Trust building in a post-conflict society: the case of Somaliland


Mohamed Farah Hersi, Academy for Peace and Development, Somaliland

Somaliland, which was under British colonial rule from 1884 to 1960, became an independent state on 26 June 1960. Four days after its new-found independence Somaliland unconditionally unified with the Italian colonised Somali territory of the South. The unification of these two Somali territories was due to a Pan-Somali nationalistic ideology aimed at bringing ethnic Somalis of all former colonised territories together under one Somali state.

However, the Pan-Somali dream ended in 1969 due to the divisive policies of the dictatorial regime of Siyad Bare (1969-1991). The policies of the Bare regime disrupted any form of social cohesion between the people of Somaliland by the 1980s. As a result, mistrust was growing. There were no fair political power sharing arrangements and most state assets were given to Siyad Barre’s clan. Unemployment was very high and the national economy worsened day after day. The central institutions became very weak and Barre therefore relied on his clan to reinforce his power. This created negative perceptions towards central government institutions and people lost confidence in the government. Due to Bare’s politics intrastate war broke out in the 1980s between supporters and opponents to the regime policies. This armed struggle eventually broke down the remaining social ties between groups at the local level and mistrust prevailed in every aspect of life. Neighbours and friends became divided and suspicious of each other, co-workers stopped trusting their peers. Even the traditional social institutions called “clans” which serve as the foundation of the socio-politics of Somali people, were heavily destroyed by the divisive policies of Bare’s regime. Eventually the central government institutions collapsed and armed militias took over.

In 1991, there was a new experience of statebuilding and peacebuilding: After thirty years of attempted unity and a long struggle, Somaliland restored its independence from the South and withdrew from the union. The Somali state had come into being as a result of colonisation, but now with the post-colonial state collapsed people reverted back to their traditional political life. In Somaliland, traditional politics found a way to reconcile people, cultivate trust, rebuild state institutions and bring about democracy.

Peacebuilding starts with reconciliation, as a first step, in creating lasting peace and rebuilding state institutions. In the Somali context, traditional mechanisms of reconciliation have been there for centuries. The Somali traditional system is based on an unwritten code called “xeer”, which is based on dialogue and egalitarianism. Xeer, built on principles of trust between the community and elders, serves as a conflict resolution tool and regulates coexistence between clans through discussions of clan leaders. It originally derived from Islamic Sharia and customary law. Sharia and customary law provide xeer with social and judicial legitimacy basically based on case precedents.

After the regained independence of Somaliland, traditional leaders initiated a process for the restoration of peace and stability. There was a clan conference whereby traditional elders brought political elites and other stakeholders together to find a resolution to the political crisis. Over the course of four years, more than 38 such conferences intended to restore relations between communities, establish a relatively stable security regime, re-build local and national institutions, and create an enabling environment for economic growth.

This process of peacebuilding was home-grown, traditionally led, locally driven and culturally indigenous. There were and continue to be concerns with xeer, notably the lack of direct involvement of women in the decision making process. However, research by the Academy for Peace and Development (APD) has shown that the majority of the population trusts xeer as its main form of conflict resolution. It was not accompanied by an international intervention and Somaliland actively refused to accept such international support. For the last two decades, Somaliland’s state-building process was, therefore, shaped by hybrid politics where tradition contributes to the “modern” statebuilding process. This hybrid political order has been workable although challenges remain. For instance, most constitutional disputes are resolved through traditional means; modern judicial courts are not trusted and are considered partial. Moreover, the people of Somaliland are divided by a history of conflict and there has not been any form of transitional justice as in other post-conflict societies, nor has there been a real social reconciliation process. As a result, political unrest continues in some parts of Somaliland.

However the research and experience of the APD has shown that top-down internationally driven initiatives won’t bring peace and stability to the Somali region. On the contrary, the case of Somaliland shows that the traditional political system plays a very critical role in building trust and social cohesion, which should be regarded as a foundation for any state building process.