Hargeisa may not feel like a capital city in terms of grand or high-rise buildings, but it certainly sprawls over its highland valley – the homes of an estimated 760,000 people covering 75 square kilometres. Direct flights to and from Dubai, Addis and Nairobi enhance its image as a transnational centre. In any case, many would argue that Hargeisa should not qualify as anything more than a regional capital of the larger Somali republic.
A former British protectorate, Somaliland hastily joined with Somalia (then under Italian trusteeship) following Somalian independence in 1960. It broke away from Somalia in 1991 as the republic descended into chaos and civil conflict. Never formally recognized by any country or international organization, it appreciates a ‘special relationship’ with UK and EU donors, but maintains that international fixation on ‘sovereign borders’ has deprived it of the broader foreign investment and trade linkages it deserves.
Largely economically self-reliant, funds from the diaspora have invigorated the construction and real-estate industries, and along with Kuwaiti and Turkish charities have improved public services, colleges and hospitals in and around Hargeisa. However, the rest of the economy has seen less growth. The trade in qat (a mild narcotic) still comprises over 60 per cent of GDP, taxation of business is still less than it should be, and the formal unemployment rate for young people under 35 is 75 per cent . With few opportunities locally, many Somalilanders undertake tahrib, or illegal migration – with one of the highest rates of tahrib in the region.
Its relationship with Somalia remains acrimonious at best. Reconciliation talks collapsed in March 2015. Although they will likely resume under Somalia’s recently elected President Farmajo, prospects for reunification remain remote, especially as memories of union between 1960 and 1991 fade. Pending investment and political concessions from the Gulf states will embolden such hardline positions, as will ongoing insecurity in Somalia.
This is not to suggest that support for the national agenda is unanimous within Somaliland. Outside the Burco-Berbera-Hargeisa triangle, where the majority Isaaq clan dominates, there are secessionist movements, especially in the east; Khaatumo state has been pushing for independence from Somaliland since 2012. Armed resistance in this region, also disputed with the neighbouring regional state of Puntland, has sporadically turned into fierce military confrontation. In these areas, movement for foreign NGO/UN workers and media is prohibited; though even in Hargeisa foreigners are required to be escorted by government special protection units under strict curfew.
Thus, despite its ‘exceptional’ peace and stability, the reality is that Somaliland remains fragile. It too was formed through its own civil wars (from 1991-93), and while clan-based resolution of conflict brought a firm popular commitment to stability, it also slowed progress towards human and civil rights – restricting space for open dialogue and criticism of the staunchly nationalist government.
This will all be on display in the presidential elections due in November 2017. Political gatherings will be met with heavy-handed security from state-owned paramilitary groups; and the independence of civil society and media will be greatly restricted. While President Silanyo has stepped aside for liberation-era military commander, Musabixi Abdi – honouring a decade-old agreement – he and his close family have also shored up enough private contracts and government appointments to stymie any genuine transition.
The corruption and nepotism practised by the ruling Kulmiye party since 2010 will likely remain a mainstay, even if the opposition proves successful. Few domestic safeguards exist to ensure otherwise, as parliament has not seen elections since 2005, and the house of elders, Guurti, is still largely beholden to the executive.
All photos by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures