Take a holiday in Somaliland: journey to the state that isn't -
By Magnus Taylor
May 28, 2012
Michela Wrong <http://www.newstatesman.com/node/152293
> once wrote that you
can tell a lot about an African country by the way they issue, or refuse you
a visa. This remains true, but as African leaders see the benefits of
liberalisation (in a variety of different guises), heralding a stream of hot
money flowing in to the continent, there are many other measures of 'doing
business' that are equally revealing. Commerce in Africa now seems
inextricably linked with the mobile phone, so seeing how easy it is to get
yourself up and running with a SIM card can be a good measure of a place.
In Addis Ababa I had to take a photocopy of my passport and 2 other
headshots to a long queue in a small office, and several days later the
stupid thing still didn't work. I didn't go back. In Hargeisa, capital of
Somaliland, I arrived at my hotel, enquired about the SIM, whereupon the
receptionist flicked a new one across the counter, expertly inserted it into
my phone, and immediately topped me up with $5 worth of credit via text
message. It all took 2 minutes.
Whilst Ethiopia is no economic laggard - as evidenced by the increasingly
terrible traffic in the capital and ugly edge-of-town industrial expansion -
it is the freewheeling capitalism in the Horn of Africa's non-state state
that really grabs the attention. Somali society has traditionally been
strongly oriented towards trade and despite decades of chronic insecurity in
the South, these networks remain. The Somali diaspora is well-known
internationally, particularly since the civil war forced many of them out
into prominent communities in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
Somalia is now the second biggest importer of goods from Dubai, with wooden
dhows risking pirates whilst plying trade routes across the Arabian Sea to
dock at Berbera, Bosaso or Mogadishu down the Somali coast.
Positioned on the upper haunch of the Somali dog-leg the Republic of
Somaliland looks initially unpromising. It is mainly dry and rocky, there
are few paved roads, and the population is small and generally dispersed.
Only in the capital city do you really see the potential of the place.
Downtown Hargeisa is booming, and the centre of the boom is Dahabshiil - the
country, and region's major money transfer company. I met up with the CEO
Abdirashid Duale who'd just flown in from Dubai. He took me to the centre of
operations where I observed 2 remittance transfers being made, both over
$300, one from London and the other Melbourne. Deeper in to the offices the
more serious money is moved around. Stacks of dollar bills, generally
preferred to the rather weak Somaliland shilling, are processed for local
businessmen and international NGOs - both the United Nations Development
Programme and World Food Programme have outfits in Hargeisa, and Dahabshiil
is the preferred means of making financial transfers. The company's success,
whilst extremely impressive, tells you something about the limitations of
the Somaliland economy - it is substantially based around bringing in wealth
Whilst the economy may be on the up, Somaliland still feels extremely
isolated. An employee of a big international NGO who I met in the lobby of
my hotel, The Mansoor, looked at me with astonishment when I said I'd come
to Hargeisa for fun. "The biggest danger here," he said "is dying of
boredom." This might have been typical ex-pat world weariness, but it
underlined the fact that Somaliland has successfully insulated itself from
the more newsworthy goings on in Southern Somalia. I'm told there are
probably Al-Shabaab sleeper cells in Hargeisa, but the militant islamist
group hasn't attempted an attack since 2008 when it bombed the presidential
palace, the Ethiopian consulate and UNDP offices. Security at the Ethiopian
consulate is still tight, with mobile phones confiscated at the front desk.
This causes a blazing row between my guide, who considered himself above
such precautions, and the rather jumpy soldier at the gate.
I'm interested to know what actual problems are attached to international
non-recognition as a state. The answer I get most regularly is associated
with the processes of doing business - the lack of any international banks
(hence the success of Dahabshiil), the difficulty of obtaining insurance -
I'm pretty sure my own travel insurance would have been invalid if I'd
needed it there. I didn't bother to ask. But there seemed very little
likelihood of anything actually going missing in the country. The Somaliland
population seemed almost pathologically honest - money is stored in great
blocks on the street and transported in sacks.
A more concrete example is provided by Africa Confidential, which recently
reported that the Hong Kong oil company PetroTrans is likely to pull out of
investing in the port of Berbera, having been unable to obtain insurance for
the Liquified Natural Gas plant it was to build. The plant was to link up
gas fields in Ethiopia's Ogaden region with export facilities on the coast,
and will now see Somaliland lose out to its tiny, but strategically
important neighbour Djibouti.
