Maintaining peace is among the main roles played by traditional elders in many African societies. Their influence goes a long way in resolving disputes between family members, within and among communities, and occasionally across state lines.

But as the nature of conflict changes, their ability to lead effectively is threatened.

In Somalia, fighting has pushed people out of their homelands, displacing them to camps and communities in other countries. When problems arise among their community members, leaders find themselves under the jurisdiction of foreign cities and towns rather than in their homelands, where they have a say.

Challenges like this one were discussed in a recent meeting of traditional leaders from seven countries, who came to Nairobi to examine how their role in conflict management is changing in today’s social, cultural, and political environments. Participants came from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, and Somalia for the three-day gathering convened by AFSC’s Somalia Peace Program.

One major area of focus for their discussion was how to adapt to changes—to both the nature of dispute and to the current actors involved in conflict resolution—brought about by contemporary approaches.

The emergence of powerful youth organizations and local government structures has gradually diminished the roles and authority of traditional leaders. Some of the leaders who attended the meeting now work closely with local governments in their countries. But most said they do not directly interfere with political dynamics and rivalry. Yet it is often their voices that prove to be most effective in preventing and resolving disputes nonviolently.

Regardless of formal government relationships, leaders feel it is their role to create an atmosphere that helps remove animosity, fear, and mistrust, eventually leading to conflict resolution.

According to AFSC’s Celestin Nkundabemera, program director for Somalia, “African traditional leadership ... cannot be overlooked in the perspective of how society is changing in Africa and how sustainable these changes can be.”

The leadership systems that empower them originate in pre-colonial times and vary from one society to another; some leaders trace their roots directly to God, some serve as proxies for infant kings, and some are queens who have proven to be just as effective as male leaders.

What they share, says Celestin, is being representative of the people they lead and taking into account all needs within their communities. In addition to conflict resolution, they often guide community decisions on agriculture, land use, and health.

The meeting gave them a chance to exchange experiences and ideas, and to discuss ways to build connections with youth and women that would help in dispute resolution. “The participants were positive about this and would like to engage these constituencies further,” says Celestin.

AFSC organized the meeting as part of its work to strengthen communities to resolve problems peacefully. Working with stakeholders—in this case, traditional leaders—is a key area of that work.