Somaliland: The illegitimate widow in the Horn of Africa

In the turbulent Horn of Africa, Somaliland is an oasis of relative quiet and order. Twenty years ago Somaliland declared itself independent. Since, however, no country has recognized this tiny state in the northeast of Somalia.

Broad, slightly sloping streets in a whitewashed city. A jumble of donkeys, water tanks, qat stands, goats, camels, people, jeeps, buses, taxis and uncountable shops. Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland is at a two-hours drive from the Ethiopian border. ‘In 1991 ninety percent of Hargeisa was destroyed. Four years later it was completely rebuilt’, says Lady Edna, who has a hard time hiding her pride. ‘So, we deserve to be independent.’

We are in Edna’s office, in a hospital that has her name because she is the one who established it. Besides being the minister of foreign affairs, Edna Adan Ismail was also the former First Lady of Somaliland. She was the wife of the “father of Somaliland”, the late president Mohamed H. Ibrahim Egal (1993-2002). This year Lady Edna becomes 75, but that does not stop her to daily run her women’s hospital with a lot of energy and to advocate the independency of Somaliland. Edna: ‘The international community should be grateful that there is at least one safe haven in the region.’

Fans and allies

Twenty years after the declaration of independence Somaliland has still not gained international recognition. ‘Just one country should stick out its neck’, says Ayanle S. Derie, a representative of Somaliland in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba. He hopes he will one day see Somaliland recognized. Yet, he should not count on Ethiopia even though it is one of Somaliland’s most overt allies. ‘We do not interfere with domestic issues’, says the consul of Ethiopia in Hargeisa. He is very straightforward: ‘We are here because we have interests in Somaliland –access to the Somaliland seaport of Berbera– but also because we share enemies – namely Al-Shabaab.’

This Islamist organisation that is operating in Somalia is suspected of the bomb attack of 29 October 2008 against the Ethiopian consulate in Hargeisa. Fear is still tangible today. From the outside nothing tells you we are in the Ethiopian representation. And I have been interviewed thoroughly long before I reached the building. I had to leave my mobile phone with the warden.

Western fans of Somaliland –like Great Britain, Scandinavian countries, the EU and the United States– actually have a double policy on Somalia and Somaliland, even though they officially still advocate a single Somalia. ‘The recognition of Somaliland is an African matter’, is the message you hear from that side. The African Union (AU) on the other hand is very formal: ‘The Cairo Summit of 1964 stipulated that borders must be respected after decolonisation’, says an AU officer in Addis Abeba. ‘If we recognise Somaliland, where will this lead us? There are so many other regions in Somalia and Africa – even within Somaliland– that want to secede.’

Somalia no more

The AU holds on to a united Somalia, not in the least because – like the rest of the international community – it is itself investing resources and personnel in a military mission in central and southern Somalia (AMISOM). When all is said and done, the AU has the Somalis do the job. ‘The AU is a member state organisation, like the EU. So, in a way Somalia is our boss’, says an AMISOM staff member whom I meet in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. ‘When the Somalis agree that Somaliland can secede, there is no problem for us’, says an AU officer in Addis.

In Somaliland they are not impressed by such arguments. ‘Whom should we negotiate with about this matter?’ asks Boobe Yusuf Duale, a veteran of the separatist Somali National Movement. ‘With Puntland? With Al Shabaab? With president Sheikh Sharif and the Transitional Federal Government? There is no instance that represents all Somalis to which we can turn.’ Lady Edna is even sharper: ‘Somaliland is the political widow of a country that does not exist anymore. Somalia that everyone is talking about is dead. Asking to negotiate independence with Somalia, is like asking a widow to wait for her dead husband to come back to have him sign the divorce papers.’

On its own

Somalilanders have not been refrained by the lack of international recognition. On the contrary, in a rare match between the needs of the local population and the desire for international recognition, Somalilanders have successfully worked for peace and reconciliation for the last twenty years. They also cleared mines and disarmed militias. With the help of Somalilanders in the diaspora they were able to establish a blooming private sector and a multi-party system.

 The story goes that Somaliland has achieved all of this on its own, without any international assistance. ‘In the beginning the international community stayed aloof. It believed no stable political process was possible in such a turbulent region’, says Dr. Aden Abokor about the early stage of the democratisation process at the turn of the century. ‘Moreover, it had already supported the Transitional Federal Government elsewhere in Somalia.’

In Hargeisa, Abokor was the long-time head of Progressio, a EU-financed NGO, which had been strongly involved in elections in Somaliland from the beginning. The first elections were local initiatives and were almost completely financed by the Somalilanders themselves. Now, the international community finances elections for almost 75 percent.

