Yirga Abebe is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of AddisAbaba University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Dire Dawa University in 2010 G.C and Master of Arts Degree in Peace andSecurity Studies from Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University in 2014 G.C. Yirga has more than 10 years of professional experience in education and research at universities in Ethiopia. He was a Lecturer at Wollo University, Department of Peace and Development Studies, from September 2018-January 2021 and Jigjiga University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, from September 2010-August 2018. In addition to teaching, Yirga has been engaged in conducting research on various themes at local, national and regional levels. These themes conflict management, conflict-induced displacement, women & election, parliament and conflict management, peacebuilding, conflict trends, and geopolitical dynamics. Besides, Yirga has presented his research works in various national conferences in Ethiopia and also deliver trainings in his professional domain.


Conflict is an inherent nature to man, despite common misconceptions- not all conflicts are destructive and violent, but a reality of all human societies. Conflict is a process that is characterized by “stages of initiation, escalation, controlled maintenance, de-escalation and some kind of termination including settlement and resolution” (Sandole, 2008:42-43). Accordingly, as Peter Wallensteen (2002:13) argued, conflicts are solvable and there are many and varied experiences of such solutions.

Conflict resolution has been the day-to-day practice throughout the history of society although its inclusion into academic discipline is a 20th-century phenomenon. Societies have established different conflict resolution mechanisms to “address the causes of conflict and to build new and lasting relationships between hostile parties; moves conflicting parties from the destructive patterns of zero-sum conflict to positive-sum constructive outcomes” (Cited in Omeje, 2008:70).

Every society has its own customary conflict resolution mechanisms which are practiced for centuries and are deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the society. These mechanisms are “time tested and effective to handle conflicts, less complex, save time, and give a chance to parties in conflict to actively participate in solving their problems and in handling their affairs in a relatively more acceptable way to them” (Assefa, 2001:27). Unlike the modern mechanisms through court systems, the customary conflict resolution mechanism focuses on reconciling feuding parties rather than punishments.

The literature and research in conflict resolution and peacebuilding were dominated by liberal paradigms since the 1990s. However, it is now in a profound crisis. As a result, an alternative approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding that pays attention to local context and dimensions of peace, so called the ‘local turn’, emerged in the last decade. It is argued that the local-turn approach focuses on “the agency of local actors, the dynamics of every day in conflict-affected contexts, and the durability of domestic social and cultural traditions for peacebuilding, thereby it sought to temper top-down, externally driven international peacebuilding narratives and practices” (McCandless and Donais, 2020:133).

The contemporary conflict resolution practices in Africa have been done in two forms: through the modern (state) system and traditional (customary) manner. Omeje (2008:88) argued that “various African societies have had their own traditional and customary approaches and methods of conflict resolution” which are practiced frequently and even after passing through the procedures and penalties in the formal criminal court.

In Ethiopia, with the existence of more than 80 ethnic groups with various cultures, histories, languages, and other identity markers, there are different customary conflict resolution mechanisms inherent to each ethnic group. Especially in the remote and peripheral areas, these customary dispute-resolution mechanisms are more influential and applicable than the formal criminal justice system, which is considered alien to traditional societies (Cited in Endalew, 2014:126). In this regard, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution recognized, under article 34 (5), customary laws and practices as they are allowed to prevail over personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties (FDRE, 1995:18).

The Somali society has established and practiced customary conflict resolution systems for long periods, evidenced by various examples in the local contexts. The system includes a wide range of actors with different roles and it has its general processes, approaches, and decisions. The Somali Regional State constitution, under Article 34(5), authorizes the customary laws and practices to judge personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties, whereas, article 66(1) of the constitution called for the establishment as well as recognition of religious and customary courts/councils (Ethiopian Somali Regional State, 1994:27).

In general, while there has been abundant literature and research in the field about conflict resolution, there is limited research about the role of customary mechanisms in resolving conflicts at the local level. This, and the next, edition of Horn Review attempts to examine the state of customary conflict resolutions in the Somali region of Ethiopia including its type, actor, the nature of conflicts it governed, its fundamental principles and decisions as well as its challenges. To do so, the study is conducted through qualitative approaches by using an exploratory research design and case study method. Relevant data has been collected from primary and secondary sources through interviews, focus group discussions, and document analysis techniques. This edition of the Horn review is organised into five sub-sections. The first part provides a general background about customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The second part presents the nature of customary conflict resolutions in the study area. The third part is about the actors involved in customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The fourth part discusses the types and general laws of the customary conflict resolution process in the Somali region whereas the fifth part identifies the type of conflicts that are governed by the customary mechanisms. Finally, the paper presents a concluding remark on the issue.

Customary Conflict Resolution Ethiopia’s Somali Region

The Somali Regional State is one of the regional states of Ethiopia located in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country. The region is bordered by Kenya in the south, Somalia in the south and southeast, Djibouti in the north, the Afar region in the northwest, and the Oromia region in the west. The region is the second-largest regional state covering a total geographic area of 350,000 km2. The Somali Region has both arid and semi-arid agroecological climatic zones. The predominant population of the region is ethnically Somali.

