In this article, I analyze Somali political institutions in terms of clanship (tol) and contract (heer). By the latter term, I mean the explicit contracts, or treaties of government, which are the foundation of all formal political units among the northern pastoral Somali.

In conclusion, I examine the significance of Somali political structure in the light of Maine’s celebrated dictum that the ‘movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract’. 

Author(s): I. M. Lewis

Published 1959



The Clan and the Contract in Northern Somaliland. The political structure of the Somali pastoralists of the North Horn of Africa is based on two distinct principles, the clan (“tol”) and the contract (“heer”).

All the social groups of Somali pastoralists who participate in the same esprit de corps, do so because their members are affinity, and because their common obligations are defined by treaty or by contract. It is in the structure of the dia-settlement groups, which are the basic legal and political units of the Somali pastoral society, that this reciprocal action of the two principles and their complementary character appear most clearly.

These units, of which there are more than 360 in the British Protectorate (out of a population of 640,000), got their name from the fact that their members recognize the obligation to jointly pay and receive blood tax (Arabic “diya”) and other damages.

So, if a man from one group kills a member of another group, the compensation of 100 camels is paid jointly by the assassin’s dia-settlement group. The proportions in which individuals in a settlement group pay and receive compensation vary according to the treaties of each group.

Currently, these are recorded in writing (often in English) and deposited in the district offices, they thus become a source of law, because the Administrations apply the terms of the treaties to settle the conflicts. It is only by belonging to a dial-up group that an individual has legal and political status in society. But the exclusive and distinctive character of these basic units does not prevent their “ad hoc” alliance into larger and more extensive political units, also bound by a treaty. So, in general, the contract plays a role, within the segmental lineage framework, in establishing political and legal bodies.

In addition, it is the contract that animates and expresses the values ​​and implicit obligations of the clan. Both are irreducible tenets of northern Somali pastoral society. Nothing seems to suggest that the contract is a development which moves away from the status of the lineage.

The interest of this system, therefore, lies in the special way in which the Somali form of the ‘Social Contract’ of political philosophers mixes with the agnate kinship system to create political units. Because, at each level of lineage segmentation, policy and legal relations are the subjects of contractual agreements.

By extension, the contract (“heer”) has taken on the meaning of custom in its broadest sense, where compliance sanctions are found mostly in usage and convention.

Newspaper Information

Africa is the premier journal devoted to the study of African societies and culture. Published as the journal of the International African Institute, editorial policy encourages an interdisciplinary approach, involving the social sciences, history, the environment, and life sciences. Africa aims to give increased attention to historical trends, issues of development, and links between local and national levels of society. At the same time, it maintains its commitment to the theoretically informed analysis of the realities of Africa’s own cultural categories.

Publisher Information

Cambridge University Press ( is the publishing division of the University of Cambridge, one of the world’s leading research institutions and winner of 81 Nobel Prizes. Cambridge University Press is committed by its charter to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible across the globe. It publishes over 2,500 books a year for distribution in more than 200 countries.

Cambridge Journals publishes over 250 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide range of subject areas, in print and online. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today. For more information, visit

Clanship And Contract In Northern Somaliland
Somaliland map in 1948

Clanship And Contract In Northern Somaliland[1]


IN this article I analyze Somali political institutions in terms of clanship (tol) and contract (heer). By the latter term, I mean the explicit contracts, or treaties of government, which are the foundation of all formal political units among the northern pastoral Somali. In conclusion, I examine the significance of Somali political structure in the light of Maine’s celebrated dictum that the ‘movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract’.


As I have already given a preliminary description of the Somali lineage system[2] I sum up here only those features which are relevant to the present discussion. Clan-ship among the northern pastoral nomads is all-pervasive. Most social activities are contingent upon it; in the veneration of local lineage saints Islam is tied to it, and politics stem from it.

