War and Peace in Somalia

  • Israel Nyaburi NyaderaEmail author
  • Mohamed Salah Ahmed
  • Michael Otieno Kisaka
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11795-5_107-1



This chapter examines how and why peace has remained elusive in the Somali crisis following the events that marked the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. Although several studies have been undertaken on this case and a number of recommendations suggested, limited attention has been placed on the transformation of the conflict and the need to modify some of the peacebuilding strategies to cope with the changes. This study discusses how the conflict in Somalia has evolved, weaknesses in the previous peace efforts, and provides recommendations. It looks at the traditional Xeer practices in Somalia and its relevance in solving contemporary conflict.


In 1960, Somalia (Jamhuuriyadda Soomaaliyeed) joined the category of the first African countries to gain independence following the unification of the previous State of Somaliland (Controlled by the British) and the Trust Territory of Somaliland (previously under the Italians) (Reyner 1960, p. 247; Lewis et al. 2008). The new state experienced a blowing wind of hope for new dawn after approximately seven decades of European imperialism. The early years after independence were marked by blossoming political, economic, and social growth. However, this would be short-lived as the impact of uniting the previously divided regions, colonial legacies, and the emerging economic challenges facing the new state combined with other political and social factors laid the foundations for preceding disasters. In 1969, a successful military coup was orchestrated by General Mohammed Siyad Barre, who took control of the country and plunged it to further crisis (Ingiriis 2016; Ghalib 1995; Mazrui 1997, p. 6; Knight 1998). During his rule, Siad Barre made enemies both at home and abroad. He did not only emerge as a ruthless dictator known for fiercely dealing with anyone threatening his grip on power but also, Siyad Barre thrust Somalia into three major conflicts (Greenfield 1987, p. 65; Clark 1992, p. 110). These include the Ogaden war (1977-78) with Ethiopia, the Somali national government forces against Somali National Movement in 1988, and intense conflicts between several liberation movements composed of different clans and the Somalian national government between 1978 and 1991. Internationally, Barre’s government was conspicuously involved in the Cold War rivalry between the Soviets and the United States. By 1991, a civil war erupted leading to his overthrow and the subsequent collapse of the Somalia government. Some scholars believe that Barre played a significant role in the events that followed his removal from power and the civil war (Ingiriis 2016; Doornbos and Markakis 1994).

Since 1991, the conflict in Somalia has evolved in nature, actors, strategies, and even objectives (World Bank 2005; Lewis 2008, p. 72). Such transformations have hindered peacebuilding efforts and continue to elevate the suffering of millions inside the country and across the Horn of Africa (Menkhaus 1996, pp. 43–45; Menkhaus 2009; Nyadera and Bincof 2019; Bowd and Chikwanha 2010). From the onset, militia groups from various clans have been engaged in the conflict, foremost against the government, and later after the disintegration of state institutions, civilian violence has been witnessed between clans with very severe impacts on the majority of the civilians.

The scramble for the limited state resources left behind after the collapse of the government in 1991 has created an environment whereby only the strongest can survive. Consequently, this paved the way for the rapid expansion of organized crime with new areas continuously being explored (Shortland and Varese 2016, p. 811). Over the last two decades, Somalia has been on the spotlight for being a hub for terrorism, piracy, kidnappings, smuggling, child soldiers, and assassinations. Various local and foreign-based groups continue to profit from the instability. Territorial control, hijacking relief products, and illegal taxation have characterized the contemporary Somali society and became an important source of projecting one’s power among the nonstate actors (Møller 2009, p. 12). While economic, political, and material stakes are high in the Somali crisis, clan alignment is still visible in the way the war is being perpetuated today. The chart below indicates that over 11,000 acts of violence carried out by different actors between 1995 and 2019.

