Somaliland: New Government, New Possibilities – Interview with Dr. Saad Ali Shire

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Somaliland, a country that is yet to be recognized as an independent state from Somalia held its third presidential election in November 2017.

A delegation along with the new president visited Ethiopia this week and spoke to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and other government officials. Although Somaliland is a success story in many aspects, the country is challenged by a weak economy largely caused by Saudi Arabia’s ban on livestock export, which is one of the main driver’s of the country’s economy. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Saad Ali Shire about the new administration, the issues of recognition and Somaliland’s place in the Horn of Africa.

Capital: Tell us about the delegation’s visit, what were some of the discussion points with the local authorities?

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Dr. Saad Ali Shire: Now we have a new government; we had the third presidential election since 2003. There is a new president, a new cabinet has been appointed; I was reappointed to the same position as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The purpose of our visit is a courtesy call from the Prime Minister; Somaliland is a very close friend of Ethiopia and it has always been a custom when a new president is appointed, to visit the Prime Minister here in Ethiopia. We also want to strengthen the good relationship we have with Ethiopia.

Capital: Can you tell us the specific points of discussion?

Ali Shire: We have touched upon many subjects; security, the economy and some projects we are carrying out jointly like the Berbera Corridor and the DP World Port, trade agreements, these are all issues that are ongoing. So these are some of the topics we touched upon. The President was accompanied by four ministers; myself, the Minister of Education, Minister of Interior and the Minister of Trade. All of them met their counterparts here in Addis Ababa.

Capital: Speaking of the projects you mentioned; Berbera corridor, what stage is it on now?

Ali Shire: The corridor, which is basically the road from Berbera to Wuchale hopefully will start this year; the road is going to be mainly funded by the United Arab Emirates. Now we are looking for consultants to perform the design and technical work on the road. Once the consultants are chosen and agreed upon, then the work will start and hopefully, the construction itself will begin this year.

Capital: We haven’t seen anything negative about the Presidential election you held in November. How would you say the whole thing went?

Ali Shire: I think everything went well. Somaliland is one of the most democratic and stable countries in Africa. We have a track record of holding free and fair elections; of course, campaigning is always contentious but I think it all went well. On Election day, we had 1642 polling stations and the election took place in all of them except for three areas. There were no injuries, no clashes; nothing of the machete welding people you saw in the presidential election of Kenya. We had a big contingent of international observers and they have stated that by large it was free and fair. We had three contenders and eventually the two candidates that were not successful accepted the results and conceded.

About 550,000 people went to the polling stations to vote. The Kulmiye Party received the largest share of the votes.

Capital: Did more people come out to vote than the last election?

Ali Shire: We believe there may have been fewer numbers is the previous election, there were issues with double voting previously. The system we used this time did not allow double voting so the figures we saw were actual figures.

Capital: Whenever election season occurs in most African countries, there is always a preconceived notion that there will be violence, and that has been true many times. How did you manage to hold a peaceful election?

Somaliland Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Saad Ali Shire

Ali Shire: I think we used the first biometric election system in Africa which really prevented anyone from tampering with the process, it is very good technology. And we don’t have a culture of political violence; people have confidence in the system, the national electoral commission did a fantastic job. Of course, there is always contention; people question the validity of results and that was okay because the electoral commission was open to complaints and there are procedures to follow and they were able to satisfy the complaints and questions.

Capital: You have a new president now. What particular priorities has he set on the agenda?

Ali Shire: Well first, it is the same political party that won and is continuing. So as far as the bigger picture is concerned, the agenda is more or less the same. But of course, every president brings with him or her their own priorities and agenda and the top priority for this government is economic development and job creation. Of course, security is always the number one priority; it was for the previous government and it is for this one. But I think in addition to security, this president is setting for himself the target of creating jobs for youth.

Capital: One of the major challenges for Ethiopia is also creating employment for its large youth population. What does the unemployment rate among the youth look like in Somaliland? How are you addressing it?

