Somaliland: A Raft of Challenges for an Inspiring Book Fair



Somalilandsun – IN a scruffy hall off the dusty main thoroughfare of Somaliland’s capital, Nuruddin Farah, a Somalia-born novelist, is berating the audience at the Hargeisa International Book Fair over what he sees as the inherent cruelty of Somali society. Somali history, he says, “is a consequence of this cruelty…we can never be a democratic society until we change our behaviour towards those we consider lesser.”
Despite being born in the south of Somalia and living in Cape Town Mr Farah, probably the most well-known Somali writer, feels quite at home in the internationally-unrecognised state in Somalia’s north: “I have come to start a debate with my community”. Debate permeated the fair in August and is now in its seventh year. Jama Muse Jama, formerly an Italy-based academic and businessman and now a Hargeisa-based publisher founded the fair in 2008 as a means to allow Somalilanders “to regain their public space… to sit down and simply debate”.
Alongside authors including Nadifa Mohammed, a much-lauded young British-based author born in Hargeisa, topics including the preservation of Somali heritage, mother and infant mortality, female genital mutilation, Somaliland’s own state-building and western stereotypes of Africa exercised hundreds of attendees. Poets, including the incomparable Hadraaawi, Bob Dylan-like here, declaimed sonorously, dervish-like female sitaad dancers whirled. A delegation of writers from Malawi, the guest country, and a sprinkling from Kenya alongside guests from Europe and America underlined the fair’s international credentials.
Hargeisa itself is buzzing. Roads that for decades had been pockmarked by damage caused by war are now being repaired. Construction is booming too with gaudy McMansions, hotels and malls going up. Many are funded by Somaliland’s wide diaspora. The logos of Dahabshiil, a regional money-transfer giant, and conduit for all those diaspora remittances, and mobile phone companies Telesom and Somtel and private university billboards are everywhere. Petrol stations, often bearing the blue-and-yellow livery of Hass Petroleum, based in Kenya, are springing up. Outdoor stalls and cafes bear handpainted signs and the ubiquitous details of the Zaad mobile-payment system. Earlier this year, the opening of a swimming pool, atop a hotel roof, caused local excitement.
Mohamed Awale, the director of planning at the Ministry of Commerce, lauds Somaliland’s regulatory reform to ease investment, but worries that without foreign recognition, Somaliland may remain stuck in “transitional” phase. He also worries about the plight of Somaliland’s young. Some 75% of the population are reckoned to be under 21, and 80% of them unemployed. Another economic threat is financial. Western banks are clamping down on their dealings with money-transfer agents to limit the risk that they may be implicated in financing terrorist or other illicit activity. That may reduce the flow of funds from Somaliland’s diaspora, exacerbating poverty.
Since declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland has sought international recognition and the funding and foreign investment it would bring. It has held a raft of elections judged reasonably fair by international observers, but is little-noticed. The international community, with the backing of the African Union, is focused on Somalia, where international forces are trying to curb an Islamist insurgency and shepherd the country through federal elections, which are scheduled for 2016. Somaliland itself has elections scheduled for 2015, although implementation of a voter-registration system could cause delays.
Yet Somaliland may soon attract increased attention. One reason is the widening contrast between Hargeisa, where the streets are relatively safe, and Mogadishu—where on August 15th, at least 10 people were killed in a government-led attack on a militia leader near the city’s airport. Despite its lack of official recognition, Britain and Denmark are collaborating on a “Somaliland Development Fund” worth US$50m, to back the government’s own ambitious infrastructure development plans.
Oil firms are also taking note. A host of companies, including Turkish and Norwegian firms, have been searching for oil and gas in the east of Somaliland. Although commercial potential has yet to materialise, big hydrocarbon discoveries could bring as many challenges as benefits in an economy that is currently reliant on remittances and livestock exports to the Middle East. Some of the sites being explored are disputed between Somaliland and Puntland, a part of Somalia. Some of the clans in the disputed territories do not recognise Hargeisa’s authority. “It scares me what would happen if someone did make a big oil strike,” says Michael Walls, a Somali expert at University College London (whose own in-depth study of Somaliland’s state-building was launched at the fair). A conflict over oil would be a cruel blow indeed.
by C.H. | HARGEISA and originally published by the Economist