Somaliland - When is a country not a country? - An African success story…

“You know”, says Edna Adan, “we are very proud of what we have created here - we made it ourselves - we have created a country”. In her hands she is cradling a warm and still bloody newborn child. It’s the mother’s first and she looks exhausted and a little bewildered. But the symbolism is not lost on her.

Edna is an interesting woman in an interesting place. The former wife of a former President, she trained in the UK as a nurse. The child has come to life in her Maternity Hospital, built painstakingly from private donations, and where she still practices.

She is also now the Foreign Minister of a new country - Somaliland - that, despite being an island of stability in an unstable region, hardly anybody recognises.

Somaliland is a former British colony that merged with Italian Somalia at independence in 1960. Somaliland suffered under the dictatorship of Siad Barre and a rebellion in 1988 resulting in a three-year battle for the capital, Hargeisa. The town was destroyed and the population fled. When Barre was overthrown, Somalia descended into clan warfare. In May 1991 groups of elders in the north agreed to share power and Somaliland declared independence from what is still seen as a ‘failed state’ based in Mogadishu.

“Look.” says Adan, “Somalia is painfully embarrassing to Africa. We Somalilanders inherited a country that was left for dead - we didn’t think - myself included, that it would work - but here we are”. Adan’s hospital itself is built on a charnel ground where executions were held during the war.

Outside the gleaming hospital is a city that has rebuilt itself and is bustling. The scars of war are now hard to find and the downtown markets are alive. Underneath the monument of the government plane that bombed Hargeisa, old men sit and drink tea and chew ‘quat’ (the mildly narcotic leaf that is enormously popular here). At night, internet cafes hum with activity. Telephone kiosks are frantic with people calling their relatives overseas. The new country simply works.

The President is a big man. “Big man, small country… ” says the taxi driver with an ironic grin. He greets visitors in a smart suit in the palace and hands out business cards that say ‘President’. When he was elected in April 2003, Dahir Riyale Kahin won by only 80 votes. That the opposition parties gracefully accepted defeat said reams about the political maturity of the political process. “We want the world to recognise us” he says, his long legs folded under him on a chintzy sofa. But for Somaliland, that is the rub. Most Arab countries want to see Somalia united for their own ends and there is an international fixation with ‘national integrity’ and ‘previous boundaries’.

Because of this, and a scare several years ago about animal health, all cattle exports (except to ironically Christian Ethiopia) have been banned. This has left the Somalilanders deeply weakened - dependent on their enormous diaspora around the world and the Aid Agencies. UN organisations still euphemistically refer to Somalia’s ’Northwest zone’ but do business with it anyway.

The small state is in no hurry to give away its independence again. As Adam says on behalf of her government - “I see no advantage in reuniting with a people that destroyed their country and tried to destroy mine… and anyway, with whom would we talk? Somaliland has been widowed… ”.

But development is still far away - even without the war’s echoes, draught and cash poverty are forcing the traditional nomadic lifestyle further into history. Life expectancy here is around 48 years and infant mortality is frighteningly high outside of Hargeisa.

In the village of Ali Sahid in the Toghdeer region, days from the capital, Zahrah Adan Ali, 36, is weak and thin. She is a nomad but like thousands of others has had to come and settle in the villages. Although staying with relatives, she is unhappy. “We came to this village for water. All our animals died because of the draught. We are Somaliland in name but we haven’t had any benefit from it”.

“Of course it’s better” says one of the elders in Bruoa Town. Twenty or so other men who have come to settle the town’s issues today in a cool room surround him. They are representatives of Somaliland’s dual governance that works with the Police , the Army and the Parliament to keep a lid on any potential clan conflicts. “We have no trouble now”. “We have a mechanism to deal with our problems” says Hussein Osman Hurriah. “We have a tradition of reconciliation - acceptance and forgiveness is part of the culture”. That much seems clear and it may be due to the remnants of the transitory nature of nomadic Somaliland society - nomads have to move and therefore have to make peace to survive - the pastoralist clans here in the north have to be more flexible to survive.

On a chilly night in Hargeisa, a single bare bulb illuminates a room full of smoke from an incense burner. Around the walls are twenty or so men chewing quat and rocking forwards and backwards. These are Sufis of the Quadiria order and they are quietly performing ‘zikr’ - constantly reciting the name of Allah in devotion. As they sway and sweat they come to represent what this little peaceful corner of Africa seems to signify: a dignified and peaceful enclave in a continent all too often written off by outsiders as chaotic.

What Somaliland has achieved is extraordinary - a democratic and largely peaceful island surrounded by enemies. How long this fragility can endure will depend increasingly on the rest of the world recognising this small miracle.

© Stuart Freedman