All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1998

A Peaceful Ferment in Somalia

Can a Stateless Society Thrive in the Modern World?

Spencer MacCallum is a social anthropologist living in Tonopah, Nevada, where he directs the Heather Foundation. He is the author of numerous articles on classical liberalism and of The Art of Community, published by the Institute for Humane Studies.

A social experiment with far-reaching implications for human freedom is shaping up in Somalia. I had known that something was afoot but learned the details only last summer on meeting a Somali tribeswoman traveling in the United States with her European husband. She was an elegant, educated lady who would have been at home in any of the great cities of the world. When her husband introduced me as an anthropologist with classical liberal leanings, conversation turned toward her tribe, an independent, nomadic people who control and move over a large area on both sides of the Somalo-Ethiopian border. Hers is one of a constellation of tribes sharing similar language, culture, and customary law that for countless centuries lived together in relative harmony in that easternmost jut of the continent known as the Horn of Africa. The Somali nation by tradition, she said, is a stateless society; they have never accepted the authority of any central government, their own or any other.

Then she asked a question that took me by surprise: “Do you think it possible that my people could come into full participation in the modern world—culturally, scientifically, economically—without becoming a part of any state?” I told her I’d thought about that possibility with respect to tribal peoples for many years, but had never expected that anyone would ask the question. I said I thought it was theoretically possible, but that it would take extraordinary patience, careful planning, great flexibility. The way was untraveled.

As we talked, she explained an approach that Somalis from several tribes had discussed. It involves capitalizing on their statelessness by opening areas within their tribal lands for development, inviting businessmen and professionals the world over to come to take advantage of the absence of a central government or other coercive authority. In this way Somalia’s statelessness might prove to be a uniquely valuable asset in the modern world.

Specifically, they were considering offering suitable tracts within their tribal lands on long-term lease for private development. Such development would take the pattern of large multiple-tenant income properties—“estates,” as the British would call them—where the land would be leased but the improvements would be privately owned. An attractive site under consideration by my friend’s tribe was a sparsely populated upland valley, which because of its elevation enjoyed a temperate climate yet also had access to the sea.

An industrious population, the tribespeople reasoned, attracted from all quarters of the globe by the promise of unprecedented personal and business freedom, could make such areas productive enterprise zones. Some of the more successful zones might eventually become bustling cities not unlike the free cities of medieval Europe that began the modern age. Such an arrangement would yield the tribes an income; their members would enjoy a dignified status as the ultimate landlords; and they would have available to them in their own backyard, as it were, an abundance and variety of educational, training, and work opportunities. It would be their steppingstone to full entry into the modern world. This was the dream that my friends shared with me on a summer afternoon.

The Chaos That Isn’t

Other Americans they had mentioned this to were horrified. All had a similar picture in mind. From media reports, they knew—or thought they knew—contemporary Somalia to be in unrelenting chaos, ravaged by warfare, starvation, and disease, the battleground of rival warlords such that people could neither put in their crops nor harvest them if they did. What else could one expect of a country that had been without a central government for seven years? But my friends said this picture is sadly exaggerated. While there is a modicum of fighting and disorder in some areas, most notably in the south, the overall picture is far different. Many Somalis, they said, are finding that the absence of a central government has its advantages.

Having been influenced by the same media, I was skeptical. But the possibility that my friends might be right was so intriguing that over the next few months I found myself looking for corroboration. It came from many places. First, a Los Angeles Times article, titled “A Somali Alternative to Chaos,” described the prosperity of the seaport of Bosaasso in northeastern Somalia. Its opening words were, “Near the tip of the Horn of Africa, a port city is booming, helped by a lack of clan warfare and the absence of a central government.”[1]

Next was a signed newspaper editorial in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, titled, “Does Somalia Really Need a Government?” There could be no doubt that the author, Mohamed Mohamed Sheikh, was a qualified observer. Born in Somalia, south of Bosaasso, he had worked in Mogadishu as a radio reporter, then in the information services of various ministries, and finally as a consultant with UNESCO. He wrote that “donor countries and international financial institutions . . . are uneasy with the Somali experience which they perceive as dangerously contagious. In fact, the Somali experience is rather confusing for the ordinary minds. Who could imagine that Somalia exports today five times more than in 1989, the last year of which official estimates are available.”

