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 Hargeisa’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.

Be the first to know – Follow us on [wp-svg-icons icon=”twitter-2″ wrap=”i”] @Saxafi


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.

About Michela Wrong

Michela Wrong Michela Wrong is a British journalist and author who spent six years as a foreign correspondent in Africa for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. She is the author of nonfiction books on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and Kenya.

Half-Italian, half-British, Michela Wrong grew up in London. She took a degree in Philosophy and Social Sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge, and a diploma in journalism at Cardiff.

She joined Reuters news agency in the early 1980s and was posted as a foreign correspondent to Italy, France, and Ivory Coast. She became a freelance journalist in 1994 when she moved to then-Zaire and found herself covering both the genocide in Rwanda and the final days of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko for the BBC and Reuters. She later moved to Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya, where she spent four years covering east, west, and central Africa for the Financial Times newspaper.

Michela WrongIn 2000 she published her first book, “In the Footsteps of Kurtz”, the story of Mobutu’s rise and fall, which won a PEN prize for non-fiction. Her second book, “I Didn’t Do It For You”, which focused on the little-written-about Red Sea nation of Eritrea, came out in 2005 and was hailed as a “gripping political thriller” by Monica Ali.

Her third book, published in 2009, was “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, which tracks the story of Kenyan corruption whistleblower John Githongo, who sought refuge in her London flat. Boycotted by Nairobi bookshops terrified of being sued, it became an underground bestseller in FIFA World Cup, Mohamed is hoping to celebrate different nationalities in Edmonton. So far teams include players from Somaliland, Jamaica, Fiji, Kenya, distributed by local churches, radio stations, and non-governmental groups, and debated in town hall meetings. Described as reading “like a cross between Le Carre and Solzhenitsyn”, it was named as one of the Economist’s “best books of 2009” and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. The book has been optioned by the pan-African film studio Restless Global.

Michela WrongShe published her first novel, “Borderlines” in 2015. A legal thriller with a female lawyer protagonist, “Borderlines” focuses on a border dispute between two fictional states in the Horn of Africa. The film rights have been bought by Boondogle Films in South Africa

Her fifth book, “Do Not Disturb”, published in 2021, is a damning portrait of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, from its days as a united band of rebel fighters to today’s era, in which killer squads are dispatched across the world to silence exiled former insiders. The book has prompted a vitriolic backlash on Rwanda’s government-controlled social media, and President Paul Kagame has denounced the author on national television as a foreign agent.

Michela WrongWhether fiction or non-fiction, Michela Wrong’s books on contemporary Africa aim to be accessible to both members of the general public and experts in the field. Backed up by nearly three decades of experience writing about the continent, they have become a must-read for diplomats, aid workers, journalists a{and strategists and regularly feature on the “required reading” lists of International Relations and African Studies courses at university.

She was awarded the 2010 James Cameron prize for journalism “that combined moral vision and professional integrity.” She is regularly interviewed by the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Reuters and has published opinion pieces, features, and book reviews in the Observer, Guardian, Financial Times, New York Times, New Statesman, Spectator, Standpoint, Foreign Policy magazine, and Conde Nast’s Traveler magazine. She is a consultant for the Miles Morland Foundation, which funds a range of literary festivals, workshops, and scholarships for African writers, and an advisor to the Centre for Global Development.

Follow on [wp-svg-icons icon=”twitter” wrap=”i”]: @michelawrong

Website [wp-svg-icons icon=”wordpress-2″ wrap=”i”] 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.