When I tell people that I have just returned from an international book fair and literary festival in Hargeisa, their reaction is usually one of incredulity.
Really? they ask. You were in Somalia for a book fair? How is that possible?
Of course, the residents of Hargeisa do not like to refer to themselves as Somalis, but as Somalilanders. They associate “Somalia” with chaos and anarchy, and have sought to be independent of that country since 1991.
I was in Hargeisa to launch my new book, War Crimes, which examines why a failed state colluded in its own destruction and why the international community did not stop it.
Hargeisa is a small dusty town in northern Somalia, but carries few of the scars of war that are so blatantly obvious in cities such as Mogadishu.
The roads have few potholes and most buildings destroyed during the civil war and its aftermath have been rebuilt.
The city has elements of normalcy that are completely absent in Mogadishu.
AIR OF OPTIMISM
Traffic police officers guide vehicles on the roads, shopping malls are bright and shiny, and despite the many goats on the roads (this, after all, is a pastoralist society), the city exudes an air of optimism and relaxed contentment.
With me at the book fair were renowned writers such as Nuruddin Farah, the young up-coming British Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed, the Nigerian author Chuma Nwokolo, British journalist and author Michela Wrong and professors John Mpane and Mplive Msiska from Malawi.
It was an exuberantly well-attended event, with some sessions attracting more than 500 people. Famous Somali poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame ‘Hadraawi’s poetry reading session filled up the room, and generated several standing ovations.
Now in its seventh year, the Hargeisa International Book Fair is the brainchild of Jama Musse Jama, a publisher and book lover, whose dream was to promote literature and the arts in his homeland.
The main aim of the book fair is to promote a culture of reading and writing in Somaliland by producing and publishing high-quality Somali literature and translating international classical literature for Somali readers.
OASIS OF PEACE
In many ways, Somaliland defies almost every stereotype there is of Somalia.
For the last 20 years, it has existed as an oasis of peace in a desert of instability and banditry. It has worked hard to institute forms of governance that promote a democratic culture and foster dialogue.
Its hybrid form of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional clan systems and secular institutions, has been referred to as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy.
Though the government in Mogadishu and the international community, including the AU and the UN, do not recognise Somaliland as a nation-state, Somalilanders are determined to forge ahead, with or without international support. One of the speakers at the Hargeisa festival referred to Somaliland as “the world’s only functioning non-state”.
As the Somaliland expert Michael Walls has noted in his new book A Somali Nation-State, “Somaliland… represents a strong counter-argument to the preoccupation with state failure and corrective external intervention, while also holding out the hope that an accommodation is possible between the discursive politics of tradition and a representative system more suited to the Westphalian state”.
Since at least 2004, the international community has tried to install a functioning government in Mogadishu, but without much success.
The Transitional Federal Government, in all its incarnations, proved to be inept and corrupt, with little legitimacy on the ground.
The international community should perhaps re-think its approach to Somaliland and allow its people to decide for themselves how they wish to be governed.
Maybe it is time to recognise Somaliland as an independent state.
Lack of international recognition has hindered Somaliland’s bilateral and multilateral relationships with other countries and impacted on its ability to attract foreign investments, forcing it to remain an outsider in the international community.