This paper presents materials about the 18 May parade in Somaliland, which commemorates the state’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, looking closely at the vision of the unified nation offered by the jubilant promenade of people, vehicles and even animals down the capital’s main street each year.
By Anna C Rader
This contribution considers the ways in which national days are carefully orchestrated presentations of ‘the nation’ that do not capture or display the diverse images and stories of national sentiment – and antipathy – held by nationals. The paper presents materials about the 18 May parade in Somaliland, which commemorates the state’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, looking closely at the vision of the unified nation offered by the jubilant promenade of people, vehicles, and even animals down the capital’s main street each year.
Such a presentation obscures the fact that the Somaliland nation-state is externally and internally contested, neither internationally recognized nor nationally cohesive, making the celebrations of 18 May a deeply significant political performance. This paper, therefore, considers how national-day celebrations construct and reproduced certain ‘national biographies’ to the exclusion of opposing, or merely variegated, narratives; and how these shape conceptions of citizenship and national politics.
Somaliland, a small wedge-shaped territory along the northern tip of the Horn of Africa, is famously an unrecognized state, having declared its independence from the Somali Republic on 18 May 1991 to the deafening silence of the international community.
Over thirty peace and reconciliation conferences were held at national, regional, and grassroots levels to discuss issues of reparations, power sharing, and conflict resolution, invoking a mixture of democratic and traditional mediation norms.
A constitution was passed by referendum in 2001, the first multi-party elections were held in 2002. Universities opened, newspapers were printed, and remittances from overseas relatives contributed to the rebuilding of homes and the flourishing of businesses.
Now Hargeisa boasts glass-fronted shopping malls with displays of hi-tech wares from Dubai. People zoom around town in taxis or socialize in coffee shops and fast-food joints. This ‘resurrection’ story is critical to Somaliland’s campaign for recognition, which also emphasizes the legal case for independence.
Today, a ‘carefully cultivated and amply broadcasted’ founding myth (Renders, 2012:3) actively delegitimizes the 1960 union with Somalia, claiming that the act of union was not fully or fairly endorsed, and celebrating instead 18 May, the day of unilateral independence.
Every year on that day, much of Somaliland engages in triumphant celebrations, capped by the extravagant morning parade in Hargeisa, the capital city, which is the focus of my paper today. Scholars who write about national parades observe that these are often polysemic, with multiplex representations and various functions and interpretations (e.g. Hung, Blehr, Kuever).
In this paper, I propose that the festivities of 18 May are designed to do three things: first, to generate what Leong calls a socio-psychological investment in the nation, and to give an opportunity for a patriotic outpouring. Second, to obscure difference and contestation, and project an image of a united nation in which people, through the solidarity of celebration, can feel part. Both of these functions are fairly typical, I would argue, but the third aspect of Somaliland’s celebrations are rather unique.
This is that 18 May is used to present Somaliland’s autobiography – to present itself as a state with a particular history and destiny, and continue the campaign for recognition – and to do so overtly for external consumption. The presentation of this highly controlled narrative is also an effort to silence internal critics and opponents of independence, particularly those situated in the east of the country, and thus the projection of unity symbolized by the parade serves to silence competing biographies of the nation in favor of the one favored by Hargeisa’s political elite.
In what follows, I offer a thumbnail sketch of the 18 May parade, drawing on my own observations in 2013 and 2016. Then I extend my argument about the ways in which the depiction of the nation on 18 May is an attempt to write and promote a particular biography that serves the campaign for recognition.
After the religious holidays of Eid and the Prophet’s birthday, 18 May is the largest and most significant national holiday in Somaliland. People make the most of the day off by spending time with family and friends. There are gatherings and meals, and also official events, most particularly the morning parade through Hargeisa and the evening celebration at the presidential palace, both of which are reported over the course of the day on television and radio.
As the capital city, Hargeisa is the centerpiece of the official celebrations. As the day approaches, much of the city becomes festooned in the Somaliland flag: shops hang them from walls and windows, murals are freshly painted, cars are decorated in stickers and spray paint.
The ceremonial decoration of the city is part of the toolbox of state celebrations (cf Hung, 2007), but it is not only a profusion of objects. The people themselves become part of the city’s aesthetic transformation, as they drape themselves metaphorically and literally in the flag. (Flag-themed paraphernalia is sold in shops, and in pop-up stalls outside the main market, so that people can dress in shirts, ties, hats, buttons, badges, and jewelry that advertise Somaliland.)
National days are, almost by definition, specifically constructed ‘intrusive’ and exhibitionist events (Geisler, 2009:18) where the ‘nation’ is consumed (McCrone and McPherson, 2009:3). The morning parade in Hargeisa is the showpiece of such consumption: a loud, colorful and jubilant flow of people, vehicles, and even animals. Such parades are a stalwart of national celebrations, and Somaliland’s are no different.