From the second half of the 1990s to date, there have been changes in nature of the conflict in the form of a shift from the sporadic attacks between different clans and subclans, to a state of lawlessness and disorder. This has been facilitated by the infiltration by criminal groups who use the less governed territories to launch local and regional attacks (Shortland and Varese 2016, pp. 811–814; Menkhaus 2003, p. 406). During certain periods, regions such as south-central part of Somalia witnessed prolonged stability with the introduction of the Sharia courts which had been founded on Islamic teachings and principles as alternative to the mainstream judicial system (Møller 2009, p. 13; Barnes and Hassan 2007, p. 152; Murphy 2011). However, with time, the same Islamic Courts and its leaders became leading actors in the country’s struggle for power (Lewis 2008, p. 85; ICG 2008, p. 2; Shay 2017). By the year 2010, a vast part of Somalia became subjected to the sphere of influence of radical militia wings previously affiliated with the Islamic Courts such as the Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab but who opted to use force in implementing the Sharia Law (Dersso 2009, p. 6; Floudiotis 2010).

During the 2000s, increased efforts by regional and international actors saw the establishment of a Somali government referred to as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with the hope that a central authority which had been lacking since 1991 would help restore stability to the war-torn state. The mandate of the TFG was envisioned to extend through 2012 to establish some fundamental institutions such as the Federal Parliament, an Executive, Public Service Commission, and others. The federal government was not however able to impose its authority in the whole country as the Islamic Courts which controlled the Southern parts of the country were reluctant to surrender power to the central government. In fact, it was the attempt by the TFG with the support of the United States, Ethiopia, and African Union troops to forcefully overrule the sharia law-controlled parts of Somalia that saw militia groups such as the al-Shabab emerge (Shay 2017, pp. 21–26; Mwangi 2010, pp. 88–90).

In 2008, there was a coalition government formed after a peace talk was brokered by former UN envoy, Ahmedou Abdallah. This agreement saw representatives of the moderate Islamist group; Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia and the government representatives agree to expand parliament to 550 members and provide room for ARS representatives and allow for the appointment of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed as the president and the appointment of Abdirashid Ali, as Prime minister. In 2009 an announcement was made by the government regarding its intention to reintroduce Sharia law as the basis upon which the official Judiciary would be founded. Despite this announcement, the violence did not stop in the Southern part of Somalia, which was under the control of radical militia groups that were in support of Sharia law. The government lost 80% of the territory; it was previously controlling in South-Central Somalia to different warlords and militias (Nyadera and Salah 2019).

As a provision in the “Roadmap for the End of Transition,” the transitional government paved the way for institutionalization of the Federal Government together with permanent institutions of governance (Bryden 2013; Hesse 2010, pp. 245–248; Cornwell 2006). The parliament was given the mandate to elect the president, and since 2012, two presidential elections have been conducted. Despite the impressive efforts that have seen Somalia establish a government today, attempts to end the conflict have not been very successful as the country continues to be involved in an intense intrastate cycle of conflict (Nyadera et al. 2019). Between 2011 and 2018, there have been two presidential elections, efforts to reconstruct the national army ongoing, significant loss of territory by al-Shabab as well as other institutional reconstructions. Nonetheless, despite these efforts, attacks on key state installations have continued, calls for independence by some starts have persisted, civilians continue to be attacked in major cities, and governments operations are yet be fully felt.

Key Peacemaking Efforts in Somalia

The conflict in Somalia has not gone unnoticed and has attracted the attention of both local, regional, and international actors who have embarked on several efforts to broker peace among the warring parties. However, these efforts have largely been unsuccessful as a result of several reasons some of which include the top-down approach that does not include the people, the failure of these agreements to address the root causes of the conflict as well as their inability to provide deals that all clans feel satisfied. Similarly, the peace efforts were marred by mistrust and lack of compromise among the different clan representatives. Below are some of the efforts made to bring the warring factions on the chart to discuss peace.

Djibouti Peace Conference (1991)

When delegates representing different groups sat on 1991 in Djibouti, marking the first peace efforts, many were optimistic that peace was on the horizon. The Djibouti Peace Conference was convened by the Djiboutian government to mitigate on militia activities in Mogadishu between the factions of General Aideed and Ali Mahdi. The conflict between these factions is estimated to have claimed 14,000 lives at the time, and 42,000 people were maimed (Lewis (2002, p. 264). Egypt, Italy, and other states in the Horn of Africa provided support in different capacities to the Djiboutian government (Lyons and Samatar 1995, p. 29). However, diplomacy reached hiatus when the peace conference was held, and this was attributed to the militia war between General Aideed and Ali Mahdi and an absence of a strategic framework addressing the conflict between the two Hawiye militia leaders in Mogadishu.

