In this article, Sadia Musse considers the relationship between traditional and modern governance institutions in Somaliland.[1]

Since 2002 all of Somaliland’s governing institutions have been subjected to public elections, with the exception of the Upper House of the parliament – the House of Elders (Guurti). Somaliland’s elders have been commended for their role in establishing peace and stability in Somaliland in the early 1990s. Their incorporation into government was an innovative fusion of traditional and modern government that increased public representation and participation in government and contributed to the stabilization.

In recent years criticism of the role that the Guurti has played in Somaliland has been growing and there have been calls for a fundamental review of how the Guurti is selected and its function. 

By Sadia Musse Ahmed

A Historical Perspective on Traditional Institutions

In Somali pastoral society ‘customary law’ (xeer) and the leadership of elders (odayo) are two key governance institutions. All adult males could, in theory be elders, with the right to speak in council (shir).

In practice, not everyone is selected as an elder. There are no formal institutional hierarchies, but certain lineages have titled elders or senior elders, known by different names in different Somali-speaking territories: Imam, Boqor, Sultan, Garad, Malaaq, Wabar and Ugaas in different parts of the Somali nation. Traditionally religious leaders did not have a political role, but were consulted and gave religious advice. Shari’a law was practiced, but customary law usually took precedence over religious codes and directives.


An elder is a delegate and representative of his clan and is selected according to certain procedures and criteria, as is attested to in poems and proverbs. A family or lineage may claim the position of the elder or Sultan by descent, but the final selection lies with the clan (Qoysna boqorku leeyahay qabiilkuna xulashada). An elder is chosen for certain attributes, among them being, wisdom and age, wealth, generosity, patience, courage, decisive decision-making, fairness, and oratorical skills. These are underlined in proverbs, for example:

A leader must control anger equivalent to the amount of hard water a camel can drink at a time. (Inta calool geel ceel dhanaan ka qaado waa inuu cadhada ka qaada.) A leader can accept blame equivalent to the amount a raw meat can take from dragging on a soil. (Inta cad la jiida camuud ka qaadana waa inuu canaanta ka qaada.)

Until the 1970s, Somali society was considered an oral society, with not written Somali language. Proverbs were therefore important as a medium of logic and understanding, and poetry was used as means of communication among different communities and.

Once selected, an elder is expected to represent the interest of his clan and to work with other clan elders for welfare of his community. Negotiation skills are an important attribute of an elder who must deal with any contentious issues among his community or with neighboring clans. Decisions are best reached through consensus and it is prohibited for an elder to go back on his word, even when he was wrong, because he would lose respect.

For most problems, there would a precedent that could be referred to in order to provide a solution. The council of elders (shir) are the custodians of precedence, and according to the Somali saying ‘Solutions are always found for cases that have precedents if addressed correctly.

While lacking formal political institutions, law and order was maintained traditionally through customary law. Within the culture, a breach of rules and regulations carried sanctions and punishments. For example, in times of war and there were rules about who could not be killed.

The killing of religious people, women, children, disabled, wise men and orators was prohibited; they were ‘spared from the spear’ (biri ma geydo) on pain of shame and divine retribution. Women and children were spared because, in theory, they were not involved in the conflict. Elders and religious leaders, were spared for more pragmatic reasons, as the saying suggests: ‘If you kill peacemakers then who do you come back to make peace with?’

The Impact of Colonial Government

According to Musa Ali Farruur, an expert on Somali Culture and literature before the arrival of British and Italian colonialists, there were only seven titled elders across the Somali-speaking territories.[2] The colonialists sought to administer the territory by incorporating the indigenous social system within a formal state system. They instituted a system of salaried ‘chiefs’ (aqil) and ‘chief aqil, who were incorporated into government as part of the system of ‘indirect rule’.

The wars waged by Sayid Mohamed Cabdulle Hassan[3] from 1902- 1922 against the foreign invaders and the destruction caused by war, eased the way for the colonial governments to impose their rule on the Somali people and disrupt the traditional systems to suite the purposes of the colonial administration, a pattern subsequently followed by national governments.

The elders became answerable to the state and governments have used them to organize communities, forge support for the government on issues of conflict and peacebuilding and assist the government to maintain law and order.

While the traditional system has remained vibrant and alive in society and was not entirely excluded from government, the traditional leadership lost their authority in certain socio-political and economic spheres.

