Sep 13, 2006

Somaliland: A Need to Blow Its Own Horn

Mr. Hill, correspondent for The Washington Times, argues that Somalilanders, having worked so hard to build a free, stable and economically viable nation should be rewarded.

Bellow is an abstract of an article, published on Business Day’s website, by Mr. Hill who is Africa correspondent for The Washington Times and author of several books on Africa.

AN OLD saying goes like this: “The squeaky hinge gets the oil,” meaning that those who howl the loudest gain attention, while the meek soldier on. And when we don’t hear much about a country, it can often be a sign of success: what do you write about in the absence of war, famine or bad government? In Central America, for example, Costa Rica is rarely in the headlines: it has no army, has been democratic since 1882 and attracts thousands of retired folk from the US whose pensions can land them a villa near the capital San Jose, when back home they’d be lucky to buy a bed-sit.

So, in Africa, it’s not surprising then that few people I meet have heard about Somaliland, a democracy on the Horn that is moving ahead faster than many of its neighbours.

We all know Somalia, with its war-torn capital Mogadishu, which appears to be in the hands of an African Taliban determined to impose a Muslim equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, with public floggings, torture and execution for those who resist their radical take on religion. The country was formed in 1960 when the former British and Italian Somaliland — two states that had both been granted full independence by that time — merged into one with its capital in the southern city of Mogadishu.

Like Yugoslavia, Senegambia (the short-lived union of Senegal and Gambia), and Libya’s attempt to merge with Egypt in the 1960s, the marriage existed in name only, while the people retained a mental independence; so it wasn’t surprising that, in 1991, when the Mogadishu government collapsed and dictator Said Barre fled, the English-speaking north declared itself independent. A decade-and-a-half later, no country recognises Somaliland but that hasn’t stopped the government in Hargeisa from making progress, as I saw on a recent visit.

Tar roads cover much of its 137000km², children are in school, hospitals have been set up, towns bombed by the late Said Barré have been rebuilt and, last year, Somaliland held the kind of general elections one would hope will come one day to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and even Somalia. Parties campaigned without hindrance, most of the media is in private hands and there was no intimidation of voters.

So why is the country not recognised?

The European Union, the US and most African countries accept Somaliland passports; Ethiopia, Djibouti and Dubai have direct flights to Hargeisa; and, on trips abroad, democratically elected President Dahir Riyale Kahin is welcomed as a visiting head of state. The US and former colonial power Britain could take the first step, but believe, correctly, that Africa should lead the way.

But the African Union (AU) has real fears. In 1993, it recognised the split of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but the two states are still at war with each other. In theory, this could also happen with Somalia, which is determined to retake Somaliland, but Mogadishu has no army or even a public service.

More worrying is the precedent of recognition which could see other enclaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria — perhaps even Matabeleland, once freedom comes to Zimbabwe — claiming the right to secede.

But this is a nonsense because, like Senegal and Gambia which joined together in 1982 and split again in 1989, the two Somali entities were sovereign states when they merged in 1960. No other territory can claim this in postcolonial history.

The AU recognised this in a statement following a fact-finding mission to Hargeisa last year and called on members to “find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case”. The mission report commends the new nation for its progress, but this document has yet to be tabled and discussed. If SA doesn’t want to be the first to open an embassy in Hargeisa, it should at least push the issue at AU meetings.

But Somaliland must also make an effort to gain attention. To date its media push has not been fierce enough, its demands have been too polite. This month, Kahin is on a tour of Europe and Washington, but you’d hardly have guessed: there is no public relations team to crank things up. For as long as the issue fails to make news, calls for recognition will be ignored and, like other successful states, it will stay out of the headlines.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that 3,5-million Somalilanders, having worked so hard to build a free, stable and economically viable nation, should be rewarded for their efforts.

Hill is Africa correspondent for The Washington Times and the author of several books on Africa including his latest, What Happens After Mugabe?