Somaliland: Africa’s Best Kept Secret

Written by By Michael Torome
Dec 12, 2007 at 12:12 PM

SomalilandWith almost daily reports of chaos and violence rocking Mogadishu, the capital city of the failed state of Somalia, the average Kenyan would be forgiven to believe that the whole of Somalia is on fire, to be visited only by those who have signed up with fate! But alas, wait a minute. There is a safe haven in north western Somalia, actually a republican state in every respect but for international recognition. Welcome to the peaceful and beautiful state of Somaliland, one of the states Simon Reeve, in his popular award winning five-part BBC Four series, refers to as Places that don’t exist.

I was in the city of Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, two weeks ago on an assignment. This trip was in many ways an eye opener to me. It drastically changed my perceptions about Somalia, and Somaliland in particular, perceptions largely informed (misinformed) by a transnational western press eternally unfavorable to Africa and especially Islamic Africa.

After my brief visit, I now fully appreciate the support Somaliland is receiving from her visitors including the admiration of acclaimed scholars such as Prof. Ali Mazrui, Prof. William Reno, Prof. George Eshiwani, Gerard Prunier, Bernard Helander, I.M. Lewis, and the courageous Prof. Iqbal Jhazbhay of South Africa to mention just a few.
The first thing that strikes a foreigner against his/her expectations is the peace, tranquility and order in the city. Unbelievably, one can walk or drive on the streets of Hargeisa by night without the slightest fear of muggings, carjacking and armed robberies, much unlike Nairobi and other major towns of Kenya where the government has nearly ceded control to organized crime. A robust and lively city, it is in many ways similar to the sprawling Eastleigh estate, in terms of aggressive commerce and social lifestyles.

However, the similarity ends there. Where eastleigh is crime prone, water and sanitation services stretched to the limit and burst sewers releasing raw human waste onto pot holed streets, Hargeisa is neat and with a working system of social services. The ordinary Kenyan accustomed to heavy police presence on our city streets, occasionally falling victim to their harassment, will not believe his luck to find unarmed and unobtrusive, though poorly dressed policemen, patrol the streets of Hargeisa. The popular thinking is that every Somalilander has an obligation to safeguard the freedom and territorial integrity which they valiantly fought for and reclaimed at great human sacrifice.

Somalilanders are united in their love for country irrespective of political affiliation.

This love for country immediately became evident to me upon landing at Egal airport. At the prompting of the Somalia embassy in Nairobi, my colleague and I hesitantly obtained visas even though we had already secured referred Somaliland visas to be issued on arrival in the country. The immigration officers were so enraged on seeing Somalia visas endorsed in our passports that they immediately refused us entry. We came to learn later that the head of a UN agency in the country and his entourage were furiously turned away on account of the same problem, two days ago. They considered Somalia’s alleged authority to issue visas for entry into Somaliland, an affront on their sense of nationhood as a separate and sovereign state. We were kept waiting at the airport for our return flight to Nairobi for three hours.
It took the intervention of a smooth talking driver to end our ordeal and secure our entry. Looking back on that incident, I salute the fierce display of patriotism by those seemingly poorly paid officers. I was left questioning the feeble sense of patriotism me and many of my compatriots, some with genuine continuing and historical grievances against the state we have for Kenya.

Somaliland has made huge strides in expanding social services to its people since reclaiming its independence on 18th May 1991, despite a limited revenue base. Without formal international recognition as a sovereign state and therefore ineligible for funding by international lending institutions, it has been handicapped in undertaking large scale reconstruction programs. With few revenue streams, the economy is heavily dependant on monthly remittances from the Diaspora and international NGOs whose involvement spreads across a range of social sectors such as health, education and skills development etc

In a span of 16 years, primary school enrolment has shot up from a dismal figure of 10,000 to 150,000 in 2007, while enrolment in secondary schools increased by 56 % over the same period. There is a renewed impetus for modernization within the universities of Hargeisa, Burao and Amoud, churning out freshly minted professionals in as diverse fields as medicine, engineering, sciences and education.

