Chaos. Guns. Lawlessness. Extremists. Al-Shabaab. Pirates.
None of these words describe Somaliland in any shape or form. On the other hand, those words do describe Somalia, the neighbouring country which Somaliland separated from in 1991 with zero official recognition from the rest of the world. With no one high up willing to differentiate between the two, Somaliland suffers from being grouped in with Somalia’s problems, and is blanketed by myriad travel advisories that really should just cover the latter. Also, many people simply don’t even realise this place exists.
4G. Fibre optic. Cashless society.
These buzzwords, on the other hand, do apply to Somaliland.
While the country’s road infrastructure could really use an upgrade, this country is far ahead in adopting new technology and local innovation. Everyone is connected online, whether by phone or at home or at the lightning-fast internet cafes. And in a country unable to connect to international banks or have any ATMs, everyone pays by phone (dumb- or smart-), sending money to businesses and individuals using codes. Somaliland has its own shilling that is only circulated within its borders at a barely-inflating US$1 to 8000 shilling rate. With the highest bill denomination being 5000 shillings, money changers all over the streets openly stack bundles of cash, unprotected. Perhaps in five years, it won’t even be necessary, since everyone’s got a phone.
Obviously, things aren’t as rosy as this initial blurb. This may be the first place I’ve ever seen where cars all have their steering wheels on the right, and yet also drive on the right side of the road — left turns are particularly dangerous, especially if you’re a pedestrian or another car. The main thoroughfare of Hargeisa has a median, but traffic goes in the same direction on both sides. Trucks loaded with khat and mostly Chinese-made goods fly on the roads to and from Berbera, the port city, but on a road that’s treacherously bumpy. Most shops have painted signage including images of the goods for sale, a sign of still-pervasive illiteracy. Everywhere is dust and sand, even between the paved roads and the businesses. Goats seem to take a particular liking to hanging out at gas stations. There’s a lot that needs to be upgraded, though the country’s anemic annual budget (with no recognition means little to no foreign aid) means they can’t quite get to it yet — maintaining peace is the highest priority.
But the country buzzes with potential. Construction standards seem a good deal higher than Ethiopia, and while Hargeisa’s city center looks a bit rundown, the new suburbs popping up on the sides could very well look like they came from Europe or America, with private compounds and mansions and occasionally even shingled roofs. The cars are rather new and imported from Japan via Dubai, and not deathtraps like Ethiopia’s. Gleaming malls and highrises dot the downtown area, with many more under construction. Giant screen TVs play advertisements downtown, with a nearby Somcable building lit up rainbow and changing colours at night as if it came from Orchard Road in Singapore. Everywhere else is crammed with people all day — at least except during prayer times, then everyone comes back out again!
That’s hardly what’s on people’s minds though. As one of the very very few tourists, let alone foreigners in general, in the country at a time — seriously, I think the running count of tourists per day is countable on one hand — I attract a lot of attention. But unlike in Ethiopia, where I was constantly asked for money or sweets, here, all people want to do is talk. Every five seconds, someone would say hello or China or Japan or Korea, beckon me over, pull their car up to me and hang out the window, treat me to juice or sha (Somali tea with camel milk and sugar) or food, or just stick a thumbs-up or a friendly wave, just to get my attention to start a conversation. It was incredibly hard to walk anywhere without stopping to chat! I talked so much on my second day that my throat was hoarse.
“Hello! How are you? I am fine. What is your name? What is your nationality?”
About 90% of conversations start this way. The “China-Canada” answer throws most of them aback, but is easily understood when I compare my circumstances to the many Somali-Canadians out there. Everyone seems to know someone (who knows someone) in Toronto.
“What do you think of the security situation here in Somaliland? Do you like Somaliland?”