Moreover, Mogadishu was thrown to the abyss due to the full-scale civil war driven by the militia leader who did circumvent the law because he was not accountable to any government institution. Indeed, the absence of government structures was a haven for impunity among the third-generation civil militia groups. Due to the nonexistent of a social contract between the state and its citizens, the Somali state disintegrated and completely collapsed, and a banana republic is sprouting.

Djibouti Peace Conference did abort because of the failed framework and principles of mediation. The mediation process did breach the elementary rule of mediation, which clearly states that mediation should not quest to promote one person or group’s interests at the expense of another (Mayer 2004, p. 85). Fundamentally, the conflict had not reached Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) where actors involved in the conflict see no chance of victory, yet the current situation is causing pain for both parties (Zartman and Berman 1982; Zartman 1983; Touval and Zartman 1985). General Aideed was still hoping to win the war, thus making it difficult for the process to achieve sustainable peace (Bercovitch et al. 2008, p. 54). The timing of the peace conference was not the best given that some actors (General Aideed) were still hopeful of a military victory against Ali Mahdi and forces loyal to Siad Barre. General Aideed had no incentives to attend a peace conference that could reduce his political, military, and economic influence in the civil militia conflict (Zartman 2000, p. 291).

Mogadishu was at that stage Balkanized into political and military fiefdoms of Third Generation Militia Groups, with General Aideed controlling a large part of the capital city. The Djibouti Peace Conference lacked credibility both within Somalia and internationally. Djibouti process did not have the aegis from Somalis who were polarized along with clan militia affiliations; some militia groups saw it as a plateau before initiating the next stage of the conflict. The international community was not ready to underwrite the peace process politically as reflected in Sahnoun’s (1994, p. 10) argument that when the government of Djibouti requested UN’s support for the peace process, it was refused with no explanation except that the matter of Somalia was too complicated.

The Addis Ababa Peace Conference (1993)

The Addis Ababa Conference (1993) on National Reconciliation was convened by the UN based on what Bradbury (1994, p. 22) contends was an analysis of the ORH dramatic changes in Somalia brought about by the US Military presence. Lewis (2005, p. 270; 2010, p. 129) goes further and suggests that the UN Secretary-General at that time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, took advantage of the relative lull in fighting which the US presence had produced and pressed ahead with the so-called “reconciliation” process. This analysis presumes that the Addis Ababa peace conference did not emanate from rational diagnostics of the conflict because the decision was informed by UN expediency. The failure of this peace initiative could have been sowed from the beginning. First, the arbitrary manner in which delegates to the conference were selected, which resulted in a dominant representation of the Mudug region, there was disagreement between the UN and the militia on the selection of delegates. This isolated General Aideed from the peace process, although his group controlled a larger part of Somalia. The remaining 15 militia groups signed a peace agreement that saw the creation of the Transitional National Authority.

The Transitional National Authority did not last long as the Addis Ababa process failure to place the root causes of the conflict on the negotiation table with issues, such as the fight over grazing land in the Mudug region, were not taken into consideration in favor of political expediency owing to the establishment of a central government. Conversely, an agreement on a ceasefire without a clear structural framework for the implementation was a shortcoming of the process; the peace process should have developed concise modalities for the cantonment of militia groups. A strategy of the cantonment and eventual disarmament should have been negotiated with all the militia leaders, taking into account the security dilemma among the clan affiliated militia groups, and clan elders would have played a pivotal role in this regard. The approach ought to have been different from the tactics of isolating and marginalizing General Aideed’s militia group (Lewis 2010, p. 132; Adam 2008, p. 99; Rutherford 2008, p. 146).

