When traffic halts, as it often does along Hargeisa’s cattle-clogged and barely policed streets, you don’t feel sudden panic that plainclothes militiamen or terrorists are about to surround you. In fact, Hargeisa hasn’t seen a major terror attack since 2008; one aid worker characterized his weekly security updates as “nothing you wouldn’t expect to see in a fairly large town.” Mogadishu is a city of checkpoints and high walls, bombed-out buildings, and occasional signs of recovery dispersed through the ruined landscape. Hargeisa, which sits inside Somalia’s internationally recognized borders—though you wouldn’t necessarily realize this while waiting to get your passport stamped at the airport—is the polar opposite, beginning with the fact that it’s a safe enough place for people to want to visit.
I arrived the day before the opening of the city’s sixth annual international book fair, which attracted Italian journalists, Kenyan editors, British poets, and Somali-speaking scholars and writers from Britain, New York, and across the Horn of Africa. The book fair exemplifies Somaliland’s progression, from the site of a devastating civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to an emerging democracy eager for international acceptance. “Recovering from a war is a longtime process,” said Ayan Mohammad, one of the fair’s chief organizers. “We have to put culture and literature on the agenda. . . . That’s how you create narratives within a society. We want to talk about our challenges and create links with the region and to the West.”
The fair’s headliner was Mohammad Warsame, popularly called Hadraawi, the most beloved living poet in the Somali language. Like Ismail Kadare or Gabriel García Márquez, he is a literary figure whose life and work reflect his nation’s upheavals. The socialist military dictator Siad Barre imprisoned him for five years in the 1970s for his anti-regime activities. Hadraawi later lived in exile in the United Kingdom, and then returned to Somaliland and reinvented himself as a kind of conservative mystic—a bearded, white-robed elder who grounded his lyrics in traditional language and themes and wrote about reviving a single national destiny for the Somali people. During his reading at the fair’s opening session, the audience, packed into a sweltering meeting hall, hung on every syllable—on his fast, propulsive sentences, lines ending in shouts and guttural whispers, and rhymes that the poet barely restrained himself from singing. Hadraawi spoke in Somali, but the fair’s bestseller was the first English-language collection of his poetry, recently published by the Italy-based Poetry Translation Centre.
In a poem called “The Killing of the She-Camel,” included in his new edition of translated works, Hadraawi offers a powerful metaphor, rooted in Somalia’s rich pastoral tradition, for the tragedy of Somalia’s decades of autocracy, war, and social and political disintegration:
How they came rushing to that place
where the carcass of the she-camel lay,
and what a commotion there was
as each caught at her flesh
pair by pair clawed off their share
frying it in the glare of the sun
and cramming down dry
its crisp skin, crunching the bones.
You’d bare your teeth too to see
their scattered followers come,
still cramped with greed, ravenous. . . .
Little of the poem seemed to apply to Somaliland, at least not on the day of the book fair, where writers from four continents swapped copies of their work. Hargeisa makes such events both culturally and logistically possible. At the fair’s opening session, Somalia’s chronic dysfunction didn’t seem like a national-level phenomenon. There appears to be nothing in the famously byzantine Somali clan system or in the traditional nomadic economy and social structure that precludes a functional, democratic state. Somaliland already has one, along with peace, normalcy, and almost no foreign militants.
Yet Somaliland represents a political and even moral challenge. Official statehood for Somaliland could derail Somalia’s fragile rebuilding process. But denying recognition may jeopardize one of the most remarkable experiments in modern African history.
Somaliland declared independence from Somalia after the collapse of Barre’s government in 1991. No country recognizes it as an independent state. But since 1991, it has built itself into a de facto independent state, with its own currency, passports, military, and government. “We have had 22 years of peace,” one Hargeisa-based civil society activist told me. “All institutions are functioning. But Somaliland still has to insist on its independence.”
