Colonizing Somalia: The Fall of Xeer Law
By John Kenney - April 09, 2017

Via Startup Societies Foundation

25 years ago, Somalia’s central government collapsed under the communist leader Siad Barre. The world watched as the country was plunged into widespread discord. Famine, hyperinflation, civil war, political violence, terrorism, and piracy are just a few of the horrors which emerged after the chaos.

When Americans imagine Somalia, they think of Black Hawk Down. This simplistic image isn’t helpful when it comes to understanding and addressing the human tragedies in Somalia.


Somalia is an African country on the Indian Ocean, across from Yemen.


Somalia is a divided country with no ruling country. Portions are controlled by Islamic militias (in green). Part of the country is controlled by the internationally recognized government in Mogadishu (in blue). And the north is controlled by the separatist state, Somaliland (in yellow).

Unlike the rest of Somalia, which is plagued by bloodshed, Somaliland remains relatively stable.

Understanding the situation on the ground is hard because there are few Western observers and no reliable economic statistics. There is, however, a dramatic difference in stability between Hargeisa and Mogadishu.

This can be seen on UCDP’s map of violent deaths. Southern Somalia has nearly four times as many deaths as Somaliland despite having a slightly smaller population. In 2015, there were a total of three civilian deaths by terrorism in Somaliland compared to 39 in Somalia.

When the Barre regime collapsed, members of the Somali National Movement declared independence for the Republic of Somaliland. Hargeisa, the capital city, has a population of almost a million. It maintains diplomatic relations with many different organizations and countries. Somaliland even has its own currency, a parliament, and a professional military.

In addition, Somaliland has a more developed telecommunication infrastructure. In 2008 a major telecom company from Dubai invested $35 million into the telecom infrastructure of Hargeisa.

Despite this, Somaliland is not officially recognized as a sovereign state by any country.


The Transitional Federal Government based in Mogadishu stands opposed to Somaliland. They wish to have a unified Somalia under one central authority.

Mogadishu is still struggling to maintain stability despite extensive support from the African Union, Europe, and the Americas. Until recently, most efforts to curb instability had failed. Current attempts have only managed to create a fragile peace.

How could Somaliland, a backwards unrecognized self-declared state, have less instability than the central government which has foreign military, financial, and diplomatic support from the rest of the world?

The Xeer System and Colonialism

Prior to independence in 1960, Somalia was divided between British rule in the northwest (present day Somaliland) and Italian rule in the rest of modern day Somalia. Before European colonization in the late 1800’s, Somali society was stateless under a polycentric legal system called Xeer.

Xeer was formed as early as the 7th century. Under the Xeer elders act as judges to settle disputes within their clan. They also have procedures to resolve disputes involving other clans. Under Xeer, most punishment entails restitution.

This meant that there was no central monopoly on power or law in Somali society. Because Somalia is a clan based society, Xeer also allowed clans to rule themselves while facilitating dispute resolution. This led to peaceful and stable relations between the clans.

When colonial powers came to Somalia they disrupted the traditional Xeer system and caused massive unrest.

Different colonial powers held opposing views on this indigenous legal system. The British were lenient and the Italians were harsh. Although British authorities officially did not support it, they allowed certain aspects of it to be used as their primary motivation was extracting wealth. The Italian government, on the other hand, did as much as they could to eradicate it.

Xeer is still practiced throughout all of present-day Somalia but is most intact in the former British Somaliland Protectorate, which is now Somaliland. In the formerly Italian Protectorate, Xeer hasn’t survived and its disappearance has led to increased instability between the clans.

When both of the territories gained independence, they merged into one country. This key fact is one of the biggest arguments for those in support of Somaliland. They argue that there is no basis for a unified Somalia. Historically, Somalia was never unified. If one looks farther back even prior to European colonialism “Somalia” was mostly stateless for its history. The cultural groups and clan boundaries also had a North-South divide.

Largely, Somalia was never ruled by a single central authority or government. Centralized government is a foreign, colonial idea which isn’t shared by many of the indigenous Somalis.

One of the main reasons Siad Barre’s communist regime failed in the 1990s was because he centralized power into the hands of his family’s clan and mistreated rivals, including the Somaliland based Isaaq clan. The following Transitional Federal Government has also faced many of the same problems as a centralized authority.

Somali society is clan-based, meaning that most Somalis have more loyalty to their clans than the central authorities. For the majority of its history, there was no such thing as “Somalia.” Each clan ruled itself.

