Does the Traditional Land Use System, Xeer, Have a Future in Somalia?


Everyday the world is confronted with abrasive images of the violence in Somalia, yet attempts to analyze and explain the aggression are generally slimmed down to explanations of tribalism.  It is true that the geo-political history of the 6 primary clans does play a large part in the constant fighting, however there are additional social factors that can undermine or facilitate a potential end to the violence.  With IDP camps scattered across the country, planning efforts to stabilize and rebuild this exhausted landscape will need to build upon a history of tribal, religious, colonial, and government efforts to control the land.  Xeer is perhaps the oldest land use tradition in Somalia and deserves special attention.

According to a UN-Habitat study in 2005, Xeer has 11 primary commandments:
  • Land and any resources found on it are common assets of the clan or the primary lineage that permanently lives on it.
  • Pasture is free for all pastoralists irrespective of clan affiliation in time of need.
  • Pastoralists should preserve, and not burn, deserted thorn pens for animals.
  • Generally nomads can not settle in the grazing valleys, however, in some regions pastoral hamlets may not be allowed to settle in the middle of grazing valleys.
  • Individual pastoralists should not destroy shared pasture and fruit bearing trees
  • Neither visiting grazers, nor local pastoralists, may establish commercial camps on grazing land.
  • Private enclosures or farms on grazing lands are prohibited.  No one is allowed to cut grass and transport it into another area.
  • Visiting grazers must respect Xeer and maintain peaceful co-existence with the host communities.
  • A committee of elders from the visiting group and the local community is empowered to resolve conflicts.
  • Kinsmen should assist each other in hard times, particularly during long migrations.
  • To reserve an old pen for private use, the head of the pastoralists group should clearly leave leave a mark in the front of the pen.
A quick review of these 11 tenants reveals the fluid nature of land use and its exchange between clans, sub-groups, and individuals.   As Somalia hosts extreme environments and the economy is historically rooted in animal husbandry, this fluid exchange is essential for the survival.  Nonetheless, these rules could quickly get messy in an urban environment where public space and private property blur the lines between social and personal use.  

In an urban environment, how do the the concepts of Xeer take on new meaning?  Can one interpret a vacant plot of land or an apartment available for use?  Does an individual acquire the private right to a piece of property by means of long term occupation?   It is likely that the role of Sharia Islamic law becomes an important element in negating these difficulties, yet as Sharia often has a focus on family and tribal rights, it is difficult to determine if Sharia can provide the appropriate tools to transgress private property disputes.  


Although many of these issues have been explored and expanded upon in depth in cities of Somaliland and Puntland, it is less certain how these problems will be resolved in places such as Mogadishu and Kismayo in the future.   I suppose if the nation were to be united under a Sharia based system, there would be a basic framework to construct new land use laws that are consistent with past systems.  However if a new, secular constitution is in place, that may create a new problem as the importation of techniques abroad might appear too much like an act of colonialism.  

Ultimately it seems that viable land use laws need to build upon the intrinsic, informal systems that have dominated the geography of Somalia for centuries.  Yet as long as border disputes and a weak government prevail, there are limited means to update the antiquated systems to engage a global economy.  In future blog posts I will continue to investigate the the role of Xeer, in particular in relation to Sharia and secular law, as tools for future stabilization and reconstruction efforts.