This not only resulted in a government that was incoherent, corrupt and had little relationship with its citizens, but also had a different approach to conflict resolution and decision-making. This was neither inclusive nor based on consensus, but which was dictatorial and could deepen conflictual relationships rather than resolve them.[4]

Current Dynamics of Traditional Institutions The Relationship Between Elders and Government

Historically traditional institutions, like elders, would have been resourced by the community they represented and who, in turn, would look to benefit from their position of influence. In poor economic conditions, traditional leaders and elders depend more on business people or the government. In fact, people make use of both systems of government – the traditional and modern – ‘shopping’ for the best value.

As traditional institutions become dependent on the state, their relationships and their effectiveness within the community can become compromised. Some people argue that because aqils are salaried, there can be a conflict of interest between their loyalty towards the government and towards the clan that they represent. While they are not officially part of the government, they can have powerful affiliations and can make and break ministers and other officials.

In some cases, the title of elder is bestowed by the government. In other cases, the title can be adopted by individuals and their close relatives and approved by the Ministry of Interior without checking their legitimacy with the represented communities.

The proliferation of elders and of Sultan and Boqor, even in communities which had no history of them, has created dismay among some people and left people with little confidence in the system. Tracking the changes is difficult, but some obvious trends are:

  • Titled elders are multiplying without any checks and balances. It may be justified due to population increase, but no criteria are in place to screen the new leaders and ensure their accountability.
  • Titles are normally given for life.
  • Those traditional institutions remain the cornerstone of peace in many parts of Somaliland, where the government has little or no influence.

Due to the weak judicial systems in the country, traditional leaders have continued to play an important role in maintaining law and order and administering justice through informal mediation and dispute settlement, and the application of customary law.

Although not part of the formal judiciary, elders are often asked to intervene in disputes as community representatives. Courts accept their role as essential in solving problems much faster than the courts can and at less cost.

There was a consensus among our interviewees that at least 80% of the legal cases were settled by traditional leaders in close collaboration with the courts. However, their role is controversial and there are some areas, such as gender-based violence or rape that some people argue they fail to address.

As the population in Somaliland becomes more settled and urbanization increases, more traditional leaders are based in urban areas, where they become involved in government and respond to demands for mediation, lobbying, and security. This leads them to neglect their rural constituencies. In the process, the discourse between the interest of the rural population and the government diminishes.

The House of Elders

The Somaliland success story of peace-making was mainly achieved through the mediation and decision-making of the Somaliland Guurti, a body of elders that had its origins in the SNM, which sought to mobilize support for the struggle through clan elders. The Guurti was formally established as part of the system of government – as the Upper House of Elders of the legislature – in the 1993 Somaliland Transitional Charter. In the Charter, the Guurti’s role is to:

  • Protect customary law and Islamic faith.
  • Advise the Government on issues of security, defense, economic and social issues.
  • Convene a national, clan-based Somaliland elders’ conference in the event that the Somaliland Government departments, stipulated in the national charter, failed to carry out its duties and responsibilities.

It originally had a membership of 75, with provisions for former presidents and vice presidents to become honorary members. From then until the first elections in 2002, Somaliland practiced a hybrid system of governance that combined a Somali beel (clan-based) system of political representation with modern Western-style institutions of government.[5]

Before the adoption of the National Constitution in 2001, the Guurti was the highest institution of Government and one that provided, in theory, a link between the wider community and government structures. However, its role is ambiguous and is criticized by some.

The Guurti was incorporated again into government by the National Constitution (article 61), 1997, as part of the parliament. Its membership was increased to 82 with the following roles and responsibilities, to:

  • Initiate legislation relating to religion, culture, and security.
  • Review legislation (with the exception of financial legislation) to be approved by the House of Representatives.
  • Advise the administration and the House of Representatives on the shortcomings of the government.
  • Advise the government on issues of security, defense, economic and social issues.
  • Summon members of the government and put questions to them about the fulfillment of their duties.
  • Bring certain proposals for debate and resolution to the House of Representatives.

Constitutionally, the Guurti is part of the parliament and can legislate on matters of the state. It also has a distinct role in keeping the peace through mediation, whether among the political parties and the government or among communities. They utilize existing traditional structures like the Sultans and Aqils to do this.

In cases of impeachment or the death of the president, there are constitutional provisions for the Guurti to take over until elections can be organized and a legal government is installed. They can also extend the tenure of the president if necessary.

Public Perceptions of the Guurti

According to our interviews, the public have mixed feelings about the Guurti and its role in the government. Most respondents felt that the Guurti is important and, with a few modifications, can serve the country well.

