By Dr. Tejendra Pherali
On the afternoon of 1st Nov, we were having lunch in a Yemeni restaurant in Hargeisa, Somaliland when I heard the news about deadly attack in Mogadishu that morning.
The Sahafi hotel in Mogadishu was stormed by Al-Shabab militants, killing 15 people including a Member of Parliament and Somali general who had led the military campaign that drove Al-Shabab out of Mogadishu in 2011.
When my colleague Abdi Zenebe from the University of Hargeisa received a call, it did not take me long to realise that the person on the other side was asking about me. It was my wife who had been terrified by the news and confused about whether I had travelled to Mogadishu or Hargeisa.
My UK mobile network would not work in Somaliland and I had not yet managed to obtain a local SIM card or perhaps, I had not prioritised it. I can empathise with the stress that is caused on families of individuals who work in conflict-affected or other humanitarian situations. For some, career choices in challenging situations are serendipitous whereas for others, these are professional adventures. It is probably a combination of both in my case.
This news came to us in the middle of our conversation about how Somaliland had maintained peace and stability since its declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991 while the Southern state continues to be violent.
UCL Institute of Education’s new research project in partnership with theInstitute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) at University of Hargeisa and University of York involves research into the role of education in promoting peace, political stability and development in the Somali region.
The project employs a multi-method approach to curriculum development, which combines a rigorous review of evidence, empirical study in the Somali region and multi-stakeholder consultation to inform the curriculum design process and pedagogy of an academic course on education and peacebuilding.
John Paul Lederach’s theory on peacebuilding draws significantly on political processes of the hybrid model of peacebuilding and participatory democracy in Somaliland. One of my personal research interests has also been to explore how Somaliland navigates through indigenous structures of governance to advance aspirational modernisation in Somaliland.
The political parties are constitutionally barred from adopting an explicit clan-based or religious ideology but in reality, the source of support for these parties essentially stems from their respective clans and sub-clans.
While Somaliland has successfully worked with its bicameral presidential system in which the Guurti, the upper House of Elders is represented by 82 senior members of various clans and the House of Representative of the same size, the current challenges are primarily concerned with the lack of basic services – including, education, health, water, food and the infrastructure.
What was extraordinary to see during the initial meetings in which I participated in Hargeisa was the enormity of self-pride and aspirations among the people from all walks of life for social and economic development in Somaliland.
The meeting with the university’s president and vice-president was so encouraging that they did not just highlight what had been achieved in the Somaliland’s only public university but also were very honest about the areas where improvement was needed.
Dr Tejendra Pherali second from the left
When the senior management of an academic institution explicitly reveals their fundamental weaknesses at their first meeting with a foreign partner, it clearly indicates their desperation and genuine commitment to effect a real change in the institution.
This is very unlike some of the other developing countries where I have experienced rudimentary or unenthusiastically dormant academic entrepreneurship. The academic team in the IPCS, Hargeisa was incredibly passionate about their work and very proud of the fact that their graduates included the leaders of the major political parties as well as ministers of the current cabinet. I really hope that my first impression remains linear throughout the project, creating a real opportunity for mutual learning and academic innovations within the IPCS and beyond.
This made me think of what American anthropologist James Ferguson said about his frustration towards failed development in Africa. Ferguson (2006: 191-192) notes:
Today, anthropologists in Africa tend to be asked not “What can you do for us” (that time-honored question) but rather: “How can I get out of this place?” Not progress, then, but egress.
I would like to think, perhaps, the tip of the Horn of Africa is a different scenario all together. I felt that there was still a strong sense of hope as the people here were passionately talking about African philosophy and indigenous models of democratic practice.
Later that afternoon, we visited the Hargeisa Cultural Centre, a fascinating place that seemed to be playing a prominent role in reviving and reconstructing Somaliland identity and cultural traditions.
When we arrived at the centre, we were welcomed by Ibrahim who gave us a tour.
Ibrahim was born two days before the military dictator Siad Barre’s army callously bombed Hargeisa in 1988. His eyes were filled with tears when he described how his mother had to painfully flee to Ethiopia with a newly born baby in her arms. Ibrahim’s father was so traumatised that he would still refuse to return to Hargeisa after these many years.
