Somaliland: A Study in Contrasts


This piece forms of the writer’s personal and unfiltered impressionsof Somaliland (Africa’s best kept secret, as pithily described by academic/diplomat Iqbal Jahazbyafter his first visit) after a long absence extending more than a decade.-Ahmed M I Egal 

 Somaliland Africas best kept secret

Somalilandsun- The first thing that strikes one, like a slap ithe face, on the drive from the airport into Hargeisa is the almost complete lack of basic infrastructure – the road into the city remains a punishing track pitted with gaping potholes with sharp rock jutting through the decayed asphalt dating back to the glorious democratic era of the 1960s.So, nothing has changed on the social investment front, I think, as we drive through the city and navigate narrow, dusty streets where people, animals and all forms of transport (motor, animal and human driven) compete and jostle for space in an anarchic, but good natured flow.  As we enter the city centre, the flow slows to a snail’s pace as the already narrow dirt streets taper further since small traders have encroachedthe road to spread their wares for the passing traffic, while local minibuses stop to disgorge and swallow passengers.  The second thing that strikes me is the open and carefree demeanor of the people, young and adult, despite the obvious and pervasive poverty.  It is both uplifting, and a little disconcerting, to witness people with little or no material possessions pursue their lives and livelihoods with optimism and determination.  This open and unaffected optimism is genuine and not a manifestation of state-driven propaganda, nor is it the result of some mass psychosis brought on by the daily ingestion of copious amounts khat (the mild stimulant shrub chewed throughout East Africa and Yemen), but rather born of the indefatigable confidence of ordinary people that they will overcome the debilitating disadvantages and harsh hardships of their present lot.

As I marvel and enjoy this gorgeous contrast between seemingly insurmountable adversity and the exuberant optimism and gritty determination of its eventual conquerors, a sudden, guilty realization dawns on me.  I am perceiving my home and my countrymen through foreign, expatriate eyes!  The modern history of Somaliland has been defined by the impossible victory of popular will against overwhelming adversaries time and again.  During the past three and a half decades, this small country of some four million pastoralistsand their herds of sheep, goats and camels has overcome a genocidal dictatorship that deployed MIG25jet fighters of the national air force (often piloted by foreign mercenaries) to bomb the cities and their civilian populations; mass expulsions and a systematic program of ethnic cleansing to drive out the populationa decade-long guerilla war to evict the dictator’s army from their country; inter-clan conflicts in the aftermath of liberation; a sustained and crippling Gulf Arab boycott of the country’s only export and source of foreign revenue, livestock; the tide of jihadist nihilism sweeping the region which has secured a foothold in neighbouring Somalia and two of the worst droughts in living memoryrealise that the abundant and evident optimism and confidence of the people of this country is neither inexplicable nor separate from the equally abundant and evident poverty and broken, or non-existent, infrastructure.  These seemingly opposing facets of Somaliland life make perfect sense to its people – the former is the proven method to defeat the latter which merelycomprisesthe latest set of evils to face and conquer.  In similar spirit, I resolved not to surrender to the foreign perspective of my trans-cultural psyche.

Since Somaliland recovered its sovereignty in 1991, it has not been recognized formally by any nation and has been ignored by the international community, even as it has spent countless time, treasure and effort to revive and rehabilitate the Humpty Dumpty that was Somalia.  Meantime, the people of Somaliland have succeeded in establishing for themselves peace & reconciliation, a functioning state structure and representative government evidenced by local and national elections that the same international community which obdurately ignores the country’s legitimate claim for recognition, deems free & fair (although by no means perfect) and worthy of its support and finance.  This hypocritical and cowardly policy of the AU, the Western Powers and the Arab World has condemned Somaliland to an Orwellian existence in which it is a functioning, peaceful and democratic state with which the international community interacts through the back door by maintaining the ridiculous fiction that Somaliland is “an autonomous region of Somalia”.

The second contrast that is impossible to miss is the burgeoning energy and vitality of private enterprise as evidenced by the plethora of construction projects for new commercial and residential buildings, the incessant chatter into the ubiquitous cell phones that deftly fit into the oral culture of the Somali language and also substitute for a non-existent banking sector by providing a digital payment platform, and the hustle and bustle of the sprawling, opensmall trader markets selling all forms of goods – including pharmaceuticals (often expired and of uncertain provenance),  clothing & textiles, consumer products, electronics, foreign currency exchanges with bundles of currency piled openly, and without armed guard, on the streets and, of course, the all-pervasive khat.  Against this tableau of private energy and growth, is the blank slate of public sector investment in physical and social infrastructure. I could not see any significant addition to Hargeisa’s roads, water & sewage system, power generation & distribution system due to government investment.  Yet, there is ample evidence of the great and growing wealth of the political class as evidenced by the sprawling villas hidden inside walled compounds with imposing steel gates.  This contrast does not conjure awe and joy, but rather anger and disappointment.  Surely, an entire nation did not go to war to topple a corrupt and genocidal dictatorshipin order to recover their liberty so that a few may enrich themselves on the backs of the many.  Surely, the people did not bring forth their better selves and lay the foundation of their recovered nation on the bedrock of generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, for the enrichment of a pampered political elite (mostly hailing from the diaspora, like myself).

