x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Beacon of stability in a land of upheaval

Peaceful Somaliland believes it has earned the right to statehood but the international community has been reluctant to grant it.

Downtown Hargeisa shows signs of development and stability not evident in many other parts of Somalia.
Downtown Hargeisa shows signs of development and stability not evident in many other parts of Somalia.

HARGEISA, Somalia // Drive through the streets here, and you will find signs of development and stability not seen anywhere else in Somalia. A construction crew is busy laying the foundation of the seven-storey glass and steel headquarters for a telecommunications company. Well-trained security forces stand guard outside the Somaliland central bank. Traffic police direct the steady flow of new Land Cruisers and ancient Peugeot taxis. Women shop for tomatoes and cabbage in the bustling market without the sense of fear that is so common in the rest of Somalia.

In fact, the residents of this dusty city do not even consider this to be a part of Somalia. To them, Hargeisa is the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland, a country the rest of the world does not recognise. In the past 20 years, as the rest of Somalia has been torn to shreds by civil war, Somalilanders have quietly gone about the business of building a viable nation state without any help from the international community. They have established institutions of government, held democratic elections, printed money and imposed taxes, even issued licence plates and passports, which are invalid anywhere else in the world.

"I think very soon we will get recognition," said Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland's minister of foreign affairs. "We have played a significant role in regional security and democracy. That is what the West wants. Delaying the case of Somaliland is denying the justice and existence of 3.5 million Somalilanders." Although Somalilanders speak the same language and are ethnically related to south and central Somalis, their histories are markedly different. The British colonised the north-west region of Somalia, known as British Somaliland, and governed through a network of local elders. This left local and tribal forms of government intact after independence.

The rest of Somalia was colonised by the Italians, who sent governors from Rome to impose an Italian lifestyle on the locals. The result: Mogadishu has some nice Italian art deco buildings and Somalis have a fondness for pasta, but they have trouble when it comes to governing themselves. At independence in 1960, the British and Italian Somali colonies formed a union, which became modern day Somalia. Somaliland has regretted that decision since.

"Somalia has really made life hell for us Somalilanders," said Mohamed Hersi, a local businessman. From Mogadishu, the regime of Siad Barre, a dictator, brutally oppressed Somaliland, launching army attacks and air force bombing raids on Somaliland rebels that killed 50,000 Somaliland civilians in the 1980s. After Barre's ouster in 1991, Somaliland declared itself independent and the rest of Somalia began its downwards spiral into civil war.

"Somaliland has been relatively peaceful compared with the rest of Somalia," said Abdirahman Mohamed Haji, the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Hargeisa. "Much of that can be attributed to local grassroots peace building." Somaliland survives on a meagre budget of US$50 million (Dh183m) per year, mostly from import duties and taxes. Since it is not recognised, it cannot borrow from such international financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund. While the budgets of other African countries are subsidised by donor nations, Somaliland receives no aid, except indirectly through non-governmental organisations.

"We have all the paraphernalia of a government and yet we don't get any support," said Hussen Ali Dualeh, Somaliland's finance minister. "We are a country that has tightened its belt. We still pay our salaries at the end of the month." Instead of recognising Somaliland, the international community has continued to support a series of failed governments in Mogadishu. The latest attempt at a government, the current Transitional Federal Government, is at war with an Islamic insurgency and controls virtually no territory. Its parliament meets in neighbouring Djibouti because it is not safe in Somalia.

If international recognition is a reward for peace and stability, why, then, is the international community reluctant to recognise Somaliland? Western diplomats would not comment publicly on this matter. Privately, though, they say recognition of any breakaway republic is a slippery slope: today it is Somaliland, tomorrow it could be South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Pretty soon, every self-determined fiefdom will want a seat at the United Nations, the argument goes.

Egypt has successfully lobbied the Arab League to block Somaliland's recognition. Egypt is locked in a perpetual struggle with Ethiopia over Nile River water rights and sees a greater, united Somalia as a strong counterbalance to Ethiopia. A presidential election set for May 31 could be a make-or-break moment for Somaliland's self-determination. Politicians here say that if Somaliland can show the world it can hold free and fair elections, international recognition will be just around the corner.

Somaliland has a history of exciting, yet peaceful, elections. In 2003, Dahir Riyale Kahin, the current president, defeated his rival by just 80 votes out of half a million cast. Unlike in Kenya or Zimbabwe, where close elections touched off violent protests, Somalilanders accepted the results and politicians formed a coalition government. That type of good sportsmanship should be rewarded, politicians here said.

"Being Somalilanders, one of our strengths is compromise," said Abdurahma Abdulqadir, the vice chairman of the opposition Kulmiye Party. "If we have another successful election, we will cement democracy here. We will show the world that this is the only place in Somalia where peaceful regime change can happen." Recognition for Somaliland is a hot-button issue in this election, and locals on the streets of Hargeisa know what is at stake.

"International recognition is the key to every door," said Ibrahim Ali, a businessman. "We are just a nation on paper. Our country is suffering without the support of the international community. We have peace, but at the end of the day, we don't even have bread for ourselves." mbrown@thenational.ae