Africa’s isolated state

Somaliland hopes its “democracy” will charm neighbours and win political recognition.

Marketplace Hargeisa
A rooftop view of Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, which is home to half a million people

Abdilahi Omar sips on a glass of sweet milky tea as traffic in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, increases ahead of the morning rush.

In front of him young boys ride their donkey carts to the river to collect water while ice-cream trucks serving soft-scoop start their rounds.

“So you can see, Hargeisa is calm,” says the newspaper editor gesturing to the traffic police armed not with automatic rifles but with fluorescent batons and whistles.

“People are going to work peacefully, you can walk freely. There are no guns on the streets here.”

This is not Somalia as the outside world knows it. But then, Somalilanders will tell you this is not Somalia. Period.

Somaliland, which is 137,600 square kilometres in size (comparable to England and Wales) and lies to the north of Mogadishu, is also a territory in limbo: it prints its own currency, flies its own flag and even issues its own passports.

But it is a state no other country will recognise.

Turbulent history

Somaliland won its independence from Britain in June 1960, a few days before Italy relinquished colonial control of neighbouring Somalia.

An emotional union ensued, creating a Somali Republic with its capital located in Mogadishu. But it soon proved to be an unhappy marriage.

“Somaliland became the poor relative, the isolated, forgotten corner of the Union,” Edna Adan, a retired senior UN official and former wife of Somalia’s first Prime Minister, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, told Al Jazeera.

Issues over adequate political representation for Somaliland in the national parliament and government fuelled resentment and distrust and led to the creation of a rebel group opposed to Mogadishu’s control.

By the time the war ended in 1991 Somali bombers had razed Hargeisa to the ground but the Republic had crumbled leaving Mogadishu in the hands of warring tribes.

Somaliland’s own clan-based society emerged from three decades of turmoil and the conflict with Mogadishu deeply divided.

But on May 18, 1991, tribal elders held negotiations in the shade of Acacia trees and in the ruins of schools before unilaterally declaring Somaliland independent.

Today, in downtown Hargeisa a Soviet-era MiG fighter jet sits mounted on a plinth to remind people of the civil war Somaliland rebels fought against Siad Barre, who ruled Somalia from 1969 to 1991.

International obscurity

A Soviet-era MiG fighter in downtown Hargeisa reminds people of the civil war

But despite a degree of stability compared to many corners of the continent, not least the perennial chaos in Somalia, Somaliland leaders say the outside world has turned its back on them.

The government of Somalia does not recognise Somaliland’s independence.

Mohammed Osman Aden, the first consul at the Somali Republic embassy in Nairobi, told Al Jazeera there has been no country-wide referendum which allows for Somaliland’s secession.

“Somaliland is categorically a part of Somalia. It is one of the regions where we have good stability. No matter what they are part of Somalia,” he said.

However, he does not believe conflict will be renewed.

“We are not applying any pressure right now because we have other priorities in southern Somalia. When southern Somalia is viable we will talk with Somaliland. There will be no problem, we will talk easily,” Aden added. 

But with no international support for Somaliland’s independence, Hargeisa may have little negotiating room.

African neighbours have refused to allow the Horn of Africa to be partitioned and the UN and other international countries have refused to recognise Somaliland’s secession.

“The international community has taken the wrong decision, ignoring Somaliland while it waits for Somalia to wake from its coma,” said Dahir Riyale Kahin, Somaliland’s President.


Money vendors in Hargesia have substituted bank transfers

The lack of political recognition has also meant that it is impossible for Hargesia to negotiate loans and assistance from international donors. It is not party to the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

“We are a democratically functioning state … but the international community is hindering our success,” Kahin told Al Jazeera.     

With lack of international donor assistance, Somaliland’s infrastructure is slowly being crippled. There is no international postal service here and no banking system recognised by financial institution abroad.

Exchange companies and money vendors provide an alternative for funds coming in and out of Somaliland.

The paediatric ward at the Hargeisa General Hospital – the country’s only referral hospital – swarms with flies.

The plaster-board ceiling is caving in. The ward’s only oxygen cylinder lies discarded in a corner, covered in dust.

“The facilities here are very limited,” said Dr Farhan Omar, one of 16 junior doctors who qualified last year, the first to train locally for years.

“We have three severely malnourished young children and we don’t even have the high-energy milk they require.”

The lack of doctors, drugs and equipment is woeful, but not a surprise. The government’s total budget this year is a modest $50 million  – Britain spends that on health alone every four hours.

Somaliland’s health, education, and infrastructure sectors require massive inflows of cash.

But for as long as Somaliland’s international status remains disputed, financial assistance will remain out of reach. So, too, will bilateral agreements with foreign governments.

Diaspora Money

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It is money from the Diaspora that is behind Hargeisa’s transformation from concrete-ruin to bustling-city.

Glass-fronted multi-storey buildings now dot the skyline while numerous telecommunications companies vie for a slice of the lucrative Internet market.

“I came here first and foremost for the money. It is your money and business is business,” said Abdul Abdirihaman Wabere, a Somaliland entrepreneur.

Wabere fled to North America at the outset of war in the 1980s. Now he divides his time between the US and Hargeisa where he runs a successful IT firm.

“There was nostalgia too. This is my country and we have brought a technology that was not here before and that itself is a leap-frog,” he added.
Many families still depend on remittances from relatives living abroad. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) believes the Diaspora sends home more than $500 million to Somaliland every year.

Wabere fears this gives Somalilanders a false sense of financial security when ultimately their economy remains fragile.

Charm Offensive

Hargesia says neighbouring Somalia is still unstable due to continued armed conflict [EPA]

The Somaliland government is trying to charm its way to global recognition.

Kahin recently offered Somaliland’s natural deep-water harbour at Berbera as a home for America’s AFRICOM headquarters.

“Our only hope is the US which says it promotes democracy and has spent a lot of money in the Middle East,” says Faizal Warabe, Chairman of Somaliland’s opposition Justice and Welfare Party and a candidate in next year’s presidential elections.

The government is quick to highlight its democratic credentials in comparison to the lawlessness of its southern neighbour.

However, there are shortcomings. Critics claim the government is repressive, exerting excessive control over political opponents and the media.

Allegations of corruption tarnish the government’s record.
“There is a lot of internal mismanagement of finances. Even within the Ministry of Finance there are no systems of accountability,” confirmed one UN official on condition of anonymity.

Nevertheless, Somalilanders feel they should be allowed to reap the peace dividend. That should start with formal recognition, argues Edna Adan. Anything else is a slap in the face to a country pushing for peace and stability.

“Failure to recognise Somaliland is a failure to recognise democracy itself. The achievements of Somaliland could have been a good example for other African countries,” she said. 

Source: Al Jazeera