Somaliland: Africa’s Best Kept Secret
The arrivals hall of Hargeisa airport is a dust-blown, concrete box on a sweltering plain of scrub desert. Through its broken tinted doors are peeling walls with a few scattered pictures of Mecca . A brass plaque on a beam above them commemorates the opening of the building by Prince Henry, the 1st Duke of Gloucester, in 1958. The tarnished plate looks oddly out of place as a reminder of Britain 's forgotten colony.
While the rest of Somalia has forced its way on to the world's news agenda as an anarchic, failed state and the spawning ground for a new age of piracy, the former British protectorate of Somaliland has been quietly pleading for international recognition.
To its south lies the region of Puntland, whose ports have been turned over to the pirate gangs. Beyond that, in Mogadishu , are the remnants of an Italian colony that is now among the most dangerous places on earth. To the west is the repressive and heavily armed Ethiopia . It is what Somaliland 's Foreign Minister ruefully calls a "rough neighbourhood".
Sitting beneath a map of his unrecognised state – which is roughly the size of Wales and England combined – Abdillahi Duale cuts a polite, if exasperated, figure. He begins to list Somaliland 's accomplishments, such as a functioning government, multi-party elections, a coastguard and a police force: quite mundane in most places in the world but in this neighbourhood, truly remarkable. It is, the minister says, " Africa 's best kept secret".
Somaliland has more territory and a bigger population than at least a dozen other African states, he points out. Recognition will not "open Pandora's box in Africa ", he says. Neither will it set a precedent – that has been done already in East Timor and Kosovo. "The international community is focused on Somalia , okay. We are saying, 'Keep doing what you're doing in Mogadishu , but for goodness sake help those who help themselves'."
A polished performer, Mr Duale explains the Somalis' divergent paths with a brief history lesson. When both British and Italian Somaliland were granted independence within months of each other in 1960, there was a mistaken unity pact that eventually degenerated into the violent dictatorship of Siad Barre and then into civil war. When Barre's government fell in 1991, the north set up its own government within the former colonial borders while the south descended into warlordism.
Both paths had their origins in the colonial experience, the minister argues. Britain only wanted its protectorate to shore up naval control of the Gulf of Aden and to supply meat to Aden itself, and so left traditional elders largely in place. Italy treated its eastern coastal section of Somalia as a settlers' colony and dismantled equivalent authorities to achieve this. When the shooting briefly stopped in 1991, the north had a starting point, the south didn't.
Despite this, Somaliland's 3.8 million people remain subject to a government in Mogadishu that doesn't exist. It has its own currency, security services, ministries and courts but no place at the United Nations. Without recognition Hargeisa has no access to lenders such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank and receives no direct budgetary support. The international donors who met in Brussels last month [April 2009] to pledge €230m in aid for Somalia did not mention Somaliland.
Presiding over this limbo is Dahir Rayale Kahin. "All the criteria are fulfilled but still no one is recognising us," the President says calmly. "We are fighting piracy, we are arresting terrorists. Nobody can deny our regional contribution."
Three groups of pirates have been detained by Somaliland's threadbare coastguard and its jails hold dozens of suspected members of Islamist militias, such as al-Shabaab, who control much of southern Somalia .
A referendum held in 2001 found overwhelming support for an independent Somaliland and an African Union report on recognition for the territory in 2005 found in favour, Mr Rayale points out. "Always they say, 'If someone else recognises you, we will be second'. The problem is who will be first?"
Like many in Somaliland, he hopes the answer could be Britain. The UK recognised Somaliland at independence in 1960 but London would have to upset powerful allies to renew that step. In private, people here know that Egypt remains the major hurdle. Cairo sees a powerful Somalia as a bulwark against Ethiopia in any future conflict over the vital resources of the Nile, and still nurtures those who dream of a greater Somalia . Such a project would unite Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti with those in the former British and Italian colonies under the five stars of the Somali flag. President Rayale says that dream "cannot happen" and offers an analogy from across the Gulf of Aden where the Arabs are divided into many countries despite sharing a religion and language. "The Arabs are Arabs and yet they are more than 20 countries. We can be like Arabs," he says.
This month [May 2009] was supposed to have seen the latest act of would-be statehood with the holding of elections. They have now been delayed until September . The government blames the hold-up on the electoral register; the opposition says it is "running away" from a vote it will lose.
The President is obviously comfortable in the office he insists he will vacate if he loses in the ballot. A weighty globe swings on a golden axis on his desk, while the letters "VIP" are stitched into the burgundy silk curtains.
However, Somaliland has its own "unique" set of checks and balances, as Mohamed Rashid Shaik Hassan, a former BBC journalist-turned-opposition politician, explains. The deputy leader of the OCID party says that serious power remains with a council of elders who operate as a second house. It was their intervention last week [May 2009] that saw a definite date of 27 September  set for the poll.
Mr Hassan's deeper concerns echo those of opposition and government alike. With little or no formal economy, joblessness is nearly total and time could be running out on Somaliland 's democratic experiment, he says, adding: "The British civil service generation is nearly gone and there is nothing to replace it. If democracy doesn't win recognition, people will look elsewhere." Abdurahman Farar, another opposition leader, is appalled that his "de facto country" is ignored while millions of dollars are poured into the power vacuum in Mogadishu . "The UN still wants to put Humpty Dumpty together again," he says dismissively.
The potential costs of a continued limbo were hammered home in deadly fashion last October  when a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks left 28 people dead and rocked the comparative stability of Hargeisa. Said Adani played an unwitting role in thwarting one of the attacks. The presidential press secretary's car was parked near the gate when a truck bomber smashed it open as he tried to ram the office building. The small car stopped the truck just short of its target. Mr Adani was lucky enough to be inside the compound, but Abokar Subub, a police commander, was not as fortunate. He lifts his shirt with a wheeze from a smashed rib to reveal a lattice of shrapnel scars. The blast killed 18 people and the same scars mark its trees, tiles and broken walls. Mr Adani says the attack was a "wake-up call" to anyone who takes security for granted in the last stable corner of Somalia.
Mr Duale, the Foreign Minister, hopes "the international community will call a spade a spade and recognise Somaliland ". His country is a "prime piece of real estate" which was once used to police the Gulf of Aden – a job which this year's  surge in piracy has shown is more critical than ever. "We are not a bunch of wackos running around," he pleads. "We are people you can work with."
While no one wants to put a time limit on how long Somaliland can hold out in isolation, there are worrying signs everywhere.
A few feet away from the Duke of Gloucester's airport plaque is a meagre kiosk offering a range of sugary biscuits. The bored-looking young man who works the day shift there has a favourite T-shirt – it is emblazoned, in big garish letters with the name of Hassan Nasrullah, the Hizbollah leader in Lebanon.