When I told a friend recently that I was going to Hargeisa, he looked at me in a way that told me immediately that he had no clue what I was talking about. He eventually asked: “Where is that?”
Many asked me this same question in 2014 when I first went to Hargeisa. So in many ways, here in East Africa, as elsewhere in the world, I suppose, Hargeisa remains an unknown quantity nearly 30 years since Somaliland, the country whose capital city it is, broke away from the rest of Somalia and declared itself independent.
There must be many reasons for this. The principal one, however, is that, even as Somalilanders are fiercely emphatic that theirs is an independent country, the rest of the world insists on not recognising the territory as such.
Funny; isn’t it? Millions of people living in a defined territory, with a keen sense of their own history as a state, see themselves as a country.
The territory has a government that is popularly elected in the kind of competitive multiparty elections that are so loved by the “international community” of democracy enthusiasts and advocates, and are used as a yardstick for judging whether governments are legitimate or not.
Somaliland even has passports that its citizens use to travel to many parts of the world, except to the territory that still calls itself Somalia. Some of the world’s better-known airlines fly there on a regular basis.
A number of UN agencies have offices there, not to provide emergency aid as they do in many places in the world, thanks to dysfunctional governments in most cases, but to support local efforts in pursuit of development and wellbeing.
Unknown to many, including those that use it on a regular basis across the world, the money transfer and banking giant Dahabshil that gives older competitors a good run for their money, is headquartered there, having been founded by a Somalilander.
Somaliland also has a vibrant private sector driven by the culture of enterprise for which Somali-speaking peoples here in East Africa and elsewhere are well known. Yet we, the rest of the world, insist on denying it recognition as a sovereign country.
There must be a whole range of reasons why sovereign countries that are recognised as such in the international community have withheld recognition. These things are never simple and straightforward.
Still, the complexity behind whatever reasons the world uses to justify its stance of non-recognition does nothing to diminish the feeling visitors get, that they are indeed in a country.
For one thing, assessed alongside some of its recognised peers on the continent in such things as political stability and safety, it puts them to shame.
The UN and other actors rate Hargeisa as safer than many capital cities in Africa and beyond. Funnily enough, when I revealed to the friend I was talking to that Hargeisa was in Somaliland, he heard “Somalia.”
Immediately he asked if I wasn’t afraid of Al Shabaab, the jihadists mainly responsible for Somalia’s reputation as a dangerous place.
He wouldn’t buy the argument that there is anywhere in “Somalia” that is safe from the Islamist militia. And yet when you arrive in Somaliland and ask the local people about Al Shabaab, the response you get tends to be, “They dare not come here.”
Conversations about Al Shabaab help one to understand the connection between the drive to ensure security and Somaliland’s pursuit of recognition as an independent state.
Few things establish the legitimacy of a government in the minds of the people it leads better than the ability to ensure security across its entire territory.
Which takes me to why I went to Hargeisa recently as did dozens of other visitors with whom I spent most of my time there. Each year, this capital of a non-recognised country organises one of the most popular book fairs in Africa.
But in many ways the Hargeisa International Book Fair is far more than simply about books. It is about Somalilanders showcasing their country, its rich culture, the political stability and freedoms they enjoy, the vibrant commercial life, and affirming the de facto status of their country as a an independent state.
Probably nothing would do it better than a cultural event on such a scale. And few things strike one immediately more than the fact that, late in the evening when in most cities across the world commercial activity would have come to a stop, in Hargeisa people are still out on the street, the shops open and trading.
Each year the book fair hosts a guest country. This year it was my other country, Rwanda, to which a special panel was dedicated.
Many Somalilanders see Rwanda as their country’s role model and are therefore keen to learn as much as they can about how it has managed to achieve so much in such a short time. Rwanda and Somaliland share some attributes. For me, the hunger for success is the most striking.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: email@example.com