About half of conversations continue with these questions, a perplexingly specific and complicated phrasing for a general populace that doesn’t speak very much English. (The younger generation is well-educated and speaks passable English; the older generations not so much.) To that, I say what security situation? Not even once did I feel like there was any sort of tension. People wander the markets, negotiate over livestock, enjoy a cup of tea or coffee on the sidewalk cafes and people-watch, and some people are hauling stacks of money openly. There is no danger. And of course I like Somaliland!
There are no real “attractions” to be seen in Hargeisa, but I’ve been enjoying myself. The mere act of stepping outside has led to the most wonderful conversations.
“Why are you here? Where are you working? Are you a journalist? Please let everyone know that we are independent from Somalia.”
I can’t count how many variations of these conversations I’ve gotten, from men, from women, from the elderly, from the young. I never hesitate to answer, and they approve.
“China! China!…” I turn my head to see who wants my attention. “Are you OK?”
Guaranteed to get that at least once when I walk down the street. I’ve certainly never been asked about my well-being so many times before. But yes, I am!
“Somaliland is free! We are peaceful! You can do whatever you want! Take a picture!”
On the other hand, the Somali diaspora is incredibly large, and I’ve also lost count of how many returning emigrants I’ve met. Unlike in Somalia, many Somalilanders wish to return to their homeland, and often do.
Cramped in a minivan for eight, cramming 11 instead, for the three-hour journey from the Ethiopian border to Hargeisa, I met Hanaa, a woman who kept throwing her niqab off and on again. She had been travelling one whole week by bus from Nairobi, with her daughter Sokra, just to visit her ailing grandmother in Somaliland. A Kenyan Somali with roots in Somaliland, it was also her first time ever in Somaliland, but she may as well be a true Somalilander, with her first question to me: “How did you hear about us?”
Somaliland is so peaceful that it never makes the news. It’s a victim of its own success; with no media attention (which usually only comes when something bad happens), people don’t even realise it exists.
I got a few “ni hao”s on the street. Rather than the greetings ending there, to my utter bafflement, at least four Somalis I met separately spoke fluent Mandarin, and naturally assumed I did too as they continued to talk to me in Mandarin. Jon and Khaled, two strangers who approached me separately while I was eating at a cafe (and attracting a million stares and hellos and pats on the back), began talking to each other after awhile, holding a conversation in perfectly unaccented Mandarin while I sat back and… didn’t really understand. Apparently a ton of them work or have worked in China.
On the street, in contrast to the often stilted English I hear from the locals, I’ve also met Somali Londoners with their thick accents, Somalis returning from Denmark (more than one from such a small country!) and Italy speaking European English, Somalis returning from Canada and America speaking the English I’m used to hearing, and a Somali man speaking with me in French whose 14 children all live in France and Djibouti. All of them are also fluent in Somali and Arabic — the other official languages of Somaliland alongside English — plus a plethora of other languages. Such a concentration of varied accents and languages was disorienting, yet another sign of the cosmopolitan potential here. These are adaptable, successful people who left before and have chosen to return.
The moment I checked into my hotel in Hargeisa, I met Abdi, a Somali-Canadian returning from decades in Alberta to Somaliland with his father. Amused by my answer of “I just want to hang out here for a bit” in response to “What brings you here?”, he was a wealth of information about the country’s history, especially since he spoke perfect Canadian English.
The Somali populace is split between Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia, with differences a minor matter of clans, but mostly a matter of colonialism and its ridiculous borders. Ethiopia annexed a part of Somali land in the late 1800s. The other four were former colonies: Kenya being British before, Djibouti being French Somaliland, current Somaliland being British Somaliland, and Somalia being Italian Somaliland. In the 1960s, British and Italian Somaliland gained independence within days of each other, and in an overly optimistic attempt to unify the people, British Somaliland agreed to join up with its Italian counterpart to form a unified Somalia.