The Somali society is structured based on a clan system. The clan system forms the basis for most of the core social institutions and norms of traditional Somali society, including personal identity, rights of access to local resources, customary law (xeer), blood payment groups (diya), and support systems (Cited in CHF International, 2006:12). There are different clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans in the region which determines the political, socio-cultural, economic and legal affairs of the Somali population.

The Somali society has established and used customary conflict resolution mechanisms for centuries to address different conflicts within the society in line with the traditions of the society and is being transferred from generation to generation. It has been stated that “the Somali communities had structures for conflict resolution through councils of elders, traditional courts and peer or age-group supervision, where each individual or group had to meet certain social expectations……. in accordance with Somali custom, elders are the key actors in ending hostilities and negotiating agreements between disputing parties” (Cited in Seid, 2013:152).

Actors in Customary Conflict Resolution

In due course of resolving conflicts through customary methods, different actors undertake various roles and contribute to achieving the ultimate goal of the resolution process. These actors are community elders (oddey belat), religious leaders, clan leaders (sultan/ugas), sub-clan leaders (aqil) as well as those who are knowledgeable and experienced. Moreover, there are institutions that are involved directly or indirectly in customary methods of conflict resolution. These are Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, social courts, and shari’a courts.

The above-mentioned institutional and personal actors have different roles in the resolution of conflicts by the customary method. The clan leaders, being the most powerful person in Somali society, undertake a meeting with clan members and community elders to discuss the conflict, represents the interests of the clan member in negotiation with other clans, and implements the decisions of elders or other neutral persons on the conflict issue. In addition, the clan leaders collect compensation from the members of the clan except for women and unmarried persons. The religious leaders (Sheikhs) provide religious education to the community and engage in the implementation of shari’a laws on conflicting issues. Particularly, when two persons are conflicting and one of them suffers physical injury, then the sheiks will decide on the issue by referring to religious books (kitab). The community elders, who are mostly neutral to the conflicting parties, directly participate in the customary processes of resolving conflict. They are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the customs and the Xeer system of Somali society. They look at the cases in detail and brought a decision on the conflicting issue and its compensation based upon the Xeer system. The role of government institutions especially the court and police officers is limited to only facilitating the resolution processes by clan leaders, community elders, and religious leaders. However, unlike the government institutions, the social and shari’a court, which includes selected community elders and religious leaders, provides their judgment on the conflicting issue, and its compensation, of the Somali people.

4. Types and Laws of Customary Conflict Resolution

Depending on the type and extent of the conflicts, there are different forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms in Somali society. According to a respondent, there are three main forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms practiced by Somali society. These are:

  1. Conflict resolution by shari’a/Islamic courts as the Somali society are Muslims
  2. Conflict resolution by social courts where elders play a predominant role
  3. Conflict resolution mechanism by reconciliation process among conflicting parties which are guided either by persons that are neutral to the conflict or individuals selected equally from both conflicting parties.

On the other hand, according to one of the key informants, there are three types of customary methods for the resolution of conflicts which can easily be identified mainly through the participants in the resolution process. They are:

    • Those in which religious leaders and elites are active participants in the resolution of conflict (ergo)
    • Those mechanisms that are undertaken through a council of elders that are selected from neutral groups depending on the nature of the conflict (Guurti)
    • Those mechanisms in which certain committees from the conflicting parties handle the overall process of resolution (Gurso).

The customary methods that are applied in resolving conflicts are governed by customary laws of the Somali people called Xeer. It is an elaborate and meticulous provision and provides guidelines for the amount of compensation or fine to be paid in conflict (Seid, 2013:154). According to my respondent, the Xeer is a customary law that is based on the traditions of the society and previous decisions of the elders or clan leaders. Although it varies from clan to clan, the Xeer system calls for continuity of decisions irrespective of the change in time. The decision about a specific issue that was made 50 years ago is similar to decisions for similar cases right now. The Xeer system that is applied in the customary conflict resolution process is led by community elders who are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the local customs and decisions of similar cases that happened previously. The following excerpt explains the different aspects of Xeer which are applied in customary conflict resolution mechanisms in the Somali society;

“The elaborate customary law of the Somalis, known as xeer, is categorized as Xeer Donimo and Xeer Dulnimo. Xeer Donimo regulates the rights and responsibilities of particularized subsets, such as clans of the Somali people, governs relationships within the clan, and regulates quasi-contractual relationships between neighboring clans on such matters as allocation of shared natural resources. ……. Xeer Dulnimo, on the other hand, consists of the rules that apply to the whole Somali people. Thus, the rules applicable to homicide (dil), moral injury (dalliil) and bodily injury (qoon) are to be found in Xeer Dulnimo. And the corresponding compensations or blood money payments, respectively, are mag (or the Arabic loan word “diya”), qoomaal and haal. The compensation scheme, which is the sentencing for the crime, is not compensation paid to the victim per se but to the whole of the group on the side of the victim, which includes a kinship network far greater than the nuclear family”. (Murado & Gebreyesus, 2009:153)