Reminder of the war
Photo by Charles Fred – Somali army MIG Fighter jet

Social services such as water, electricity and mobile telephony are partly privatized. Indigenous businessmen team up in partnerships and joint ventures to provide these services at profitable but affordable costs to their people. The leading mobile phone companies Telecom and Telesom charge a fraction of what Safaricom charge its customers in tariffs, thereby increasing connectivity to a large segment of the population.
Though the economy is heavily dependent on imports due to a non-existing manufacturing sector, often only shipping out livestock to the Middle East, prices of basic foodstuffs and other commodities are comparatively cheaper.

While it is a nightmare for the average middle class Kenyan to import a secondhand car owing to prohibitive custom duties, an average Somalilander can buy a well conditioned Toyota Mark II, the popular car of choice from anything between 1500 – 2000 dollars, with the more powerful 4-wheel drive Toyota Surf changing hands for anything between 3500 – 5000 dollars in the local used car bazaars. I’m already seeing images of the typically aggressive kikuyu car dealer sniffing a lucrative business opportunity, if only he can find ways of going round the tax man.

Somaliland has established a strong and robust multiparty democracy in which the opposition has a majority in the House of Representatives. With the support of the international community, the country held its first multiparty elections widely praised as credible, free and fair in 2003, following the death of the second caretaker president, Mr. Mohamed Egal. In order to tap into the positive values of a clan system which plays an important role in regulating intra and inter group relations in much of Somalia, and also the principal culprit behind the failed state in Central and Southern Somalia, Somaliland has an upper house called the ” Guurti.”All clans select their representatives to the exalted ‘house of lords’. A similar proposal in the initial CKRC draft was shot down in Bomas in our failed experiment at constitution making. The role of this house of elders is to moderate partisan acrimony in the legislative process, in a system of checks and balances aimed at promoting unity in diversity.

A robust and free media unafraid to criticize the establishment when necessary complete the picture.

There is in place a code of conduct, akin to our own IPPG deal of 1997, to which political parties subscribe in competition. Parties nominate representatives to the National Electoral Commission, are allotted equal airtime and space in the nation’s electronic and print media to sell their respective manifestos and programs during elections.

The fabric of the state is founded on the twin pillars of devotion to the cardinal Islamic principle of Taw heed (unity of Allah) and social justice. A very proud people by nature, the search to find the existence of a class society characteristic of a capitalist economy is tenuous and elusive. It would appear that the emergence of a conspicuous class system is suppressed by religious imperatives and the clan system which serves as a focal point of group insurance. It is not quite uncommon to find a commoner engaging and interacting with a cabinet minister on the streets. To my consternation, I found a senior government official later introduced to me as the Minister for Youth and Sports , in an animated after lunch conversation with a group of people in front of a hotel, something of a rarity in Kenya. I mean, how many times have you seen Dr. Mohamed Kuti, his Kenyan counterpart, mingle freely with the youth on the streets of Nairobi. The humility of the political class in Somaliland has convinced me that we create leaders with cult like tendencies and then cry foul when they ride roughshod over us.

As other Muslim countries in or neighboring the middle east experiencing unbearably hot temperatures, official working hours ran from 7.30 am to 1.00 pm with the remainder of the day mostly devoted to miraa/chat chewing. As is the case with many pastoralist communities, the Somalis are a socially egregious and oral people with a strongly developed tradition of social affiliation. The miraa/ chat chewing sessions provide an appropriate forum to discuss debate and even argue over common issues in their trademark loud and garrulous manner. Friday is the only designated prayer and rest day.

Practicing a moderate form of Islam, the Somalilanders are a liberal lot, with smoking a national pastime and an entrenched habit unlike in other African countries including Kenya, where the practice is frowned upon on account of its emerging health implications.

Money changers
Flickr photo by Guuleed

Hargeisa has a vibrant informal roadside business much like the hawkers paradise of Eastleigh’s Garissa lodge. The money changers stand out from the crowd. Countless moneychangers sitting behind meshed boxes containing wads of blue colored notes in denominations of 500 Somaliland shillings dot the streets. During prayer times, the note holding boxes are left unattended without the slightest fear of theft. In a country where the
Somaliland shillings and the US dollar are the currencies of choice, a stranger will be tempted to conclude that every resident of the city is a money changer, considering the bulky notes in everyone’s possession.

Trading at 6000 shillings to the dollar, one needs to carry a bagful of Somaliland notes to make routine purchases at the local supermarket.

