Somaliland between clans and November elections

Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland
Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

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.

Ahmed Yusuf Yasin, the former vice-president of Somaliland
Ahmed Yusuf Yasin, the former vice-president of Somaliland. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

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.

A bride before her wedding sitting with her bridesmaids.
A bride before her wedding sitting with her bridesmaids.
Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

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.

A young woman plays basketball at Socsa (Somaliland Culture and Sports Association)
A young woman plays basketball at Socsa (Somaliland Culture and Sports Association).
Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

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.

Awoman selling gold from a stall in Hargeisa market sits behind a display case.
A woman selling gold from a stall in Hargeisa market sits behind a display case. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

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

Country Profile: Somalia

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President Hassan talks to the press over a bench loaded with swordfish at the opening of a new fish-processing factory. © Photos: Petterik Wiggers

Somalia today is more like a political marketplace than a modern nation-state. The everyday mayhem and hustle of the capital city, Mogadishu, where political positions and private contracts are traded publicly – with armed convoys transporting government officials and briefcases full of money – demonstrate the ease of life for those that can afford it. But the high cost of security precludes access to political and economic life for the large majority. With few opportunities locally, the preferred option for many young Somalis is still tahrib, or illegal migration, especially as democratic and economic progress remain painfully slow. 

In 2012, an internationally sanctioned federal government replaced the succession of transitional regimes attempting to end a civil war that began with the complete collapse of the state in 1991. Yet, pushed forward in haste, federalism – which was supposed to accommodate the decentralized political and clan fabric of Somali society – has, in the interim, increased political instability.

The first federal parliamentary and presidential elections in November 2016 and January 2017 advanced things very little. Instead, the nepotistic politics created during Siad Barre’s neo-marxist military regime from 1969 to 1991 still hold sway, and such cronyism continues to benefit the most well-established Islamist groups and politicians.

With the strength of the government curtailed by clan politicking, militant groups retain their power. Despite successive offensives against Al Shabaab since 2011, the group retains key strongholds across the south, as well as the capacity to ambush bases of the AMISOM peacekeeping forces of the African Union. Even in Mogadishu, despite its military defeat in 2012, Al Shabaab operates like a cartel, through targeted assassinations, extortion and high-level infiltration. Without a national army, the Somali federal government remains highly dependent on the international community and AMISOM forces for its security and legitimacy.

On the other hand, Somaliland, which does have a national army and formal system of governance, remains exceptional, wilfully independent (since 1991) and steadfast in its quest for international recognition (the NI profiled it as a separate entity in this section in 2003).

The international scramble for Somalia has intensified post-2012. Ethiopia, the UAE, Turkey and Qatar pursue distinct security as well as strategic and economic interests (including in port development and regional military offensives). This has done little to instil popular trust in centralized governance, and has raised the stakes for elites to secure and retain political power, not least by paying parliamentarians to dismiss impeachment motions or to push forward particular agendas. It all reinforces the notion that the government is a foreign entity, detached from the people, and feeds the distrust and sense of grievance that prompt radicalization. Growing income inequality, high rates of unemployment and diminished opportunities add to the feeling of disenfranchisement.

In the midst of this crisis, however, the economy – in particular the trade, finance and telecommunications sectors – is showing some signs of resilience. The current president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has been credited with overseeing a gradual return to formal economic growth, despite accusations of corruption and cronyism. There is increasing investment in the homeland from the Somali diaspora, as well as from foreign investors.

But the infrastructure remains chronically weak: civilian bodies and local authorities provide only the most basic services, including maintenance of roads and wells. Health programmes and schools are still largely operated by the UN and by NGOs, though the threat to foreign aid workers’ safety remains high. On its long journey out of conflict and chaos, Somalia still has a way to travel.

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