Somaliland: The World Says Somalia, but the Signs Say Somaliland


First Published on June 5 2006 by the New York Times

Edna Adan Ismail with Somalilands flag during her tenure as foreign minister of the republic

Somalilandsun – HARGEYSA, Somalia — Edna Adan Ismail may get angry when she reads this. In fact, she may pick up the phone and vent, berating anyone with the gall to suggest that this city sits inside Somalia.

She will go on at length about the unique history of this region in the northwestern part of a place that she says used to be called Somalia but no longer is. She will describe the declaration 15 years ago making this an independent land and the referendum a decade later affirming it. She will emphatically say that this is not Somalia. It is Somaliland. Got it?

But she may be a bit premature in making that claim. Sure, Ms. Ismail, the foreign minister of the breakaway republic of Somaliland, considers this an independent land. But even a decade and a half after the area’s so-called independence, no country in the world recognizes it as such. The African Union, which is made up of all the countries on the continent, does not acknowledge a Somaliland nation, nor does the United Nations.


In fact, just the other day, Ms. Ismail was chastising Eric Laroche, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, because he dared send a letter to her government calling himself just that. She was outraged and offended, she said, and at a diplomatic reception that was anything but diplomatic she let Mr. Laroche know what she thought of his missive, which did not acknowledge Somaliland. Next time, she said in her rather blunt way, she will send such a letter back.

“We feel slighted, discriminated against, ignored and isolated,” she explained later. “We’ve been doing our own thing for the last 15 years. We have put our act together. Instead of encouraging us, we are being pushed toward Somalia, which continues to fall apart.”

Somaliland does have a rather unique history. After being a British protectorate since 1884, Somaliland became an independent country on June 26, 1960. The rest of present-day Somalia, then administered by Italy, became independent several days later. Within days, the two lands decided to merge.

But Somalilanders felt slighted almost from the start, since most of the power went to the south of the country. Somalilanders rejected a referendum on a unitary constitution in June 1961 and, later that year, military officers in Hargeysa began an unsuccessful rebellion to reassert Somaliland’s independence.

Over the years, the leaders in Mogadishu fought to keep control of Somaliland. In 1988, a full-scale civil war broke out between the Mogadishu-based government and Somaliland rebels.

Somaliland has escaped much of the chaos that plagues Somalia

In May 1991, as Somalia descended into anarchy with the fall of the government of Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, Somaliland declared itself independent. A decade later, a referendum in Somaliland on the issue showed 97 percent of the population in favor of independence, and Somaliland has essentially ruled itself, given the lack of a central government in Somalia.

But getting recognition from the rest of the world has proved nettlesome. African leaders are hesitant to acknowledge the claim for fear of stirring up more chaos in Somalia. They also do not want to encourage rebels elsewhere on the continent who desire independent states of their own.

Still, an African Union fact-finding mission declared last year that Somaliland’s status was “unique and self-justified in African political history,” and that “the case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a Pandora’s box.’ “

The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Brussels that tries to prevent and resolve conflicts, recommended in a recent report that the African Union address the issue soon “to prevent a deeply rooted dispute from evolving into an open conflict.”

Somalilanders celebrated those words, and then they continued doing what they have been doing for so long — waiting.

It is not easy being a Somalilander. The Somaliland passport — which bears the region’s logo and looks as official as any other nation’s — is not recognized by any country in the world, although the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Djibouti do allow people to travel with it while still not officially recognizing Somaliland as a country.

Somalilanders, a People of Resilience

The Somaliland president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, is regarded more as a governor by other nations, even though he considers himself to be as much a president as, say, Thabo Mbekiof South Africa, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya or Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, three prominent presidents on this continent.

“I don’t want to live in an isolated portion of this planet,” said Mohamed M. Jamma, a law lecturer at the University of Hargeysa. “We fulfill all the criteria of a modern state. We’ve had elections. We have rule of law. Yet we are on the periphery.”

Fifteen years is a long time to live in limbo, although Somalilanders have not just been biding their time. They have been hard at work, trying to rebuild a place that was in a shambles when it declared itself independent. The capital was virtually leveled by the government in Mogadishu as it sought to quell the rebellion. The countryside was littered with land mines. The same kind of bitter clan rivalry that has led to the collapse of the rest of Somalia was alive and well here, too.

Residents say Hargeysa has risen from the ruins of war 15 years ago.Somaliland is now an oasis of sorts, a relatively peaceful, reasonably well functioning corner of a country that lies in ruins. Gunmen do not rule the streets here. The local police do. A series of elections have been held, including a presidential contest that was closer than the one in which George W. Bush beat Al Gore. The courts declared Mr. Kahin the victor and the populace accepted it. In essence, Somaliland has been able to manage interclan rivalry and build basic democratic institutions, whereas the rest of Somalia has found itself in an anarchic struggle for control.

Hargeysa is still a rundown place, although those who know what it was like 15 years ago rave about how it has risen from the rubble. There are still plenty of people living in squalor here, although Somalilanders point out that their fledgling nation has become a refuge for people from across the area in search of something Somaliland offers but the rest of Somalia does not — stability.

“Why not recognize us?” asked Khara Ahmed Biih, 44, who was walking down Hargeysa’s main street the other day carrying a cane. “It makes us frustrated because if you see our country we have everything any other country does.”

It is an argument Ms. Ismail, a midwife turned diplomat, has made many times, and is likely to make again, on the phone, any time now.


First Published on June 5, 2006 by The New York Times