Somaliland : Upstanding citizen lumped with neighbours from hell

Upstanding citizen lumped with neighbours from hell
Friday May 08, 2009
The arrivals hall of Hargeisa Airport is a dust-blown, concrete box on a sweltering plain of scrub desert.
Through its broken doors are peeling walls with a few scattered pictures of Mecca. A brass plaque on a beam commemorates the opening of the building by Prince Henry, the 1st Duke of Gloucester, in 1958. The tarnished plate looks oddly out of place as a reminder of Britain's forgotten colony.
While the rest of Somalia has forced its way on to the world's news agenda as an anarchic, failed state and the spawning ground for a new age of piracy, the former British protectorate of Somaliland has been quietly pleading for international recognition.
To its south lies the region of Puntland, whose ports have been turned over to the pirate gangs. Beyond that, in Mogadishu, are the remnants of an Italian colony that is now among the most dangerous places on earth. To the west is the repressive and heavily armed Ethiopia. It is what Somaliland's Foreign Minister ruefully calls a "rough neighbourhood".
Sitting beneath a map of his unrecognised state - which is roughly the size of Wales and England combined - Abdillahi Duale cuts a polite, if exasperated, figure. He begins to list Somaliland's accomplishments, such as a functioning government, multi-party elections, a coastguard and a police force: quite mundane in most places in the world but in this neighbourhood, truly remarkable.It is, the minister says, "Africa's best kept secret".
Somaliland has more territory and a bigger population than at least a dozen other African states, he points out. A polished performer, Duale explains the Somalis' divergent paths with a brief history lesson. When both British and Italian Somaliland were granted independence within months of each other in 1960, there was a mistaken unity pact that eventually degenerated into the violent dictatorship of Siad Barre and then civil war.
When Barre's government fell in 1991, the north set up its own government within the former colonial borders while the south descended into warlordism.
Both paths had their origins in the colonial experience, the minister argues. Britain only wanted its protectorate to shore up naval control of the Gulf of Aden and to supply meat to Aden itself, and so left traditional elders largely in place. Italy treated its eastern coastal section of Somalia as a settlers' colony. When the shooting briefly stopped in 1991, the north had a starting point, the south didn't.
Despite this, Somaliland's 3.8 million people remain subject to a government in Mogadishu that doesn't exist. It has its own currency, security services, ministries and courts, but no place at the United Nations. Without recognition, Hargeisa has no access to lenders such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.
Presiding over this limbo is Dahir Rayale Kahin. "All the criteria are fulfilled but still no one is recognising us," the President says calmly. "We are fighting piracy, we are arresting terrorists. Nobody can deny our regional contribution."
A referendum held in 2001 found overwhelming support for an independent Somaliland and an African Union report on recognition for the territory in 2005 found in favour, Rayale points out. "Always they say, 'If someone else recognises you, we will be second'. The problem is who will be first?"
The UK recognised Somaliland at independence in 1960 but London would have to upset powerful allies to renew that step. People here know that Egypt remains the major hurdle. Cairo sees a powerful Somalia as a bulwark against Ethiopia in any future conflict over the vital resources of the Nile.
But the potential costs of a continued limbo were hammered home in deadly fashion last October when a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks left 28 people dead and rocked the stability of Hargeisa. While no one wants to put a time limit on how long Somaliland can hold out in isolation, there are worrying signs everywhere.
A few feet away from the Duke of Gloucester's airport plaque is a meagre kiosk offering sugary biscuits. The bored-looking young man who works the day shift there has a favourite T-shirt - it is emblazoned with the name of Hassan Nasrullah, the Hizbollah leader in Lebanon.