With some outside help, the self-declared independent state of Somaliland is slowly making progress
By Vera Von Kreutzbruck
The self-declared independent state of Somaliland, located in the Horn of Africa, is normally off the radar of mainstream media — you mostly hear about this corner of the world when al-Shabaab Islamic militants carry out a bloody terror attack, or when a Somali pirate kidnaps a westerner. But there are underreported, positive stories which can offer a beacon of hope to a region normally plagued with violence.
Somaliland is searching for self-determination and international recognition, seeking to upgrade the informal ties it holds with some foreign governments. Up until 1960, for 73 years in fact, Somaliland was a British protectorate. Following civil war in the 1980s, it ceded from Somalia in 1991 and it has enjoyed relative political stability since then.
Unlike its neighbours, Somaliland has a 24-year track record of relatively stable government, a rare occurrence in these latitudes. It has been “very successful in establishing a civilian administration with functioning court systems, Executive, Parliament and in (terms of) keeping al-Shabaab militants out,” Laura Hammond, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told the Herald in a recent interview.
However, Somaliland has not been recognized by the international community, which views it as a territory within Somalia. And the African Union is afraid that if it backs Somaliland’s bid for independence, it could trigger a host of other separatist bids in the region.
“The western, diplomatic community does not oppose their independence but they want that agreement to come from the ground up, instead of being imported from outside the region,” said Hammond. “Many people in south Somalia think that losing Somaliland feels like losing an arm. They feel it in a very strong, visceral way — that somehow they are not complete without Somaliland.”
Despite significant progress, Somaliland is still dependent on external help. On June 17, the United Nations and the European Union launched six joint regional programmes, worth a total of US$106 million, with the aim of providing development aid toward state-building and jobs for the youth in Somaliland, Somalia and Puntland. And the help is not just coming from large international institutions.
In 2014, British consultancy firm Horizon Institute started a two-year legal training course for around 60 Somalilander lawyers, to be delivered by UK legal professionals in a bid to strengthen the country’s judicial system and confront the challenges it faces.
Chloé Barton, a self-employed barrister from Britain, is one of those trainers. She has visited Somaliland twice this year under the programme and she says that although there was some initial distrust from the local lawyers, they soon came to see the training as a golden opportunity. Nonetheless, she says, it hasn’t always been easy, due to the vast cultural differences between the UK and Somaliland, particularly with respect to legal cases involving rape.
“It (the law) hasn’t changed in 100 years. Sometimes their way of dealing with it is to marry the woman to the rapist to protect her honour; and from our western perspective, of course, that is abhorrent,” Barton said.
The British team had to adjust to local life there in order to make an impact — for example, the working day is dominated by salat, the five-times daily compulsory call to Islamic prayer.
“Everything is dominated by the call to prayer. Your day is punctuated by time frames when no one can really do anything because they are praying and it starts at 5.30am. More often than not, we tried to do the training in the morning before the 2pm slot,” she said.
The mixed judicial system in Somaliland reflects its colonial history and culture, which is strongly related to the clan-based society and Muslim heritage. It’s composed of three co-existing legal systems: the traditional system implemented by clan elders and the strict Sharia law of the religious leaders, while the formal legal system is based on English Common Law, Italian and Indian Penal Codes and the Egyptian Civil Code.
“Our Constitution states that the base of Somaliland’s law is sharia law and any article which does not conform to sharia law is null and void,” said Somali lawyer Ali Odey, who works as a prosecutor at the Attorney General Office in the Somaliland city of Hargeisa, and acts as an interpreter for the British team.
The lines however remain blurred. When asked who decides what system is implemented in court, Odey did not reply. Barton suggested that “it is beyond our understanding and knowledge,” but she suspects that “it depends which clans are involved in the area where the crime was committed.”
While in the past it was not uncommon for hundreds to leave their homeland in search of better opportunities, during the last years there is a growing community of returnees from the Somaliland diaspora outside the country, according to British migration specialist Hammond, who has travelled there on many occasions as a development consultant for the UN Development Programme, Medécins Sans Frontières, World Food Programme, and other organizations.
Prominent examples are Somaliland President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, known as “Silaanyo” and Foreign Minister Mohamed Bihi Yonis, who both studied abroad.
“You get the feeling that the development that is happening is not only due to the work of (foreign) NGOs but also down to Somalilanders and the government. There is a strong feeling of self-help, that Somaliland is leading its own development process,” Hammond said.
Untapped oil reserves
Despite the positive developments on the political level, the country’s main weakness is the economy, which relies mostly on livestock. However, Somaliland boasts plenty of mineral deposits and untapped oil reserves.
The Berbera port could also potentially become a major transport hub in the region with landlocked Ethiopia and other countries eager to explore this transport route.
The government is currently in discussions with three foreign port management companies from France, Dubai and Switzerland (Bellera, DP World and Mediterranean Shipping Company) to expand their facilities.
Long before Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991, oil exploration had also been carried out by oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, which at present are evaluating the possibility of returning to the country. Turkey, Norway, Yemen and United Arab Emirates already have oil exploration licences there.
British energy company Soma Oil & Gas, led by former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, hopes to find black gold in the breakaway territory and is conducting explorations in offshore deep waters. Such a prospect highlights both the possibilities and dangers that a young state seeking recognition faces.
“I am concerned about Soma Oil & Gas, they say they are doing the country a favour, but if oil is found they are bound to make a huge amount of money on the back of a very weak government, which will not get a fair share of the revenues,” Hammond said.
It remains to be seen if Somaliland will, in the future, be strong enough to refuse unfair and imbalanced cooperation agreements with foreign investors and be able to reap more profit from its own natural riches and resources.
The biggest test will be the upcoming general elections, scheduled for the summer of 2016.
A possible sign of maturity in Somaliland’s young democracy may be the shift from “clan politics to party politics” in the future vote, said Hammond.
“Lots of people are optimistic about the new finance minister Sam-Sam Adan who is a woman.”