Somalilandsun – It is not as picturesque as Kigali, but I hope you will enjoy your stay in Hargeisa,” so said an elderly man I encountered soon after I arrived in the capital of the Republic of Somaliland, over two weeks ago. I was in town to attend the Hargeisa International Book Fair.
His reference to Rwanda’s capital came after I told him I was from Kigali, when he asked: “Where are you coming from?” I had flown in from Rwanda on a flight that, at well over a thousand US dollars for less than five hours of actual flying time, had cost my hosts, the Red Sea Foundation, as much money as could have easily paid for a return trip to somewhere much more distant.
East Africans complain a lot about the high cost of air travel, even as their governments tell them, day in day out, how they want them to travel more within the region, not least because it is good for business and regional integration generally.
I couldn’t stop marvelling at how Somalilanders and their visitors are being milked dry in what, to someone with little understanding of how the aviation industry works, looks like naked profiteering. I have no idea how the airline that took me there justifies its fares.
However, I did sound out some Somalilanders about it. Apparently it has something to do with their country’s “legal status.”
And this is where things get really interesting to a first-time visitor who comes with little knowledge, if any, of the history of that intriguing corner of the world. As with the history of any other country, that of Somaliland is long and complex, and the subject of much debate and theorising.
There is, however, a short version that helps one get to grips pretty quickly with what is happening and has been happening since just before colonial rule ended and the country that appears on the map of Africa as “Somalia,” came into being.
Somalia, which was born in 1960, was the product of two bits of territory, both inhabited by Somalis, coming together voluntarily to form one country.
Before that happened, the northern bit, which is now Somaliland, had been a British protectorate, while the southern bit, present-day Somalia with its unending turmoil, was an Italian colony. Like most marriages, this one kicked off amid much fanfare and optimism about the future.
And like some, it became terribly unhappy — for the north at least — courtesy of bad behaviour on the part of southerner-dominated post-colonial governments, especially that of General Mohamed Siad Barre. And so in 1991 northerners opted to reclaim the independence they had won from the British before they gave it up in favour of union with their southern brethren. That, though, it seems, was the easy bit.
Nearly 25 years down the road, for reasons that could be summed up loosely as “political,” the world has chosen not to recognise Somaliland as a real country, as the legitimate authority representing and speaking on behalf of the people who identify themselves as Somalilanders.
That, despite the territory having the trappings of a functioning state, with all the institutions and attributes that make it indistinguishable from any other (save for what remains of its Somalia counterpart and others that have suffered collapse) elsewhere on the continent.
Non-recognition has not been without effect. For one thing, Somaliland receives no assistance from the international community that comes anywhere close to the billions of dollars that flow into, and often disappear from, its dysfunctional counterpart down south.
Somalilanders, however, have not curled up in despair and gone to sleep. In many ways, this really is one of the most interesting things about the place.
There is even a sense in which one could argue that the near-absence of the “aid industry” has been a blessing in disguise, for the sense of being on their own seems to have awakened a remarkable industriousness that would put to shame many aid-dependent countries in Africa.
Indeed, Hargeisa may not be picturesque, but it is a rapidly expanding centre of international commerce that is as busy, and congested with traffic during rush hour, as any other city in the sub-region.
Life in Hargeisa confirms to some extent that, good intentions aside, the smothering of poor countries with often wanted but not needed, sometimes misconceived and misdirected aid by charity-minded outsiders stunts local creativity and breeds a damaging dependency mentality that one observes in much of independent Africa.
Equally striking to a sceptic of the wholesale importation of foreign ideas and systems into Africa is the experiment Somalilanders are engaged in, free from harassment by purveyors of “international best practice,” of mixing the traditional and the modern in their search for democracy that fits their context.
The writer Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org