The culmination of months of planning, the basic format of the parade does not change from year to year. There is a logistical advantage to this, of course, but the predictability and regularity of the parade also give it the character of a national ritual, which suggests continuity and history. Since 2000, the scale of the parade has increased, as more resources, better planning, and the growing infrastructure are put to use.
The parade tracks a route from southern Hargeisa, where the army base is located, passing near the center of town, before turning left onto Road No. 1, passing the presidential palace, parliament, and the main ministries, before tacking back left down towards the football stadium, where the parade ends in a series of further performances and speeches. Whilst the route goes past Hargeisa’s main landmarks, it also traverses more mundane spaces.
As Kong and Yeoh (1997:222) put it, the parade ‘invades spaces of everyday life and transforms ordinary streets into theatres of pomp’. People walk from all different parts of the city to converge on the city center, bringing with them flags and songs. When the parade is over, they take their experiences and souvenirs back to other parts of the city, extending the commemorative site to encompass a series of interconnecting spaces. The site of the parade is therefore more than a physical place and is a symbolic site of memories from the day itself.
This commemorative effect is augmented by the pageantry of the parade. The most striking aspect is the march-by of thousands of uniformed soldiers, commandos, police officers, and naval officers in smart formation, and the presentation of Somaliland’s military materiel.
As an unrecognized state, and for a long time subject to the UN arms embargo on Somalia, this equipment is a mismatch of the brand new and the decrepit, and so items such as rocket artillery and tanks are showcased alongside the more modest, such as the handful of police motorbikes and half a dozen cavalrymen.
Many different organizations also participate in the parade, including groups from local NGOs who carry their institutional banner and sing in unison; and young university students, covered in special clothes and body paint. The Hargeisa football team in matching tracksuits lopes past, as do jugglers from the capital’s youth circus, and members of a mine-clearance organization, complete with safety vests and metal detectors.
These scores of men and women, most in the green, white and red of the Somaliland flag, are accompanied by the occasional horse and camel, and also in 2013, by a solitary lion, driven on the back of a small truck, with a flag tied like a cape, who lives in a nearby shopping mall or the presidential palace, depending on who you speak to.
Watching from the sidelines is an enormous crowd, many of whom took their place as soon as the sun comes up in order to have the best view. (Men and women group together, with young men and women noticing each other on this rare day away from school and chores.) Many rows deep, people jostle for space and are held back by policemen with whip-like sticks.
The lines will occasionally surge forward only to be reprimanded by a sharp tap of a baton. There is a clear demarcation between these spectators, as ordinary citizens stand to the edge of the route, and what Leong (2001:9) calls ‘reviewers’, Somaliland’s VIPs who sit on a raised dais in front of the presidential palace, in full view of the television cameras but beyond the gaze of ordinary citizens.
Like the carefully ordered rows of military personnel, this serves to dramatize the power and hierarchy of the state (Leong, 2001:9). However, once the parade actually begins, it is from the ‘cheap seats’ that the most applause arises. The sound is deafening as the crowds take up chants and popular songs. People clap their hands, young men holler, and women ululate. These ‘ordinary’ spectators are therefore not just passive consumers of spectacular images but, as Roy (2006) argues, ‘co-producers’ of the event, since, without their vocal and aesthetic contribution, the parade would lose its theatrical power.
There are two clear motifs at work in the Somaliland Independence Day parade in Hargeisa, both of which are designed for internal and external consumption. The first is that of progress and development. Key tropes of the parade are of youth and vitality, represented by young high school and university students, and also self-reliance.
Local businesses such as detergent manufacturers, taxi and bus companies, and water bottling plants also participate in the parade, driving their flag-emblazoned vehicles, horns blaring, to showcase their contribution to the national economy. In this way, the Somaliland government tries to project an image of a thriving nation.
This is all related to the second motif which is that of recognition and independence. The notable participation of Somaliland’s nationalism and patriotism cells – whose banners explicitly call for recognition – is a key part of this, but it is also woven throughout the whole parade. Most of the spectators are, as Leong puts it, ‘celebrants and believers of the myth’ of the Somaliland nation (2001:10). They shout ‘Somaliland!’ over and over, and declare that they ‘love’ Somaliland.
This demonstrative patriotism is the psycho-social return on the state’s financial investment in the parade (cf Leong, 2001), and is projected outwards through camera lenses to international audiences who are supposed to also consume the idea of the Somaliland nation and thus also the independent state of Somaliland.
The presentation of Somaliland’s young people, economic industry, and military hardware are also all gestures designed to be read in terms of Somaliland’s competence and permanence. The ritualistic carrying of the portraits of Somaliland’s presidents is also a way of narrating Somaliland’s political history since 1991.
After 25 years of non-recognition, and in the face of a resolute international community, evidence of Somaliland’s ‘stateness’ has a great deal of political and emotional significance. Its flag, anthem, currency, monuments, and emblems are all designed to differentiate Somaliland from Somalia and to demonstrate ‘Somalilandness’, and are prominently displayed in the 18 May celebrations.