Designed in a traditional Somali style and constructed beautifully with local materials is the drama theatre in the cultural centre. Its walls are covered by Somali blankets and the spectators’ arena is nicely designed to face the stage that lies with some musical instruments in the corner.
On the wall behind the seats, it read ‘culture is a basic right’.
There were also few hundreds of audiocassettes of classic Somali songs, which Ibrahim mentioned were being digitized for preservation.
On the way back from the theatre, we saw a dozen of children sitting on the stage of the open theatre while the two elders, sitting opposite of them were reciting the script for their forthcoming play. Abdi explained, ‘Somaliland is traditionally an oral society. Reciting poetry; telling stories and memorising proverbs with moral lessons is an integral part of this society.’ The cultural centre served both political and social purposes by preserving the traditional culture as well as cultivating national identity of Somaliland as a distinctive, stable and culturally prospering nation. A well-resourced library in the Centre housed a good amount of publications about Somaliland.
When we returned to Abdi’s car which was parked outside the Centre, I noticed that he had left his laptop openly on the front seat. I thought I could not leave my laptop visibly like that in my car in the UK.
I asked myself, ‘Is Hargeisa safer than London?’
The security system seems to be surprisingly robust in Hargeisa where community policing reportedly provides approximately 60-70 percent of security related intelligence to national security. The state takes the matter of public security austerely as it is strictly linked with Somaliland’s commitment to deliver peace and stable democracy as well as its diplomatic ordeal to disassociate from the state failure in Somalia. Perhaps, the UK Independent Party Leader, Nigel Farage has a point in vocally supporting Somaliland for its membership in the Commonwealth to reward its success with peace in the last 25 years.
However, the art gallery in the Centre also revealed the painful side of Somaliland where we saw thought-provoking paintings by some young artists. These artistic representations incorporated the themes of politics, corruption and forced migration faced by Somali society.
As the entire Western Europe is engaged in a debate and challenges about ‘refugee crisis’, the excruciating misery of the loss of family members in the dreadful journeys to Europe and persecution of human smugglers were very powerfully depicted in these paintings. In one of the paintings by a young artist named Hanad, a Somalilander sets off for a new life in Europe but is kidnapped en route by the smuggler who demands ransom for her release. The mother, back home in Somaliland, who is portrayed as cooking meals for the family is devastated by the news and screams in agony.
In a different painting by the same artist, the cruelty of human smugglers in an overcrowded boat was so vividly portrayed. The scene displayed the horror of humanitarian disaster as well as deprivation, disparities and desperation that led to triviality of human lives. One can easily see the obvious but also feel agitated by what is driving these series of events.
With these incredible pieces of art, the cultural Centre represented an interesting blend of national pride and social challenges that characterized Somaliland. The involvement of youth in production of the atmosphere of the Centre and its social and cultural activities indicated an important aspect of learning and revival of Somali Culture. However, it is certainly a limited representation of Somaliland and not at all the entirety of what Hargeisa as a city constitutes.
My few days in Somaliland have thrown me into a paradoxical understanding of the aspiring self-declared republic that is surrounded by complex protracted crises but is successfully defending peace and stability for the last 25 years.
On the one hand, its clan-based social structure works as a source of stability and successful conflict management and most importantly, as an impenetrable shield against Al-Shabab’s influence.
On the other hand, the very system, quite understandably, seems to be suspicious about over excitement for foreign investment and westernised economic development. The anxiety of the loss of stability as well as social and cultural erosion that may follow the stimulated economic liberalisation faces the reality of persisted stagnation in providing basic services such as food, water, education, health and the infrastructure to Somalilanders.
For us, it is the question of education – what is the role of education in transforming Somali society? How can we create positive learning opportunities for Somali youth to effectively facilitate their participation in democracy, peacebuilding, and social transformation?
Dr Pherali is Senior Lecturer in Education and International Development at UCL Institute of Education. He teaches a course on Education, Conflict and Fragility and coordinates the Network for Research in Education, Conflict and Emergencies. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org