Justice and security

Reforming Somali Customary Justice: Pathways to Adapting Xeer Procedures and Practices

Horn of Africa
Sababi Institute

The Somali system of customary justice (xeer) serves as both a conflict resolution and legal mechanism, operating alongside formal state-backed courts. In xeer, clan elders draw on precedent, Sharia law, and bilateral oral agreements between clans to adjudicate disputes, from land claims to murder cases. It holds particular significance in rural areas and areas of limited state capacity, where state courts may be inaccessible, providing a cost-effective and expeditious alternative. Xeer has also faced substantial criticism for its reliance on collective responsibility, in which a perpetrator's lineage group as a whole pays restitution, its procedural exclusion of women, lack of transparency, and unequal treatment of individuals under the law.

In this study, we provide the first large-scale assessment of the prevalence of each of these issues, based on a survey with 408 traditional elders across Somalia and Somaliland. We also assess elders' openness to reforms that would make xeer fairer, more transparent, and more inclusive of women. We find that most of the commonly-cited shortcomings of xeer are widespread, though some are less institutionalized than we imagined. For instance, while information about xeer agreements and case outcomes is not widely available, this appears to be due to informal barriers to sharing information, rather than mandated restrictions. We also find that elders are broadly supportive of some reforms, including increased transparency, codification of xeer, and more equal treatment of individuals from different clans, while they are much less supportive of greater inclusion of women. Support is reform-specific; there is no single coalition supporting all reforms, but often more senior elders are the most supportive of reforms, which provides an important entry point.

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