In general, Somali society has an age-old tradition of practicing customary methods for the resolution of conflicts. Even with the expansion of modern court systems for the administration of justice and addressing conflicts through the establishment of social courts in different woredas of the region, especially after 2004 E.C, the customary methods have a pivotal role to resolve conflicts in Somali society. The social courts are mainly based on the traditions of the society, and it integrates both customary practices and shari’a laws with statutory laws. The social courts are not similar to the formal court systems and it includes community elders and religious leaders who play a prominent role in the customary resolution of conflicts in Somali society.

Types of Conflicts Governed by Customary Mechanisms

There are various forms of conflict in every society. Depending on its nature, while some of these conflicts are resolved through modern court systems, others are under the mandates of customary methods of society. With regard to the types of conflicts under the rules of customary methods of resolution, Article 34 (5) of the 1995 FDRE constitution identified personal and family conflicts to be governed by customary methods as understood from the following excerpt;

“The constitution shall not preclude the adjudication of disputes relating to personal and family laws in accordance with religious or customary laws, with the consent of the parties to the dispute”.

The practice in the Somali region reveals that different forms of conflicts, which are even beyond personal and family issues, are resolved through customary methods. For example, in Kebribeyah woreda, the conflicts that are addressed through customary include clan-based conflicts, killings, resource-based conflicts between pastoralists and agro-pastoralists (such as conflicts over water, grazing land, farming land), theft (mostly cattle riding), and interpersonal conflicts. Moreover, customary methods are undertaken to resolve family conflicts such as marriage disputes, inheritance/succession, and those conflicts with a minor injury.

The customary methods are also applied to marriage-related conflicts especially when the husband dies and after that the wife is married to a person who is outside of the family/clan of the late husband. This circumstance is the cause for inter-clan conflicts and, based on the Xeer system, these conflicts are resolved which includes compensation of 15-30 camels for the dead husband clans.

In Harshin woreda, the types of conflicts that are resolved through customary methods are conflicts over land, rape, marriage with women who already are married and escaping to another place, killings, livestock riding especially camel, personal conflicts, and clan conflicts. The customary methods are also applied in order to resolve conflicts that arise because of insulting and disagreement between husband and wife.

Correspondingly, the customary methods are practiced in Awbarre woredas of the Fafan zone for addressing conflicts such as group-based conflicts among teenagers, land-based conflicts (conflicts over farming land, grazing land, and residential area), water, and killings. The customary methods are also used to address conflicts related to family and succession. According to the respondent, the customary methods especially the shari’a system are applied to conflicts that emerge out of the dispute between husband and wife over household expenses, succession, divorce, family disputes, property ownership, and distribution.

The above three cases indicate that the trend of using customary methods for resolving conflicts is quite common across the Somali region. In general, the customary method resolves various forms of conflicts within Somali society including;

  • Killing
  • Resource-based conflicts (such as conflicts over land, and water)
  • Intra-and inter-clan conflicts
  • Livestock riding, especially camels
  • Raping of women
  • Inter-personal conflicts including conflicts among teenagers and families
  • Insulting
  • Marriage disputes
  • Conflicts related to succession, property distribution

In conclusion…

Customary conflict resolution mechanisms have been practiced by Somali society for a long period. Unlike modern court systems, these methods are easily accessible, effective, time-saving, and inexpensive. The customary methods of resolution processes are undertaken in various forms. Depending on the type of conflict, customary mechanisms are carried out through community elders, religious leaders, social courts, shari’a courts, and clan leaders. The customary methods of conflict resolution in Somali society are governed by Xeer. Although the federal and regional constitution limits its scope for personal and family disputes, the customary mechanism of conflict resolution is applied in conflicts beyond these limits. It is even used to resolve criminal matters within society. It has been utilised to address issues related to killings, resource-based conflicts, intra-and inter-clan conflicts, livestock riding, raping of women, interpersonal conflicts, insulting, marriage disputes, and conflicts related to succession and property distribution. Therefore, it can be concluded that the customary methods are applicable to resolve every type of conflict in Somali society. With regard to the actors, there are both individual and institutional actors that are involved in customary methods of conflict resolution. The community elders, clan leaders, religious leaders (Sheikh’s), and those who are experienced and knowledgeable of the traditions are the primary actors in the customary resolution process. Beyond these, different institutions including the Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, and social courts have their supportive role in customary methods of conflict resolution in the study area. However, the practice of customary conflict resolution is not without principles and challenges. Accordingly, the next edition of Horn Review will present the fundamental principles and decisions of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region, the challenges they face, and possible recommendations to address these challenges of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region and Ethiopia at large.


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