Do Traditional Peace Building Methods Work in Contemporary World? Revisiting The Xeer Approach in Somalia

The conflict in Somalia has historical roots worsened by the colonial administrative system, and the post-independence winner takes all majoritarian political systems.

Historically, feuds and disputes were a regular incident and mainly sparked by conflict over resources such as water, camel, and grazing. In this light, revenge amongst the clans was very popular alongside the struggle for the resource. However, even though there were conflicts among the clans, the “Xeer” system, a traditional approach to solving conflict, was there to solve conflicts and restore peace and remained influential for many years. Distinctively, the precolonial pastoralist conflicts are not like what has been witnessed over the last three decades.

Nonetheless, the indirect rule by the British enabled the traditional tribal authorities to administrate by appointing the chiefs or the clan leaders to simplify the governing of the colonial territory. That had weakened and demolished the conventional system of Diya-paying groups. The “Akils” system was chosen as a replacement for the now ineffective Xeer system, where a single person was given authority to administer law and order within the clan, carrying out colonial administration’s rules and regulations, bringing to justice those who committed crimes within the clan.

The chief choice was because of his loyalty to the clan and colonial administration, which created competition and rivalry among the clans to obtain this position. This was the first impact of the divide and rule policy towards Somalis, which is effective until today. However, on the other hand, this also marks the beginning of structural conflict where the clan feuds and disputes were institutionalized and structuralized. As Galtung asserts, structural violence, unlike personal or direct violence, is invisible as it does not require the existence of active violence in the structure where someone harms another. Still, the structure is the violence, enabling inequality of power and life.

After Somalia got its independence in 1960, Somalia was united, and urbanization was proliferating, extensively changing the types of resources and the means of obtaining them as well. Domination of the state institutions becomes the ultimate option to control the nation’s help. Replaced traditional resources such as water, camel, and pasture with more sophisticated means whereby access to government means foreign aid and recruiting more civil servants from the home community had become the conflict; in other words, post-colonial state formation fueled structural conflict in Somalia which created more confrontations and problems.

Despite the civil government and the transforming democratic culture, the impact of the structural violence inherited from colonial administration was exposed a year after independence when young commanders attempted a coup d’état within the British protectorate Somaliland due to the frustrations concerning the political power-sharing as they wanted to declare independence in southern Somalia (Italian protectorate Somalia). 


As the frustration, dissatisfaction, and displeasure continued, another coup d’état took place in 1969, led by Said Barre after the assassination of the president by one of the presidential guards in Lance-Anood. That marked the end of democracy and a multiparty system in Somalia, leading to authoritarianism and civil war that has transformed into different forms and made it impossible for contemporary peace initiatives to solve the problem. On the other hand, it is ironic that countries such as Somalia which have existing traditional avenues such as the Xeer laws that not only offer reconciliation approaches and conflict resolution mechanism but also defines the Diya-paying system, which can be the basis for the community social contract yet find it difficult to solve conflicts. The conflict has left millions of people either killed, injured, or displaced, and it will take a particular form of intervention to overcome any form of revenge or grudge one group may hold against the other. 

Clan elders owe the younger generations a better future and will need to have an important role to play in forging peace among communities. There needs to be a process of bringing together the Somali people as equal members of the state, and this will need recognition of each other. One of the gaps Somali peacemakers have failed to bridge is the question of legitimacy. It cannot be emphasized the importance of legitimacy towards state stability. That touches on, among other issues, the ability of the state to command obedience and control of the citizens. Sometimes, states can gain legitimacy from their citizens if they provide material, possess coercive tools, or restate some traditional practices. 

This essay, therefore, suggests that a combination of conventional and contemporary peace approaches be adopted to create a solid ground for a new social contract among Somalis. This new social contract, defined in the new constitution, will need to address the following issues: the structure of the central government, which may need to diverge from the winner, takes all to a consensus model that will ensure the interest of different cleavages is captured.

There will need to establish functional regional governments under the devolved system, which should focus on supplementing the central government efforts of service delivery to the people and not competing among themselves. Another essential addition to the new social contract is several independent bodies, precisely one to oversight the constitution implementation process, a revenue allocation commission, an independent electoral commission, an independent police oversight authority, a national cohesion, and integration commission that will monitor hate speech and a civilian threat to peace among others.

The new dispensation will need to address the question and grievances of regions threatening to become independent, the state’s monopoly of coercion, and the territorial integrity of the country. Given the importance of development in any state, Somalia will need to form a medium- and long-term strategic vision whose implementation needs to be driven by an independent agency and should address social, economic, technological, and human development index gaps in Somalia. 

The powers of the central government may need to be limited to, among other areas, national security, defense, immigration, Monetary Policy, foreign policy, health, and education to increase efficiency while devolving functions such as agriculture, environmental management, culture and tourism, early childhood education and any other appropriate role that will need public participation.

That will allow regional leaders to be accountable to the people and reduce the stakes of competition for a central authority. The pillar to hold the above success is when the people of Somalia look back to their culture and see what binds them together that can lead to success.


About The Author: Dr. Mohamed BINCOF (Ph.D.), Lecturer, Consultant, and Researcher. You can reach him at email:

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