even to the women in the market.  Women took the initiative of trying to stop this new aspect of the conflict, meeting with the market women to discuss the causes of violence between them. Wajir Women for Peace group was formed among the market women which expanded to include other women in Wajir town.  In addition a group of professional decided it was time to intervene and formed Wajir Peace Group with members from all the clans in the district.  They talked to key clan elders, from their own clans, whom they saw as behind the violence and also capable of bringing peace. The group also approached elders from minority clans not directly involved in the conflict to act as mediators.  They agreed and convened a meeting of elders representing all the clans in the district. This began a series of meetings culminating the Al Fatah Declaration setting out guidelines for the return of peace in the district and future relations between the clans. It also led to the formation of an Elders for Peace Group.  A Youth for Peace Group was subsequently formed which began sending delegations throughout the district to talk to the youth.  A group of businessmen was also formed with the role of raising money for peace activities.

3. A structure to implement the agreement – this collaborative structure needs to be formal as well as traditional as they work in a complimentary manner; thus, each brings in a value due to each having a limitation. For EFFECTIVE response, the traditional communal structures, government administrative structures and religious structures need to be coordinated in order to compliment each other and find synergies.

A Mediation team called the (rapid response team) was established to respond quickly to security incidents composed of member of the DSC, elders, women and youth. When tensions emerged or a problem occurred, the team would visit the area and convene a meeting of elders to attempt to resolve the problem. The district administration agreed to matters being dealt using customary Somali law rather the state law where this was likely to resolve conflicts between clans. A person arrested for murder would be released if the two clans concerned settled the matter through customary  process called maslah in which the group choose the payment of ‘blood’ compensation or acknowledging the wrong and seeking forgiveness. Sometimes the aggrieved need to receive an apology, much more even than compensation, others need to understand the motivation behind the acts, while others need to be assured that it will not happen again to them or others.

4. Breaking the victim-perpetrators cycle and moving toward
s the journey to healing and collective security:
the process towards reconciliation needs to deal with unresolved trauma in society affected by violence. If cumulative societal trauma is not dealt with, it re-surfaces, even from generation to generation, in ways such as:

  • Acting against the self
  • Helplessness/hopelessness
  • An unchanging story
  • A desire for revenge
  • Acting out against others
  • Continuous violent conflicts 

Finding collective security through trauma healing; building and transforming relationships; working beyond the hurt of today toward a desired future that promotes the security of our neighbors, friends and enemies alike; moving beyond ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reactions – all these processes require attention to healing body, mind and spirit. Breaking the cycle is more healing than chasing the enemy and becoming the perpetrator.

5. Preparing for Reconciliation and Forgiveness

To prepare society affected by violent conflict is a challenge, this is due to the fact that violence has become the norm and people fear peace processes, partly as they require revisiting of the past and the tough work toward the journey of reconciliation and forgiveness.  In our experience, it requires a holistic approach that links all levels and sectors from top to the bottom, from political and economic to social, deep spiritual soul searching and development.  It requires a balance of the different pillars and levels that hold society together as shown in the diagram below:

In my experience, for sustainable reconciliation and forgiveness to be reached, it requires time to work on all sectors and levels; if the focus is only on one, there is a situation of unstable peace and recurring of violence is likely. This is because it is a fragile and complex process, a cyclical process that is an integral part of the wider peacebuilding and conflict transformation process. The reconciliation and forgiveness journey creates space for individual and collective transformation of attitudes, beliefs and behavior towards former “enemies” or offenders, and working toward creating a resource for peace in society .

The complex process is shown below in a diagram , as we experienced on a practical level in Kenya:

Forgiveness an essential dimension of Reconciliation
Forgiveness is essential tool for reconciliation but before forgiveness can be approached, truths have to be accepted, starting with one’s own self and then the other. Facing the truth is a tough journey that many fear, it is necessary to help individuals and society to come to terms and to go beyond the victim-perpetrator mentality. In our Kenya experience, the social and spiritual realms were invoked by using verses from the Quran to heal individual and collective reflections of self, community and state so that people could have honest dialogue with themselves first and then with the other.

