SOMALILAND The initial omens were inauspicious. In January 1992, less than a year after secession, fighting broke out between different Isaq subclans in Burao as a result of the caretaker President Abdurrahman Ali Tuur trying to reorganize the former rebel forces into a proper army.
Further unrest occurred two months later at Berbera, following the fledgeling government’s attempt to impose customs and taxes on the country’s most important port.
More than 1,000 fatalities were recorded in the two incidents and the port at Berbera closed for six months as a result. Fortunately, however, the clan elders, tired of the ongoing killing, persuaded the government to attend the Grand Conference of National Reconciliation that opened in Borama on 24 January 1993, led by a committee of 150 elders from several different subclans.
One of the most truly remarkable events in Africa’s recent political history, the Grand Conference was a think tank that endured for four months, and involved more than 1,000 participants. Foremost among its consensual achievements were the creation of a bicameral parliament wherein a non-elected House of Elders could keep check on the elected House of Representatives, and the formulation of a national charter that required the government to draft a proper constitution within two years.
The Borama conference inspired a series of similar events elsewhere in Somaliland – most critically in the fractious Sanaag region – and it led to practically every last subclan being co-opted into the rebuilding process.
Crucial to the success of the Grand Conference was the appointment of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal as President of Somaliland in its euphoric wake. Egal was a broadly popular choice for this post, thanks to a long and chequered political career that had already included a period as an anti-colonial firebrand in the 1950s, various ambassadorial and ministry posts including a five-day stint as Prime Minister of Somaliland prior to the 1960 merger, and two years as Prime Minister of the Somali Republic in the build-up to the 1969 coup – not to mention two periods of detention totalling 13 years under Siad Barre. And while Egal failed in one of his primary aims, the gaining of international recognition for Somaliland, his achievements were manifold.
They included the disarmament of almost all rebel groups and the restoration of peace to the northwest; a trend of economic stabilization, then growth, through the establishment of bilateral trade agreements with several countries; the introduction of organized customs and tax collection; the creation of reasonably effective government ministries, as well as a central bank, a civilian judiciary and a functional civil service; and the forging of a strong and disciplined police force from the region’s various rebel groups. He also oversaw the institution of other trappings of normalization, for instance, the creation of a national currency and national flag.
Despite this, inter-clan violence claimed several thousand lives over the cusp of 1994–95 and it persuaded some 180,000 Somalilanders to flee back across the border to Ethiopia. The catalyst for this unrest was a dispute over control of revenue generated by Hargeisa airport, a national asset and justified source of central revenue that a local subclan gad long regarded as its own tribal possession. After the government took control of the airport in March 1995, the fighting spread to Burao, a hotspot between two powerful Isaq subclans, and this short but bloody civil war did immense damage to Somaliland’s emerging administrative structures and recovering economy, as well as undermining its case for recognition as a sovereign state. However, differences between the government and other warring factions were eventually resolved in a national reconciliation conference held in Hargeisa between October 1996 and February 1997.
Delayed by the 1994-95 fighting, a temporary constitution was adopted in February 1997, when the National Communities Conference re-elected President Egal for a second term with a 70% majority. A full constitution was unveiled in May 2001 and went to a public referendum, which returned a 97% vote in its favor. President Egal died at a military hospital in South Africa in May 2002, aged 73, while still in office. His unfinished term was completed by the relatively youthful Dahir Riyale Kahin, who also won the country’s first fully-fledged presidential elections on 14 April 2003, representing the United Democratic People’s Party (DUB). Held in September 2005, the first full election for the House of Representatives saw UDUB take 33 seats, while the rival Peace, Unity, & Development Party (KULMIYE) and Justice & Welfare Party (UCID) took 28 and 21 respectively.