When I drove it, the road east out of Addis Ababa towards the coast is busy
with trucks, but the traffic thins out when you pass the turn off North
towards Djibouti, and the Southern fork heads towards Dire Dawa, and beyond
that the capital of the Somali region, Jijiga. The road is good however, but
there isn't much using it, and we skim along it at a steady 100km per hour
passing bright green fields of khat, which look like tea plantations, and
provide a mild stimulant when chewed that makes the heat of the afternoon
bearable for populations from Northern Kenya to Yemen. Good travelling
conditions continue right up to the Ethiopian border, but then stop abruptly
for the 90km onwards to Hargeisa which is a dirt track through the Western
haud region. This is Somaliland's most fertile land, excellent for
agriculture and pastoral grazing, but bad for unmade roads, which become
thick with mud after heavy rain. Ethiopia's continued poor relations with
Eritrea make port facilities in neighbouring countries of crucial
importance. So it feels like Somaliland is missing out.
In Hargeisa the main streets are buzzing, shops sell goods imported mainly
from the Middle East and money changers sit behind massive blocks of
Shillings (6,500 to the dollar.) But leave the capital and you begin to see
the place's real challenges. How do you grow an economy in a small, isolated
patch of semi-desert? The livestock trade, sheep and goats exported to Saudi
Arabia (particularly during the hajj) is a big deal. This forms a nice
historical continuity, as the Protectorate of British Somaliland was
invented in order to safeguard the export of meat to the strategically more
important military base across the water at Aden. Berbera is the main export
hub, but whilst the port may be doing a roaring trade
(described far better than I can by the BBC's Mary Harper in this audio
piece), the town is unprepossessing and frighteningly hot.
I swam in the luke-warm Indian ocean and kicked a football around with some
Somali boys and their father who have come down to the coast for a brief
beach holiday. Fully-clothed Somali women wade into the gently breaking
surf, their colourful dresses becoming soaked as the men splash around in
shorts. Somaliland is still quite a conservative society, and whilst I
couldn't hope to penetrate below the surface during my short trip, a friend
casually mentioned that Hargeisa was "much more fun" before the civil war.
He suggested that when the great exodus took place in the face of
bombardment from Siyad Barre's Air Force in the late 1980s, the people
turned to their religion. Many left the country altogether, never to return.
An entrepreneurial hotel owner has built the Berbera Mansoor with beach
houses facing out to sea, but it looks pretty empty to me and not a patch on
the Hargeisa version where the lobby is full of youthful NGO types on
laptops and Somali men watching Premier League football or Al Jazeera. I saw
no other casual visitors, and in truth, my motivation for a Somaliland
mini-break wasn't with relaxation central to my plans. Genuine tourist
activities are scarce, although
> the cave paintings at
Las Geel should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but instead are down an
unmade side road and suffer from the corrosive droppings of the swifts that
nest in cracks in the cave walls.
I wonder whether Somaliland's successes have been made possible by the fact
that it has stayed, substantially, off the radar.
Richard Dowden predicts that if it was ever formally granted independence
then it would most likely precipitate a new war with the South. However,
whilst many Southern Somalis still believe in the principle of a united, or
a Greater Somalia, it seems unlikely that the South would be in a genuine
position to resist. Internationally recognised independence seems something
of a totemic desire for Somalilanders - everyone I spoke to in Hargeisa
passionately believed in it. A trio of trainee anaesthetists told me that
they were desperate to continue their studies outside of Somaliland so that
they could come back as doctors and help build the country, but their
qualifications were not recognised internationally. They all came from
reasonably wealthy Somali families who could afford to send them abroad, but
nowhere would take them. Such misfortune was immediately attributed to
non-recognition, but I thought that it might have more to do with the
quality of the institution - existing on a shoe-string budget, with few
qualified staff - rather than recognition per se.
Back in London I attend a briefing with the Somaliland Foreign Minister Dr
Mohamed Omar - a bespectacled, determined man fiercely proud of "our
extraordinary achievement" in building Somaliland up from the rubble of the
civil war. Foreign governments are clearly starting to take Somaliland
seriously as a political, if not a national, entity. Liaison offices for
countries, including the UK and Turkey, are springing up in the capital and
President Silanyo attended the London Conference on Somalia in his own right
as head of 'state.' But there are worries - the security situation remains
uncertain, and whilst Mogadishu may have gained from the expulsion of
Al-Shabaab, there is a danger that the movement may splinter, and
concentrate its operations on easier targets like Hargeisa, which unlike
Mogadishu, is not defended by thousands of African Union troops.
Somaliland's foreign policy is about "much more than just international
recognition" says Dr Omar, and I tend to agree. Recognition is merely a
necessary development in order to ensure people take the country seriously.
Visiting the place might lull you into a false sense of security that
everything is calm, but this is still a small player in a bad neighbourhood.
Somalilanders cast their eyes South with nervousness, whilst desperately
trying to persuade investors that everything is fine.
Magnus Taylor is managing editor, African Arguments Online.
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Received on Mon May 28 2012 - 09:11:30 EDT