Somaliland is an overlooked African success story

Posted in Africa | 08-Mar-07 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

A money exchange in Somaliland, where large sums can be moved safely in public, in contrast to the lawlessness in the south.

Instead of violence and chaos, Somaliland enjoys stability

HARGEYSA, Somalia: When the sun rises over the craggy hills of Hargeysa, it sheds light on a different kind of Somalia.

Ice cream trucks hit the streets. Money changers, unarmed and unguarded, push cash through the market in wheelbarrows. Politicians from three distinct parties get ready for another day of debate, which recently included animated discussion on registering nomadic voters.

It is all part of a Somali puzzle: how one area of the country, the northwest, also known as Somaliland, can seem so peaceful and functional — so normal, in fact — while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess.

This tale of two Somalias is especially striking now, as thousands of African Union peacekeepers prepare to rescue Mogadishu, the nation's capital, from itself. The internationally backed transitional government that seized Mogadishu in late December with Ethiopia's help says it cannot survive without foreign aid and foreign peacekeepers to quell clan fighting and an escalating insurgency.

Residents of Somaliland, who have wrestled with their own clan conflicts, find this ridiculous.

"You can't be donated power," said Dahir Rayale Kahin, president of the republic of Somaliland, which has long declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia. "We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems. Our brothers in the south are still waiting — till now — for others."

But Somalilanders are waiting, too: waiting to be recognized. In 1991, as Somalia's government disintegrated and clan fighting in the south spun out of control, Somaliland, traditionally one of the poorest parts of Somalia, claimed its independence.

But no country acknowledges it as a separate state, and very few even contribute aid — which makes Somaliland's success all the more intriguing.

Its leaders, with no Western experts at their elbow, have designed a political system that minimizes clan rivalries while carving out a special role for clan elders, the traditional pillars of Somali society.

They have demobilized thousands of the young gunmen who still plague southern Somalia and melded them into a national army. They have held three rounds of multiparty elections, no small feat in a region, the Horn of Africa, where multiparty democracy is mostly a rumor. Somalia, for one, has not had free elections since the 1960s.

Of course, Somaliland has not always been so stable and Somalia has not always been so chaotic. Even now, critics say the Somaliland government can be repressive and inefficient, and the mental hospital in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, seem to be evidence of both — patients are chained to their beds in dark, smelly rooms.

But Somalilanders are quick to point out that at least they have a mental hospital, which the more populous south does not. Their steady, underdog efforts to sculpt a functioning state from the ruins of war seems to dispel the notion that Somalia is an inherently ungovernable, warlike place.

So, what happened?

"It all goes back to the Brits," according to Hajji Abdi Waraabe, an 89-year- old member of Somaliland's upper house of Parliament.

When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got southern Somalia.

While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.

The result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, but its traditional systems of authority were weakened.

That is partly why, many Somalia analysts say, warlords were able to outmuscle clan elders and dominate Mogadishu in the vacuum that formed after the central government fell.

The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact. The two territories were granted independence in 1960 and quickly merged to form the Somali Republic, but it was never a happy marriage. By the 1980s, the Somali National Movement, a northern rebel group, was blowing up government posts.

In 1988, government fighter-bombers, at the orders of President Mohamed Siad Barre, flattened Hargeysa, killing 50,000 civilians.

The Somali National Movement proved indispensable in the fragile years after the Barre government collapsed. It set up the guurti, a council of wise men from every clan, which soon evolved into an official decision-making body. Most of the men were illiterate herders but they became the glue that held Somaliland together.

In a sparsely populated nomadic society, where many people live far from government services, clan elders are traditionally the ones to reconcile differences and maintain social order.

"They were a cushion," said Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo, the leader of Somaliland's main opposition party. "Whenever there was friction, these old men would step in and say, 'What's wrong with you boys? Stay together.'"

In the 1990s, while clan warlords in Mogadishu were leveling the city's fine Italian architecture, the guurti, along with rebel leaders, were building a government.

Somaliland, like southern Somalia, was awash with weapons and split by warring clans. Their first step was persuading the militiamen to give up their guns — a goal that still seems remote in the south. They moved slowly, first taking the armed pickups, then the heavy guns and ultimately leaving light weapons in the hands of the people.

Again, this stood in contrast to the south, where thousands of American marines and UN peacekeepers in the early 1990s failed to put a dent in the clan violence.

"We had a higher purpose," said Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland's foreign minister. "Independence. And nobody on the outside world was going to help us get there."

That would prove to be a theme here. The less outside help, the better. Over the years southern Somalia has received tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in aid, Somaliland almost nothing.

The difference is striking, though it is true that Somaliland may be easier to govern with its smaller population, an estimated 2.5 million compared with 6 million in the south.

For elections in 2002, Somaliland leaders devised a system specifically to check clan power.

They limited the number of political parties to three to prevent a repeat of the fragmentation of the 1960s, when nationwide elections spawned more than 60 political parties, essentially one for each subclan. It was an attempt to create parties based on ideology, not tribe, something that has proven difficult across Africa.