Somaliland’s current status is partly a legacy of the colonial era and partly the result of Somalia’s troubled recent history. The majority-Somali section of the Horn of Africa is among the most ethnically, religiously, and culturally homogenous regions on the continent. But colonialism turned Somalis into a transnational group and complicated efforts at uniting them under a single flag. Modern-day Djibouti became a French coaling station. Present-day Somalia was part of Italy’s empire in East Africa, while Ethiopia incorporated Somali Ogaden into its borders. Britain held on to the Somali areas of present-day Kenya as well as modern-day Somaliland. In 1960, British and Italian holdings (not counting the Somali areas of soon-to-be-independent Kenya) merged into an independent Somalia—but for five days, the former British Somaliland was recognized as an independent state before uniting with the former Italian Somalia. Those five days, as well as the voluntary nature of the merger, remain the territory’s most concrete legal claim to independence.
Controversies swirled early on over Mogadishu’s legal jurisdiction over the north, but the north-south political cleavage became something more than a legalistic matter in 1988, during the opening days of the civil war that would eventually unseat Barre’s socialist-military government. That year, Barre’s air force practically leveled Hargeisa—an atrocity still raw in the minds of city residents.
After 1991, Somalia and Somaliland radically diverged. In Somalia, Barre’s government collapsed. Within a few years, so did the U.S. and UN peacekeeping missions tasked with delivering humanitarian aid and keeping the country together. They failed, thanks to the infamous Black Hawk Down incident and an inability to grasp the country’s increasingly Hobbesian politics. After it became clear that outside forces could not impose stability on a fractious country in the grip of warlordism and clan-based conflict, the international community tried another tactic: financing endless rounds of peace conferences in cities throughout Africa and the Middle East. This didn’t work, either. As BBC Africa editor Mary Harper writes in her book Getting Somalia Wrong?, the “fantastically expensive” conferences were mostly useful for assuaging the organizers’ guilt: “Foreign powers could be seen as ‘doing something’ about Somalia without the risk of much direct involvement.” Islamist radicals briefly took control of Mogadishu, until a 2006 Ethiopian military invasion drove them out. By 2009, al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab had seized much of the country before African Union peacekeepers retook it. A famine the next year killed more than a quarter of a million people.
For years, then, Somalia has been a collapsed state—one located along a globally vital shipping lane. So during the course of three presidential administrations, the United States’ chief goal in the country has been the establishment of a Mogadishu-based federal government, a worryingly reversible objective realized only in mid-2012. The continued survival of al-Shabaab, as well as events like the group’s deadly September 2013 attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, only highlighted the urgency of establishing a functional state.
By contrast, after declaring independence, Somaliland was left on its own. Its peace process was organic, uninfluenced by the resources, expectations, or military adventures of outsiders. “The peace-building came from us,” says Shukri Ismail, Somaliland’s minister of agriculture and the environment. “People contributed food, cash—the peace process came out of their own pockets. There was no support from the international community.”
Somalilanders slowly constructed a political order that could accommodate the existing social organization. Ismail says that accountability to traditional family- and clan-based leadership structures proved crucial to success. This was something that the former Italian Somalia lacked, according to Ayan Mohammad. “The British never interfered with our customs,” she says. “In Somalia, Italian fascism destroyed the local social structure. After the civil war, there was nothing to fall back on.”
Tribalism in Somaliland has not produced violent divisions, as it has in southern Somalia or in Afghanistan and Iraq. An unelected House of Elders formalizes the involvement of the country’s clans in the political system. But most of Somaliland’s political power is located in its executive branch. Clannism is an informal balancing mechanism: clans constitute a base of power for certain political parties, and the necessities of the clan system provide a rough guide for apportioning ministerial jobs. Somaliland’s politics operate in a way that accommodates clannism while limiting its official influence. Traditionalism is not necessarily the enemy of democracy or of the formal political system. As one Hargeisa-based expert told me, Somalilanders “never openly institutionalized the clan system,” even if it serves as a medium of the country’s politics.
