Somalia: Informal Institutions for Sustainable Peace in the Horn of Africa – the Case of Somalia


Peacebuilding can be a powerful deterrent to violent conflict if well thought out. The starting point is understanding the historical legacies of the conflict. Therefore, policymakers cannot claim to build peace in the Horn and especially in Somalia without focusing on the root causes of conflict.

Building a stable central government or changing the electoral system does not count as addressing the root causes. The cure to the Somali conflict can only be found in the informal/traditional institutions and actors. Hence, it is vital for regional and national policymakers to explore the intersection between inclusive indigenous peacebuilding approaches (Xeer) and informal/traditional institutions and non-state actors (women, youth and civil society) to build positive peace in the Horn of Africa.

Policymakers can also consider the following suggestions in their efforts to promote positive peace in Somalia.

Inclusive and locally based informal institutions

The success and sustainability of peacebuilding are largely ascribed to inclusive local ownership. It was envisioned that law and order would be reinforced with the introduction of the Constitutional Courts, the Federal Government Level Courts, and the Federal Member State Level Courts. However, it appears that this was but an illusion. According to recent research by GALLUP, the majority (71%) of Somalis prefer to settle their disputes through a traditional justice system. This exemplifies the lack of confidence in government judicial systems. Furthermore, a study conducted by the African Institute for Peace and Development (AIPAD) reveals that the Xeer (customary law) remains the primary source of law and order in many parts of Somalia.

Xeer is a customary law that is based on a socially constructed set of rules and norms drawing on clan lineage, culture, traditional values and Islamic Sharia which guides the conduct of individuals in the community. Most Somalis,both in urban and rural areas, observe customary law and regard it as an effective method of resolving conflict and promoting cohesion in society.

In answering the question of how legitimate the Xeer system is, it is important to appreciate that customary law existed longbefore other types of laws were introduced, and it has survived the country’s long-standing civil war. To date, the Xeer remains the first recourse for Somalis seeking justice. Here clan elders are utilized as mediators in conflicts. This is because elders command a great deal of authority derived from their historical position in society. They are also believed to hold supernatural powers, hence disregarding their orders would be akin to disrespecting Allah.

Under the informal approach to peace, the conflict resolution process is sensitive to the cultural norms and values that the society holds dear. It does not advance individual interests; it provides a more community-centred resolution to conflict by transforming it into an opportunity for building relationships and moral growth. Furthermore, the process is conducted informally by traditional mediators drawn from within the community. The process is also accessible, taking place in public where the entire community can participate. The transparent and participatory approach builds confidence in the process, encouraging the parties to respect the outcome.

As an indigenous peacebuilding model, Xeer has the potential to promote positive peace in Somalia. However, under the current circumstance, it needs to be gender inclusive. Although this system was greatly eroded by the devastating civil war which led to violation of traditional forms of law and order by modern politicians, who advanced divide and rule tactics among the clan elders to achieve personal enrichment, it has proved potent in the Northern regions of Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland). The Northern regions remained relatively calm due to the entrenchment of traditional systems of leadership, while the Southern parts plunged into violence as a result of the emergence of warlords who challenged the existing traditional authority and recruited militia groups to advance their interests.

Somali customary law is compensatory rather than punitive. Its guiding principle is the safeguarding of social cohesion. There is a collective payment of fine in cases of murder, assault, theft, and rape. For instance, compensation is 100 camels and 50 camels for taking the life of a man and woman respectively. There are also rules governing the use of community resources such as water and pasture. More importantly, decisions of the elders are arrived at by consensus and are thus binding; and they are rendered almost immediately. The result is a sense of unity among the warring groups who would otherwise be fighting. However, there is a genuine need for concerted efforts for gender balance and capacity building within the existing informal institutions since the clan elders have a more robust understanding of the dynamics of the conflict and therefore the capacity to positively transform the conflict.

A more inclusive peacebuilding effort: women and youth involvement

Women and youth constitute the majority of the Somali population. However, they have been marginalized in peacebuilding initiatives since they are perceived to be lacking the social status needed to bring about change in post-conflict environments. Women’s contribution to peace remains largely invisible and undervalued despite their ability to use their position as wives and mothers to lobby belligerents to lay down their weapons. Changing this perception requires an ideological shift on how women are socially viewed. Currently, Rwanda and Liberia are living testimonies of success stories of women’s roles in negotiations and reconciliation. The integration of women and youth in formal peacebuilding will shift the process to focus on sustainable livelihoods, education, truth and reconciliation, while male led processes usually focus on political power and settlement.