The Cairo Peace Conference (1997)

The governments of Egypt, Libya, and Yemen did co-sponsor the Cairo peace conference and was attended by 28 warlords and factional leaders. Elmi and Barise (2006, p. 40) observe that at the time, Somalia’s warlords and factional leaders were separated into two groups: The Ethiopian-supported Somali Salvation Alliance (SSA), which consisted of 15 factions and the Somali National Alliance (SNA), which consisted of 13 factions and received limited support from Libya (Elmi and Barise 2006, pp. 42–46).

Ali Mahdi and Hussein Mohammed Aideed led the SSA and the SNA, respectively. The main objective of the Cairo peace process was to re-establish the nonexistent central government. The form and type of a future Somali government was a bone of contestation space by the international community, and no due consideration was given to Somalis. Elmi and Barise (2006, p. 40) allege that the act of walking out of the conference and rejecting its outcomes by Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and General Adam Abdullahi Nur was motivated by Ethiopia. These two militia leaders were deemed to be critical role-players at the conference. These actions led to the collapse of the conference.

The Arta Peace Conference (2000)

The Arta Peace Conference was held against the background of the successive failures of the Addis Ababa and Cairo peace processes, and the hacking of the Somali state by a plethora of militia groups often supported by their clansmen. Ismail Omar Guelle, President of Djibouti, in January 2000 embarked on what Lewis (2002, p. 291) describes as a more ambitious, new and in many respects novel Somali peace plan. It was well received by the IGAD countries and was endorsed by the USA, Italy, Egypt, and Libya. The peace process was named Arta, after a city in Djibouti.

It is estimated that 60% of the 245 members of the Transitional National Assembly came from Siad Barre’s former members of parliament (Lewis (2008, p. 82). The legitimacy of the Arta process was questioned before its implementation began owing to several dynamics. Both the TNG and TNA did lack the support of the Somalis, recalcitrant warlords, such as Mohammed Qanyere Afrah, Musa Saudi, Ali Osman Atto, Hussein Aideed, Mohammed Dhere, and Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. The parochial clan political focus of the TNG had been attested to be a phenomenon in its failure and reinforced by the perception that the TNG serves the interests of the subclan that gave it political backing (Dagne 2009, pp. 95–98).

The crumble of the Arta peace process lay in its lack of focus on conflict resolution and failure to create a mechanism to ensure that the underlying causes of the conflict were addressed systematically and coherently. The conference’s central government creation before the resolution phase of the conflict was a short-sighted approach to the resolution of an intractable conflict which had shown resistance to military resolution. The conceptual framework for creating a government before making peace has become a defining feature of international diplomacy in the resolution of the conflict since the Arta Peace Conference, despite its shortcomings and failures in the Somali context.

The Mbagathi Peace Conference (2004)

The Mbagathi Peace Process sponsored by the IGAD was convened due to the failure of the Arta Peace Conference (2000). Lewis (2008, p. 91) observes that the Mbagathi process had repeated all the major mistakes made during similar and unproductive Somali peace processes. The most critical mistake was the unavailability of a roadmap for tranquility and reconciliations before the establishment of a central government. The Mbagathi process took place in a period of challenging international security threats posed by global terror groups, characterized by the 11th September 2011 attacks on the USA. The fact that Somalia terrorist groups had begun taking advantage of the instability in Somalia to set up bases meant the US government would have an interest in the direction of the peace process was going, mainly due to the Bush Administration’s global strategy and the war on terror.

Menkhaus (2003, p. 19) argues that for external actors, conventional wisdom holds that a responsible and effective state is an essential prerequisite for development and peace, a reasonable position enshrined in virtually all World Bank and UN strategies on development. For Somalis, the state is an instrument for accumulation and domination, enriching and empowering those who control it, while exploiting and harassing the rest of the population (Menkhaus 2003). Møller (2009, p. 14) observes that the relentless quest for state-building in the Somali conflict resolution process is predicated on the entire international system constructed around states to such an extent that it cannot handle stateless territories inhabited by people who cannot be classified as citizens of any state. Somali’s case can be solved from a bottom-up approach where the unity needs to be forged among the people before embarking on state building. Somalia has relevant historical structures such as the diya – paying system that can be useful towards this course.

