catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The evolution of Somali anarcho-libertarianism

with 4 comments

In the latest issue of Policy, Wolfgang Kasper has a review of an intriguing book called The law of the Somalis by Michael van Notten. Unfortunately it hasn’t been reproduced on the Policy website but I will reproduce some fascinating extracts here.

It is worth noting as a disclaimer that this work is not uncritical of the Somali system but is a warts and all exploration. This will be very clear from the extracts below.The author is optimistic for the prospects of the Somali tribal system to eventually evolve towards a better system if left alone and allowed to continue its ‘experiments in living’. He argues that this is preferable to current developments which might see Koranic law imposed in Somalia. But the tribal system is certainly not depicted as a utopian one without need for further improvement. So it doesn’t paint the full rosy picture that some anarcho-libertarian boosters of the Somali system would like.

It is also worth noting that Van Notten, the author, isn’t just an armchair academic but married into a Somali tribe and spent the last dozen years of his life promoting various enterprises in Somalia (the book was publshed posthumously).

On the Somali clan justice system:

    Somali law emphasises compensation for damages. Even crimes like murder and rape demand material compensation (transfer of property rights) and not revenge or retribution, which, according to van Notten, is a central feature of ‘government monopoly law’ … In Somali society, everyone belongs to a clan, which ensures that the liabilities of malfeasants are paid: victims are compensated by the clan of the guilty party, even if the perpetrator is impecunious, mentally deranged or abroad. Relatives thefore have a material interest in controlling wayward kinsmen. Van Notten argues that, as a consequence, Somali crime rates are much lower than in ‘politically distorted legal systems’.

On the costs and benefits of Somali clan economics:

The Somali tribal economy is based on free contracts between autonomous extended families(clans), and not on agreements between individuals. Like in many parts of Africa … exclusive property rights reside in the family. Land cannot be sold to non-clan members. Individuals have rights to obtain safety-net support and venture capital, but also bear onerous obligations to the clan. The culture favours competition and trade. This explains, for example, why the country has excellent and cheap phones, with Mogadishu enjoying the lowest long distance call rates in Africa. Although Somalis have a ‘holy respect for private property’, their system now inhibits enterprise and economic growth. The book therefore points to the need for further evolutionary change …

On Somalis’ treatment of outside intervention:

Van Notten describes an elaborate and plausible system of rules, which the people understand and which has protected their lives, liberty and property for centures. He also shows how various alien legal and governance systems were imposed on Somalis, first Koranic law, then colonial Italian, French, British, Ethiopian and UN systems, followed by the attempt to construct the (Marxist) Somali Democratic Republic (1960-1991) … Even the policemen of the Republic were treated with contempt, and individual Western-style prosecutions were ignored because Somalis were used to being judged by their own elders in consultation with the elders of other clans … As Somalis have a deeply ingrained belief in free trade, soldiers and police who tried to impose border controls on travellers and trade were considered outlaws by the population and were often killed with impunity.

On prospects for improvement:

When van Notten discussed the shortcomings of Somali law in coping with modernity with tribal elders, one of them came up with the proposal that foreigners might want to set up an example by establishing their own clan with better institutions and placing it under the protection of a traditional Somali one. This inspired him to initiate a ‘Free Port Clan’, committed to the rule of appropriate internal institutions and free trade and given to Somali-style forms of voluntary arbitration.

Written by Admin

November 3, 2006 at 10:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. I worked with a Somaliland Somali for a year in the UK in 1999, and was impressed by what he told me of their system. Although a Muslim, the prospect of sharia law frightened him, and many of the refugees in Britain came from the ‘non-Somaliland’ part of the country.

    That said, I’d be interested in the status of women in this system, and whether it’s moving upwards. The Somali girls I saw had clearly experienced a dreadful system, where – among other things – FGM was widely practised.


    November 3, 2006 at 12:31 pm

  2. yeah attitudes to women definitely need improving too. This is one of the areas for improvement noted in the book, according to the review though it doesn’t say much more than that since the review is focused on what the book has to say about the viability of a legal system absent centralised authority rather than the specifics of any particular body of law.

    Jason Soon

    November 3, 2006 at 1:17 pm

  3. Surely the main problem with their “anarcho-libertarianism”, or perhaps merely just anarchy is the problem common to anarchistic systems in that they are extremely vunerable to take over by those prepared to use force.

    Which would seem to be the case in Somalia.

    Steve Edney

    November 3, 2006 at 2:02 pm

  4. Of interest is the fact that the Supreme Islamic Courts Council started by being funded by Somali businesses. An example of how once there is no political power, those with money for guns have the power. This is why anarchy sucks.


    November 3, 2006 at 2:52 pm

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