By ASRAT SEYOUM
They call themselves the de facto Independence Republic of Somaliland, but the rest of the world calls them the self-declared independent, autonomous region of Somalia. And, it has been this way for past 24 years.
To their credit Somaliland has a well-functioning government, organized security apparatus budding infrastructure and a growing economy. Granted a lot has to improve, Somaliland has now thriving diplomatic and trade relationship with its closest neighbors Ethiopia, Djibouti and few other African nations. The EU and its former protectorate the UK also maintain ties with this tiny nation of 3.5 million. 24 years after its separation from Somalia, Somalilanders feel that they are inching towards international recognition, writes Asrat Seyoum.
The year 1960 was the golden year for most African countries that were under colonial rule. It was the year that most of them got their independence and many of these nations commemorate their independence day every year. The small self-proclaimed independent nation of Somaliland is among their fellow Africans in gaining their independence from the British protectorate in the year 1960. And they are very serious about their independence day—18th May. But wait. That is not the day Somaliland become free from the shackles of colonialism. No; not by a long shot. It is actually the day the country proclaimed its self to be free of Somalia. It was the day when the Somalilanders have finally decided to leave the 40-year union they forged with Somalia since their independence from the British rule. As far as the Somalilanders are concerned, 1991 is the golden year. That was the year the relentless resistance of the people of Somaliland against the military government in Mogadishu led by Siad Barre has finally paid off. The Somali National Movement (SNM) led the resistance in Somaliland and declared their detachment from Somalia soon after the crumble of Said Barre’s regime in 1991. And they have been celebrating this day for close to a quarter of a century now.
A sad twist to this story is the fact that Somaliland is still not an independent nation as far as the international community is concerned. Recognition is yet to come; in fact the country has not been recognized even by some of its closest neighbors and earnest allies in global politics.
Last week, a team of media representatives from Ethiopia, Kenya and major international news outlets were fortunate enough to attend the May 18 celebration this year. One thing the team observed while staying in the nation’s capital Hargeisa was that May 18 is not just a national holiday in Somaliland. Somehow, it appears to be much more. The green, white and red, the color of the national flag, is a combination that one sees everywhere. It is made into every possible article of clothing and hat. On the eve of the Independence Day, the capital appears to be covered in green, white and red. Every vehicle, shop, government institutions were made to wear the national flag. Especially, the youth is in celebratory mood. For innocent bystanders, the mood of festivity on the eve of the holiday could seem like the nation has just won a prestigious title in major international sporting competition.
The Somalilanders are keen observers; they can easily spot an outsider and they do not shy away from inquiring what business a newcomer has in their beloved nation. Apparently, this is what Somaliland officials say is behind their success in keeping groups like Al Shabaab at bay. Our community is very alert and the community is the one protecting the security of Somaliland, Minister of Interior Ali Mohamed Waran Ade told The Reporter.
The youth and their fast Toyota Vitz cars are unique features of Hargiesa. Generally, cars are driven at high speed in Somaliland, and it is also the norm that all windshields in a car are tightly tinted or plastered with some sort of stickers. Perhaps what is rather odd is that tints or posters could also appear on the frontal windshield where it can clearly obstruct the view of the driver. Undoubtedly, the current Somaliland president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo”, is the most popular man in the country. Unlike the popular trend elsewhere, where singers or movie stars appear in the big billboards and car stickers, youngsters in Hargiesa wear t-shirts blazing portrait picture of the president. The city is yet to install traffic lights and police forces to regulate the growing number of vehicles that are entering into the country.
On a serious note, if there is one thing that most Somalilanders, whether 5 or 65, share, it is the fact that Somaliland should never consider rejoining Somalia. Every year, they use the May 18 celebration to show to Somalia and the international community at large of their commitment to never get back to the Somali union. According to Hussan Ibrahim Haid aka Hussan Aar (Lion in Somali), 66, Somaliland has committed a grave error when it decided to join Somalia in 1960. Hussan Aar, who served in the Somali government during the union, feels deep remorse when he thinks about the old days when Somaliland was part of Somalia. “In that 40 years of unity, we had an extremely rough ride as Somalilanders,” he told The Reporter.
According to historical documents, the humiliating defeat that Somalia suffered in the hands of Ethiopia in the 1978 war under the drive of creating “Greater Somalia” was a turning point for Siad Barre’s regime in Mogadishu and the unified nation in general. The defeat which started to undermine the legitimacy of Barre’s government became bedrock for the formation of a number of resistance groups in different parts of Somalia including the Northwest where the former British Somaliland was located. Among them was of course SNM, which also received an open support from the then Ethiopian government – the Derg – and the local community. Barre retaliated harshly by ordering indiscriminate killings and aerial bombardment of the northwest. Hargeisa the regional capital at the time particularly took a hard knock. According to elders, at one point, Hargeisa was reduced to noting but a pile of dust and mere wreckage due to the aerial bombardment. “In retrospect, what we could or should have done is have some sort of a written arrangement in case we opted out of the union few years down the road,” Hussan Aar argues. “But, our leaders at the time failed to use this opportunity.”
