Somaliland: Where Customary and Statutory Laws Collide Head On


There are three justice systems existing in Somaliland Traditional Shariah and Formal

By: Jaafar M Sh Jama

Somaliland sun – Three hundred camels, some nursing bellowing calves, snorted and grunted along the way to Ceel Dhaab, a village in the Sarar region of Somaliland. The wooden bells hanging from their necks jangled noisily as a man drove them to lot where elders and arbitrators waited on an open tarpaulin. They took a head count of the camels, and were also handed two girls and a wad of U.S. dollars.

The exchange of camels, money and women was a blood compensation transaction for the purpose of ending a long-standing feud between Cali Barre and Reer Barre—a feud that had caused the loss of countless lives, including the assassination of the police commander of Caynabo town’s main prison in 2013. The elders with the Minister of Interior, Cali Maxamed (Waran Cadde), ruled in favor of Cali Barre. They were to receive the price of 314 camels, the value of 65 camels in cash, with the value of the remaining amount to be paid with live camels and two girls. The primary purpose of the two girls’ marriage to Cali Barre men was to solidify kinship bonds and limit future feuds (Godob Reeb). The Minister was to release prisoners of the tribe unconditionally.

The settlement points out how statutory laws are unable to replace the customary laws so deeply rooted in Somali society. In the Habar Jeclo lineage case, the Minister was a mediator of customary law rather than a government official enforcing statutory law. The police officer killed was treated as the citizen of the tribe rather than the citizen of a state. Both the state and the assassin’s tribe were liable for his murder based on customary law. The state was treated as a tribe and forced to pay blood compensation.

Tribal elders indicted the state and law enforcement officials who murdered their tribesmen while enforcing court orders. The elders act as had hoc judges and police. Nothing is accomplished without their involvement and consent. Suldan Saleban Cali Ismail said, “We are not in the ‘book’ and our role is not delineated in the statutory laws. We don’t know where we stand.” The Penal code doesn’t encompass customary law, though it is widely practiced in Somaliland.

The Minister emphasized that customary law and the elders are obstacles to enforcing statutory law. The state wants and expects the support of the elders in the arrest of a perpetrator who kills police or army personnel. He explained that criminals seek the protection of their elders and chiefs. Suldan Ibrahim Jamac Samatar said, “Tribal elders have always been peacemakers, resolving disputes when there was no state, no politicians nor any law enforcement provided by the state. Criminals, members of parliament and cabinet members all seek the backing of the elders when they are in crisis or seeking office. Tribal elders have always been there to help them.”

The elders are leery of backing statutory law because they consider their tribesmen as citizens of the tribe rather than citizens of the state. The elders have carte blanche authority to override court rulings of the Somaliland government unless they find the state to be in agreement with their verdict. Once tribes see that people from a particular tribe have become dominant in the judiciary, elders from other tribes ignore the verdict reached by judges. In the Ceel Dhaab case there were no court hearings or

physical appearance of the parties involved in court. The Minister of Interior was summoned and the state had to step aside. The matter was resolved by direct negotiations between tribes. The Minister had to be there symbolically. He was not allowed to interfere with the resolution reached by customary law. The Minister openly stated, “I have over a thousand cases that are waiting to be resolved. Tribes are pressuring me on a daily basis to rule cases in their favor; otherwise they have threatened to take up arms.”