Somaliland rises from the rubble, 25 years after 'independence'

Somaliland Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire
Somaliland Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire M. Mudan

On the celebration of its 25th self-declared independence on 18 May, Somaliland’s top officials say it has all the factors a state needs to function a flourishing democracy, vibrant and rapidly-growing capital, and its own currency. Despite this, the self-declared country often confused with its unstable neighbour to the south is missing the key ingredient international recognition.


Somaliland's quest for independence, 25 years on

“Somaliland is in a way a recognized state, but its recognition is one of a de facto state, not of a sovereign state. We believe we have every right to be recognized as a sovereign state because we fulfil all the requirements of a sovereign state,” says Foreign Minister Saad Ali Shire.

Waiters, café goers, and anyone who even speaks a smattering of English enjoy relaying the history of the former British protectorate after independence in 1960. For five days, Somaliland enjoyed its status as a sovereign state a point Saad stresses is crucial to remember.

“I would really like to make this very clear one of the reasons why Somaliland has not been recognized up to now is the lack of understanding of the history of Somaliland. Somaliland is not a new country,” says Saad, speaking to RFI in Hargeisa.

Part of the issue is that the African Union is wary of the balkanisation of Somalia, as both Somaliland and Puntland, formerly known as Italian Somaliland, have pushed for independence. However, Saad does not see it the same way.

“If Eritrea could separate from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan, then I think it should be a big deal for Somaliland to separate from Somalia as well,” he says.

Its rise from the rubble is nothing less than extraordinary. During the Somali civil war, fighter planes took off from Hargeisa airport, only to bomb Hargeisa itself. A colourful monument stands in downtown Hargeisa today, to ensure that Somalilanders do not forget.

Monument in downtown Hargeisa to remember the bombing of Hargeisa during the civil war
Monument in downtown Hargeisa to remember the bombing of Hargeisa during the civil war LA Bagnetto

The country is composed of six regions three to the east, sharing a border with its autonomous neighbour Puntland, and three to the west, bordering Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Somaliland, even if it is not officially recognized, conducts brisk trade with its neighbours and the Gulf states. Familial ties bind too. Extended families living in Djibouti flee the 50°C temperatures from June to September to enjoy the ‘balmier’ 40° climes of coastal Somaliland.

While one-fourth of the whole country of four million people lives in Hargeisa, those on the far-flung coast or in the arid interior still maintain a direct connection through the wide-reaching 3G cellular telephone system. Most are connected to Telesom, but some customers have switched to the newer Somtel. Unfortunately one cannot call the other.

Paying for goods and services can be carried out in Somaliland shillings, U.S. dollars, or via the “Zaab”, an m-Pesa form of paying for everything and anything via your cell phone.

And while all this talk of recognition or not seems like a moot point, the devastating drought that saw a primarily pastoralist country lose all its livestock and livelihood in the first three months of this year could have been prevented if the country had been recognized, according to the foreign minister.

“If we were recognized we would have been able to borrow the money we need to build the infrastructure that will ensure that we have water available throughout the country. And we would also be able to access bilateral aid,” Saad says.

Somaliland currently relies on multilateral agencies, such as Save the Children and the 70 international non-governmental organisations operating in the country. He maintains that if given official status, Somaliland could attract private investors to put funding towards utilities, specifically water.

Somalia holds the purse strings for Somaliland when it comes to international aid, too. As Somalia wrangles for aid money from international donors, Saad says little goes to Somaliland itself. Somalia is reluctant to let go.

“Sometimes the multilateral organisations have one envelope for all Somalia, and that also creates problems for us. In order for us to be able to address the issue of droughts, and in general of infrastructure and development, I think we need the international community to award us the sovereignty we need,” he adds.

Saad admits that the country is still faced with challenges primarily in creating jobs for youth, overall poverty, and making sure children are in school. But he also pointed to Somaliland’s rapid growth within the past 25 years, pointing to more 140 secondary schools and 27 universities, which boast up to 6,000 graduates a year.

“It’s time to celebrate - but I also think it is time to take stock of the challenges ahead - politically, economically and socially as well,” he says.

Environment Minister Shukri H. Ismail Mohamoud, who returned to Somaliland from exile in the US 23 years ago to become one of the first seven members of the National Electoral Commission, says Somalilanders know who they are.

“Sometimes you feel neglected, but we recognize ourselves from inside ourselves, we recognize ourselves from our hearts and from our minds,” she says. “But first of all, we recognized it ourselves, a long time ago 25 years ago.”

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