The Mbagathi peace process was compromised by a relentless emphasis on clan formula representation in the process. Innocuous clan identity became a cornerstone of instrumentalist politicians in their quest to occupy positions with the perceived proximate to wealth accumulation because ethnic conflict is all about political, economic, social, cultural, or territorial issues between two or more ethnic communities (Brown 2001, p. 211).

Several Scholars have attributed a number of factors as having led to the failed peace efforts. Nyadera et al. (2019) identify clan interest as a big obstacle to peace in Somalia. They opine that as long as clans continue to exercise the narrative of, we against they with no room for consensus then peace will remain elusive. Menkhaus (2010) argues that the Transitional Federal Government failure to take advantage of local structures established between 2002 and 2006 also weakened the peace process as those institutions (including the Sharia courts) played an important role in enforcing peace at the local level. Other scholars have argued that the lack of funding to implement peace agreements in Somalia is also a serious challenge to the successful peacebuilding. Emphasis on top -down approach to peace is also poses a challenge in the Somali peace process as most view the efforts as externally imposed and not homegrown. This makes the locals less committed to the peace efforts.

The Promise of Traditional Peacemaking Approaches in Somalia

In several societies, the role of the tribal socio-economic, political, and cultural systems or community elders has been very critical and instrumental in solving and mediating a variety of social problems and disputes between local communities (Avruch 1998; Holt and DeVore 2005; Deutsch et al. 2011). The role of clan elders has been identified as a human source and a great advantage throughout history (Brock-Utne 2001). Equally, Tadesse et al. (2010) and Jama (2010) suggest that other members of society, particularly women, can also play a vital role in conflict resolution.

Indeed, the traditional Somali approach to mediation and conflict resolution, known as Xeer (customary law), has a long history and existed before the modern laws were introduced to Somalia during the colonial era. Since then, the traditional model of mediation (Xeer) has been identified by many scholars and within the Somali communities as the paramount justice system suitable for Somalia given the current orientations whereby the clan has become the main political organization unit, and the authority of the state has been lost. Xeer is an unwritten law which focuses on creating a long-lasting relationship among the communities by providing alternatives solutions to conflicts (Aden 2011; Prunier 2015). It is a unique yet very effective way of conflict resolution dating back several thousand years (Loubser and Solomon 2014; Hofmann 2002). However, the traditional approach of mediation is one option for stateless societies due to the absence of formal law to address specific circumstances (Abdile 2012; 88). Given the complexity of the current circumstances in Somalia, customary law may able to offer some critical contributions to solve and mediate the conflict, for instance, the case of Somaliland which unilaterally declared it is independence from the rest of Somalia and Puntland an autonomous administration but claims to be a member of federal state (Aden 2011; 3; Nyadera 2018).

In this section, the role of traditional or clan elders, their effectiveness in solving socio-economic and legal conflicts, as well as the mechanisms employed by the traditional elders to deal with these dispute processes will be examined. Sorts of conflicts and how (traditional elders) interpret and construe these unwritten laws will be extensively analyzed. Nevertheless, as the topic of this chapter highlights, we will also examine how this traditional approach helps to overcome the current conflict and their role in reestablishing such key norms such as trust and cooperation which are very fundamental in the establishment of an inclusive and more comprehensive Somali state.

The Configuration of Somali Traditional Structure

Existing literature on Somali society considers Somali people as one of the most homogenous societies in Africa characterized by one ethnicity, culture, common language (Somali), history, and the Sunni-Islam religious orientation (Aden 2011, p. 5). For this reason, many scholars and writers who studied Somalia during the period of trusteeship from the 1950s to 1960s argue and ostensibly believe that Somalis had a golden opportunity to establish one of the strongest and stout nation-states in Africa (Davidson 1975). Unfortunately, this has not come to pass. Since the collapse of state institutions, the indigenous instruments and mechanisms of conflict resolution and management have been in place and have saved the lives of many people. However, why these methods have been effective and did not collapse in conjunction with state institutions seems to be a legitimate question that needs to be addressed profoundly. Understanding the traditional Somali societal structures, therefore, might help us find an answer to a part of the question.