Following the 2003 and 2005 elections, Somaliland, by any standards, could claim to be a fully-fledged democracy, albeit one still unrecognized by the rest of the world a full 15 years after secession. Subsequent years have seen the country’s modest economy and low-key government flourish in the face of occasional adversity, much of it related to its relationship with the remainder of the former Somali Republic. Since the late 1990s, the eastern border area has been the subject of an ongoing dispute and occasional outbreaks of violence between Somaliland and self-governing Puntland. The most serious dispute to date occurred on 15 October 2007, when the Somaliland faction of the Dhulbahante clan attacked the inland city of Las Anod, deposing the ruling Puntland faction of the same clan, with an estimated death toll of 30 people. Further fighting occurred on 15 May 2010 when troops from Somaliland and Ethiopia wrested control of several villages in the Sool region prior to the election, leaving at least 13 people dead. And an isolated incidence of violence rocked the normally safe capital Hargeisa on 29 October 2008, when simultaneous suicide bombings of the Ethiopian consulate, the presidential palace, and a UNDP office killed at least 30 people. No group has ever taken responsibility for the bombings, but they are generally thought to have been the work of Al-Shabaab, a militant southern Somali insurgency group with links to al-Qaeda.
The presidential election of June 2010, held after two years of controversial delays, saw the incumbent President Kahin fall to Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo of KULMIYE, who took 49.6 % of the vote as opposed to his main rival’s 33.3%. The outgoing Kahin immediately congratulated Silanyo, confirmed that he would stand down, and the transition was completed on 27 July at a swearing-in ceremony attended by officials from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. This peaceful presidential transition, in the aftermath of a multi-party election widely deemed to be ‘free and fair’, demonstrated that Somaliland possessed a political maturity that has eluded many recognized African countries in the 50 years since independence. Among other things, it also initiated the large-scale return to Hargeisa of Somali refugees who had fled their homeland for Europe and North America 20 years earlier. In many cases highly educated and/or relatively wealthy, this wave of returned refugees has invested both its money and skills in the development of Hargeisa, which has visibly become wealthier and more westernized, with a huge growth in facilities, be it restaurants and hotels or clinics and office blocks, during Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo’s seven-year term. The most recent presidential election, postponed from June 2017 to November of that year while the government dealt with a regional drought, saw KULMIYE return to power with 55% of the vote under the fresh leadership of Muse Bihi Abdi. The opposition Waddani Party, which took 40% of the vote, claimed massive polling irregularities, an accusation that led to rioting in Hargeisa, Burao and Erigavo, with two protesters being shot dead by police. However, the violence was short-lived as a British-funded team of 60 international observers noted a few minor infringements but nothing ‘of sufficient scale to undermine the integrity of the electoral processes, and Muse Bihi Abdi was inaugurated in December 2017. Overall, the future of this young and unrecognized nation remains highly promising, with all three parties set on working towards the elusive goal of official independence from Somalia.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS Somaliland is a constitutional multi-party democracy headed up by a president, a vice-president, and a cabinet. The president is elected directly in presidential elections held every five years, and no individual may serve for more than two five-year terms. The vice-president and cabinet are nominated by the president and must be approved by the bicameral parliament, which comprises two houses of 82 members each. The House of Elders (Guurti) is a council of Somali traditional leaders indirectly elected by local clans according to a prescribed proportionate formula for six-year terms. The members of the more conventional House of Representatives are elected directly for five-year terms. All laws must be passed by both houses before they can be enacted.
For Somaliland’s first decade of independence, political parties were prohibited as divisive. The transition to a multi-party system took place in 2002. The constitution allows for a maximum of three political parties to stand for any election, and they are prohibited from being defined by religion or clan. The November 2017 presidential election was won by the incumbent Peace, Unity & Development Party (usually referred to as KULMIYE) led by President Muse Bihi Abdi. The official opposition is the centre-left Waddani party, which was formed in 2012 in the wake of the dissolution of the United Peoples’ Democratic Party (Ururka Dimuqraadiga Ummadda Bahawday, or UDUB, in Somali), which had ruled from 2002 under President Dahir Riyale Kahin until it was defeated by KULMIYE in 2010. The minority Justice & Development Party (Ururka Caddaalada iyo Daryeelka, or UCID, in Somali), won only 4.17% of the 2017 vote, down from 15.8% in the 2010 presidential elections.