Importantly, the parade, and the other events in Hargeisa and in Somaliland’s other major cities, are intended to bring the state into view using its spectacular power, hence the commemorations are centered around the defining presence of the state: its birth, its form, its activities, and its representations (Roy, 2006:221222). Thus billboards around the city carry images of Somaliland’s key accomplishments.
This year’s poster, for instance, marking the 25th anniversary, carried photos of the four presidents and the Somaliland military, as well as a map of Somaliland, a depiction of the constitution, a photograph of the Somaliland shilling, and the Somaliland passport. This portfolio of national symbols is a kind of ‘visual nationalism’ (Dominguez, 1993), in which the state promotes its state-like credentials. The celebrations of 18 May are thus undoubtedly a political statement about the capability of the Somaliland state to deport itself as a ‘proper state’.
18 May is therefore not only a day of national celebration, but it is an acute political statement about the viability of the Somaliland project. This is a different liberation narrative from the independence days of other African states, which mark decolonization, although many Somalilanders believe that they were released from a similarly coercive relationship that day.
26 June, the day that Britain handed over power in 1960, does have some resonance, but the acknowledgment of that date is highly political, seen as a way to deny the legacy of secession and the reality of a separate Somaliland.
In the face of internal and external opposition, 18 May serves as the canvas for the state’s projection of a unified, peaceful, and functioning state with its own independent identity. The interweaving of military, commercial, educational, and civic components in the parade offers an image of a harmonious society, as different components share the same symbolic space, and the choreography and sequencing suggests unity between the public and the private (cf Kong and Yeoh, 1997:228).
Importantly, the symbolism of the parade and the other activities in Somaliland also connects celebrations held around the world in the Somaliland diaspora such as parties, festivals, and the annual demonstration outside Westminster, creating a day of unified Somaliland action and apparent solidarity.
It is not unusual for independence or national day celebrations to project a sanitized and simplistic image of national unity. However, whilst other countries permit the recognition of difference – for instance, the inclusion of regional and ethnic floats or dances (Roy) – the Somaliland Independence Day parade is homogenous and one-dimensional. Handelman argues that national day parades are presentations of the social order in a way that exaggerates its orderliness and normality, blocking out all other possible versions (cited in Blehr, 1999:176).
Unlike outright confrontation or alternative celebrations such as ‘blackflag’ public demonstrations and boycotts in India (Roy, 2006:224), opposition to 18 May and its biographical presentation of Somaliland as a state that began in 1991 is expressed in mutterings or non-attendance.
Opposing narratives of the form and content of national belonging – such as those found in the campaigns for reunification with Somalia in the Dhulbahante regions, or in alternative conceptions of statehood such as Khatuumo and Maakhir states – are rendered invisible by the highly controlled biography depicted on urban streets on 18 May. This also applies to different or variegated narratives, such as those told by stigmatized groups in Somaliland who have long been marginalized by the dominant clan structures.
Rather, the parade and other state-organized public rituals are about the legitimation of a particular vision of the state and of the future of the nation, and in this sense define national belonging in ways that fit majoritarian views. Such representations also shape the dominant tropes of nationality and citizenship in Somaliland, so that ‘good’ citizens applaud the calls for independence and recognition, whilst rebellious citizens do not.
For these reasons, therefore, I offer Somaliland’s 18 May parade not only as an important case of the construction and promotion of the national biography, and the ‘doing’ of national belonging but also as a lens onto a process of national ‘actualization’ as the state annually declares its existence to a domestic and international audience.
Presentation for the panel ‘The un/doing of national belonging in African public rituals and performances’, a symposium sponsored by AFRICA, journal of the International African Institute, convened by Carola Lentz (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz) on 8 September 2016 at the African Studies Association (UK) conference at the University of Cambridge (7– 9 September 2016).
Publication Date: 2016
 Iconification and commoditization of the nation – cf Nalcaoglu
 Somaliland’s national symbols are all ‘new’ since 1991, although some elements have been appropriated or reworked (such as the flag’s black star signifying the dream of a greater Somali that came from the republic flag).
About Anna C Rader
I have degrees in politics and international relations from Oxford University and the University of London. My Ph.D. examined the development of Somaliland’s biometric voter registration, using interviews, ethnography, and archives. I have taught and lectured on African politics and qualitative research methods, and conducted immersive fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa. My articles, book chapters, and reviews have been published in leading journals and forums.
My research interests include electoral technology and voter registration in the Global South, biometric identification, and the politics of national identity. I am currently working on a manuscript about identity verification and authentication, specifically the nexus between social practices and digital technologies. I am a three-time international election observer in Somaliland and South Sudan and have also volunteered as a polling supervisor in California.
In addition to my research expertise, I am an experienced editor, able to undertake forward planning and end-to-end production of products from electronic newsletters to research monographs. I have worked in-house for a political magazine and international think tank consulted for the UN, and also completed freelance projects on issues as diverse as technical assessments of humanitarian assistance to meditation.
I currently live in San Francisco, CA.
For my résumé, please visit LinkedIn.
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