The contrast between Mogadishu and the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa is striking. In Hargeisa, people wave at foreigners, but in Mogadishu, foreigners are more likely to be shot or kidnapped.
The contrast between Mogadishu and the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa is striking. In Hargeisa, people wave at foreigners, but in Mogadishu, foreigners are more likely to be shot or kidnapped. Frank Langfitt/NPR
Most of the news from Somalia comes from the capital, Mogadishu, and it's mostly bad. But there is a different part of Somalia where things are much better.
It's called Somaliland, and in addition to holding successful democratic elections several months ago, it is trying to improve its economy and build relations with the outside world.
At a recent trade fair in Somaliland, people behind booths are trying to hawk their products and attract some foreign investment. There also are lots of cops walking around with AK-47 assault rifles.
One vendor is selling honey. Across the way, gemstones are for sale.
In Somalia — a country in the Horn of Africa synonymous with war and anarchy — holding a trade fair is a big accomplishment. An event like this one is unthinkable in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, some 500 miles to the south. There are simply too many bombs, mortars and snipers.
But in Somaliland, even with the cops and the guns, it seems relatively normal.
Guelleh Osman mans a booth promoting frankincense to make perfume. He says one reason he can operate at all is because Somaliland is relatively safe compared with the rest of Somalia.
"Security is very good," Osman says. "It's been like that for a long time. When we're discharging cargos, for instance, I sometimes go and visit our warehouses. I go at 3 a.m. in the morning. It's not a problem."
By most measures, Somaliland is an East African success story.
There's just one hitch — Somaliland considers itself an independent country. But nobody else does. And that costs Somaliland.
Exporters here often can't get letters of credit from overseas banks. And citizens can't travel without a foreign passport.
"Our country has been destroyed by civil war," says Mohammed Omer, who runs the Hargeisa plastic factory, which makes trash and shopping bags. "Therefore, we are rebuilding. But it's too hard. Nobody recognizes us. Therefore, it's not easy to rebuild without assistance."
Increased Outside Interest
Somaliland occupies a poor, arid stretch of land along the Gulf of Aden. It's sort of Somalia's panhandle, and it is home to lots of camels, cactuses and about 3.5 million people.
Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 after the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in Mogadishu.
As southern Somalia fell into anarchy, Somaliland slowly righted itself.
It set up a bicameral legislature of elders and representatives that balanced clan politics with modern government. And it largely disarmed its people.
But African governments want to see Somalia remain intact, so they and the rest of the world have refused to recognize the Somaliland government.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omar sums up Somaliland's accomplishments: "We are a peaceful country," he says. "We've been running our own affairs independently for 19 years. We have a good track record on the fight against piracy, the fight against terrorism."
Last month, Somaliland got some good news from Washington.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the United States will send more diplomats to Somaliland and increase its modest level of aid.
Why the new interest?
The U.S. is trying to block al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group that controls most of Mogadishu and wants to take over the whole country.
Carson hopes Somaliland and its neighbor, Puntland — another breakaway Somali region — can help.
"We think that both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability," Carson says. "And we think they will, in fact, be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism."
Hussein Abdi Dualeh, the minister of mining, energy and water resources for the Republic of Somaliland, grew up in Somaliland but spent the last two decades working in the energy sector in California.
Hussein Abdi Dualeh, the minister of mining, energy and water resources for the Republic of Somaliland, grew up in Somaliland but spent the last two decades working in the energy sector in California. Frank Langfitt/NPR
Hussein Abdi Dualeh, the minister of mining, energy and water resources for the Republic of Somaliland, grew up there but is a naturalized citizen of the United States and spent the last two decades working in the energy sector in California.
Like many members of the new Cabinet in Somaliland, he says he has returned home to help out.
At first, nobody in California understood.
"When I was leaving my old job, I had a hard time explaining to people that I'm going to Somaliland," he says. "Everybody said, 'Whoa! What did you say? You're going to Somalia?' I said, 'No, I'm not. I'm going to Somali-LAND.' "
Obstacles Prevent More Assistance
At the recent trade fair, vendors said they received few offers of help.
And some visitors — mostly international donor organizations — said they are still constrained by Somaliland's status.
On his first visit anywhere in Somalia, Richard Walker of the African Development Bank, said he was surprised by the vibrancy of Somaliland.
"It was a lot more positive than what I expected," he said. "The street traders, the people, the trucks coming in — there's a lot going on there. People trying to get on in a bad situation."
Walker would like to help Somaliland build much-needed roads, but it may only qualify for something more modest, like financial management training.
And the reason is simple — Somaliland may be the best thing going in Somalia, but nobody outside considers it a state.