Ali Shire: The unemployment among the youth is estimated at 75 percent which is extremely high. People are unemployed for a number of reasons and one of it is skills; young people don’t have the skills to market themselves and to be employed. Investment is another issue because you must have somebody who is willing to invest in the country to be able to create jobs.

The government’s resources are limited so it cannot create enough jobs. One of the difficulties we have as an unrecognized state is that it creates an additional uncertainty for investors. It is not easy to attract direct foreign investment into the country. Our target is to improve the environment, create an investment environment that is more attractive to investors whether they are foreign or local.

Capital: Speaking of recognizing Somaliland as a state, have there been any new developments?

Ali Shire: Somaliland is a country that is very well established. We have been on this road since 1991; it existed under the colonial era as a British protectorate, some people miss that bit. In the minds of a lot of people, Somalia is just one country and Somaliland is part of Somalia and wants to secede from the rest of Somalia.

It is not like that, we were two independent states that united and we just left that union because it didn’t work for us and it didn’t work for them and it didn’t work for the region either because it caused a lot of trouble and tension in the region and economically it didn’t work for anyone. That is why we left and we believe it is in the best interest of everyone to go their own way just like Djibouti. Djibouti was also mainly a Somali speaking country and it is doing very well compared to us. I think the international community recognizes that Somaliland is a state that fulfills all the requirements for an independent. We hope the international community will come to its senses and gives Somaliland the recognition it deserves; we have a very good legal case, both historical and humanitarian case. It is a matter of convincing the rest of the world that it is not just in the interest of Somaliland but the region, Africa and the rest of the world.

Capital: Everything seems to be in the right place for Somaliland to be recognized as an independent state. Then why do you think the international community hasn’t done that? Do they have an interest in not granting the recognition?

Ali Shire: That is a question that needs to be put forward to the international community. Different people give different reasons even though I am not in agreement with those reasons. People might say that Somalia is a country in turmoil and the recognition of Somaliland may make it even more difficult to solve the Somalia problem. Which I don’t think is right because as an independent state we would be able to assist Somalia to reconcile and rebuild as a state. So I think it will be beneficial to Somalia and not a disadvantage.

Some people say well this may open a Pandora’s box in Africa, but according to the report provided by the AU Commission in 2005, Somaliland is a unique case, there is no other case like it in Africa so there is no reason to worry about a Pandora’s box being opened because it is a case of two states that have now parted their ways.

Capital: Have you resumed official talks with the Somalian government?

Ali Shire: Well we have been in talks with Somalia since 2012; those talks were suspended in 2015 then the idea was to wait for Somalia to elect a new president and they did so last year. The international community also wanted to wait until that election was completed. I hope we will be able to resume the talks even though sometimes it doesn’t give me a whole lot of hope that we will be able to make advances because they have gone back on a number of things we have agreed on together at the talks. I hope that this time the new president of Somalia will take the talks very seriously.

Capital: How would you describe Somaliland’s relationship with countries such as Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf States?

Ali Shire: We welcome friendships from all corners of the world and I don’t think there is any country that we have a bad relationship with. But of course, given where we are we have a close relationship with our neighbors. We are on good terms, we don’t have a special relationship with Turkey or Egypt; they are friendly countries as they are to Ethiopia. As far as we are concerned we are a peaceful state.

Capital:  Last year, your country was facing a difficult situation due to the drought. How are you managing that?

Ali Shire: The drought last year was devastating it really decimated our livestock and it left a lot of people displaced at the present time all over the country and those people are still vulnerable and they need to be supported.

We also had the ban for livestock export to Saudi Arabia, the ban was lifted for a few weeks during the Haji time but it was re-imposed again and that is causing a lot of hardship economically in the country.

Capital: Why did Saudi Arabia ban livestock export?

Ali Shire: According to the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture, they said they found two animals that were infected by a disease. But these two animals were not from Somaliland, they were from Somalia. Unfortunately, we were punished which we believe we don’t deserve; our livestock is healthy, we have quarantine facilities with international standards and we hope the ban will be lifted. Livestock is our main export so to lose that is a big blow to the economy.