He went on to state that the economy of Somalia “functions as a perfect model of ‘laissez-faire’ as conceived by Adam Smith. Government spending is reduced to zero and inflation is very low. The Somali shilling is freely convertible in the market and exchange rates are more stable than in most African countries.” He also said that “telecommunications and air transport have made tremendous development during the last seven years. . . . Indeed, Somalia has no customs authorities and all goods are imported duty free. New schools and clinics are opening every day, offering their services to those who can afford to pay.”[2]

In the absence of statistics, I wondered how Mohamed Mohamed obtained his information that Somali exports had increased fivefold? In correspondence with me, he explained how he had carried out field research, what assumptions he had made, and how he defended his conclusion. The approximation sounded reasonable, however rough.

More evidence was a lengthy report in the APC-EC Courier, published by the Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.[3] The report notes that “The outside world’s picture of Somalia has been distorted by the natural tendency of the foreign media to focus on bad news.” It goes on to say that “In the absence of a central government, Somalia has fractured into dozens of different fiefdoms with all manner of competing and overlapping authorities.” Yet, states the report, “Peace reigns in most of the country. Regional and local governments have been able to resume working in many areas, albeit on a minimal basis.”

The report continues that the markets in towns and cities had a large variety of imports and that local entrepreneurs were furnishing consumer products and jobs. “They now provide many services normally associated with government,” it says. “The lack of state structures means no bureaucratic interference. Somalis seem particularly well adapted to operating in such an environment. . . . The clan tradition makes any form of central government difficult here. . . . Somalis consider themselves born free. To them, the State equals registration, regulation and restriction.”

All these reports, and more, lent credence to my friends’ statement that when the Somalis dismantled their state in 1991, tribal governments had quickly filled the vacuum. That had come as a surprise, they said, to those who remembered the determined efforts of the state to eliminate Somalia’s traditional judges and police from the political scene. But tribal government remained the government of choice for Somalis. According to my friends, this indigenous government, composed of part-time police and law courts, had been effective during the past seven years in keeping the peace in the rural areas. They said that many observers thoughtlessly describe this situation as anarchy whereas, in reality, it is government based on natural law.

Unraveling the Somali Political Equation

Before the colonial era, the homeland of the Somali nation was the whole of the Horn of Africa, bounded on the north and east by the Indian Ocean, on the south by the Tana River in what is now Kenya, and on the west by the Ethiopian and Galla highlands. It was fragmented into five parts by the colonial powers—France, England, Italy, and Ethiopia. In 1960, the British withdrew from the north and the Italians from the south, leaving in their place one government over the former two colonies. There resulted a v-shaped country, the Republic of Somalia—a 1,600-mile belt of coastline around both sides of the Horn with an average depth of some 200 miles.

The French subsequently withdrew from the extreme northwest coast, leaving the Republic of Djibouti. A fourth part of the original Somali nation is now controlled by Kenya. The fifth part lies inland, comprising the heartland of the Horn. It is wholly within Ethiopia and nominally independent—hence unrestricted movement is permitted between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Soon after the British and Italian withdrawal, the Somalis realized that independence had not made them free. The foreign oppressors had left, but their tool of oppression, the state, remained intact. Three decades later, therefore, with the intention of restoring the pre-colonial indigenous political tradition, the leading tribes within the republic joined forces and deliberately dismantled the central government. The United Nations attempted militarily to reinstate it but was defeated, and Somalis themselves made several splinter attempts at state formation, notably in Mogadishu and Hargeisa. Such attempts accounted for most of the turmoil in the years following the dissolution of the central government in 1991.