Islam seeks to help us understand how an individual can become violent, that is, how one person can get to the point of being willing to use violence against another, and how this can be remedied.  The individual’s perceptions, relationships, and spiritual state are crucial to an understanding of violence.

The transition from a peaceful to a violent state occurs, and is accompanied by, particular changes and dynamics in the individual and in society. The dynamic, as we understand it, is that the person begins to divide good from evil, placing all the good in himself and his allies, and all the evil in “targets” outside himself, thus distorting reality.  A key phase is the movement toward blaming, when the individual blames what is wrong in his or her own life on outside forces.  It is this distancing which permits the individual to go on to attack the outside force, by diminishing the sense of connectedness with it. As the blaming increases, so does the distance. The blaming and anger permit the individual to act violently toward someone else. Violent behavior, in turn, makes it even more difficult, even more unimaginable, to think of the self as connected in any way to the “target”.  At the most extreme point, the individual comes to believe that the target must be destroyed, even at the cost of his/her own life. 
Given this dynamic, it follows that re-establishing a peaceful state will require reversing the pattern.  The individual must be re-connected, and see and understand both his/her own involvement in the problems in his/her life, and the good as well as bad points of the outside force which he/she has been blaming and targeting.  This is not primarily an intellectual exercise, however.  It is spiritual, psychological, and emotional.

To understand this more deeply, and to root it within Islamic religion and culture, there is guidance in the Quran, which is the source of guidance and information that shapes the thinking of Muslims.
The Quran explicitly mentions several distinct, interrelated yet independent stages the soul goes through.  Some of those stages are: 

Three stage development of the soul.

 Soul  Qualities
 1. Nafs- al ammarah, “ the soul that incited  evil” ( Surah 12:53)  associated with pride, anger, lust, envy, and violent behavior
 2. Nafs al-lawamah, “ the blaming soul” (surah 75:2)  blame of self and/or others, vanity, hypocrisy, and love of fame and authority
 3. Nafs al-mutma’inna –“soul at peace” or “tranquil soul” (surah 89:27)  trust, gentleness, adoration, gratitude, contentment with fate, and patience under calamities
“The soul at peace with God is in perfect control of its own attribute and the body that it governs.”

Peace starts with the individual, then moves towards the other. Understanding one’s own soul is the beginning and the primary goal of development. In a context where the violence is social, political, economic, or in other ways involves groups, this guidance could still be useful in understanding and changing actions through spiritual means, if the group has shared values and culture.  This approach of self and societal reflection has relevance for other faith traditions and rooting it to their appropriate holy scriptures.
The following are some of the testimonies of personal transformation in a violent conflict situation.

Personal transformation
Personal transformation is key, it is creating a shift of the heart and mind that will lay the ground for reconciliation of the following testimonies.
Testimony 1 This violence has been going on, no one has come to talk to us – those who are affected by the violence – meetings only take place in Mandera town and only men talk to each other but women and children are the victims of the violence, yet we are out of the picture of peace. We have never seen in our lifetime women traveling far distances, leaving their home and families as peace emissaries, you have talked to us, listened to us and followed the tradition of giving us consolation tokens, we have lost our loved ones, the pain is there but your visit dear sister is the beginning of the healing in our lives and committing ourselves to working for peace. We now know we have a role in the peace, our peace.  As narrated to Nuria Abdullahi Coordinator Wajir Peace Rhamu, February 2005, Mandera
Testimony 2 I was a spectator, feeling happy when the other side was kil
led and unhappy when one of our own was killed, this changed when I joined the women peace organization and visited together the victims of violence. Then I realized the graveness of the situation, I honestly prayed to God to help us stop the violence and dedicated myself to working for peace for all, Halima Mohamed,  March 2005, Mandera

Forgiveness is both conditional and unconditional. Repentance is an important tool for peacebuilding and reconciliation processes as it distills or erases the previous mistake you made from GOD (Allah) and humanity; you have to address the particular person and community you have wronged and beg forgiveness.