But the most defining and instructive question remains, how have the people of Somaliland built such a stable democracy, society and institutions in a region that has not known peace in nearly two decades? In order to answer this puzzle, it is important to revisit the history of Somaliland.

Somaliland was a British Protectorate for nearly 80 years before attaining independence as the state of Somaliland on 26th June, 1960. The Southern part under Italian rule became independent five days later on 1st July, 1960. In pursuing a grand dream of greater Somalia which envisaged the re- unification of all territories occupied by the Somali’s, including Ethiopia’s Ogaden province and Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, the newly independent and sovereign state of Somaliland rushed headlong against the wise counsel of the first prime minister Mohamed Ibrahim Igal, into a union with the South. It was an experience they would live to regret.

The British press at the time described Somaliland as the colony that rejected its independence. When the late Siad Barre took power in a military coup; he embarked on an ambitious public works programme and an expansionist adventure to annex the Ogaden province from Ethiopia. The ramifications of the war soon spilled over to Kenya culminating in the infamous shifta wars of the late 1960′s and 1970′s in which ethnic Somali dissidents took up arms in a war of secession to unite the present day North Eastern Province with the Greater Somalia.

The effect of this war on ethnic Kenya Somalis is best captured by the infamous Wagalla massacre of 1980 in which the Kenyatta government cracking so hard on innocent citizens causing massive displacement, confiscation of livestock and indiscriminate killings as a way to suppress the emergency. Survivors and relatives of victims of that massacre are still crying out for justice.

Late dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre
Somalia’s late dictator
Mohamed Siad Barre

While the abrasive Barre initially appeared to have an upper hand in the territorial war with Ethiopia, capturing the strategic towns of JigJiga and Dirre Dawa, he was soon vanquished and humiliated by an Ethiopian onslaught reinforced by superior air power provided by Cuba and Russia.
Following this monumental disillusionment and a severely bruised ego, Barre soon became paranoid and captive to the wishes of his marehan clan, banning dissent to his rule. Barre’s growing politics of exclusion soon bred discontent among the population and particularly in Somaliland which felt that it had been dealt a back handed compliment for its voluntary decision to join the Union.

Somaliland bore the worst brunt of Barre’s military actions at muzzling dissent. In 1988, he ordered a series of air strikes against the city of Hargeisa from the nearby military air base, reducing the city to debris. A war memorial featuring the fighter plane used to flatten the city today stands out conspicuously in the freedom park in honor of the veterans and as a historic reminder to the present generation.

Unlike the Rwanda genocide very little is known about the ethnic cleansing of the tens of thousand Somaliladers between 1988 and 1991.

The Somaliland National Movement (SNM) together with other popular forces in the south, joined hands against Barre’s dictatorship leading to the fall of Mogadishu in 1991. While the warlords in Mogadishu soon turned against each other over control of power, the people of Somaliland quickly organized to bring stability to the entire territory falling within the borders of an independent pre-unification Somaliland.

It is argued that Somaliland successfully managed the transition because they fell back on their experience of administration and governance for which they had been adequately prepared by the British. On the other hand, it is the butt of local jokes that the Italians trained soldiers instead of administrators in the south, hence the continued infighting and violence among the warlords of Mogadishu whose several attempts at forming a central government have proved elusive.

Smarting from the bitter experiences of unification, the people of Somaliland quickly secured and reclaimed their pre-unification borders and installed a caretaker government. Somaliland held its first multiparty elections widely regarded as credible, free and fair in 2003. The three main parties UDUB, KULMIYE and UCID have seats in an opposition dominated parliament. Sixteen years on, they are yet to get formal recognition as a sovereign state despite enjoying uninterrupted stability since 18th May, 1991.

However, it has established agreements and co-operation with several African countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda and even Kenya. In Europe, it has either established co-operation agreements or contacts with Belgium, U.K., Sweden, Ireland, the European Union and lately Norway, which the president, Dahir Rayale Kahin recently toured on an official visit.

The Arab states, led by Egypt and Sudan, have not been forthcoming in supporting Somaliland’s statehood endeavor. Probably this has to do with the Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. A strong united Somalia – and a member of the Arab League – is obviously an excellent proxy in the war for the Blue Nile.