Everyone is born into a patrilineage, indeed into a system of highly segmented patrilineal descent-groups which ultimately divide the total Somali population of some 3 million people into seven great ‘clan-families’. The seven ‘clan-families’ are the Dir, the Ishaaq, the Daarood, the Hawiye, the ‘Pre-Hawiye’; the Digil, and the Rahanwiin.[3] The two last, settled as mainly sedentary cultivators in southern Somalia, have a mixed clan constitution very different from that of the Northern Somali pastoralists. They have a hierarchical political structure with ranked offices and a considerable degree of administrative stratification.

This is entirely lacking among the northern nomads who have generally no positions of instituted authority. The northern pastoralists, who are the concern of this paper, differ again from the cultivating Digil and Rahanwiin of the south in that genealogical fictions are rare in their lineage structure. Men may sometimes be attached to agnatic groups other than their own, but only rarely are they fully adopted into a foreign lineage.

The clan-families are the largest agnatic units. They range in size from the Dir, some half-million in number[4] and widely scattered today, with little or no sense of corporate identity, to the Daarood, over a million strong. The latter also extend over a great area; from British Somaliland and northern Somalia through the Ethiopian Ogaden, then, interrupted by the Hawiye, Rahanwiin, and Digil, they finally extend across the borders of Somalia into the Northern Province of Kenya.

Although thus often widely distributed, and with no central political organization to enable them to act as firm political units, the majority of the clan-families have nevertheless a strong sense of identity. This is particularly evident in the structure of modern political movements in Somalia.[5] To the eponym of his clan-family a man counts from twenty to thirty ancestors according to the degree of segmentation within it.[6]

Clanship And Contract In Northern SomalilandWithin the clan-family the largest most clearly defined units are ‘ clans ‘. The main clans in the British Protectorate are the ‘Iise (55,000) and the Gadabuursi (45,000), both Dir; the Habar Awal (130,000), Arab (20,000),[7] ‘Iidagalle (40,000), Habar Yuunis (130,000), and Habar Tol Ja’lo (100,000), all Ishaaq but regarded by other Somali as Dir; and the Dulbahante (100,000) and the Warsangeli (20,000), both Daarood. Although the clan-family can never act as a single political unit, the clan often does.

Most, but not all clans, have titular heads, ‘Sultans’ (called variously Suldaan, Boqor, Garaad, Ugaas, &c.). The Sultan is merely a primus inter pares in the ad hoc councils formed by the elders of a clan in which every adult male has the right to voice his opinion. He has no formal court and generally no constitutional authority.

A Sultan has, of course, a certain prestige, especially in negotiations between clans and as a figurehead for clan solidarity. He is often spoken of with reverence and respect but is not always accorded these in practice. Through personal powers of leadership, Sultans have sometimes succeeded in investing their rather empty titles with a degree of power. But this does not lead to the creation of a stable office of clan leadership where succeeding holders of the title enjoy the same powers and authority as their predecessors.

To his clan ancestor, a man may count between fifteen and twenty generations; and within his clan the next most sharply-defined unit is a large, highly segmented lineage which it is convenient to call a ‘primary lineage-group’. This is the group of which, within his clan, a person normally describes himself as a member. In some cases, groups of primary lineages have sufficient unity within the clan to form larger genealogical units which may be called sub-clans. But this does not apply in every case.

The primary lineage-group has no formal office of leadership and is again controlled by the elders of its constituent lineages through informal councils (shir). With size and strength, the genealogical span varies from some six to ten generations. This lineage is generally exogamous and outside it, affinal links are forged to supplement the attenuated ties of extended agnation. Feud and stock-theft most characteristically take place between primary lineages, and fission into new equivalent units is marked by a cessation of the marriage prohibitions (which are not ritual) among their constituent units.

Finally, within his primary lineage-group a man acts as a member of a Dia-paying group. This is a collection of small lineage segments of from four to eight generations’ span and containing from a few hundred to a few thousand men. In the British Protectorate alone there were in I958 over 360 Dia-paying groups. This lineage, or alliance of lineage segments, has again no formal leader in the traditional organization.