Individual and collective process
Forgiveness is an act that is both personal and communal, to forgive in our experience is a process of coming to terms with what has happened, acknowledging and choosing a path. This can happen on a private or public level, depending on the issue. If a key individual stands up publicly to pronounce forgiveness for the hurt they have come through as a way to break the cycle of revenge and demonstrate the possibility of new relations, this can help both the forgiver and the forgiven – it releases new energy for engaging on wider societal issues of violent conflict.

For a wider societal process of forgiveness, in north Kenya we have blended religious, cultural and administrative approaches, sometimes using legal approaches backed by Somali and Islamic traditions of restorative and healing justice. Violence induced trauma cries out for justice; persons who have experienced traumatic violence want to reclaim their sense of humanity. Reconciliation and forgiveness are processes to help in reclaiming humanity as well in seeking to address the need for both justice and security for all. Real security rests on the promotion of just and peaceful relationships among individuals, groups, and nations.

Process to be led by trusted individual and institutions

Undertaking reconciliation can be done using the traditional leadership, such as was done by the Al-fatah Council of Elders in Kenya. The Al-fatah Elders is a standing committee of 36 elders chosen by a team of 100 elders.  In September 1993, the 36 elders represented 3 major clans of Wajir as well as the minority clans. The composition of the Elders includes all those who have a voice and a stand in the community; credibility was an important selection criterion.

Building the Council of Elders to become a mediation team whose members have confidence and trust among themselves was seen  as an important step toward the development of the structure of Al-fatah. Part of the confidence- and trust-building was the agreement on the terms of engagement and ways of working together as a team with a collective voice.

Some of the basic rules of the Council of Elders that guide them on a day-to-day basis are:

  1. The Council of Elders, although its agreed upon rules were not written, tries to stand by them.
  2. The Council of Elders, hereby collectively responsible for the communal good; when engaging in any intervention, remember the communal interest and not your clan.
  3. Stand for a non-violent approach to any intervention and give services of peace that are a link between government and community.
  4. Stand for truth and recognition that there is more than one truth, exploring the truth through dialogue.
  5. Council of Elders are accountable to God, themselves, the government and the community that entrusted us with this role and service.

Reconciliation and forgiveness is a process and comes gradually, it is essential and integral part of transforming society to arrive at a just and sustainable peace. However is does not come automatically as part of political negotiated settlement, but rather it is a social and spiritual process that uses the power of collective wisdom by  creating a culture of peace and non violence that has been designed, resourced and implemented over generations by committed individuals who play the role of the critical yeast essential for the growth of a peaceful society.

About the author

Dekha Ibrahim AbdiDekha Ibrahim Abdi is a peace practitioner based in Mombasa, Kenya, working as a consultant to government and civil society organisations.
She is currently a trustee of the Coalition for Peace in Africa (COPA) and Board member of Ulster University (INCORE) Northern Ireland, Berghoff centre in Berlin Germany.
She is a founding member of the Wajir Peace and Development Committee, the Coalition for Peace in Africa, and Action for Conflict Transformation (ACTION). Dekha has worked as consultant trainer on peacebuilding and pastoralist development with many local and international agencies. She is an Associate of Responding to Conflict and worked as RTC’s Trainer and Learning Coordinator.

In 2007 she was honoured with the “Alternative Nobel Prize” presented at the Swedish Parliament by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation to those “working on practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today” The Jury commended her “for showing in diverse ethnic and cultural situations how religious and other differences can be reconciled, even after violent conflict, and knitted together through a cooperative process that leads to peace and development”.
In May  2008 she was awarded the Peace Prize by the Rotary Club of Nairobi Kenya, and in December 2008 she was given a Presidential Award (HSM) for her role in contribution towards peace and security in Kenya following the post election violence.