ECONOMY Somaliland has a small, fragile economy that revolves around agriculture and pastoralism, both of which depend on good rainfall, an unreliable commodity in the Horn of Africa, which has suffered several major droughts in recent years. Despite the growing financial contribution made by skilled returned refuges from Europe and North America, ongoing non-acceptance of Somaliland as a valid state is a huge hindrance to the economy, since it restricts the activity of international financiers and NGOs, and means the national currency is unrecognized outside the country. Indeed, other than the Djiboutian Banque pour le Commerce et l’Industrie, which opened a branch in Hargeisa in 2009, no international banks are represented in Somaliland and most international transactions are handled by money transfer companies, the best known of which is Dubai-based Dahabshiil, or by the upstart Dara Salaam Bank, which was founded in 2010.
Somaliland’s economic bulwark, today as it has been since the early 19th century, is the export of livestock to the Arabian Peninsula. The industry suffered greatly from a Saudi ban on Somali livestock (due to suspected rinderpest) in the 1980s, but that has since recovered to generate around US$25 million per annum. Other exports include meat, animal skins, myrrh and frankincense, and Berbera’s modern Russian-built port is the oceanic terminal of a transport corridor to Ethiopia that has increased in importance since the closure of the Ethiopia–Eritrea border in 1998, and seems likely to emerge as a regional trade powerhouse under a 30-year management and development contract signed with the Dubai-based multinational DP World in 2016. The country also has some potential for grain agriculture, and as a tourism destination, though neither industry is fully functional at present. By far the biggest contributor to the Somaliland economy is those individual Somalis who live and work abroad, and are estimated to send a collective US$1 billion or more home annually.
PEOPLE Somaliland is populated almost entirely by the Somali, who form the dominant ethnic group in the Horn of Africa. The regional total of 15–16 million Somalis is divided between Somalia (whose total population of nine to ten million is divided more or less evenly between Somaliland, Puntland and Somali proper), eastern Ethiopia (home to 4.5 million Somalis), Kenya (home to almost one million Somalis) and Djibouti (350,000 Somalis). In addition, at least one million Somalis live outside of Africa, the majority of them in Yemen, but also in North America and Europe.
ORIGIN According to legend, the common ancestor of most if not all Somali clans was Irir Samaale, a name which possibly derives from the phrase soo maal – literally, ‘go and milk’ – in reference to the almost exclusively pastoral lifestyle of his descendants. DNA studies suggest that the Somali share close ethnic links with the Oromo of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and that the two groups share a mixed African and Middle Eastern ancestry going back perhaps 5,000 years when it is known that an element of trade existed between the Somali and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
CLANS While Somaliland – and the rest of Somalia, for that matter – ranks among the few truly homogenous African states in terms of ethnicity, religion and language, the clan and subclan allegiances inherent to Somali culture have often been responsible for problems and divisions similar to those associated with tribalism elsewhere. No two sources agree precisely on the number of clans in greater Somalia, or their precise relationship to each other, but broadly speaking there are three caste-like tiers. Clan membership plays an important role in Somali politics, and marriages between members of different subclans are probably more common than within the subclan, as they help cement ties or heal rift s between neighboring families.
At the top of the Somali hierarchy are the four noble clans, all of which claim direct ancestry from the founder Irir Samaale. Ranked below them are the agro- pastoral Rahanwein clans, such as the Digil and Mirifle, whose homeland – between the Jubba and Shebelle rivers – lies outside present-day Somaliland. Even lower in status are the minority artisanal clans such as the Tumal, Yibbir, Jaji and Yahar, who traditionally live in their own settlements interspersed through the territories occupied by the various noble clans, where they perform specialist activities such as metalworking, tanning and hunting. They are regarded as unclean by the noble clans and are thus treated as outcasts who only marry among themselves.
Of the four noble clans, the most numerically significant is the Hawiya, which includes about 25% of Somalis, centred upon Mogadishu and southern Somalia, as well the border region of Ethiopia and Kenya, but is practically unrepresented in Somaliland. The main noble clan in Somaliland is the Isaq, whose territory incorporates Hargeisa, Berbera and Burao, and which comprises around 22% of all Somalis. The Isaq Somali are divided into several subclans, among them the Arab, Ayoub, Garhajis, Habar Awal, Habar Jeclo and Tol Jecle. The Darod clan is centred mainly upon present-day Puntland, but the historically significant Warsangali subclan also has a large presence in Somaliland, particularly around Erigavo and Maydh. The numerically less significant Dir clan is present in the far west of Somaliland, but its population’s main focus is Djibouti and bordering parts of Ethiopia, though the Issa subclan has strong historical links with Zeila and the Adal Sultanate.