Capital: What about investment, have you seen any encouraging trend in that area?

Ali Shire: Well the biggest one, the DP World Port project which we have discussed before. We do have few foreign investors in the country in the area of oil exploration, manufacturing, infrastructure and so on. But we need much more and the main problem is like I said the lack of recognition. I think once we have a recognition that will open the door for more investment.  We think we have a lot of opportunities for investors, whether it is an investment in our maritime resources, agricultural resources, mining, industry or even in services, there are plenty of opportunities.

Capital: You mentioned oil exploration, it is currently at the stage of exploration right now, do you think there is hope in finding it?

Ali Shire: There has been oil exploration in Somaliland for since the 50s or maybe 40s. The geological structure of Somaliland is very similar to that of Yemen, and so I think the logic goes as if oil can be found in Yemen then it could be found here as well. So we are very hopeful that one day we will strike oil.

Capital: You have previously mentioned that if Somaliland is recognized it will help alleviate regional security issues. Have you been facing security issues so far?

Ali Shire: Security is a top priority for us as well as every country in the region. I think we have played a critical part in ensuring we have stability not only in Somaliland but also in the other countries around us; we do spend a lot of resources on this. I think we have been successful so far and we have been sharing intelligence with our neighbors and the international community. Our troops on the ground, day in and out take care of our country’s security. We believe we carry more than our fair share of the burden of ensuring security in this part of the world.

Capital: How is the capability of your military?

Ali Shire: The fact that we are a peaceful state says something about the capability. We don’t have a huge army, but we have enough to ensure security. May I also add that security is not only dependent on the size and capacity of the army but also in our community. It is really the community that looks after it. If they find or see anything suspicious, they immediately report it to the police.

Capital: Let’s talk about the state of democracy, specifically to the freedom of expression and free media. There have been reports by watchdog groups that journalists are jailed without proper due process. What do you say about that?

Ali Shire: I think I can state that we have a very vibrant and free press. Our constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and association. If you can read and write Somali and follow the Somaliland press, then you would understand how free it is. I think people sometimes go beyond proper boundaries, sometimes they cross red lines and you may have a few incidents here and there, but I think if you consider the totality of the freedom that is there for the press, you would be impressed. I am not aware of any journalist who is now behind bars for their views, some of them might have trespassed on others’ rights, but there is no one that has been sentenced arbitrarily.

Capital: Somaliland has also been in the news recently for passing a law that criminalizes rape. Previously the way to deal with situations like that was by marrying the victims off to the offenders. The fact that such law has been passed, does it mean we will be seeing a more independent judicial system from traditional rules and women will enjoy better rights and protection?

Ali Shire: What this basically means is that if you commit a crime, if you sexually assault someone you cannot hide yourself under tradition and culture, you are responsible for what you have done. If you violate someone’s dignity you pay for it.

Capital: Let’s talk about the status of women and their participation in the country’s economy and politics. How does the government empower them? And politically, do we see women candidates participating to take over the big seat? 

Ali Shire: Women are very active in all walks of life. In business they are very active, in education for example, at the primary level you will find parity between boys and girls. Of course, as you go up to higher education you lose that parity, you will find more boys than girls at this time. But maybe 20 years down the road, we will achieve parity at the level of higher education.

As far as politics is concerned, I think women are not as active in politics as men because of traditions. I think it takes time; even in Europe, 100 years ago, the situation was very different, women were not allowed to vote. In Somaliland, they do have the right to vote but you don’t find many women at the forefront of politics. In the new cabinet we have three new ministers; the minister for environment, minister of social affairs and minister of livestock and fisheries; they are all women. We also have many women that hold high-level places within the administration.

Capital: It might not be much now, but would you say the trend is changing with the participation of women?

Ali Shire: It is increasing. My view is that we really want parity and to get that, we really need to educate our girls. Because every woman who holds a position has it because she has the education and qualifications it has nothing to do with her gender so we need to work on that.

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