The word ‘beleaguered’ constantly comes to mind when visiting Somaliland, a country that doesn’t officially exist, writes Michela Wrong

By Michela Wrong


Ayaan Mahamoud, one of the organizers of Hargeysa’s International Book Fair, has all the girly vulnerability of a factory-tested steel girder. So it was disconcerting when, having called to the stage the western writers attending in the teeth of strict travel warnings, she burst into tears. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just so hard when the whole world is against you,’ she sobbed.

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The word ‘beleaguered’ constantly comes to mind when visiting Somaliland, a country that doesn’t officially exist. For the past 22 years, this former British protectorate has waited for the world to notice that in contrast to its unstable southern neighbor — the Somalia of warlords, Black Hawk Down and Al-Shabaab repute — it is peaceful, self-regulating and democratic. Surely the penny would drop, locals told themselves, and once Somaliland’s nationhood was recognized, the government would be able to access the kind of World Bank and IMF loans needed to rebuild an infrastructure shattered by civil war.

Instead, after a series of snubs, they recently received a kick to the crotch, with the announcement by Barclays — fretting over money-laundering regulations — that it intends to close the accounts of hundreds of money transfer businesses which are the only financial link between diaspora families and relatives at home. Somaliland has no banks, and even NGOs like Oxfam use money transfer companies to pay their staff. ‘We get $400 million a year in remittances. It supports families, but it also subsidizes most new construction and pays for imports,’ Saad Ali Shire, Somaliland’s minister of planning, told me. ‘If that stops, we’re in big trouble.’ He should know. He used to work for one of the biggest money transfer companies.

Somaliland isn’t the only country in the Red Sea which will be hard hit if Barclays sees its promise through, but the move feels cruelly timed given what is happening here. In the breezy capital of Hargeysa, the lobbies of the two main hotels are abuzz with Somalilanders returning from Sweden, Canada, Britain, and Italy. Many are using their holidays to reconnect with their roots, but more and more are coming to invest and to stay. Private gyms, glass-fronted multi-story offices, and modern cafés are springing up next to the whitewashed mosques. At times the city, which was nearly erased by bombing and shelling ordered in the late 1980s by dictator Siyad Barre — hence the locals’ abiding antagonism to ‘the south’ — feels like one big construction site.

The Hargeysa Book Fair, now in its sixth year, tracks that trend. The star attraction was elderly poet Hadraawi, whose recitations had youngsters pressed against window bars to catch every word. But each year the fair attracts more writers and bigger sponsors. They came from Nigeria, Djibouti, Kenya, Italy, and the UK this time. The British ambassador to Somalia was a surprise guest, turning up for the opening ceremony flanked by sweating bodyguards. His presence underlined the essential hypocrisy of the international community’s position on Somaliland. Having lavished decades of funding and diplomatic effort on dysfunctional governments which failed to unite the country from Mogadishu, donors are reluctant to undermine their work. It should not be for outsiders, they argue, to call time on post-colonial borders. The breakaway state of Somaliland must first be recognized by its peers in the African Union, not an organization known for swift action.

In fact, donors do support Somaliland. Britain and Denmark back a $55 million Somaliland Development Fund, which is as close to budget support as it’s possible to get without recognizing a government. But being viewed by the world as a sliver of a violence-addled state with a penchant for Islamic fundamentalism has massive knock-on effects. Take major infrastructure projects. Ethiopia would dearly like to make more aggressive use of Somaliland’s Berbera port. It has built a modern, high-speed road all the way to their mutual border, but Somaliland’s government, cut off from international credit because of its unofficial status, has so far been unable to upgrade its side. I was struck by the quietness of the road from Hargeysa to Berbera, potentially one of the Horn of Africa key arteries.

And then there’s the little matter of those travel warnings. Type ‘Somaliland’ into the Foreign Office Travel Advisory website and you get zero hits, of course. Look up ‘Somalia’ and it tells you to stay well clear, citing a ‘high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping’.

It would be naive to underplay the threat posed by Al-Shabaab, given the organization’s proximity, but the last major terrorist incident was in 2008. Determined to prevent a repeat, the government assigns armed escorts to foreign visitors who venture outside the capital. Despite such nannying, tourists are such a rare sight on the streets of the capital that residents come up to say hello, invite you to take pictures and ask for your impressions so far.

Businessman Mohammed Yusuf believes a certain national resignation has finally set in, coupled with a determination to Just Get On With It. ‘There was a time when we thought recognition was our sole problem. Now, without surrendering our demand for sovereignty one single bit, we know that there are other priorities, like building the economy of this country.’

Last weekend, that pragmatism was on display as President Ahmed Mahamoud Sillanyo, flanked by flower-garlanded police ponies, re-opened Hargeysa’s international airport. Near the newly tarmacked runway lie the metal corpses of the Migs which once rained horror down on the valley below. There were very few white faces in the audience, but the launch in a flag-festooned hangar was a moment for ululation, self-congratulation, and laughter, with local comedians performing a series of skits on the theme of Development. To quote the movie: build it and they will come.

Michela Wrong is the author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz.

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