Why Somaliland now needs international recognition

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Self-reliance can get you only so far

pril a boat capsized crossing the Mediterranean killing up to 500 migrants, a large proportion of whom most international media reported as being Somali. But in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, local media noted how many who died were actually Somalilanders.

Since 1991, and its proclamation of independence following a civil war that resulted in about 50,000 deaths, Somaliland has existed as a de facto independent nation separate from Somalia, albeit one legally unrecognised by the international community.

As a result, cut off from international assistance, Somaliland has had to help itself. It successfully rebuilt its economy and infrastructure, shattered by the rebellion that forced much of its population into Ethiopian refugee camps.

Now Hargeisa is a bustling city of about 800,000 people, and about to experience the traditional summer return of diaspora Somalilanders from around the world, wanting to enjoy – or experience for the first time – their resurgent homeland.

But Somaliland’s apparent success against the odds remains highly vulnerable. Its economy is fragile. A recent trend has seen Hargeisa’s streets inundated with an upsurge of second-hand taxis – cars bought by parents for children to dissuade them from tahriib, the local term for the dangerous and illegal migration to Europe. These cabs have even become known as hooyo ha tahriibin, which translates roughly as “my son, do not tahriib”.

“Why are they leaving? Unemployment,” Abdillahi Duhe, a former foreign minister of Somaliland, told IRIN. “Now is a very important time. We’ve passed the stage of recovery. We have peace. But many hindrances remain.”

Hargeisa - open for business
Hargeisa – open for business

Crowds of men on the streets sipping sweet Somali tea and chewing the stimulant plant khat throughout the day testify to a chronic unemployment rate of about 75 percent, leading to another concern in a volatile part of the world.

“Young men are a ready-made pool of rudderless youth from which militant extremists with an agenda can recruit,” said Rakiya Omaar, a lawyer who also chairs the Horizon Institute, a consultancy firm that works on strengthening the capacity and self-reliance of institutions in Somaliland.

Doing the right thing

With non-statehood depriving the country of direct large-scale international support and multilateral lending, the government operates on a tiny budget of about $250 million. About 60 percent of that is spent on the police and security forces to maintain what it views as its main argument for recognition: continuing peace and stability.

“We are doing all the right things that the West preaches about, but we continue to get nothing for it,” said Osman Abdillahi, minister for Somaliland’s Ministry of Information, Culture and National Guidance. “This is a resilient country that depends on each other – we’re not after a hand-out but a hand up.”

Somaliland has largely survived on its diaspora sending money home – estimated at about $1 billion annually. That helps fuel a proactive private sector, which sells prodigious quantities of livestock to Arab countries and is largely credited with rebuilding the country from scratch after the civil war.

While Somalia remains mired in a seemingly irreconcilable civil conflict, Somaliland has quietly emerged as a relative beacon of peace, democracy, and good governance. The contrast between a self-reliant north and aid-dependent south couldn’t be starker.

But, increasingly, Somalilanders acknowledge the country needs far more international investment to survive. And there’s the rub: options remain limited while the country is treated by most of the world as a mischievous breakaway state.

“About 70 percent of the population are younger than 30, and they have no future without recognition,” said Jama Musse Jama, a former mathematics professor who gave up his life in Italy to return to Somaliland and run the Redsea Cultural Foundation, which offers cultural and artistic opportunities for Hargeisa’s youth. “The world can’t close its eyes,” said Musse. “It should deal with Somaliland.”

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