Medeshi May 17, 2009
Not all Somalias are created equal
When I've gone to Somalia, the first question I've had to grapple with, as a foreigner and therefore ransom bait, is how many armed bodyguards to hire.
Not so in Somaliland. The first serious question asked of me after I landed recently came from the helpful young clerk at the cell phone company.
“Do you want to get Internet on your phone?” he asked.
Somaliland was almost a pleasure to work in -- not as hot and pirate-infested as Puntland, not as likely to be fatal as Mogadishu. Walking through the main market there, I didn't get that heavy pulse-pounding you usually feel in Somalia, like someone could be after you or the car in front of you could explode. And yet Somaliland is still, technically, Somalia.
The regional government has been trying to get African and Western countries to recognize its independence, but so far in vain. While this irks experts and aid workers, African countries are still trying to maintain the rhetoric of a unified Somalia -- and the U.S. and other Western countries aren't going to take the lead in recognizing Somaliland.
This is unfortunate. Somaliland has earned the right to decide its own fate by doing an admirable job governing itself, creating relatively robust economic and political systems in the midst of chaos. This hasn't exactly sat well with the extremists in the south, who staged coordinated suicide bombings in the capital, Hargeisa, last October -- the most shocking violence here since the civil war of the early 1990s.
The government swiftly instituted security measures, and now buildings frequented by foreigners and top officials are barricaded and most expatriates don't venture outside after dark.
The economy is stable but sluggish, which is what you get when foreign banks aren't free to open branches, and officials insist they need access to direct foreign investment to decouple it from the rest of Somalia. Shipments are regularly delayed because the main port, Berbera, still registers for insurance companies as part of Somalia. When I was there, the main cell phone company, Telesom, had run out of SIM cards.
But, they assured me, they could put Internet on my phone. I sat in the airy second-story customer service center, surrounded by a whirring bank of computers, while the guy worked on my phone. He fiddled with it for 10 minutes before I realized he had no idea what he was doing. When I walked over he was staring at the keypad blankly.
“Have you ever programmed one of these before?” I asked.
“No,” he said finally, and handed the phone back apologetically. So the BlackBerry has yet to reach Somaliland. But it will.