This ugly contrast is as evident to ordinary people as it is to a returnee such as myself.  Yet, the perspective of the average citizen seems to be, “We see what they’re (those in power) doing, but, we voted them into office, and we’ll fire them the same way at the next election”.  The Somaliland public is the most politically mature electorate I’ve ever come across – they understand very clearly that the coming Presidential and Parliamentary elections will determine the future of their remarkable little country, and they see through most of the posturing and machinations of the competing parties.  What evidences the maturity and sagacity mentioned above, is that ordinary people refuse to be baited by any party or group into public confrontations and civil unrest.  It is rare to witness a society in which the peoples’ solidity and commitment to constitutional methods trumps the provocations and incitements of the political class – both government and opposition.  This is precisely why Somaliland will survive and prevail over every obstacle, including the cruel denial and neglect of the international community.  This is a nation where the will of the people prevails, and, provided that the peace, basic rule of law (traditional and constitutional), security and representative governance that they have established during the 1990s remains in effect, the people will get on with their lives, and the international community and the political class can continue to play their ineffectual games.

The third inescapable contrast which hits me is perhaps the most fundamental and also the most important for this young and surprising nation brimming with achievement and potential.  This is the contrast between the young, which comprise the overwhelming majority – as much as two thirds are 25 or younger – and the adult population.  The vast majority of these young citizens were born since liberation and have known no authority or governance except that of Somaliland. Yesterday, I visited the University of Hargeisa and walked around its various faculties housed in well-kept buildings and walkways (the campus was completed in 1970 and was originally intended to be a boarding secondary school). I was surprised and pleased to find that its small library provided free Wi-Fi for the students as well as an on-line library comprising some 57,000 books.  What was even more pleasing is that the on-line library was the result of efforts by concerned individuals from the diaspora that worked with the librariansto provide the necessary hardware and software.  The laughter, buzz and tangible air of expectancy and hope among the students as they pour out of lecture halls and classrooms is infectious and takes me back to my university days.

These students are the lucky few.  Their contemporaries which cannot, or would not, secure a place in one of the universities, colleges, institutes and other institutions of higher education or vocational training, face a bleak future since there are no jobs to speak of.  While the private sector is robust and growing, it can provide no more than tiny trickle of jobs for the tens of thousands of students that complete secondary schools or simply grow into the job market every year, and the government has not managed to develop an effective policy response to this growing crisis of youth unemployment. Many of these kids are lured by desperation, naivete and the seeming invincibility of youth to seek better opportunities in the Arabian Gulf or Western Europe, and so into the evil grip of people traffickers and the criminal gangs they feed.  Thus far, the jihadist nihilists have not managed to seduce significant numbers of these unfortunate youngsters, however it is reasonable to suggest that as the numbers of the unemployed youth continues to grow, and their desperation morphs into discontent, then this situation is likely to reverse.  The problem of youth unemployment is a crisis-in-the-makingand Somaliland will have to get to grips with it and find some creative solutions to address and ameliorate it.

To date, i.e. since the recovery of the country’s independence in 1991, the fulfilment of the dream of nationhood and the abiding hope of international recognition has nourished and maintained Somaliland’s confidence in the future and their conviction in the success of their mission to establish a peaceful, democratic state even as their region is beset by war, devastation, famine and the nihilist violence of jihadists. The proportion of the country’s youth that choose to risk their lives seeking better opportunities abroad is surprisingly smaller than objective analysis of the economic conditions and prevailing employment prospects would lead one to believe.  Available evidence indicates that the largest numbers of the youthful migrants from the Horn of Africa come from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia with Somaliland last.  This is not to seek to minimize the problem, since it is growing, but merely to place it in proper perspective. The contrast here is between the hope for the future, dwindling though it may be, of the young and the cynical machinations of the political elite, comprised mainly of diaspora carpet baggers, that seem focused upon their enrichment rather than public service.  While the cynical machinations and open kleptocracy of political elites is a sad axiom of the African condition in the 21st century, it seems particularly cruel in this remarkable, as yet unrecognized, gem of country that has achieved so much.

Finally, in conclusion, I must comment upon those men and women which returned home from the diaspora after liberation, often from comfortable lives and good prospects, to partake of the life of their nation and participate in its growth and development.  This is a deeply personal matter for me since my brother, Ibrahim, who passed away recently, was one of these unsung stalwarts which chose to return home to a devastated nation and make a life here for themselves and their loved ones, and in so doing formed a part of the powerful beam of popular hope that has guided this nation to peace, reconciliation and indigenous democracy. They did not return to seek public office or self-aggrandizement, nor to settle scores, but simply to live in their home and participate in the life of their nation and people, often by establishing small businesses.  The simple decency of their motivation and the potency of their example formed an integral part of the bedrock of popular determination for peace and justice that guided Somaliland’s path to reconciliation and representative government.  So, to my brother Ibrahim and the countless others like him which returned to take their place as citizens and lead by the example of their lives, I salute your courage and your vision, and shall seek to emulate your determination and your dignity.

Ahmed M.I. Egal

16 December 2016