Somaliland: Without our Knowledge (7): Keeping the Peace with Little or no Policing


Prof Abdisalam Yasin

“It is a world, bought and sold, without our knowledge.”

“Waa duni la kala iibsadaan nala ogaysiine.” Farah Nur

Somalilandsun – This is the seventh part of series of articles by the author Prof Abdisalam Yasin Mohamed whose linkage of the history of Somaliland shall bring to the fore its present circumstances in various aspects and titled “Without our knowledge”

Without our Knowledge (7): Keeping the Peace with Little or no Policing

Prof Abdisalam Yasin Mohamed

Keeping the peace, or maintaining law and order, implies strict dealing with disturbances of peace, theft, and violence by rapidly enforcing penalties under criminal law. The responsibility to enforce the law and ensure public safety and security falls upon the government. In a loosely organized community as that of late 19th century Somaliland, the evolving colonial government faced many challenges to keep the peace.

As Walsh informs us, although neither the Colonial Office in London nor the Imperial Administration in India made any budgetary contribution to the fledgling British Administration in Somaliland, they expected from Hunter and Walsh, the two men heading this administration, to hire district officers and form a considerable police force. This was not, of course, possible for Hunter and Walsh to do as that meant raising more funds locally through increased taxation. To the two men, this kind of policy was neither sensible nor practical. It was not sensible because the local population was in no mood to pay further taxation for which they saw no immediate public service. And it was not practical as a tax increase meant hiring more tax collectors and more policemen and buying more weapons in order to enforce it.

As a result, the two men were ridiculed for their prudent policies by their peers in the British Imperial Establishment and were called “funk sticks” or bad sticks that were useless as colonial pioneers for the British Empire. Therefore, it had become obligatory upon them to come up with innovative policing ideas that effectively maintained the peace without calling for unaffordable expenses. In other words, they had to come up with a cost effective, or in some cases expense-free, policing strategy. And they did.

They came up with a two-pronged strategy. First, they addressed the prevention of crime and disorder or the enforcement of the law by using a range of tools that required a small number of law enforcement personnel or no personnel at all. Second, they decided to go beyond the administration’s machinery and abilities and involved the public, particularly community elders and other dignitaries, to maintain the peace and enforce the law.

Involving community leaders, particularly the salaried Akils, in a mechanism similar to what is today called “community policing”, was not unusual in the cultural landscape of Somaliland since peace was, and still is, often maintained by Akils and other community elders. What was novel and uncommon was the range of tools that Walsh employed in order to keep the peace. He gave two examples of these in his story. One of these examples became popular and left its mark on the oral history of the Somaliland people. That was what became known in Somaliland jargon as Jaliilad.

Since most Somalis could not read or write, the Jaliilad was used in the place of a written “summon” that called upon those who received it to come to the court. As Walsh explains, the Jaliilad was a flat stone with an arrow engraved on it. In order to summon someone to court, a police officer took this engraved stone and gave it to him. That the stone assumed a legal significance, since it was an expression of imperial authority, was not surprising. What was surprising, and actually showed the people of Somaliland’s respect for litigation no matter who was administering it, was their acceptance of the stone as a legal document backed by government authority. In some cases, it was not uncommon that people would come from distant rural areas, carrying the Jaliilad and attending the court in Berbera.

This is indeed a testimony to the people of Somaliland’s high regard for peacekeeping and law enforcement. An exceptional characteristic of their culture, which they have shown to the rest of the world when they singlehandedly resolve their conflicts and maintain their peace.

We can understand where this kind of reverence for the law among the people of Somaliland comes from when we realize that it is an important social and legal (xeer) practice to attend a summoned litigation without the custody of a police force. Positively responding to the legal calls in the absence of any law enforcement personnel is a salient characteristic of their pastoral culture.

Hunter and Walsh, therefore, had no difficulty to enforce the law and keep the peace with a small police force and a tight budget since they were dealing with a community that had a strong propensity for peacemaking and for the respect of law. Directly experiencing this, Walsh tells us:

“Hunter used to say that the Army and Navy did not know, or perhaps did not realize, that the Berbera Administration received no monetary contribution from the British or Indian exchequers.

Great pressure was brought to bear on Major Hunter and myself to form a regulation establishment of Military Police and other District Officers. We always stated, however, that such a course was impossible, as the Berbera revenue could not afford to pay the expenses of such a scheme unless the taxation was increased, and such a method of raising extra funds involved the expensive employment of more bayonets to collect it.

The conduct of Hunter and myself, indeed, in this respect was severely criticized, and we were called “Funk-sticks”, useless as the pioneers and administrators of a new country.

Police methods at Berbera were very crude, but never-theless they worked well. We did not issue summonses or warrants for the presence of a Somali at the Court or the Residency office. I had caused a broad arrow to be sculptured on some stones with a flat surface, and a constable was ordered to take one of these stones to the residence of the person whose attendance was required, with a direction that the latter should deliver it at the Court.

There was very little serious crime in Berbera. Every Somali in the town, however, being armed with two spears, a short sword made fast round the waist, and a shield, fights were of daily occurrence, and these the police often could not stop. The Somali is very vain, and can be frequently controlled by ridicule and derision. As an experiment, therefore, I directed the arrest of any two Somalis found fighting in the town. Two such men, with their arms, were then taken outside the town by an armed escort of police and made to dig a grave.

When it was ready for the reception of the corpse, each of the two Somalis was given his spears and other weapons and desired to fight it out with his late adversary. The survivor of the contest was to bury his opponent in the prepared grave. We never could induce two Somalis to fight under these circumstances, and as a result it was made to appear that they had no use for their arms. The arms were, therefore, taken from them, and the reason for such confiscation was made known in the bazaars by the town crier.

I allowed Somalis voluntarily to deposit their arms for safe custody in the Police Station, and each man was given, free of charge, a receipt for his weapons. Gradually the people took to the habit of not wearing their arms in the bazaars of the town.

Hunter and I had from the first discussed how we could disarm Somalis entering the town, new arrivals always refusing to part with their weapons, even on deposit. On several occasions, in consequence, serious riots and disturbances were only avoided by the tactful and lenient action of the police, who, I may record, were always supported by the Stipendiary Akil.

The majority of the akils desired the disarmament in the town of the members of their respective tribes and clans, and on my leaving Somaliland in 1893 I heard that the ancient custom of going armed in the bazaars had been practically abandoned by the inhabitants and visitors from the interior.”

Read past Series of Without our Knowledge