Back to Somaliland

Sunday, 20 February 2011
Richard Dowden


The last time I was in Hargeisa, in 2001, the Maansour Hotel was surrounded by open space on a hillside overlooking the town. When I went back a couple of weeks ago it was completely surrounded by new buildings. Hargeisa is a boom town, fuelled by remittances by Somalis living outside the country but pouring money back to their families. Having rebuilt the city, they are now investing in property.


From dawn till dusk the town is on the move, “Stuck in traffic” is now the most common excuse for lateness. Hundreds of small family owned stores are open from dawn to dusk and in the middle of town a row of shops sell gold jewellery with no apparent security. There is little crime in Hargeisa. Schools are full. There are two good universities and two hospitals, one of which is very good. The potholes and rubbish in the streets are no worse than most African capitals.

20 years ago this city was in ruins, destroyed by three years of civil war. In May that year I came to the independence celebrations in the smaller town of Burcao. Hargeisa did not have a single building that could hold a meeting. I took photos from the air. It looks like a smaller version of Berlin or Hiroshima after World War II. No building had a roof. The city was the battlefield between government and rebels and the government shelled and bombed it to rubble. One night the entire surviving population gathered a few meagre belongings and walked to Ethiopia, a biblical exodus in which hundreds died. It is an epic story that is yet to be properly told.

On May 18th 1991 the new Somaliland flag was raised re-establishing the old colonial border between British-ruled Somaliland and Italian ruled Somalia. Unrecognised by the outside world but a lot more orderly and successful than many long-established African states, the region of Somalia that had suffered most from Siad Barre’s repressive rule, decided to have nothing more to do with the rest of the country. Although the northern rebels, the Somali National Movement, had fought a Somali-wide cause, they were forced by popular demand to declare the north independent.

Compared to the rest of the country, Somaliland has worked.  Its main resources are camels and blacked headed sheep which are shipped across the Red Sea from Berbera to Saudi Arabia. After brief wars to seize control of Hargeisa airport from one clan, and then the port of Berbera from another that was taking the import and export taxes, the government established its authority over the whole country and has done pretty well.

But it has enemies. The internationally recognised but utterly ineffective government that holds a mere enclave in Mogadishu still claims authority over Somaliland. Its main enemy, the hardcore Islamist movement, Al Shabaab, would also like to destabilise the north and is said to have links to Al Qaeda. The result is that more than 50% of Somaliland’s budget of a mere $60 million goes on defence in one form or another.

Its southern neighbour, Ethiopia, needs the port of Berbera (and the route to it) but it has no interest in a strong Somaliland or a united Somalia. The two countries are ancient enemies and Ethiopia would not like to see Somaliland or the rest of Somalia strong enough to control its access to the sea and the outside world. Without the support of Ethiopia and the agreement of the so-called government in Mogadishu, getting international recognition of an independent Somaliland looks impossible. In the meantime, the EU, Britain and increasingly the US, have given Somalia aid to try to keep it stable.

I asked what was the problem with non-recognition. The most immediate disadvantage is lack of insurance. I am not an expert but that does not seem to be insuperable. Any suggestions?   

No one knows how many people live in Somaliland. Some say 3 million. There is a constant flow of coming and going. Somalis’ nomadic roots mean they have no fear of journeys. I would like to be able to say that the Somaliland diaspora is playing a huge role in rebuilding the country but Somalis’ bitterly funny cynicism extends to themselves and their country. They call returning diaspora “Dhaqan Celis” – don’t ask me to pronounce it. At one level it means coming home to be reintegrated into the culture but it also implies “You’re a failure. You couldn’t hack it in the big wide world and you’ve had to come back to this dump”.  This is a nasty knock to my thesis that Africa’s returning diaspora will play a huge role in Africa’s future development. But Somalis are not typical of anyone except themselves.

I made this visit for the Africa Educational Trust, which I am on the board of. A small but very effective organisation, it provides education in edgy places like Somalia, northern Uganda and Sudan. In Somalia we do this through schools and universities – yes Somaliland has two universities – but also through an outreach literacy and numeracy programme broadcast by the BBC Somali Service which is then taped and replayed in small centres throughout the country. There is also an outreach to the nomadic pastoralists. I spent a morning under a thorn tree with four classes of different ages learning literacy off separate blackboards around the tree trunk.

Apart from the books, buildings, exam systems and all the other basic elements of education, AET is finding innovative solutions, particularly for girls. Fewer girls than boys go to school for lots of reasons but one reason is that once they reach 13 or 14, girls are shy of going to the toilet and get mocked and teased by the boys. AET has started to build small separate girls-only sitting-rooms in schools and behind them a walled yard and four toilets. Known as Girl Friendly Spaces, they allow the girls to retreat in privacy. Numbers of girls in schools that have them are rocketing up.

AET also organised a nationwide quiz, a knockout competition for girls based on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire formula with teams of three girls from each school. The winners were from Somaliland’s top private school but the close runners up were from a state school and the show was broadcast – and rebroadcast on Somaliland television (yes the non-state has a TV station). The President’s wife gave away the prizes and certificates. It has been hugely popular.

I was saddened to see just how far the Saudi Wahabi puritanism has infected Somali culture. Traditional Somali women’s garb was a long dress with bare arms and hair uncovered. For celebrations they wore voluminous, full-length brightly coloured dresses with a shawl. That is all gone for the Saudi style covering and lots of girls now cover their faces with the niqab. I wondered whether the suffering of more than twenty years of war and destruction has given the Somalis a feeling that they must have offended God and need to become rigidly religious. But this does not seem to be the case.  There seemed no correlation between wearing the niqab and attending classes teaching modern (western) education. No one said that this was enforced by parents or that it represented a religious revival. Some said it was a rebellion against the previous generation that had wrecked the country, others that it was a fashion statement – or just an opportunity for girls to be anonymous and avoid the attentions of young men.