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|Hope in the Horn of Africa|
Mail & Guardian, April 30, 2003 (Johannesburg)
Hargeisa - The quiet American noticed the blue on his chinos and cursed: "Goddamn! These are my good pants." Then, as Somalilanders queued in the blazing sun outside to vote in their first presidential elections, he told the waiter: "You may prepare my lunch."
The man from the United States embassy in Nairobi was not one of the 35 international observers who came to witness Dahir Riyale Kahin squeak in as the first elected president of this enclave of relative stability on the troubled Horn of Africa.
With much bigger fish to fry across the Gulf of Aden, the US was not one of the 15 countries that sent observers to this country that has been shunned by the international community since breaking its union with Somalia 12 years ago.
Nevertheless the American tucked into his rock lobster taken only hours earlier off the coast at Berbera. That port still boasts the longest aircraft runway. It was built by the Russians and later extended by the Americans, testifying to the ebb and flow of the Cold War in this country that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps.
The American networked as furiously as the other observers, tainting as potential CIA agents the Somalilanders he spoke to as surely as the ink had ruined his trousers. That blue stamp pad refill ink and the carpet of green qat leaves littered the floor of every polling station in Somaliland.
Despite their straitened circumstances the men of this country spend $600 000 a day buying the qat from neighboring Ethiopia. They spend most afternoons chewing on the leaves to get the appetite suppressing and alertness enhancing affects of the amphetamine they contain. Donor countries might complain about the squandering of their aid on this mild drug - if there were donor countries.
Somaliland is growing despite the international community, not because of it. It gets no loans or other assistance from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.
Proud as they are of this achievement, Somalilanders resist the temptation to give the rest of the world the finger.
All three candidates in last week's presidential race were united on the need for the international community to give them credit for the democratic progress they have made so far.
Last December they elected local councils. Last week they peacefully returned Kahin by a mere 80 votes.
Kahin is a rather dour, Moscow-trained soldier who became vice-president under president Mohamed Egal, a giant of post-colonial Africa.
When Egal died of complications after kidney surgery in Pretoria last May, Kahin stepped up to the plate in terms of the Constitution approved by a referendum in 2001.
Last week's narrow victory presents complications for this struggling country. Ahmed Mohamed Sillanyo, who lost the presidential race, told me on the eve of the poll that he was not entirely happy with the campaigning.
The ruling UDUB party has used state resources to promote Kahin's campaign, he charged. Nevertheless, he would accept the outcome of the vote, whatever the result.
"I do this out of respect for Somaliland voters," he said.
The polling, although peaceful and transparent, was by no means technically perfect. Many of the polling stations I visited in the capital had to close for an hour or more because of a shortage of ballot papers.
Sillanyo's KULMIYE Party emerged as the clear winner in Hargeisa. Sillanyo thus has good reasons to ask: what if? His party spoke of legally testing the outcome of the election, saying there were problems with the count.
Interestingly, observers concurred that the counting - with agents from each of the three candidates present at all the polling stations - was the strongest feature of the election.
Sillanyo cancelled a planned mass protest outside the national electoral commission office in Hargeisa last Tuesday.
By week's end it appeared he might be willing to join a government of national unity. Beleaguered Somalilanders have a history of putting national unity and stability above all else.
Sillanyo will soon have another opportunity to show his party's strength. Kahin has promised to have parliamentary elections next year.
The country, with a $30-million annual budget, has spent $2,5-million on elections this past year.
The seven-man electoral commission, selected by government, opposition and the council of elders, had its work cut out. Somaliland does not have a voters' roll because the country has never had a census.
The best that observers could do last week was opine that democracy had been served by the election. The British government representative wanted something more substantive - particularly that emotive appellation "free and fair". Britain is softening its line on the colony it granted independence in 1960 - a few days before the emergent country entered into a union with the former Italian colony of Somalia.
A second point uniting the major Somaliland parties is total rejection of repeating that mistake. "We wish them well and some day we might even have a special relationship. But right now we want nothing to do with them," said Faizal Ali Warabe, the third presidential candidate and leader of the minority UCID Party. "We can forgive but we cannot forget what happened."
Somaliland bonded with Somalia in search of the impossible dream of a greater Somalia that would include parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. But it soon became clear to Somalilanders that they had drawn the short straw. The top jobs and the real power all went to Mogadishu.
Somali dictator Siad Barre cruelly smashed his opponents in Somaliland. His Hawker Hunter jets, some piloted by South African mercenaries paid by the sortie, took off from Hargeisa to bomb the Somaliland capital. Barre's artillery razed what the bombs did not flatten. Hargeisa was deserted from 1988 until Barre fell in 1991.
The break of the union followed shortly afterwards as Somalilanders returned from refugee camps in Ethiopia. Many did not return and today comprise the 300 000 Somalilanders in the diaspora whose remittances comprise the largest source of income to this country.
A two-year politically motivated ban on Somaliland's livestock imports to Saudi Arabia has curtailed what was once the country's major earner. However, the port of Berbera is becoming a good earner as a lifeline to landlocked Ethiopia.
The regional power is using Berbera to bring in the food aid on which it once again relies. Ethiopia says it much appreciates the peace and stability in Somaliland. Its trade office in Hargeisa is the only form of diplomatic representation in the capital.
Ethiopia admits it will have to be the second country to recognize Somaliland. Becoming the first would pose unacceptable problems in relations with Egypt that insists on a united Somalia.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia insists it will not allow Somaliland to be forced into any unity with the south. Somaliland has shunned the Somali peace talks in Nairobi, which have produced a transitional government that controls only a few city blocks in Mogadishu.
All three candidates told me that they would like to see South Africa become the first country to tie the knot with Hargeisa.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has invited her Somaliland counterpart to visit South Africa. However, South Africa is unlikely to break ranks with the African Union while it holds the presidency of that organization.
Which brings us back to the American.
He was looking at more than a presidential race with a million voters. The US base in neighboring Djibouti is held largely at the whim of the French, who maintain a strong hold over their former colony. Having a foothold at the top of the Horn is imperative to US strategic needs.
There was talk last year of the US opening a liaison office in Hargeisa as it could not operate in Mogadishu. Following the humiliating US withdrawal from Mogadishu after being given a bloody nose by a low-tech warlord, mention of Somali-anything remains a turnoff in Washington.
However, the magic word "oil" is increasingly being touted around Hargeisa. Exploration off Somaliland has produced promising results. These still have to be confirmed. For this, US oil companies need not remind their government, there has to be continuity and stability.
Somalilanders could find their moral arguments and democratic ideals eclipsed by their undersea wealth.