The basic problem confronting the Somalis is that voting democracy cannot work in a tribal or clan system, where any coercive political apparatus with power to tax and confer patronage is seen as a prize to be controlled for the benefit of one’s kindred. The presence or even the prospect, therefore, of a state apparatus keeps the country in continual agitation.

That explains the Somali “warlords.” These are warriors who gain their support within their tribes by holding out the promise that they will re-establish the state and control it in order to grant privileges to their kinsmen and prevent others from doing the same to them. In dismantling their state in 1991, the Somalis did not realize that the mere possibility of a future state would be enough, in the short term at least, to prevent peace from returning to their country. If the tribes could convincingly declare that their territory would remain forever stateless, no one would listen to these warriors and they would have no option but to place themselves again under the discipline of tribal customary law. The Somali nation would have neutralized its warlords.

Unfortunately, there has been no practical possibility of that happening. The mere likelihood of a central government has been like the golden apple of Eris, Greek goddess of discord. Eris rolled a golden apple into the hall on Mount Olympus where all the gods were partying without (for good reason) having invited her. Inscribed “For the fairest,” the golden apple quickly accomplished its intended purpose of setting the gods to fighting.

This was the Somalian stand-off for seven years, with the country gradually stabilizing as the prospect of a new Somali state receded. Were there such a category, Somalia would now qualify for the Guinness record for the country with the longest absence of government. Meanwhile, the world’s “family of nations” has become increasingly uncomfortable that any place on the globe should be outside the jurisdiction of a state, especially for a significant length of time and with indications that its inhabitants might not only survive, but prosper.

Could anything be more unsettling to those having a stake in perpetuating widespread belief in the necessity of the state? Moreover, the donor governments and international financial organizations mentioned by Mohamed Mohamed Sheikh cannot very well regulate a national economy in the absence of a central government into which to channel funds. Since the failure, therefore, of the first international attempt to restore the Somali state, pressure has been building for a second.

Plans took shape for a “Somali peace conference” in November 1997. Participating would be the United Nations, European Union, Arab League, Italy and Ethiopia, with U.S. funding. Their reported agenda: to bring an end to chaos and restore peace in Somalia by instituting a central government. The European Union engaged a London university professor to draft a constitution and, as incentive for the Somalis, promised a substantial financial aid package for the new government.

Twenty-six Somali political groups, most led by military figures, met in Cairo. The resulting “Cairo Accord” declared a provisional government in which one of Somalia’s larger tribes, the Hawiye, would assume the key executive positions and control more than 50 percent of the votes in the parliament. Despite its strong endorsement by the UN, the European Union, and the Arab League, the accord was soon forgotten. Significantly, almost none of the negotiations had dealt with the constitutional questions of what powers the new state should have or how they should be limited; the only issue was how control would be shared among the mostly military figures present.

The “American Text”

Then a small group of Somalis, including my friends, received from private sources in the United States a proposal for a Somali constitution drafted by anthropologist and businessman James C. Bennett of Baltimore. It was offered as an alternative to the constitution drafted in London, and the two were soon dubbed the “English text” and the “American text.” The latter provided for a government of such exceedingly limited functions that it could not become a bone of contention simply because it held out no prospect of power and patronage. It would provide the structure of a central government as required by the international community while scrupulously preserving the autonomy of the tribes. The basic principles of the American text include:[4]

Sovereignty. Sovereignty resides in individual Somali citizens, over whom the Somali Federation shall exert no powers. The Federation’s main purpose will be to conduct a foreign policy, to enable foreigners to deal with the Somali nation as a whole, and to make the Somalis credible in the eyes and minds of foreign governments and individuals. It shall not regulate relations between Somalis, between Somali communities, nor between Somali regions. The Xeer (customary law, pronounced “hair”) will govern that.

