Happy Birthday Somaliland

Tuesday, 24 May 2016
Richard Dowden

Twenty five years ago Somaliland declared its independence from the wrecked country called Somalia. The ceremony of raising the flag was held on May 18th in Burao, a small town down on the plain. It still had some buildings standing. The capital Hargeisa had been utterly destroyed.

I arrived with an ITN film crew a day later. After consultation the new government agreed to perform the independence ceremony again for the single TV camera. So any commercial footage you see of Somaliland’s second independence now is the repeat performance. A small band played, the trumpeter sounded as the flag – a tricolour of red, white and green with a black star in the middle – was slowly raised. The crowd cheered and guns – including  anti aircraft guns and howitzers and hundreds of AK 47s were fired. We were made very welcome.

Somalia, once a vital strategic country for Europe, on the Red Sea route to India and the East, had been divided up by the colonial powers. France got the strategic port of Djibouti to counterbalance the British possession of Aden in Yemen. Britain took the southern Red Sea coast of Somalia and Italy was given the Indian Ocean Coast although the British gave the southern third of Somalia to Kenya (Or Keenya as they called it then). The Ogaden, the north western part of Somalia, was given to Ethiopia as a reward for keeping silent about the imperial European take-over of Africa.

Unsurprisingly at independence in 1960 Somalis chose the five pointed blue star as its symbol representing the five colonised parts of Somalia re-united. Somalilanders, so keen to be reunited with the rest of Somalia delayed their independence day so it could be held on the same day as the rest of Somalia. In 1991 it declared its independence from the rest of the country. “No More Mogadishu” was the cry. Since then it has had its own government, a parliament and ministries and, despite tensions between different areas and clans, it has been largely peaceful and law-abiding ever since. Still no other country recognizes it although the rest of the world has to treat it as a legitimate government. But not a single African country would support its recognition and unless the African Union recognizes it, the rest of the world will not.

Until I flew to Hargeisa, I did not fully understand why the Somalilanders were so fierce in their demands for independence even though they had delayed their own independence in 1960. As we circled the small town I looked in vain for a single house with a roof on it. We went round again. There was none. Much of the city was rubble and not a single house had a roof. There had been terrible house to house street fighting and the government forces had two Mig fighter bombers flown by mercenary Rhodesian pilots that took off from the airport barely a mile from the town and systematically bombed the parts of the town held by rebels.

In the end the entire civilian population, realising they were going to die, gathered up their meagre possessions and walked for days to the Ethiopian border. Even then the bombers pursued them and bombed them as they walked. Today one of those Migs is on a plinth in the middle of town where in most places there would be a statue of a great war hero or leader. You have to have Somali sense of humour to get that joke.

The government troops also dug up the floors of houses looking for hidden jewelry or money which they stole. They also mined and booby-trapped the hiding places. Many people were killed when they finally returned.

Somaliland has not been recognized by the United Nations. The African Union – although forced to accept the separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea – has never recognised Somaliland. That lack of international recognition means it cannot borrow money on the international market though it does get aid. But Somalilanders have rebuilt the town and revived the country. It has several universities and a good hospital. The capital Hargeisa is now a thriving peaceful city. It even has a poetry festival every year.  Poets are rock stars in Somalia.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society