WOMEN Traditional Somali and Islamic law both accord limited rights to females, and although improved property rights for women stand as one of the few positive legacies of the Siad Barre regime, Somaliland remains a strongly male-dominated society. Polygyny, the form of polygamy wherein men can take several wives simultaneously, but women are restricted to one husband at any given time, is still widely condoned and practiced. Furthermore, marriages are frequently arranged indirectly between the groom and the family of the bride, without the latter’s consent, and men have far more latitude than women when it comes to initiating a divorce.
According to a recent UNICEF report, the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Somali region stands at 95%. An extreme form of FGM is practiced, involving the total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, and the suturing together of the labia majora to leave one small hole for urination and menstruation. FGM in Somaliland is mostly performed by untrained village midwives, using unsterilized instruments such as knives, razors or even broken glass, on unanaesthetised pre-pubescent girls, sometimes when they are only four years old. Many victims of this cruel, painful and unnecessary procedure suffer immediate medical problems, occasionally with fatal results. Long-term complications include genital malformation, recurrent urinary infections, and increased vulnerability to HIV transmission, and obstetric complications that can result in the death of the woman and/or her unborn child.
Despite the ubiquity of FGM in traditional Somali society, there are signs that Somaliland might be the first country in the region to outlaw the practice. This is largely down to the influence of former exiles such as Nimco Ali, a Somaliland-born British campaigner who co-founded the non-profit anti-FGM organization Daughters of Eve (w dofeve.org). Indeed, in June 2017, the United Nations Population Fund announced that 1,000 community members in Hargeisa had committed to advocate for the total abandonment of FGM in the region. As a result, the build-up to the November 2017 election saw all three presidential candidates, including the winner Muse Bihi Abdi, commit to eradicating FGM from the country under their administration.
LANGUAGE Somali is the home language of nearly all Somalilanders, making this one of the most linguistically homogenous countries in Africa. It is a Cushitic language, part of the same linguistic subgroup that includes Oromo and Afar, both of which are spoken in parts of Ethiopia. Prior to 1972, several different unofficial scripts were used to transcribe the Somali language. However, the official script throughout the region is now the same Romanic one used to write English and most other European languages, albeit with a few local variations. Arabic has been widely spoken in Somaliland for centuries, particularly by the educated elite and coastal traders, and it still forms part of the school curriculum. English is not as commonly encountered, but the majority of returned emigrants who form a substantial part of the urban population speak it to a very high standard.
RELIGION Somali culture is strongly informed by Islam, which first arrived at coastal ports such as Zeila in the 7th century ad, possibly during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad, and was widespread in the interior at least 800 years ago. Islam is the official state religion of Somaliland; indeed, the territory’s constitution prohibits the promotion of any other faith, asserts that its laws must be grounded on Islamic principles, and is to discourage acts and behavior considered immoral or reprehensible under them. As a result, Islamic law dictates most facets of day-to-day life: people generally dress in traditional Islamic robes, with women almost always donning a hijab veil in public; the consumption of pork is taboo; alcohol is not only illegal but more or less unobtainable; secular music and books are limited in availability; the Sabbath is taken on Friday; and the five daily prayer calls dictate the daily rhythms of life to an extent rare elsewhere in Islamic parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Most Somalilander’s belongs to the Shafi’I school of the Sunni branch of Islam, but a minority adheres to the Shi’ite branch. The more mystical form of Islam known as Sufism also has a strong hold in Somaliland and it was strongly associated with the early 20th century Dervish movement led by Sayyid Muhammad. Koranic schools, called duqsi, have long been the most important medium of instruction in Somalia, and even today they form the only available educational opportunity for many Somalilanders, particularly among the rural nomads. Historically, Christianity has had an occasional presence in the region, first during periods of localized Ethiopian occupation and more recently during the British and Italian occupations of the north and south, but it has no significant presence here today.