Customary Law. The Somali nation has always been based on the Xeer, even during the period of colonization (for disputes involving only Somalis and not colonials) and after independence. The unity and peace of the Somalis, as well as their mutual understanding, are based on the Xeer. The Xeer stands at the center of the Somali identity; without it there could not be a Somali nation.

Foreign Policy. The Somali Federation will appoint federal ambassadors abroad, but every tribe will be entitled to appoint its own consuls, who shall enjoy federal status. Debts to foreigners incurred by the Somali state prior to its collapse in January 1991 will be settled by a corporation to be established by the new Federation.

Peace and Development. To preserve the peace and facilitate the development of the nation, the Somali Federation shall have no police, no military, no taxation, no courts of law, and no majority rule.

If the American text should become the basis for a national organization of the Somalis, it would open the way for the tribes to develop enterprise zones or free cities as a bridge to full participation in the modern world. But success would depend on a stable social environment within Somalia that offered effective protection of private property and freedom of contract. In a situation of autonomous tribes and no strong central government, how would this be assured?


I began by saying that a social experiment with far-reaching implications is shaping up in Somalia. That experiment consists in the Somalis seeking an alternative to legislative law by looking to their existing customary tribal law, the Xeer, and its further development to serve all of the needs of an emerging urban society. The Xeer promises to become one of the great bodies of customary law, like Anglo-American common law or Jewish traditional law (Halacha). These legal codes are flexible, responsive, and can be maintained without a large central state or legislative apparatus.

A small amount of private funding has just been committed to begin codifying the Xeer. While the Xeerada (plural) appear to vary from tribe to tribe, it is only because each contains mythology particular to its tribe. In essence, the Xeerada are alike in protecting freedom of movement, free trade, and other individual freedoms, and forbidding the contrary—including taxation and legislation.

The Somali nation did not start with the tribes having a common language but by their common observance of the Xeer. Hence the law is called both father and child of the Somali nation.

A society organized strictly in accordance with the Xeer is technically a “kritarchy,” as opposed to a democracy, theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, or other form of political government. The term, a little-used nineteenth-century word compounded from the Greek, literally means “rule by judges.” Many stateless societies have been kritarchies, including the well-known example of the Old Testament Jews during the time of the Judges. The proposed free enclaves also would be kritarchies, since they would be founded solely on the principles of successful modern commerce and the traditional Xeer.

One principle of the Xeer, like that of the customary law of many kritarchies, is that the clan or other kinship group in effect insures its members, paying compensation in the event any of its members injures someone of another group. This is how the various Somali tribes in the absence of a central state managed to live for untold centuries in relative harmony. It is a principle ideally suited for adaptation to an urban society, where that function can be performed by commercial insurance. The only requirement, in fact, of visitors to Somalia under the proposed constitution would be that they have adequate insurance against any liability that might incur under the Xeer.

I wish my Somali friends well. Such a radical experiment to find better ways of protecting private property and freedom of exchange, the underpinnings of all other freedom, is long overdue in the world. It was in 1776 that the last great experiment of this kind was made. Whether or not it succeeds today as envisioned by my friends, this intellectual ferment in Somalia augurs a better future for us all.


  1. Ann M. Simmons, “A Somali Alternative to Chaos,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1997.
  2. Mohamed Mohamed Sheikh, “Does Somalia Really Need a Government?” Signed editorial in The Sun, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, August 28, 1997. It is not quite true that imports are duty free, as stated here, but they are virtually so, since port officials need only levy what little is required locally to operate the port.
  3. Simon Horner, “Somalia: A Country Report,” APC-EC Courier (Commission of the European Communities in Brussels) No. 162, pages 46–66.
  4. I have slightly edited and abbreviated these principles from a draft received December 22, 1997, from my Somali friends, to whom I am indebted as the chief source of information used in this article. Until such time as they no longer wish to remain anonymous, inquiries about these libertarian developments in Somalia can be directed to me at [email protected] or by regular mail at P.O. Box 180, Tonopah, NV 89049.