Now, the overwhelming sentiment, up to 97 percent by some estimates, is that Somaliland should not join Somalia under any format or arrangement. Awole Mohamed, a 27-year-old health officer, confirms that his generation is not moderate when it comes to this issue either. Although he did not experience the atrocities committed in Somaliland first hand, Awole is every bit vocal about the need to stay independent and separate from Somalia. In fact, Somaliland lived with this sentiment for the past 24 years, and even when autonomous neighboring regions like Puntland openly advocated a federalism arrangement under the umbrella of a central Somalia government. In fact, Somalilanders goes as far as openly announcing the death of the dream called “Greater Somalia”, a sentiment widely championed among Somalis around the world back in the seventies.
A rather symbolic event to this sentiment is the May 18 national parade which usually takes place in front of the national palace in Hargiesa. This, in fact, is one of the events that the team of journalists were invited to attend. The Independence Day parade is a big event which consumes half a day. From ordinary people wearing their flag, to government institutions, private organizations, even taekwondo parlors made an appearance on the Independence Day parade. Meanwhile, the main show is that of the army and entire Somaliland security apparatus. Most in the media team was surprised to observe that even the ordinary citizens parading in front of dignitaries lined-up outside of the palace look to be in stress to learn the military march. In fact, almost all come and pass before the dignitaries and the president in a strict military march, missing a step or two now and then. What caught the eyes of the Ethiopian media team is the number of private higher learning institutions which are of Ethiopian origin that were part of parade. Alpha, New Generation, Addis Medical Collage, Admas, Rift Valley were all private colleges who were all too familiar in Ethiopia. According to a Fikadu Lemlemu, an Ethiopian shop owner in Hargeisa, Somlailanders go to these Ethiopian colleges in greater numbers now. According to him, even the curriculum is Ethiopian and they are playing a major role in the small nation’s future.
Perhaps, the most bizarre scene in celebrations was a commotions and minor clashes created between the police forces guarding the palace and the public who were participating in the parade. According to the locals, those in the parade wanted to enter into palace in spirit of the celebrations and may be meet some of their ministers and higher officials. Needless to say, ordeal was very surprising for members of the media present at the event. “In fact, in my country, one would not even look at the palace let alone barge in the spirit of celebrations,” a gentleman from Kenyan media commented.
Apart from how they feel about Somalia, the Somalilanders also share a dream of an independent sovereign nation in the foreseeable future; one which is recognized by the international community. This is a rather strange optimism for the lack of recognition during the past 24 years. “But now it is really near…” That is what almost each and every official that one meets in Somaliland last week had to say about international recognition for the country. According to the Minister of Interior the assertion is not without reason. “Optimism is based on four pillars,” he told The Reporter. One, according to him, is peace and stability of Somaliland. While good governance, full territorial integrity and strengthening of the Somaliland institutions are also the other pillars on which we base our optimism, the minister said.
As far as the Foreign Minister, Mohamed B. Yonis, is concerned, Somaliland is actually taking steps to gain its recognition very soon. In that regard, he mentioned the recent talks that his government has launched with Somalia to formalize the separation process. The minister is of the view that talking to Somalia is critical step for Somaliland to get its recognitions since technically they were unified status is yet formally liquidated. We need someone to separate from. And we engaged them to deliberate on issues separation.
In fact, one thing that Somalilanders differ is the reason behind the reluctance of the international community to give the well overdue recognition for their country. Hussan Aar says that is one thing he cannot figure out really. “I don’t know why they are denying the undeniable,” he says, pounding the table in front of him to stress. For the interior minister it is about perception. He argues that older generation of politicians and people knew who Somalillanders were. “We had a history even before Somalia. We were recognized and existed in the global map,” he explains. Nevertheless, after the unification with Somalia in 1960, Somaliland disappeared into the belly of Somalia for 40 years. “So now, we need to reeducate and reacquaint the global community with the fact that Somaliland had existed before and will exist in future too,” the minister said. “Now, we are getting closer; people started to recognize the nation once again, but still we have things to do.”
For the FM, however, there is rather a technical reason for the delay. For one, he says, we had no one to separate from and to talk to. Until now, there was no entity in Somalia that resembles a government. “I think now we have one,” he explains, and he is hopeful that the talks with mediation of the international community with Somalia would most definitely result in Somaliland’s formal recognition very shortly. Both ministers, Hussan Aar and Awole have high hopes for Ethiopia, their strongly hailed friend and ally to the South, to be among the first few nations to formalize what it has done in practice that is recognizing Somaliland.