Somaliland: Father, worker, leader in exile


By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen June

OTTAWA — Meet Rashid Hersi — Barrhaven father of five, part-time mail room employee at the Citizen, president of a self-declared independent state in the Horn of Africa.

In between inserting flyers into your daily paper, taking his kids swimming and dropping them at homework club, 43-year-old Hersi has a cabinet to wrangle, a fledgling parliament to consult, a constitution to fine-tune.

Awdal State is new, small — “about the size of Ontario,” says Hersi — and recognized by no one. Its stated goal is to seek separation of the region of Awdal from Somaliland, itself a self-declared independent state that broke away from Somalia 20 years ago, and is recognized by no one. Hersi represents a cadre of people from Awdal who want to return to the broader Somali federation. Imagine Quebec separating from the rest of Canada, and pro-federalists in Florida setting up a shadow government to push for Canadian unity.

This is not a joke, it’s a political tactic, one to which Hersi and his friend — and chief of staff — Suleiman Douksieh are deeply committed.

“We consider Awdal State occupied land,” says Hersi, whose writings on the topic refer to the “deviant and destructive” intentions of the Somaliland militia and accuse them of “heinous organized murders, imprisonment, repression and economic strangulation.”

Human Rights Watch issued a report last January critical of the Somaliland government for its weak judicial system and “low-level harassment” of opposition activists and journalists.

“The government of Somaliland is getting millions in international aid and people have no idea what is going on there,” says Hersi. “Not a dime is spent in Awdal, and so many of our supporters are in jail.”

After the fall of Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somaliland — a former British protectorate in the north — declared independence from the rest of Somalia. It has a functioning, relatively stable government and over the years it has known far more peace, if not prosperity, than its neighbours to the south. But in recent years tensions within the state have increased and separation movements have grown. Awdal region is on its western flank, along the border with Djibouti and Ethiopia. To the east of central Somaliland is Khatuumo region, which is itself deeply unhappy with the government of Somaliland and whose leaders have taken up arms to make their point. Clan politics are pivotal throughout — the majority of Awdalites are from the Gadabursi clan, while the Isaaq dominate the central region. Many Somali-Canadians in Ottawa are of Gadabursi origin.

Last November, Awdalites from around the world gathered in London to elect a president and parliament. Hersi was one of four people contending for the top job; according to a statement issued by the Electoral Commission of Awdal State, two candidates dropped out and Hersi defeated his final opponent by a simple majority. Hersi, who says he studied law as an undergraduate in Somalia before coming to Canada in 1992, later drafted the constitution and picked his cabinet.

Hersi says he gets calls from people living in Awdal every day, updating him on political developments and conditions on the ground, including the jailing of anyone who speaks up about separation from Somaliland. Every weekend he shoos the kids out of the TV room in the basement of his townhouse and has a conference call with his cabinet ministers. The minister of planning lives in England, minister for information and telecommunications in Switzerland, minister of justice in New Zealand, and his minister of fisheries and ocean resources is based in Edmonton.

Also on the call is Hersi’s chief of staff, Suleiman Douksieh, 58, an Orléans network specialist with a background in marketing. Something of an elder statesman in the Awdalite disapora, Douksieh says everyone involved in the Awdal state government is constantly surfing Somaliland news and blogs and talking to supporters back in Awdal for developments. They maintain an Awdal State channel on YouTube, post to blogs and diaspora websites and issue press releases critical of Somliland policies.

“This is a shadow government,” says Douksieh. “The Somaliland president has a chief of staff, and I keep an eye on him. Whatever he says or does, I reply. The same goes for the other ministers.”

The tools may be new, but running a shadow government in exile is not. Charles de Gaulle organized the Free French from a suburb of London, and even now, Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the different types of government in exile (Awdal seems to fit in the “alternative separatist governments of current subnational territories” section). Even Somaliland has its own apparatus abroad, including a newly appointed representative to Canada, Ottawa accountant Loula Isman. She says her job is to lobby Canadian officials to recognize the state of Somaliland — an uphill task.

“Canada recognizes the state of Somalia and as such, does not accord formal recognition to Somaliland,” according to a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Isman denies the accusations of mistreatment of Awdal, and says everything was fine until an Awdalite president of Somaliland was succeeded by someone from the Isaaq clan. Now, Isman says, the situation is “very delicate.”

“Creating Awdal state is not reasonable,” says Isman, who has lived in Ottawa for 20 years. “Awdal is a part of Somaliland. If they have problems they can sit down and address the issues in a positive way.”

In January Hersi and his foreign affairs minister — who lives in Edmonton — visited Kenya, Somalia and elsewhere, where they say they received warm support for Awdal’s efforts to reunify Somalia. Hersi recently booked time off from the mail room to fly to Istanbul, Turkey to join international talks on the future government of the Somali federation. As a result, he missed the big Awdal State celebration that was held on June 6 at the Villa Marconi on Baseline Rd.

The effort is a labour of love for all involved, says the president’s chief of staff.

“Many of us are spending half our salaries for this cause — with our wives’ support,” Douksieh says.

Hersi nods.

“We are here physically, but mentally we are there.”

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