From process to procedure: Mediation by elders, formality and peace (Eastern Shewa, Ethiopia)
Ada'a, the research area of the dissertation project, is situated in Eastern Shewa at the slopes of the Central Ethiopian Highlands. It is inhabited by members of the Oromo and the Amhara ethnic groups. In this setting of a peasant society, where ethnic 'borders' are regularly crossed by intermarriage and the living in joint settlements, old men do possess a high status, underlined by certain rules of addressing to them, and shown by good manners of hospitaliy and respect in their regard. They have a right to bless the younger generation, and are conferred on concrete functions in their community - such as the conflict settlement among disputants. Special procedures and rituals shall induce a reconciliation of conflicting parties, most of them families clashing due to cases of insult, brawl, disputes about property, bride-abduction or killing. The prescriptive procedures differ in each of these cases and are suited to the gravity and possible consequences of the concerned instance. It is of special interest for the project to document such regulations or models of acting and to show, how and why elders apply them. Thereby it turns out that the rituals and courses of action already hold an appeasing potential in their form and language. They are by far not as arbitrary as they might appear at a first glance. In serious cases of quarrel and blood shed, for instance, particular time intervals have to be kept in the course of the continuing mediation activities by elders, thus leaving time for the quarreling parties to calm. Also, the procedure stipulates that not the perpetrators' side, but a third party - the group of elders - contact the injureds' family and enter into negotiations with its representatives. This can avoid acts of revenge and an immediate face-to-face confrontation of the persons involved in the conflict. Certain formal speeches, promises and confession of guilt by the perpetrators' elders shall induce the other side to yield to the request for reconciliation, etc. A whole spectrum of communicative strategies is used here in order to restore peace, since, despite their respected role in society, success of the elders' endeavors is not granted. The aim of mediation is not primarily to punish guilty persons but to reconcile the involved families or groups. In serious cases this would mean the reintegration of the perpetrator and his relatives into local society.
The past long-term fieldwork in Ada'a has resulted in a rich ethnographic data-base on the research area, and the analysis of the material provides a promising base for theoretical and comparative reflection. Above all, the obvious absence of ethnic conflict is noteworthy. It stands in contrast both to the relatively high degree of ethnic conciousness of the Oromo and Amhara in the area (which is partly due to recent political developments in the framework of a new ethnic-federal state of Ethiopia) and to the situation in other areas of the country where tensions and even ethnic 'cleansings' have been reported for the same two ethnic groups. This fact deserves a closer examination. Absence of ethnic conflict is not identical with absence of conflict in general. Cases reported during the fieldwork, far from being in a state of harmony, included many serious incidents, including killings. These incidents, however, were not expressed in terms of inter-ethnic but of inter-family conflicts, whereby one family might belong to the one, and the other family to the other, or both families to the same ethnic group, depending on the specific case. This non-ethnic 'classification' of a given conflict keeps conflicts on a lower scale, since it is obvious that an ethnic group potentially can mobolize more members for its support than a single family. The (here absent) case of an ethnic labelling might, otherwise, have led to a 'bush fire' of inter-group violence following the same incident. It seems surprising that the ethnic belonging of the conflicting parties is of no or little importance to the (otherwise quite vivid) 'revenge activity' in the Ada'a area. But a closer look on the legal and procedural setting provides an explanation for this phenomenon. If Oromo and Amhara would each have maintained their own, ethnically distinct, laws and procedures, ethnic belonging would definitely matter, since this would determine which procedure and which law had to followed in a case at hand. But the members of both ethnic groups have - over a long historical period - developed a joint or to a high degree shared legal sphere. People make use of the same institutions, and the procedure to be applied in a case of crime or accidental injury of another person is basically the same for everyone. Ethnic belonging, thus, becomes a minor factor for the elders' problem of solving the conflict. It seems, here, a worthwile task to explore how in the course of time apparent 'enemy groups' are capable to build up such central institutions as the elders' mediation.
While many anthropological efforts have been made to explain conflicts and their 'roots' and causes, it seems similarly important to explain peace, where it persists. There is no reason to believe that members of one group would per se have more peaceful and harmonic predispositions than members of any other group. So, what are the 'roots' of peace? The Ada'a material shows that here as elsewhere, conflict is not absent, but it is kept on a certain level and later on actively settled by representatives of the much respected status group of the elders. The elders' readiness to invest time and much effort into the goal of reconciliation of estranged families is not fully unselfish, although they have no immediate advantage from their involvement in a specific case. They have an interest in 'law and order' in society in general, because it protects anyones, including their own, home. By generalizing individual interests, the concept of a 'public good' emerges. For the protection of this public interest, institutions and procedures are introduced. Sometimes, the question of what would happen if these institutions where not there may deliver a pretty good answer to the question of what they are for. Elders' mediation in Ada'a maintains the peace.