Global Policy Forum

The Other Somalia: An Island of Stability


By Jeffrey Gettleman

New York Times
March 7, 2007

When the sun rises over the craggy hills of Hargeysa, it sheds light on a different kind of Somalia. Ice cream trucks selling bona fide soft serve hit the streets. Money changers, unarmed and unguarded, push cash through the market in wheelbarrows. Politicians from three distinct parties get ready for another day of debate, which recently included an animated discussion on registering nomadic voters.

It's all part of a Somali puzzle: how one area of the country, the northwest, also known as Somaliland, can seem so peaceful and functional - so normal, in fact - while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess. This tale of two Somalias is especially striking now, as thousands of African Union peacekeepers prepare to rescue Mogadishu, the nation's bloodstained capital, from itself. The internationally backed transitional government that seized Mogadishu in late December with Ethiopia's help says it cannot survive without foreign aid and foreign peacekeepers to quell clan fighting and an escalating insurgency.

Somalilanders, who have wrestled with their own clan conflicts, find this ridiculous. "You can't be donated power," said Dahir Rayale Kahin, the president of the Republic of Somaliland, which has long declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia. "We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems. Our brothers in the south are still waiting - till now - for others."

But Somalilanders are waiting, too: waiting to be recognized. In 1991, as Somalia's government disintegrated and clan fighting in the south spun out of control, Somaliland, traditionally one of the poorest parts of Somalia, claimed its independence. But no country acknowledges it as a separate state and very few even contribute aid - which makes Somaliland's success all the more intriguing.

Its leaders, with no Western experts at their elbow, have devised a political system that minimizes clan rivalries while carving out a special role for clan elders, the traditional pillars of Somali society. They have demobilized thousands of the young gunmen who still plague Somalia and melded them into a national army. They have even held three rounds of multiparty elections, no small feat in a region, the Horn of Africa, where multiparty democracy is mostly a rumor. Somalia, for one, has not had free elections since the 1960s.

Of course, Somaliland has not always been so stable, and Somalia has not always been so chaotic. Even now, critics say the Somaliland government can be repressive and inefficient, and the mental hospital in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, seems to be evidence of both - patients are chained to their beds in dark, smelly rooms.

But Somalilanders are quick to point out that at least they have a mental hospital, which the more populous south does not. And their steady, underdog efforts to create a functioning state from the ruins of war seems to dispel the notion that Somalia is an inherently ungovernable, warlike place.

So, what happened?

"It all goes back to the Brits," according to Hajji Abdi Waraabe, an 89-year-old member of Somaliland's upper house of Parliament. When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got Somalia. While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.

One result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, but its traditional systems of authority were weakened. That is partly why, many Somalia analysts say, warlords were able to outmuscle clan elders and dominate Mogadishu in the vacuum that formed after the central government fell.

The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact. The two territories were granted independence in 1960 and quickly merged to form the Somali Republic, but it was never a happy marriage. By the 1980s, the Somali National Movement, a northern rebel group, was blowing up government posts.

In 1988, government fighter bombers, at the orders of President Mohamed Siad Barre, flattened Hargeysa, killing 50,000 civilians. The Somali National Movement proved indispensable in the fragile years after the Barre government collapsed. It set up the guurti, a council of wise men from every clan, which soon evolved into an official decision-making body.

Most of the men were illiterate herders but they became the glue that held Somaliland together. In a sparsely populated nomadic society, where many people live far from government services, clan elders are traditionally the ones to reconcile differences and maintain social order. "They were a cushion," said Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo, the leader of Somaliland's main opposition party. "Whenever there was friction, these old men would step in and say, 'What's wrong with you boys? Stay together.' "

In the 1990s, while clan warlords in Mogadishu were leveling the city's fine Italian architecture, the guurti, along with rebel leaders, were building a government. Somaliland, like Somalia, was awash with weapons and split by warring clans. Their first step was persuading the militiamen to give up their guns - a goal that still seems remote in the south. They moved slowly, first taking the armed pickups, then the heavy guns and ultimately leaving light weapons in the hands of the people. Again, this stood in contrast to the south, where in the early 1990s thousands of American marines and United Nations peacekeepers failed to put a dent in the clan violence.

"We had a higher purpose," said Abdillahi M. Duale, Somaliland's foreign minister. "Independence. And nobody in the outside world was going to help us get there." That would prove to be a theme here. The less outside help, the better. Over the years southern Somalia has received tens of millions - if not hundreds of millions - of dollars in aid, and Somaliland almost nothing. The difference is striking, though it is true that Somaliland may be easier to govern with an estimated 2.5 million people, compared with 6 million in the south, and a somewhat less complex clan structure.

Still, for elections in 2002, Somaliland leaders devised a system specifically to check clan power. They limited the number of political parties to three to prevent a repeat of the fragmentation of the 1960s, when nationwide elections spawned more than 60 political parties, essentially one for each subclan. It was an attempt to create parties based on ideology, not tribe, something that has proved very difficult across Africa. The leaders also turned the guurti, whose 82 elders are appointed by their respective clans, into the upper house of Parliament, "Somaliland's senators," as people here like to say.

In some ways, Somalia's transitional government is now trying to replicate Somaliland's approach by including representatives of all the major clans. But some experts say the transitional government is missing broad support, partly because Somalia lacks the same strong clan leadership as Somaliland and because many of those selected to serve in the transitional government lack the stature of guurti elders.

The guurti in Somaliland can strike down laws passed by the elected House of Representatives, though the representatives can override the guurti with a two-thirds vote. It is a mix of tradition and modernity, Western-style democracy meets Somali-style politics, though some people feel it is time to renovate the system.

"We need to move on," said Faisal Ali Waraabe, leader of the opposition Justice and Welfare Party. "The guurti helped get us through a crisis, but now we're trying to push our people from tribal loyalty to institutional loyalty, from clan loyalty to national loyalty." Mr. Silanyo agrees. "It's ridiculous to have an elected body that can be trumped by an unelected body," he said.

For all its progress in clan reconciliation, Somaliland still has its blood feuds. Just this week, a task force of eight guurti members convoyed from Hargeysa to the seaside town of Berbera to work out a truce between two clans fighting over pasture land. Already, four people have been shot.

But the one issue that unites most Somalilanders is recognition. Somaliland has its own money, its own flag, its own national anthem and even its own passport. "And we have peace, a peace owned by the community," said Zamzam Adan, a women's rights activist. "You'd think in this part of the world, that would count for something."

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