According to British anthropologist, Lewis (1999), his studies on the Somali culture and history pointed out that the traditional structure of Somalis is systematically divided into three core features: clan (traditional social structure), customary law (Xeer), and clan elders (traditional authorities). These three are interconnected and interrelated with each other. Clans are the main source traditional authority, which means each clan has its traditional elders or authority, while customary law stands as the common law which these elders or traditional authority use to solve disputes and conflict among the clans. However, it is important to point out that this three-fold traditional justice system existed before the arrival of the Europeans and has endured since then primarily because of their critical role in the lives of ordinary people. Before the introduction of colonialism, Somalis were a nomadic society in nature and with a simple life. Every person and family belonged to a certain clan, which was ensured survival in nomadic atmosphere and culture. Clannism, therefore, stands as the definitive source of both identity and security. It is important and essential to many Somalis for security and social welfare. Hence, it is compulsory and obligatory to the member of the clan to safeguard and protect the dignity and honor of the clan (Putman and Noor 1993).

The clan unit has remained the most important bond and basis for identity among Somalis living in the rural and urban areas. Gundel (2009, p. 21) argues that the nomadic way of life creates a strong conscious and sense of attachment to kinship as they see this as a prerequisite to overcome existing and unforeseen challenges. It is this same way of life that also necessitate constant movement in search for grazing fields, pastures, and water, increasing the possibility of conflict between different clans. In order to ensure that such potential for conflict is regulated, traditional conflict prevention and resolution strategies were put in place. These traditional mechanisms are based on traditional authorities and unwritten laws that ensured not only prevention of conflict but also punishment and justice for perpetuates and victims of violence respectively. Additionally, traditional approaches to peace in Somalia allowed for the formation of coalitions (gaanshaabuur) between weak or minority clans or the protection of minority clans by the dominant ones in exchange for loyalty (Gundel 2009, p. 22). Some scholars have also argued that clans facilitate not only one’s sense of identity but also enable people to trace their decedent and primary lineage. In Somalia, this is done by following the male line from their father’s name. The clan structure in Somalia is illustrated below;

Among these categories, the Mag-paying group is the most relevant to the ordinary individual’s social and political life. This category stands as the organizational basis of lineage members that provides and ensures economic viability, social security, and physical protection. Additionally, it is the most stable and permanent unit in the traditional social system with the existence of an informal and unwritten contractual understanding among its members regarding payments such as fines and compensations. They tend to support each other in these sorts of payments, usually in the form of camels without conversing with whomsoever it is levied. The general principles and rules of mag-paying are known and fixed throughout clans and aim at maintaining and guiding the conduct of the members of the clan. For instance, the fine or payment for killing a man is a hundred camels, and that for killing a woman is 50 camels. Every member of the clan is obligated to obey the mag-paying system. It is a collective action, and compensations are paid collectively. The customary law (Xeer), carried out by traditional authorities or elders, is the main source and reference of this mag-paying system that governs and guides the norms, conducts, and interactions within and beyond the mag-paying community.

The Xeer System

The Xeer is defined as socially constructed norms aimed at safeguarding the social justice and security of Somalis including those in the diaspora (Fox 1999, p. 13) and essentially has commonly recognized principles that emphasize on protecting individual rights and requirements to family and clan (Notten 2005, p. 375). The Xeer is mainly instigated as a mechanism to control and manage social relations and has two main units: xeer guud (generally accepted laws that has nation-wide applicability) and xeer sokeye (kin law that is employed and adopted by individuals or members of certain clans or subclans). Nevertheless, Xeer aims to provide law and order, to manage issues related to marriage, to establish reasons for war and peace, and most importantly, to establish agreements between families and clans that can facilitate the distribution and allocation of resources peacefully.