The Clan System

Members of the Isaaq clan largely inhabit Somaliland, which was one of the several clans that faced extreme persecution from the Barre regime. Siad Barre’s government imprisoned Isaaq elders, raped women, and killed civilians in massacres in order to quell resistance to his rule. In Somaliland, the traditional Xeer system is still widely practiced by the population. The self-declared government of Somaliland has incorporated aspects of the Xeer in its legal system in order to promote stability.

Somaliland has a House of Elders made up of 82 members representing traditional elders from the different clans. They are primarily responsible for resolving and preventing disputes from turning violent. Somaliland’s government is a hybrid of traditional Xeer with western democratic institutions such as a bicameral parliament and an elected Prime Minister.

Somalia Today

Somalia is still one of the poorest countries today. Once again, the country is on the verge of civil war as Islamic militias threaten the government in Mogadishu. Furthermore, the political tensions between Hargeisa and Mogadishu continue to grow.

If the international community keeps repeating its past mistakes, the lives of 10.5 million Somalis might soon be at stake.

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  • disqus_QZX8ENhLyb

    This area of the world suffers from the same disease as does the USA, the European states, and the rest of the world: the inevitable, gradual collapse of attempts at strong centralized government.
    With the ease of wide-spread communications (mainly through internet and telecommuications —radio and TV) people of the world are slowly becoming aware of the thuggery of their so-called “leaders.”

    Perhaps enough people will come to their senses and eventually eliminate centralized collectivism. But if collectivism is to be, then let it be small and local where “everyone knows your name.” A consensus form of cooperation, such as the old Quakers may develop. Give it a chance.

    Maybe secession will take hold in the USA. A number of states seem to be heading that way.

    Ideally, I would like to secede (“opt-out”) and be my own sovereign self. Why do I need someone to tell me what to do? As long as I tend to my own business and peacefully interact and cooperate with fellow humans, why do I need to follow someone else’s (man-made) rules.

    I follow the unbreakable laws of Nature. To each his own. Live and let live. Justice (to each, that which he deserves) for all.

    I’m disappointed in Trump’s playing the war-bully card. He’ll get a lot of votes from the John McCains and Lindsay Grahams, but none from me.

  • Goldcoaster

    Somalia is a divided country with no ruling country.

    • Don Duncan

      The world is divided into countries with no ruling country. Next we need no countries, just small political groups of 150 or less. Face to face accountability would make it impossible for the psychopaths to get control, or at least, stay there.

  • Don Duncan

    To centralize or decentralize? That’s the worldwide political question. It’s the wrong question. What should political systems be based on? The current paradigm of the initiation of violence, threats, evoking fear and servitude, or voluntary interactions, based on respect for individual rights (no group rights)? Opponents of a voluntary system claim it would be chaotic. But they define “chaos” as “not under control of a centralized authority”, so they are correct. But that does not mean a voluntary system would not be an organized, just, creative system with almost no violence. It does mean the freedom to conduct social experiments would produce social progress, unlike the old paradigm that has little progress, all in spite of the system, just as all technological progress is in spite of the system. Why should politics not get the benefit of “the scientific method” as well?

    Freedom is not dangerous as we have been indoctrinated to believe and propagandized. Brute force is dangerous. It leads to chaos. Freedom leads to rational self interest, experimentation, progress, and creativity.

    • jackw97224

      Good response. Sadly, Islam is a defective system, a cult of Mohammad, a system based on violence and intolerance and it is a virulent “cancer”/”disease” that will destroy freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition. Islam is a blight on humanity and will force religious war against Christianity just as it has against Judaism and it will also make war on atheism as practiced in China and parts of other nations. The world is doomed. Massive beheadings far exceeding those done by Muslim ISIS will happen if this “disease” metastasizes as it seems to be doing.

      • Don Duncan

        Your criticisms of Islam apply to “the world govt. paradigm” except this superstition has metastasized.

        If I had to bet on the political superstition that would triumph, it would have to be the American version. But all systems based on the initiation of violence will eventually destroy their supporters.

        The Vikings were extremely inhuman but their culture did evolve to merge with their prey. Perhaps there is hope for America after all.

  • Doc

    “This meant that there was no central monopoly on power or law in Somali society. Because Somalia is a clan based society, Xeer also allowed clans to rule themselves while facilitating dispute resolution. This led to peaceful and stable relations between the clans.”

    It was the same all over the world in the past. The laws followed the person, not the territory.

    No fictional borders on a map, no fictional borders to fight over.

  • elbuggo .

    Somali law is based on custom. Hence Somalis have no need of a legislator, and as a result, their law is free of political influences. That freedom makes for laws of better quality than in most other countries. Somali society comes rather close to what is sometimes called ‘the natural order of human society’.

    For more, see The Law of the Somalis, by Michael Van Notten