Somaliland has held six democratic elections since 1992. The most recent one, in 2010, resulted in perhaps the first democratic transition of power in the Horn of Africa’s modern history. The uniforms are flimsy, and the insignia have a clip-art quality, but military, police, and customs services all exist. Political culture has moved past the embryonic stage. In Somalia, it’s unclear what form the state will take, or even what territory it will rule over—or whether Mogadishu’s devastated government quarter will ever be rebuilt. In Somaliland, there is talk of directly electing the upper house of parliament (the House of Elders, similar to the House of Lords) and of the need for women in government, and there are even signs that ideologically based political parties are emerging, a crucial development that could transform the political system. Opposition leader Faisal Ali, who finished third in the last presidential election, presides over a moderate leftist party that belongs to the Socialist International. He complained to me about parties whose “agenda was just to sit on the chair” and hold power.
Somaliland’s economy is far from diversified. According to experts I spoke with, 80 percent of the territory’s population has some connection to pastoralism, while remittances and investment from the Somali diaspora represent nearly half of its economic activity. Contraband industries thrive, particularly a trade in charcoal that threatens to wipe out Somaliland’s remaining forests. But between livestock, remittances, and banking—the area has become the center of a globally powerful money-transfer industry, thanks chiefly to Dahabshiil, an Islamic bank founded by Somalilanders—Somaliland has enough of a private sector to justify the parliament’s passage of formal banking regulations this past year. Dahabshiil now issues debit cards accepted throughout Hargeisa. The bank even claims to pay taxes directly to Somaliland’s government.
Somaliland’s ambiguous status denies it certain economic and political opportunities that come with recognized statehood. But it has also been spared some of the problems that independent statehood can present to developing countries. It receives little bilateral aid, forcing the government to spend over 50 percent of its budget on security alone. Yet that absence of foreign help means that the government is not dependent on outsiders’ generosity or strategic interests, as is the case in even the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Somaliland cannot get loans from international financial institutions, but it has also accumulated little official debt. Somaliland’s statelessness precludes any major foreign commercial investment, since it’s nearly impossible to insure projects in an unrecognized territory; but as a consequence, the economy is not captive to a single big industry or employer, which can sometimes distort the economic development of poor countries. The government is weak, but it’s debatable as to whether Dahabshiil would have been allowed to grow into a continent-wide behemoth if it were operating within a more typical political and regulatory context. One Western expert raised the possibility that the international community feels that “dangling recognition keeps Somaliland on its best behavior.”
Nearly every state in the Horn of Africa is challenged by potentially ruinous problems: Djibouti is a dictatorship, Ethiopia is an autocracy held together by a fragile ethnic truce, Eritrea is a hermit state under international sanctions, and Somalia remains a constellation of Islamist groups and clan militias. About 1,800 miles north of Hargeisa, the Islamic State (ISIS) is plunging the heart of the Arab Middle East into chaos, and assuming the same permanent, territorial character as al-Shabaab in Somalia. The al-Qaida splinter group’s rapid advance through Iraq and Syria is a reminder of how quickly a country’s dynamics can shift in the face of a jihadist threat that’s more determined and better organized than the state itself. But so far, Somaliland has avoided the worst of the broader region’s demons. It is the most democratic and stable territory in its neighborhood. Hargeisa has about as much dynamism as a poor and isolated desert city could hope for. Goats crowd into what little shade is available, even along the city’s main streets. The capital’s attractions include a camel market and a rusting, Barre-era Soviet MiG, perched atop a monument to the city’s near-destruction during the opening days of Somalia’s civil war. Pigeons crowd along its rusting wings, but after one visits Mogadishu, the MiG can seem like a bitter relic from a time when Somalia was even capable of sustaining an air force. For Somalilanders, the plane is a reminder of what that air force did to them: on the pedestal of the memorial are reliefs of soldiers and children with bleeding and empty arm sockets, standing before a burning city.