However, Xeer is supplementary with blood compensation (diya), and as such, both provide rules and regulations of punishment for misconduct (Leeson 2007). In the meantime, these principles and rules are obeyed by all Somali families and clans as a mechanism to overcome and end traditional disputes and conflicts between clans and for blood compensation (Kusow and Mohamud 2006). However, it is indisputable that Xeer has been and yet remains a core principle in forming social norms, obligation, and most importantly, expectations of the Somalis before and during the processes of state formation. Nevertheless, Xeer, along with Islamic laws, has remained the only legal structure in place for a long time in Somalia (Zartman 2000, p. 186; Notten 2005, p. 375). It is believed that previously, Xeer was secular, but has greatly been influenced by the arrival of Islam over time and now included various Islamic legal codes, principles, values, and norms.

Considering the maturity of Xeer and how it has been practiced, as well as its main principles and values, its origin can be traced to the Somali history or custom locally known as (dhaqan), cultural habits and behavior, and Islam. Furthermore, since its formation, Xeer has succeeded to maintain its two primary enactors: traditional authority (odayaal) and wise man (waxgarad). For a long time, these two institutions have had the responsibility and power of enacting Xeer laws (Abdile 2012, p. 88). In the first epoch of the nineteenth century, Xeer institution came under threat and begun weakening for three reasons; first, the arrival of the European colonialization as they introduced western laws and rules meant to replace Xeer which also impacted the status and power of the institution. Secondly, the formation of the modern state in Somalia, particularly the creation of modern courts which have taken over the powers and duties of all customary institutions, including Xeer. The odayaal and waxgarad were replaced by contemporary judges. Thirdly, the continuing competition between Xeer and Sharia laws have also significantly challenged Xeer legitimacy and debilitated its lawfulness within the Somali society. However, the collapse of military state and government institutions such as the legal system in 1991 has brought about the rebirth and revitalization of the customary institution once again to fill the power vacuum and replace the modern laws.

Henceforth, the Xeer system has been regaining its power and status and has become the central tenet for law and order in some parts of Somalia. This revitalization marked a transition of the Somali social and political structure from modern systems of law to traditional version anchored in the Xeer system. For that reason, Xeer is the only source of justice that all Somalis agree upon, therefore, can be significantly influential and decisive when dealing with the current conflicts in Somalia (Zuin 2008, p. 94).

Xeer as an institution of conflict management and resolution offers three models to deal with any encounter: negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. Often, traditional meetings meant to solve customary disputes take place under the tree, and all the male adults in the clan can attend as the audience. However, negotiations involve straight communications or direct talks between the disputing groups without any interference from the third party and are intended to avoid further traditional conflict resolution meetings (Farah and Lewis 1997). If this fails, the Xeer system allows the involvement of a third party to mediate an end to the dispute and prevent further conflicts (Moore 1996, p. 15). Should there be any further need to break the deadlock in conflict resolution, then the parties can move to an arbitrary model of solving their dispute, and together, decide a tribunal which commences the arbitration from scratch. New terms of engagement in the dispute, the mechanism for choosing the arbitrators, and the procedure of the arbitral tribunal are outlined before a new commencement for dispute arbitration (Zartman 2007, p. 199). Nevertheless, arbitration seems to be the most widely used in Somalia to deal with disputes and conflicts between families and communities, yet this has not received enough scholarly attention within the Somali studies (Abdile 2012, p. 90).

Conceptually speaking, these three traditional conflict resolutions mechanisms have both similarities and differences. In terms of similarities, foremost, they are voluntary (Moore 1996), negations and meditation share the same outcome which is nonbinding (Wall and Lynn 1993), and all three mechanisms share similarities regarding producers, responsibilities, and duties of the arbitrators and mediators. More comprehensively, these mechanisms, therefore, allow parties to enter into solutions and agreements freely, as well as implement compensations and fines voluntarily. Despite these similarities, there are also some distinctive differences. Arbitration is distinct from the other two models (negotiation and mediation) both which require that discussions be conducted smoothly and simply. On the contrary, arbitrators are tasked with establishing solutions to the conflict, which makes their job harder and difficult.

