Abdulrahman Osman ‘Shuke’ describes how local peace processes draw on traditional practices of negotiation, mediation and arbitration conducted by clan elders using customary law as a moral and legal framework.
Neither Puntland nor Somaliland would have survived their internal wars without the constant support and involvement of elders. Although these traditional institutions do not enjoy the resources of a state, their decisions can carry the power of a government.
Abdulrahman Osman ‘Shuke’
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Traditional institutions of governance
Terms like ‘anarchy’ and ‘chaos’ are regularly used to describe the catastrophe that followed the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. But in the absence of government and a judicial system, Somalis fell back on traditional institutions and practices of governance to manage security and maintain order, including customary law and Islamic law (shari’a) (see Islam and social order).
Customary law and peacemaking
Somali customary law, known as xeer Soomaali, comprises a set of unwritten conventions and procedures that are passed down orally through generations. These define reciprocal rights and obligations between kin and clans, covering domestic matters, social welfare, political relations, property rights and the management of natural resources.
Upholding the law
The observance and enforcement of customary law depends on respect for authority and social pressure. Xeer are negotiated by councils of elders (xeer-beegti) with specialist knowledge of customary law.
Elders and modern government
The role of elders is not confined to the ‘traditional’ sphere. In Puntland and Somaliland they are engaged in modern government institutions. In Somaliland their role as guardians of peace and security has been institutionalised in the Upper House of Elders (the Guurti) and they have been involved in the selection of party candidates. In Puntland they have engaged in the nomination of candidates for parliamentary seats.
Somalia is passing through a difficult historical moment. The country is still divided into separate territorial entities, held together by clan militia, warlords or weak administrative structures created on clan lines. In spite of the existence of a variety of ad hoc social, commercial, administrative and political arrangements, it is the traditional structures that hold the people together. There are many obstacles yet to be overcome to restore fully functioning modern, religious or customary legal systems in Somalia.