But the MiG sits between the new Somali Telecom building and Dahabshiil’s even newer Hargeisa headquarters—glass-and-steel prisms hulking over crammed, dust-clogged streets. On a tastefully landscaped compound sits the Man-Soor hotel, where aid workers, businessmen, and cabinet ministers spend their evenings over cups of milky Somali tea. In the Man-Soor, the general calm stands in stark contrast to the violence and turmoil often unfolding on the hotel lobby’s TV screens. Somaliland’s greatest achievement may be that, minute to minute, it is remarkably boring.
When the topic of reunification with the south comes up, Somalilanders raise an obvious question: Why ruin what they have now? “Organizing Somaliland as an independent state is our top goal,” Ahmed Mohammed Deriye, a member of parliament, told me. “They’re our neighbors, our brothers—but it’s difficult to go back to where things were,” says Ismail about Somalia. “We have tasted and tested unity. And it didn’t work. Someone born 22 years ago doesn’t know about the south.”
The answer to why things might yet change lies partly in the international community’s long-standing investment in a unified, federated Somalia. The rest of the world doesn’t boycott Somaliland, as it would a rebel movement or terrorist group; Britain’s ambassador to Ethiopia appeared at the book fair, and Somaliland has diplomatic missions in London and Addis Ababa. Instead, it is treated as a better-organized version of Puntland or Jubbaland, semiautonomous regions within Somalia proper, with governments functionally independent of Mogadishu but still pledging fealty to the idea of a united country. The nascent and still barely functioning Mogadishu government cannot project power and legitimacy without the help of these local authorities as well as militia groups—hence the August 2013 agreement between Mogadishu and the Ras Kamboni militia, which helped bring the port of Kismayo under the government’s putative control. Somalia likely cannot survive as a coherent political or national unit without some kind of permanent arrangement between Mogadishu and these semiautonomous regions. Observers fear, not without reason, that chaos will follow if Somaliland is exempted from such a process.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warns that an independent Somaliland has the potential to weaken its southern neighbors greatly. “Southern Somalia would lose the chance to get revenue from resources within Somaliland, and you’d be breaking off the part of the country that is most successful and most stable,” he says, emphasizing that he takes no position on the recognition question. “At the end of the day, independence is 100 percent better for the people of Somaliland,” he says. “It would also clearly make it worse for everyone in southern Somalia.”
Outright independence would doubtless inflame an existing border dispute between Puntland and Somaliland and create a permanent set of grievances between Somalia and Somaliland, with each disputing the other’s existence and legitimacy. Even more damagingly, it would preclude creative means of state-building that could raise Somalia out of its current morass. Why an independent Somaliland, for instance, instead of a Somali confederacy, with shared foreign policy and revenue collection but dual capital cities, separate budgets, and separate militaries? It’s not inconceivable that a union could be achieved that maintained both Somalia’s integrity and Somaliland’s relative autonomy.
It’s hard to see the urgency of any such change, however, when walking around Hargeisa’s pacified streets. Understandably, Somalilanders don’t want to weigh the benefits of a hypothetical agreement with the south against the relative tranquillity of their current situation. For them, it’s the lack of independent recognition that is threatening—a condition that forestalls aid and investment and chokes off potential economic growth at a time when Somaliland is stable and democratic enough to benefit from such outside engagement. As Faisal Ali puts it, “one way to destroy a state is not to recognize it.”
A temporary solution to the Somaliland recognition problem, at least for the United States, might be to pass something akin to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, establishing the kind of bilateral relations that the U.S. would maintain with any sovereign state but without implying any official status. Yet this would only sidestep the deeper problem. For all its surprises, Somaliland remains a limb of Hadraawi’s rotting and dismembered she-camel, a healthy appendage attached to a moldering body. Somaliland’s fate is inextricably linked to the chaos to its south—and to the international community’s commitment to a fragile ideal.
Armin Rosen is Business Insider’s military and defense editor. He has reported from the Middle East and Africa, including from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, and Tunisia.