The uniqueness of the Xeer system is that it is guided by clan agreements, an oral agreement memorized and passed on from one generation to the other through different ways such as poems (maanso), songs (gabayo), proverbs (mahmahyo), and storytelling (sheekoyin). Consequently, the Xeer mechanism remains very significant in conflict management and resolution method in Somalia. The survival and endurance of the Xeer system is founded on several reasons. Foremost, the conservative nature of Somali society and societal structure which makes family and kinship ties the basis of building sustained relationships, alliance, and friendship. Secondly, there is a lack of confidence for modern secular laws and the modern state’s failure to govern society and ensure justice, which depends on compensation and reconciliation. Thirdly, is the previous failure of the colonial powers to adopt modern laws in large parts of Somalia, specifically in rural and remote areas in which the Xeer institution was the only recognized system of providing justice. Fourth, there is a belief among Somalis that their culture is superior to the white Christian culture. The term “white Christian” itself is a deliberate sign of resistance against the modern laws and portrays Xeer system as being under attack from western culture. More significantly, it promotes the institutionalization of cultural differences and portrays what can be Somali and what cannot be. Despite Xeer’s survival in contemporary Somalia, it encounters several challenges and limitations among these: the lack of central power or authority; it diminishes individual rights and an overemphasis on societal order and lacks adequate and effective conflict prevention and enforcement methods and mechanisms (Abdile 2012, p. 107).


This entry sought to revisit a conflict in the Horn of Africa that has overstayed its time even in the standards of a region vulnerable to conflict. The Somali conflict is now nearly three decades old, with very little progress in terms of sustainable peace. The chapter examined why and what can be done to achieve peace and stability in the violent ridden nation. It examined the background of the conflict, how it has transformed over time, and some of the previous peace efforts. It establishes that the crisis in Somalia in 2019 has very little semblance to what it was in 1991 in terms of actors, objectives, and strategies. However, what remains constant in the two periods is that they both have inflicted huge suffering and misery on the people of Somalia. The legacy of this conflict has left thousands killed, millions displaced, and economic instabilities and hopelessness, especially among the young people, have left them with little choice than to join criminal gangs.

The chapter also establishes that the previous peace efforts have fallen short of bringing peace in the country because of failing to address some pertinent issues such as legitimacy, unity, inclusivity in the process and focusing more on a top-down state-building approach without ensuring the people on the ground are well consulted and deep-rooted grievances addressed. In other words, the previous peace efforts appear to have rewarded only top-ranking members of the groups involved in the conflict with government positions without a clear blueprint on how justice, economic equality, good governance practices, as well as organized crime will be tackled. The result has been continued violence, destruction, and suffering. That is why this chapter suggests that where the crisis in Somalia has reached, peacebuilding efforts will need to be robust, address broader aspects of the situation, and adopt multidimensional strategies to address the root causes of the conflict as well as the emerging criminal activities.

One of these strategies is to reflect on traditional conflict resolution strategies and modify them to fit into the contemporary setting. Xeer is one of the most promising approaches that we recommend because it tackles microchallenges that other resolution strategies have not addressed. Secondly, in the spirit of Xeer, a conducive environment from which other conflict resolution strategies can be implemented will be created. Some of the current problems facing Somalia today emanate from clan settings. Xeer has the required tools to reach deeper into the society and act as a catalyst in solving the crisis. More specifically are the attributes of consensus building, transformational aspects, and forgiveness that Xeer brings forth will play an important role in the peacebuilding process. Xeer will also influence other factors such as the success of a potential truth and reconciliation process, new constitution writing, and the construction of a Somalia national identity. This chapter, therefore, hopes to encourage stakeholders to look at multiple sources for a solution to the crisis. This approach, we believe will take more time, will need more commitment from the citizens and actors involved in the peace process but will have a significant impact over time.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Israel Nyaburi Nyadera
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Mohamed Salah Ahmed
    • 2
  • Michael Otieno Kisaka
    • 3
  1. 1.University of MacauMacauChina
  2. 2.Ankara Yildirim Beyazit UniversityAnkaraTurkey
  3. 3.Hacettepe UniversityAnkaraTurkey

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jasmin Ramovic
  • Liridona Veliu
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Law and GovernmentDublin City UniversityDublinIreland