Hargeisa, SOMALIA // Abdinasir Mohamed Omar, 21, moved here from Mogadishu to study engineering without fear of getting killed.
But he does not plan to stay long in this dusty, shack-strewn town, which serves as the capital of Somaliland, a relatively safe autonomous region in northern Somalia. He hopes to finish the three-year programme in half that time, then move to Malaysia, Turkey, the UAE or Europe.
Somaliland, since breaking away from the rest of the country after the 1991 fall of the central government unleashed chaos across much of it, has built itself into a rare stable democracy in the Horn of Africa – and an inviting improvement for Somalis born elsewhere such as Mr Omar.
His hometown in the south remains a war zone between the foreign-backed government and Al Shabab Islamists. The central state of Puntland has become a hub for piracy. Somaliland’s claim to fame, by contrast, is that it has peacefully elected four presidents.
Yet to find a stable footing for the long term, Somaliland must tackle a looming problem: massive unemployment among young people, which leaves educated people such as Mr Omar unwilling to stay and most of the rest idle at home.
Eighty per cent of the population is under 30, and 80 per cent of youths have no job, said the UN Development Programme Somaliland project manager Abdillahi Hussein Mohamed.
“Youth who don’t do anything or learn anything – they are a time bomb,” he said. “It will affect the stability of Somaliland and the security of Somaliland.”
The UN and the government can only create 15 per cent of the jobs required, he said.
Many of the most privileged young people here – such as Mr Omar, who also studied in Uganda and whose parents live in Dubai – try to study or work abroad or seek asylum.
“Many people educated here – you can find most of them have migrated,” said the lanky young man in a crisp button-down shirt with a laptop case slung over his shoulder.
Several students at the University of Hargeisa – where a sign staked into the ground near the entrance bears the motto, “The road to success is always under construction” – said they knew others who had tried to settle in Europe.
The key is not to admit you come from Somaliland, which is considered too safe, said Abdijibaar Abdilaahi, 22, sitting on a plastic chair on the dirt-field campus. “You claim you are from Somalia,” he said, referring to the south of the country.
Hassan Hassan, 22, recalled a boatful of graduates from another university in Somaliland who drowned a few years ago while crossing the Mediterranean.
“Some don’t survive. It depends on the boat,” he said.
Two per cent of graduates try to seek asylum, five per cent move abroad for further schooling and 40 per cent remain jobless, said the university’s vice president Mubadir Ibrahim Aar. Others join private firms or international NGOs and may try to go abroad through those organisations, he said.
The university was built with money sent by Somali expatriates – a lifeline not just for the school but the entire region.
Remittances total $400 million (Dh2.398 billion) a year, or 80 per cent of the economy, said Somaliland central bank governor Abdi Dirir Abdi.
And the tradition of financially supporting one’s kin sustains many of the jobless people in Hargeisa.
Many of them are former herders, who like generations before them roamed the sandy terrain that surrounds the city and is littered with scraggly bushes and bony trees on which their sheep, goats and camels grazed. The export of livestock to the Arab Gulf, primarily during Haj, makes up much of Somaliland’s non-remittance economy.
But more herders are settling in Hargeisa as one seasonal drought after another kills off their flock.
Once here it can take them up to four years to find a job, usually unskilled labour such as carting stones or making them, said Mr Mohamed, of the UNDP. In the meantime relatives in town usually provide for them, he said.
While the culture of caring for relatives benefits society, the tradition of having large families is burdening it, he said.
Fifteen-year-old Mohamed Abdi, one of 12 siblings, spends his days sitting amid a pile of shoes at Hargeisa’s central market, tinted orange by a weathered tarpaulin overhead. Strands of trainers, tied one shoelace to the next, dangle above him.
Mohamed said he left school after five years. He sells 20 pairs of shoes a day, and shares the earnings with his family.
Men around Mohamed presided over similar heaps of shoes. Beyond them vendors hawked shirts, silverware, soap, suitcases, jewellery and children’s books. Some did business under the shade of a tarpaulin; others huddled beneath a grove of sun umbrellas. One man selling socks from a wheelbarrow on the median of a dirt road rested under a tree.
Around the corner sat a row of money-changers, each penned in by stacks of crumbling Somaliland shillings, exchanging them 5,000 to the US dollar.
Mohammed Jibril Ali, 30, reclined behind his fortress of cash while chewing khat, the stimulant leaf that many Somali men enjoy in bulging cheekfuls in the afternoons. Mr Ali got an accounting degree through night school in 2007 but could not find a better job.
Still, he said he is happy in Somaliland - a testament to the relative peace and security that have been established here.
He earns $900 a month, and more during the busy months of the annual livestock export. Beyond contributing $300 each month to his family of 10, Mr Ali hopes to save enough to open a shop in five years.
“I have my small business. I can buy everything I need. I am in my home. What else do I need?” he said.
Though he sits in public all day carrying $32,000, and at night he and other money-changers store $1 million in a nearby safe, he has no fears of getting robbed. Security has improved drastically in two decades, he said.
“In 1992, 93, if you carried only one note – one hundred dollars – they would shoot you.” Now, Mr Ali said, “we are not worried.”