‘The idea they have done everything themselves, is a myth, up to a certain degree’, says many a westerner when asked about it. ‘The reconciliation and peace process under the Somali National Movement and the elders in the nineties was really something they devised themselves’, says a EU staff member in Nairobi. A European researcher in Hargeisa adds his own remarks: ‘In the refugee camps, at the end of the eighties and early in the nineties Somalilanders could contribute financially to the Somali National Movement because the international community provided in their needs. Today, that myth does not apply anymore.’

When I drive around Hargeisa today, I certainly do not have the impression that the job is done without any foreign assistance. Along the road I see signboards of international organisations. At the university of Hargeisa every building is sponsored by a generous donor.

‘Somalilanders are proud of not receiving budget support, but per capita there is more money going to Somaliland than to the rest of Somalia’, says a EU officer in Hargeisa. ‘That is because projects here, unlike elsewhere in Somalia, can effectively be implemented.’ This situation does mean that many organisations manage budgets that are larger than the budget of the government. This means the state must be weak, since the private sector and humanitarian organisation provide basis facilities and services such as health care and telecommunication.

In Somaliland alone there are allegedly some three hundred international organisations registered. International staff often lives in Nairobi, in Kenya. ‘Somaliland is considered a position in a riskful area’, says Lady Edna with the necessary indignation. ‘But Hargeisa is safer than Nairobi.’ The EU officer admits it is hard to coordinate and take well-informed decisions about Somaliland with staff working from Nairobi. Moreover, many resources are lost and do not end up with the population for which they were meant.

Mohamed F. Hersi, democratisation specialist for the Academy for Peace and Development (APD) in Hargeisa: ‘There is a shift in the policy of the international community. They come here more often, but the money does still not find its way to Somalilanders.’ Hersi puts figures on the money wasted: ‘Of any two million only three hundred thousands effectively reach people.’

A brand of democracy of their own

‘We are lucky that the international community leaves us aside’, says Boobe, a veteran of the Somali National Movement and the vice-president of APD. ‘We might have ended up in the awful situation of our brothers in the south.’ His colleague, Mohamed Hersi agrees: ‘When people are left alone, they can mind their own business.’ Such relative freedom has already achieved one interesting result for Somaliland’s democratisation process: a modern central administration with traditional elements of governing.

Asking Somaliland to negotiate independence with Somalia, is like asking a widow to wait for her dead husband to come back to have him sign the divorce papers

‘Somalis are a people of nomads and always deal with conflicts and problems through clan elders. Historically, they have gathered on the occasion of Guurti to mediate and administer justice’, says Abdillahi Ibrahim Habane. During the peace process in the nineties the elders played such an important role in reconciliation that it was decided to include the Guurti system permanently in national politics. ‘So, we now have a Parliament with two Chambers: a lower house with 82 directly elected representatives and an upper house (Guurti) with 82 elders that are appointed by the various clans.’

Abdillahi is the secretary-general of the Guurti and welcomes me in the Upper House at the heart of Hargeisa. ‘All law proposals, except those on budgets, must be approved by the Guurti.’ It means the Guurti is a very powerful body. Many claim it has become politicised in the course of the years. So, some want to review its mandate and the way the members are appointed. Few want to do away with it though.

Also the Guurti itself sees the importance of reforms. ‘We must go along with the times, but we must find something that suits our society’, says Abdillahi. Through their members they consult people in various regions about the issue. In the eyes of Abdillahi there is no question of democratically electing the 82 elders or of allowing women to the Guurti. ‘Currently, there is one woman in the Guurti, because she inherited the position from her husband, but it is against our tradition.’

A man who overhears our conversation laughs at this and contradicts Adillahi, who is not impressed and continues: ‘if we directly elect the Guurti, what would the difference be with the Lower House? These elders are not just picked up from the street, you know. In the regions, people convene to discuss whom they will delegate – you can compare it to an American electoral college.’ And he kindly refers the women to the Lower House.

Regardless of the role of traditions in the central state, the whole democratisation process mainly remains the business of the elite. ‘Somaliland has never had a strong central state and the peace process in fact was first and foremost a social reconciliation, which did not necessarily go against the state structures,’ says Abdullahi M. Odowa, director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Hargeisa. ‘Today this is a cause for conflict in society. Up to the highest level, people do not understand how the system functions. They go and fight to distribute the jobs between different clans.’

Pay Cash or Seed?

