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Travel with the Somaliland Special Police Unit “By Philip Briggs”

A major ambiguity associated with travel in Somaliland is the erratically enforced requirement to travel everywhere outside Hargeisa accompanied by at least one member of the Special Protection Unit (SPU), an arm of the police force specially trained to protect foreigners.

The exact rules regarding where and when SPU protection is required are almost impossible to pin down. The story seems to change from one day to the next (and one government department to another), so anything we state now may have changed by the time you get there.

As far as we can ascertain, the official requirement for all parts of the country east of Burao is that foreigners must travel privately in a convoy of at least two 4x4s, one for themselves and one containing at least two SPU guards. In practice, however,  tourists  are  generally  permitted  to  travel  in  one  4×4  with  one  SPU, although a second one may sometimes be required, depending on whether space is available.

For travel west of Burao, one car (not necessarily 4×4) and one SPU is fine. It should be noted that many SPU guards will insist on taking the passenger seat – and if there is a second officer, a window seat in the back – which makes sense in terms of security,  but does limit  how much paying clients get to see through the window. On that basis, the argument for a second vehicle to carry the SPU is compelling, assuming you can afford it.

The rules surrounding travel on public transport are even more ambiguous. It seems to be universally agreed that no SPU protection is required on public transport between Hargeisa and the Ethiopian and Djiboutian borders, and it is equally clear at the time of writing that foreigners are forbidden outright from using public transport anywhere east of Burao, with or without SPU protection.

Between Hargeisa, Berbera, and Burao, it is permitted to use public transport, but only if you pay for SPU protection, or obtain a written waiver from the tourist office, otherwise you’ll most likely be turned back at the first police roadblock (although people do sometimes get through without a waiver or an SPU on board).

A further area of ambiguity relates to the rules for individual towns. The official ruling  seems  to  be  that  you  can  walk  or  drive  freely  in  Hargeisa  without  SPU protection at any time of day.

In Berbera, it is permitted to walk or drive freely between 06.00 and 18.00, and while SPU protection is technically required after dark, this rule is often ignored. Elsewhere in the country, it is forbidden to walk or drive without SPU protection at any time, and you should not leave your hotel at all between 18.00 and sunrise.

SPU protection costs at least US$20 per guard per day, depending on who organizes it and whether it’s a day or overnight trip. In theory, travel expenses are covered by this fee but many SPU guards will expect the client to pay for their meals.

In addition to being costly, some SPU officers are notoriously obstructive to any plan that interferes with their agenda (ie: chewing lots of khat and doing as little as possible), and you’ll find that security risks are exaggerated or played down, and rules ignored,  twisted,  invented or heeded, on a somewhat self-serving basis. Unless you enjoy arguing with a man with a gun, this can become quite tiresome.

The good news for backpackers is that it is now commonplace for the tourist office in Hargeisa to issue a written waiver on the spot to any traveller who asks, depending to some extent on the current security situation. This allows the bearer to travel freely to Berbera without SPU protection. We have not heard of anybody being permitted to travel in a private vehicle without SPU protection.

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