Instead, a dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, arose from Italian Somaliland, and gave virtually every important government post to elites from his side of the unified country. (French Somaliland, with a wary eye to this and also an Afar population not keen on being grouped into Somalia, decided to later just become independent Djibouti instead, which seems to have worked out for them.) British Somaliland seethed for a few years, a rebel insurgency began, and war started in 1980. By 1988, Siad Barre sent bombs into Hargeisa, using Russian planes flown from Hargeisa’s airport, destroying the entire city. The people of Somaliland have never forgiven Somalia ever since. The rebels of Somaliland beat back the government, declared independence, and now proudly display a downed MiG Somalian fighter jet in the center of Hargeisa. A 2001 referendum on whether to rejoin Somalia was met with a 97% resounding no (though just a two-thirds turnout). Somaliland was destroyed and cleaned themselves right up. Somalia just descended further into chaos — who would want to join that?
So why won’t the world recognise Somaliland? In 1991, Somaliland declared independence using its borders from the colonial days, which were also its official, internationally recognised borders during the five days of full independence it had in the 1960s before joining into Somalia, so these are already well-established borders (even if Somalia’s northeastern Puntland state disputes it). According to Abdi, “They are afraid. Other countries see a successful democracy here and don’t want any attention on their own practices. Zimbabwe with Mugabe, Ethiopia, Kenya, you name it.”
Another commonly-cited reason is that recognising one secession movement would spur on a bunch of other ones in East Africa. But what other secessionist region in the world, really, has had such success already behaving like its own country? (Taiwan, which also struggles to gain official recognition, comes to mind, but people already consider it a country, behind China’s back.) Somalia has absolutely no role here. No buildings fly its flag, and they don’t have any sort of federal government representative here. Women wear hijabs coloured like the Somaliland flag. A good chunk of shops are painted in its red, white, and green colours, or have names related to May 18th, Somaliland’s Independence Day. This is already a country.
In its pursuit of lasting peace, they’ve established law and order, and rapidly rebuilt a country from bombed and destroyed to where it is now in just 25 years. Somaliland is a fair democracy with peaceful transitions — something you can’t even say for virtually every internationally-recognised East African country. It’s also got its own currency, military, telecoms, and technology like the phone payment system, having to build all of it on their own with their tiny budget. Its unrecognised status prevents it from flying higher, but it’s flying pretty high already.
Abdi believes 100% that Somaliland will gain its deserved recognition in the next five years. No chance of reunification.
On the other hand, I met a man from Somalia while in Hargeisa. He believes in one Somali country, and believes 100% that Somaliland — a land he and other Somalians unhesitatingly admit has been successful and peaceful — will eventually seek reunification. (Though I wonder, where does that leave Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia, and eastern Kenya?)
Time will tell. But from what I see now, Somaliland is a country.
“What do you think of our peace?”
An odd question, but a poignant one. I’ve never felt so safe walking around a city at any time of day or night. Everyone’s looking out for me. I’ve shaken probably more than 200 hands and been asked for my name and nationality twice as many times. I’ve hopped into strangers’ cars. People have dropped what they’re doing to walk or even bus with me (paying my fare) to places if I’m lost. I’ve left my bags in random places, knowing they wouldn’t get touched. And people aren’t just friendly to me, they’re friendly to each other.
People light up when I say I’m from Canada, or if I mention I’m a Christian — asking for my religion was not an uncommon question. “That’s good! May God be with you.” –“And to you too!” It also does sound a little weird when they attempt to translate their common “insh’Allah”, which some of them drop as often as we’d drop “like” or “um” or “ah” in English, into English while they’re talking to me, but it’s really sweet of them! In the very rare cases that someone disapproved of me somehow due to my personal background, or that one weird random time a kid I didn’t even talk to threw a stone and stick at me and missed, many strangers overheard or saw and came to my defense before I even realised what was going on. I never felt threatened or flustered in any way.
But back to the peace thing. Islam is the religion of peace. This is probably the first Muslim country where I’ve actually felt that. A sense of camraderie and ease, with outwardly loving and caring people. This may as well even be the most peace-loving country on Earth!