EDUCATION During the colonial era, Somaliland lagged behind most British territories on the schooling front, not least because local Islamic leaders were strongly resistant to secular education, especially as overseen by a Christian authority. This changed somewhat after World War II, as independence loomed, and raising literacy levels was a high priority of the secular Siad Barre regime, which designated the first official Somali alphabet in 1972, and launched widespread adult literacy programmes in the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, then, as today, resistance to formal education remained high among nomadic Somali pastoralists, whose lifestyle is not conducive to regular school attendance and who question whether it has any direct benefit to the family income. Whatever progress was made in the 1970s was largely undone by the 1988–91 civil war, which left the education system – along with other amenities – in tatters Despite this, Somaliland has done much to build a proper educational system since it declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991. The construction of primary schools took priority for much of the 1990s, but 1999 saw the opening of Amoud University – the first post-war institution of higher learning – near Borama, to the west of the capital. Today, Somaliland boasts at least ten private and public universities, of which the most prominent are Amoud along with Hargeisa University and Burao University in the eponymous cities. In 2011, the Ministry of Education estimated that some 200,000 students – about 6% of the total population – are enrolled in government schools, and it also announced plans to recruit an additional 2,000 teachers and implement a system of free primary and intermediate education countrywide.
ARTS AND MUSIC Sean Connolly For the outsider, the creative and performing arts scene in Somaliland can be a tough nut to crack. During the war and following two decades of recovery, cultural life suffered greatly as most Somalilanders were engaged primarily in meeting more basic needs. Accordingly, the number of people engaged in creative pursuits is very small, and venues in which to showcase their work are almost non-existent. There are no live music venues, museums, galleries or café exhibitions, and the national theatre in Hargeisa is only now being rebuilt, 20 years after it was bombed into the ground. As a result, the majority of live performances take place either in private homes (along with much of Somali socializing), or at weddings – one of the few occasions at which Somalis really let their hair down! However, unless you know someone who has offered to take you along, you’re not likely to be invited in off the street to join the festivities, as Somalilanders tend to be somewhat reserved with outsiders until they get to know them well. Nevertheless, as life continues to improve in the present climate of stability, music and arts are bound to be an integral part of Somaliland’s quest to define its nascent national identity. And for those with an interest, there is a rich heritage of creativity – it just takes a little digging to find it.
VISUAL ARTS The visual arts in Somaliland tend to exist almost exclusively for commercial purposes. Any shop or restaurant worth its salt will have a brightly painted mural out front replete with smiling fish (on a plate), larger-than-life medicine bottles, lopsided bananas, cheeseburgers (whether or not the menu actually features cheeseburgers is irrelevant), serene-looking camels, plates of pasta, floating forks, and whatever else they may or may not sell! These splashes of colour go a long way towards improving the sometimes lacking aesthetics of Somaliland cities.
The artists-for-hire behind these festive advertisements travel the city working for commissions, with some pursuing non-commercial art on the side. You’ll see stalls around the city that act as the base for many artists and feel free to stop at any of these and see what kind of work they have in stock. A few do more tourist and souvenir-oriented fare (landscapes, camels, etc) in addition to their standard repertoire of sodas and sambusas.
If you see a business or restaurant that particularly catches your eye, give it a close inspection as nearly all the murals are signed with the artist’s name and mobile number. It takes a little negotiation, and likely a Somali speaker to help arrange things on your behalf, but it’s possible to arrange a commission of your own if you plan to spend more than a few days in town. Even the country’s best artists work this way. Check out the MiG jet in downtown Hargeisa – there’s a number on that too. Somaliland doesn’t yield much in the way of souvenirs, but with a little eff ort you can go home with a one-of-a-kind piece of art, purchased directly from the artist.
POETRY ‘The country teems with poets … every man has his recognized position in literature’, said Sir Richard Burton in his 19th-century travelogue First Footsteps in East Africa, and this holds remarkably true in Somaliland today. Poetry has long been the most prized of Somali art forms, and as it requires nothing but ingenuity and the human voice, is perfectly suited to their traditionally nomadic lifestyle. Somali poets have enjoyed a societal role not unlike the griots of west Africa, acting as both keepers of historical lore and commentators on the vagaries of life, love, and of course, politics.