It is not clear, though, why the rest of the international community is not forth coming in recognizing Somaliland as a sovereign state and fail to recognize the inviolable right of the Somalilanders to revert to their original pre-unification status. We have seen the international community especially Western Europe, offer support to liberation fronts such as SPLA/M in Southern Sudan resulting in autonomy and self rule. It has further supported the separation of previously single countries such as Senegal and Mali, Egypt, Sudan and Syria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore and the disintegration of the former USSR into several distinct nation states.

As you read this the US and most other members of the UN Security Council are pushing for “supervised independence” of the province of Kosovo.
It would appear that the major powers in global politics especially the veto wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, have failed to read the strategic benefits of recognizing the republic of Somaliland, as a way of bringing peace to the troubled horn.

With repeated US claims of the existence of Al Qaeda cells in Mogadishu, the international community should move fast and confer recognition on Somaliland and seal it off from possible terrorist infiltration. Terrorist elements can easily infiltrate and recruit membership in Somaliland by whipping up popular anti-American sentiments and tapping into the frustrations of an unfulfilled dream of recognition. Such recognition will also be in the best strategic and security interests of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

In my view, the way to go will be to divide Somalia into original two separate states to bring any semblance of order and stability. At least for Somaliland, this is the way to go. In any case, I don’t see why Somaliland should be forced to remain part of Somalia against the popular wish of its people. The people of Somaliland will definitely stand to lose a lot if forced to remain part of Somalia, after painstakingly having rebuilt their war shattered economy, democratic institutions and cities.

I think the starting point in Somaliland’s audacious and treacherous journey in securing international recognition would be for brave individual states to come forward and affirm its right to self determination to reclaim its sovereign past. This way, international opinion would progressively change to favour its position. For historical reasons, the United Kingdom should take the lead in the effort to help restore Somaliland’s sovereign past after the ill fated attempts at unification.

Despite differences in policy, the government and the opposition in Somaliland are singularly united in their resolve to become a sovereign state separate from Somalia. This presents them with a unique challenge to bridge the gap that divides them and instead harness their collective energies to rally the international community around their nationalistic cause.

This would entail the formation of a bipartisan network of think tanks and informed lobbies in Somaliland and the Diaspora to champion the cause of statehood at regional, continental and international levels.

Kenyan Somalilanders have an equally moral duty to support the cause of their kith and kin. The upcoming general election presents them with a rare opportunity to petition and influence policies of mainstream Kenyan political parties with regard to the thorny issue of Somaliland’s recognition. As a focused interest group, they can throw their combined support behind one of the leading parties in return for the recognition of Somaliland.

An entry point would be to petition the Paul Muite led parliamentary committee on the administration of justice to push a motion in parliament calling on the Kenya government to recognize Somaliland as an independent and sovereign state. Hon. Muite led a parliamentary delegation to Somaliland in December 2006 which found and reported overwhelming evidence of a functioning democracy.

Do you know that Raila Odinga, once addressed a mammoth rally at the freedom park in the middle of the city of Hargeisa? Perhaps the ever courageous Agwambo, and fourth president of Kenya, can be approached for support. Are you listening Somalilanders?

If Somaliland has satisfactorily fulfilled the basic duty of any republican state, which is to protect the lives and property of those living within its borders, what else does the international community require of it? If the streets of Hargeisa are absolutely safer than any you can find in other African capitals, what justification does the African Union have in its dithering about recognizing Somaliland?

In spite of the formidable odds stacked against it, I have a feeling that Somaliland will finally reclaim its rightful place among the family of nations – (my prediction is this will happen around its 2010 – Somaliland’s 50th anniversary of independence from the British rule) It would appear that Somaliland has failed to attract international attention for all the right reasons while the international community has failed to recognize Somaliland for all the wrong reasons.

The challenge for Somaliland is to keep stoking the fire of nationalism burning while maintaining peace and stability within its borders. This will prick the unfeeling conscience of the international community to act faster than it should. And finally, the hypocrisy of the southerners who pretend to favor a united Somalia should be exposed and dismissed for what it is. If they cannot keep peace within their own backyard, why else would they want to drag Somaliland into their never ending cycle of nepotism, violence and lawlessness, other than envy?

By Michael Torome
toromemichael (at) gmail (dot) com


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