The lasting influence of the clan and family system can be experienced at the most unexpected moments, also in the city. Hibo M. Khayre, who works for APD tells me about Seed, an sms pay service. In a country without a bank and bankcard system where the currency is worth so little that people carry wads of bank notes, alternatives are more than welcome. Hibo: ‘Even water sellers who go up and down the streets with their donkey carts will ask you: “Cash or Zaad?”’

Besides payments in shops, Somalilanders also send money to each other via Seed. ‘That makes it even easier to ask family members for money. Just send a simple sms to ask for five or ten euros; and you cannot pretend you haven’t seen it.’ Zaad is also used to get a date: ‘When a boy wants to go out with you and you refuse, he will send you some money via Zaad, “to buy something nice”.’

Once she sent money to the wrong person. When she asked it back, she got it back. ‘People know each other here. There is always a chance a delegation of my family will go over to his to clear out matters. People prefer to avoid that.’ And what about regular courts of justice then? ‘These only work when matters cannot be settled by the families. Justice takes a long time and it is expensive. Besides, again the family would put down the money and get me a lawyer.’

It seems like there are several parallel universes in today’s Somaliland. A universe of clan elders and family ties that organise and determine social life. The universe of the diaspora that put money and new ideas in the country. The universe of international organisations and elections that seem to be somewhere in-between.

For an outsider it remains unclear how these universes exactly fit with each other or in what direction traditions will evolve. The answer is probably in what both Hibo and her colleague Nasir Osman tell me about the two major hotels in Hargeisa: the Mansoor Hotel in the northwest and the Ambassador Hotel at the airport in the south of the city. Both meet very strict safety standards that suit the continuous flow of international aid workers, politicians and consultants. Both were built by Somalilanders from the diaspora.

Nasir: ‘When Mansoor opened its doors there were tensions. People said the city was out of balance. You see, each clan has its own zone in the city. When the Ambassador Hotel, which is owned by a different clan, was built years later, the clan elders said things were right. The city was in balance again at last.’



Somaliland for dummies

Surface 137,600 km² (or about four times Belgium)

Coastline 850 km

Population 3.85 million (the international community puts the score at only two million)

Capital Hargeisa (680,000 inhabitants)

Economy 60-65% cattle (goats, sheep, camels, cows) and 20% agriculture for domestic use. Other major sources of income: foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora.

(Source: Somaliland in Figures 2011, Ministry of Planning)


Before independence

Until 1960 Somaliland was a British protectorate while the rest of today’s Somalia was a colony of Italy. After five days of independence Somaliland voluntarily joined the rest of Somalia on 1 July 1960. For Somalilanders from day one this was considered a first step in the direction of a Greater Somalia dream: bringing together the five Somali regions that had been split by colonisation. In the seventies it became apparent though that the Somali star would never be reunited. After all, Somalis in the northeast of Kenya were included in Kenya upon independence in 1963. Also the population of the French-Somali Coast chose for independence in 1977 and established the state of Djibouti. The Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977-78 was won by Ethiopia and the Ogaden region remained part of Ethiopia.

Meanwhile Siad Barre organised a military coup in the Republic of Somalia in 1969 and turned the country into the socialist Somali Democratic Republic. Somalilanders were hardly represented in the central government in Mogadishu. In their own region they suffered from discrimination and human right abuses. So, many fled the country. In 1981, the Somali National Movement was founded in London. From their home base in refugee camps in Ethiopia in the eighties this movement jointly with other Somali rebel movements conducted a guerrilla war against Siad Barre. In 1988, the conflict became a real civil war and Somaliland cities like Hargeisa were bombed. In 1991, when Siad Barre was ousted from power 100,000 people had died in the conflict.

In Mogadishu the rebel movements fought a fierce power battle. The Somali National Movement withdrew to Somaliland and on 18 May 1991 declared the independence of the Somaliland Republic. (or)


Key to stability in Somaliland

These are a few reasons why Somaliland is stable whereas this does not seem to succeed in Somalia:

■ Somaliland was a protectorate and not a colony. Social structures remained intact.

■ Somaliland, unlike the south of Somalia, has a rather homogeneous clan structure. There is one main clan (Isaaq) and a few smaller ones beside.

■ The Somali National Movement was a real people’s movement. Men and resources depended on the clans, so the movement was held accountable by the clans. After liberation the movement transferred power.

■ After 1991, the Isaaq clan did not take revenge on the clans that were on the side of Siad Barre.

■ The peace conferences were an initiative of and paid with the money of the Somalilanders themselves. (or)


This article was made possible through the financial support of the Fund for Scientific Research and is part of Olivia Rutazibwa’s PhD research on the democratisation process in Somaliland.

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