With poetry featuring so centrally in the cultural life of Somalis and Somalilanders, many poets are household names, enjoying the widespread recognition and esteem that would normally be reserved for pop stars in the West. Some of the most popular poets in Somaliland include Hadraawi, Timacade and Gaariye – Timacade passed away in the 1970s, but this has seemingly done little to dent his popularity. You’re guaranteed a lively conversation any time these names are mentioned, and people are typically more than ready to defend and expound upon the skills and merits of their favourite.
Poetry recitation is typically performed either solo, or accompanied by an oud. This stringed instrument, widespread in the Middle East, helps set the tone for the poet according to the mood and subject of the performance. Cassette tapes of these performances are available, but the message is obviously lost to non-Somali speakers. Regardless, they still do make for an interesting listen, and any Somalilander friends you make will be more than happy to interpret for you. Poets are revered for their nuance and impeccable grasp of language, used to transport the listener into their story or convince them of a point of view. Prepare for some loss in translation.
MUSIC While poetry is without question the premier art form in Somaliland, there is also a music scene, albeit a small one. If you’re arriving from elsewhere in Africa, the Somalilander approach to music is a drastic change. Gone are the maxed-out amplifiers and distorted speakers on every corner and in every car – in Somaliland you’ll have ample opportunity to hear yourself think. This stems from Somaliland’s deeply-held conservatism. Certain schools of Islamic thought prohibit music, and while it is by no means forbidden in Somaliland, music plays a much smaller role than in neighbouring countries. The music that you do hear, however, tends to be local. The ubiquitous Western pop so difficult to escape elsewhere is largely absent here – farewell 50 Cent and sayonara Snoop Dogg.
Today, due to music’s frowned-upon status among Somaliland’s more conservative elements, those in the business of selling boom-boxes have taken a clever step to prove their Islamic bona fides – keep your eyes out for ‘Islamic Stereo’ stores dotted around town. These places are fully stocked with the latest speakers and music players, ostensibly for the purpose of listening to Koranic recitations – with bass boost. Music is still very much enjoyed in Somaliland, only it is done so with a touch of discretion.
Given this relative absence of Western music, Somali and Somalilander music is widely listened to and for the casual observer can be broken down into the following styles.
Qaraami Traditional Somali music, or Qaraami, usually involves a singer (or poet) backed by an oud and a drum (increasingly a keyboard-preset drum track.) The oud pushes the melody along, and the sometimes mournful, sometimes joyful trills of the singer sit gently on top. Always atmospheric and often hypnotic, it’s the perfect soundtrack to get lost to in the desert scenery as you bounce, bump and sweat your way down the Hargeisa–Berbera road. The late Omar Dhuule remains one of Somaliland’s most cherished musicians, and a true master of the Qaraami style.
Contemporary popular music The popular music being produced in Somaliland today can be a mixed bag. Lifelong artists often find themselves competing with cheaply produced records made by relative unknowns. Casio keyboards are the instrument of choice, and songs typically build on a call-and-response theme. Thankfully, most of it remains far removed from the cookie-cutter Western-style pop found in much of the world. You will notice the Arab and Ethiopian influences, as Somaliland’s geographic and cultural links continue to inform new music, creating a sound and flavour that is uniquely Somali. Check out Somaliland National Television (SLNTV) for whatever’s topping the charts this week. There are no clubs and cars in these videos, just a green screen and some G-rated dance moves. The talented Maryam Mursal is the doyen of Somali pop singers today, and one of the few whose music has gone international. Other popular singers include Ubax Fahmo and Mohamed BK, while the Canada-based K’naan creates hip hop with an unmistakably Somali twist.
Pre-war pop Pre-war Somali pop can be a real treat. The 1980s saw several full bands gain popularity throughout Somalia, playing a distinct brand of funk and pop. These were true bands: driving horns, screaming organs, growling basslines, razor-sharp guitars and unstoppable drumming set the tone for male and female singers delivering their messages with swagger and panache – no reservations here. Many of their songs were furiously modern updates of traditional Somali songs, while others wrote equally funky originals. A handful of these recordings can be tracked down on repeatedly dubbed cassettes or on YouTube, but these bands are one of countless pieces of Somali cultural heritage lost during the war. Iftin, Dur Dur and Sahra Dawo are all names to look out for.