During their short period of administration (1875-85) of the Somali coast, however, the Egyptians adopted, if they did not originate, a system of indirect rule through lineage headmen (‘aaqils). But this apparently amounted to little more than the recognition of official spokesmen for the different lineage-groups. The ‘aaqils (Akils) system[8] has been continued under modern administration in all the Somali territories, and elders have been selected to act as stipended headmen.

In conformity with recent developments in British colonial policy, some of these representatives have been appointed in the British Protectorate as ‘Local Authorities’, with powers defined under the Local Authorities Ordinance of 1950. Their effective authority, however, remains more theoretical than real, for, in practice, they are rarely able to act as leaders of groups except at Government instigation and with direct Government backing. The principle followed is to appoint at least one stipended Akil or Local Authority for each large Dia-paying group.

The system is useful, but Akils and Local Authorities are in effect little more than go-betweens between Government and people. They usually spend much of their time in District headquarters watching over the interests of their kinsmen, and negotiating the settlement of outstanding blood-debts with the elders of other Dia-paying groups and with the Administration. Their assistance is frequently required in investigating cases of homicide and stock-theft in which their groups are involved, and they are expected to bring defaulters to justice, and generally to act as the spokesmen of Government among their kinsmen.

The name ‘ Dia-paying group’ refers to the solidarity of the group’s members in collective payment of blood-wealth (Somali, mag; Ar. d-y-t).[9] Men of the same group share a common responsibility in the settlement of blood-debts incurred by one of their numbers and in receiving compensation when offenses are committed against them. Although the title ‘Dia-paying group’ suggests a greater rigidity than the group in fact possesses, it is retained here for convenience.

In a system of shifting agnatic attachment and allegiance, these are the most stable political units. Since their members are bound by specific contractual obligations in addition to the implicit bonds of agnation, there may be said to be a rule of law within them. They are, in fact, the basic jural and political units of Somali society.

In general, homicide and other delicts are settled between lineages of every order of segmentation by payment of compensation, particularly under administrative pressure or, failing that, by direct recourse to self-help, usually in the form of the blood-feud. I shall have more to say later of the variations in compensation with structural distance and other factors.

At this stage, it is sufficient to record that generally, a man’s life is worth a hundred camels and a woman’s fifty. The Dia-paying group is in practice the minimum unit capable of meeting such responsibilities independently.

Read the full article 


[1] This paper is based on fieldwork carried out in the Somalilands between 1955 and I957 under the auspices of the Colonial Social Science Research Council, London, to whose generosity I am greatly indebted. I acknowledge with gratitude the advice of my friend Mr. B. W. Andrzejewski of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, with whom I have discussed many of the linguistic points, Colleagues at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland have also supplied useful criticism.

[2] See my The Somali Lineage System and the Total Genealogy, Hargeisa (British Somaliland), and Crown Agents for Colonies, London, 1957.

[3] In the orthography adopted in this paper, long vowels are indicated by doubling, as, e.g. aa, oo, &c. The Arabic and Cushitic aspirate h is represented by h; the voiced pharyngal fricative by ‘; the glottal stop by ‘; and the Cushitic post-alveolar plosive by d.

[4] The Ishaaq are included in this estimate.

[5] See Africa, July 1958, pp. 244-61.

[6] At all levels of segmentation, there is a general correlation between the size and strength of a lineage- group and its genealogical span.

[7] This is a Somali clan, known officially as ‘Arap’ to distinguish it from ‘Arab (an Arabian), which expatriate officials often find difficulty in pronouncing.

[8] The Indian loan-word jawaabdaar which was current during the administration of the coast by the Indian Government (I885-98) is still sometimes used today. Jawaab means an answer and Jawaabdaar someone who answers for or is responsible for.

[9] The Arabic expression is rarely used in Northern Somaliland, but the Government has adopted it in naming the Dia-paying groups.

Clanship and Contract in Northern Somaliland

Author(s): I. M. Lewis

Source: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jul., 1959), pp.


Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International African Institute Stable URL:

Accessed: 11/05/2014 15:26

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.