From their point of view, the Guurti was wrong to extend the tenure of the government without good justifications or proper procedures. At the same time, they do maintain the peace and rightly mediate different complainants and bring them to the table for discussions and agreement.

Others are more critical. They think the elders are too old-fashioned to understand modern governance and that they side with different parties, and mainly with the government, without the necessary impartiality or acumen. They depend on the government for their limited resources, which undermines their impartiality and efficiency.

Many of them are old and sick beyond retirement age and might not have the energy to serve the nation properly. Some cannot hear properly in debates or are not literate enough to understand or pass legislation. They are criticized for being against social development programs especially those that assist women.

Despite these negative perceptions, both critics and supporters agree the Guurti is an important institution, but want the House to be reviewed and the capacity of its members upgraded to improve their ability to perform their jobs.

Another criticism is that members of the Guurti are unelected. Many of the respondents believe an elected house is not a good idea, because they will lose the impartiality that they need in order to serve the nation as required. From the perspective of traditional elders, the Guurti is considered different from the existing traditional institutions, who they will depend upon for their selection.

For example, the position of Aqil is not time bound, while the tenure of the Guurti is six years. When Guurti members were interviewed about their communication channels at the community level, the response was that they communicated through the Sultans rather than with Aqils. At the community level, however, it is more important to communicate with Aqils on most issues.

The Guurti are supposed to manage conflict and be peace-makers at times of high tension and step in to lead the nation when necessary. However, many blame them for not acting in a timely and serious manner to avert some of the political conflicts that have arisen in Somaliland. But, the power of the Guurti to respond to a problem is limited and they, therefore, need to work with the different political parties and the Electoral Commission in case of an electoral conflict.

In spite of the diverse opinions from the respondents, the Guurti does link traditional institutions, culture and faith to modern government, creating a much-needed balance in government. But for this institution to function properly, there is a need to include women and other segments of the public, and to be properly resourced and independent of the executive.


  • The Guurti is useful and links traditional institutions with modern governance
  • It should be a nominated body, with well-defined criteria for the nomination of its members
  • It should be assisted on social and developmental issues
  • It should be inclusive and include women and other social groups
  • It must have independent resources to act impartially
  • Its ability to make laws must be strengthened


The research in Somaliland was directed by Sadia M. Ahmed of PENHA with a team of local researchers and in collaboration with Prof. Kidane Mingisteab of Pennsylvania State University who visited Hargeisa, Somaliland in July 22nd – 1st of August 2009.

Kidane mengisteab, Reconciling Africa’s fragmented institutions of governance: a new approach to institution building Proposal by The Center for Land and Community Development Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, 213 Willard Hall, State College, PA 16802, in collaboration with The Democracy and Governance Research Program of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa

Reconciling Africa’s fragmented institutions of governance: a new approach to institution building, Report on the First Planning Workshop, Human Sciences Research Council and Pennsylvania State University, 17-20 February 2009, Willow Park Conference Centre, Kempton Park, Gauteng, South Africa

WSP international, Rebuilding Somaliland; issues and Possibilities, WSP Somali program, The Red Sea Press, Inc., 2005

Mark Bradbury, Becoming Somaliland (African Issues) Long House Publishing services, Cumbria, UK 2008


[1] The paper draws on interviews undertaken for a research project at Pennsylvania State University called: Reconciling Africa’s fragmented institutions of governance: a new approach to institution building, by The Center for Land and Community Development Studies, Pennsylvania State University. The research in Somaliland was directed by Sadia M. Ahmed of PENHA with a team of local researchers and in collaboration with Prof. Kidane Mingisteab of Pennsylvania State University, who visited Hargeysa, Somaliland in July 2009.

[2] Musa was interviewed In Hargeisa on 27 July 2009 by the research team

[3] Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan was a Somali nationalist who waged war against the British, Italians and Ethiopians who colonized the Somali territories.

[4] Kidane Mengisteab, Reconciling Africa’s fragmented institutions of governance: a new approach to institution building, Proposal by The Center for Land and Community Development Studies, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, Feb 2008,

[5] WSP international (2005) Rebuilding Somaliland: issues and possibilities, overcoming conflict and building lasting peace. Asmara: Red Sear press Inc.

About the author

Sadia Musse Ahmed, Country Representative of PENHA Somaliland/Somalia, with MSc in Social Anthropology and with extensive experience on environment, livelihoods and gender. Sadia is also involved for more than twenty years in civil society work in the Horn of Africa Region.

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