Somaliland looks good next to its restive neighbor and foreign investors are taking notice

HARGEISA, Somalia — There is a part of Somalia where foreigners can walk the streets in safety, where the only guns are held by uniformed members of the state security services, where elections are held regularly and democratically, and where the people can dare to hope for a future of continuing peace and desperately-needed prosperity.

Somaliland, northwest of Somalia, declared independence in 1991 but has not been recognised by any other country in the world. Yet in the restive Horn of Africa, it is a rare success story that is gradually being accepted by the United States and others.

In September, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa announced a new “two track policy” toward Somalia, one that increases the focus on Somaliland and another semi-autonomous northern region called Puntland.

“Both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability and we think they in fact will be a bulwark of extremism and radicalism that might emerge from the south,” said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for Africa, in New York last month.

Carson stressed that the new diplomatic push did not amount to legal recognition and that Washington would continue to support the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.

For the capital of a country that does not exist, Hargeisa is a cacophonous place. Car engines and horns compete to drown out the call of the muezzin, ambling pedestrians compete with battered vehicles on the dusty streets that are lined with thickets of cactus and drifts of thorny acacia branches.

Little wooden stalls sell imported Chinese and Saudi plastic goods. Moneychangers squat behind dirty ramparts of Somaliland shillings. Bales of narcotic khat trucked or flown in from the Ethiopian highlands are sold at little booths, their male customers stumble away in a stoned daze clutching bunches of green stems.

Telephone poles are wreathed in tangled wires, like a citywide game of cat’s cradle gone wrong. The anarchic wiring is testament to the recent unregulated growth in telephone services.

Clad in skeletons of wooden scaffolding, half-constructed buildings lean woozily as construction workers scurry up and down ladders. These are new hotels, office blocks, banks, apartments and mosques.

Hargeisa is a boomtown albeit in a chaotic, Wild West kind of way. The lack of formal economic development is a result of Somaliland’s lack of formal existence. Without international recognition Somaliland cannot benefit from World Bank or International Monetary Fund support and has received only piecemeal bilateral support from a handful of donors.

But that is set to change. During a visit to Hargeisa last week the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, said the $100 million that Somaliland now receives from donors each year could double as a result of the increased engagement from foreign countries.

That would be a significant boost for a place where the government’s entire budget is only $50 million a year, mostly earned by the busy port at Berbera. Every day creaky wooden galleons from Yemen and elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula unload pallets of fizzy drinks and crates of washing machines, sacks of grain and cargo loads of 4x4s … things that Somaliland cannot produce itself, which means pretty much everything.

Once empty, the ships fill up with livestock and head back across the Gulf of Aden. The sheep and goats exported to Arab countries are Somaliland’s biggest foreign earner.

In the absence of legal recognition, Somaliland has developed a strange mix of pride and bitterness that was expressed by the Harvard-educated chancellor of the University of Hargeisa.

“We have seen the bottom of hell but we have built from the ground up with little support,” Hussein Bulhan said.

The campus houses eight faculties and educates 3,500 students. But just 12 years ago it was a refugee camp in the wake of a civil war that all but destroyed Somaliland before its declaration of independence.

“My expectation was that the American government would help but I haven’t seen much,” Bulhan said. “Instead, America has supported a recognised government [in Mogadishu] that exists only in the minds of a few.

“After 9/11 the focus has been fighting terrorists and too many resources have gone into putting out fires instead of building peace.”

But the recent U.S. announcement has left Somaliland officials with an excitement they barely suppress.

“We welcome direct engagement and we are expecting wide-scale investment in our security, economic growth, health and infrastructure,” Foreign Minister Mohamed Omar said.

The aim is to shift the focus of foreign aid from humanitarian assistance to economic development to help get the poor and battered country on track, he said.

The new Somaliland government was installed after a much-delayed but ultimately peaceful and democratic election this June. President Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo said he was “very happy” with the promised engagement from Washington.

“This country is peaceful and democratic, where the president, parliament and local councils were elected in free and fair elections, where rule of law reigns and where the streets are full of uniformed children with book in hand going to school, not hooded, with guns, going to war,” Silanyo told a gathering of foreign officials in Hargeisa.

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