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The Country That Wants To Be
On the northern hook of the Horn of Africa, a stretch of arid land the size of England and Wales declared itself independent 14 years ago. It broke from a federation with its neighbors in the rest of Somalia .
Since then, southern Somali warlords have been battling it out, while the people of Somaliland have been working on a process of reconciliation, demobilization and development. Somalilanders believe they've established a viable, democratic state, but no one seems to have noticed.
As capital cities go, Hargeisa rates as one of the poorest. Driving through the city centre is an exercise in weaving around and over major potholes, avoiding donkey-pulled water carts, goats, chickens, people.
Here and there you see shacks, mounds really, small structures no taller than a human, made of discarded cloth tied on a frame of bent branches. These huts are home for poor people who fled abroad to escape the fighting and have since returned. Also for people displaced from other areas of Somaliland by the conflict.
A compound with several unassuming one-story, yellow-brick buildings is the seat of government, where Foreign Minister Edna Adnan Isma'il explains that in the 1960s the former British protectorate teamed up with the newly independent Italian colony of Somalia in a united republic.
"This particular union did not work, because there were two people with totally different backgrounds: colonial backgrounds, cultural differences, even language differences. Now the union that came about out of good will caused a lot of problems and hardships and created a situation that went into a civil war. The government of Somalia , under the dictatorship of Siyad Barre, took actions that were totally against civil rights: they filled mass graves with innocent victims, bombed civilian towns, flattened Hargeisa. What you see today has been rebuilt by the people of Somaliland themselves."
Once peace was restored and reconstruction started, the people who had fled during the years of fighting slowly began returning. An estimated half a million Somalis were in camps in neighboring countries - Ethiopia , Kenya , Djibouti , Yemen . The majority have now returned, putting more demand on the country's limited resources.
New settlement area in Hargeysa
In the many settlement areas on the edge of Hargeisa, returnees live without water, sanitation or any other facilities.
"The UN and other international agencies who are operating here mostly provide basic facilities, like medicine, health, water, education. But there's not enough for everyone," explains the minister responsible for Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, Abdillahi Iman Hussein.
The majority of the Somalilanders who fled to neighboring countries were nomadic herders, pastoralists. The traditional economy of Somaliland rests heavily on its export of livestock. But on top of the dislocation of war, years of drought are taking their toll. And to make matters worse, Saudi Arabia , Somaliland's largest export market, has imposed a ban on livestock from Somaliland . They claim Somali animals are at risk of Rift valley fever, a claim Somalilanders hotly contest.
So far, Cairo has proved problematic as a replacement export market for livestock, so unemployment remains a major social concern. What money men are able to scrape together is often spent on qat, an addictive narcotic green leaf. Every day starting about lunchtime, nearly all of the male population retreats for a good chew. The habit isn't cheap, and it means in the afternoons, precious little work gets done, except by the women.
Some 80 percent of women are working, says Minister of Family Welfare Fadumo Soudi Hassan. "Women are the breadwinners, they have become the backbone of the workforce. Most of the men don't support their family, even if they have income."
Various non-governmental organizations have sprung up to help women, offering micro-credit and training skills they need to start their own businesses. These organizations form the beginnings of a civil society and often rely on money sent from Somalilanders overseas. One of Somaliland 's greatest assets is its diaspora, particularly people who have been educated abroad. They support their families back home, and some are returning. Nearly all of the government ministers are returnees. Many hold more than one passport, as do their advisors.
For many educated returnees, the project of building a country is an exciting one. But it also involves coming to grips with a large and unwieldy government, rampant bureaucracy and corruption, and curbs on press freedom and human rights.
To develop further, Somaliland needs its educated citizens who are now in exile. But they won't and shouldn't come until the situation improves, warns Rakiya Omar, the Director of the human rights organization Africa Rights:
"There are four main obstacles that prevent people: there are no jobs, the health sector is absolutely dismal, the schools are not of a standard that can accommodate people who've spent ten or 15 years in the Netherlands or GB, and then there's the judiciary and a deteriorating human rights situation in Somaliland . If people are going to come back from Europe , if they have any kind of legal problem, they'll find the judiciary is weak, corrupt, and seriously suffering from political interference. There are hundreds of people in prison, including children who have never had their cases examined."
Many Somalilanders put their faith in international recognition as a remedy against all their ills. But that's a pipedream, says Ms Omar:
"I think it's a complete fantasy and also a weapon the government is using to stifle debate. Everybody is told that you can't talk about this because you will embarrass Somaliland and we won't get recognized. I think Somalilanders must first recognize their responsibility as human beings, recognize their responsibility to uphold the laws that they have already voted and then we can worry about recognition."
All photographs by Riemke Rip -
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