MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Most of the news we hear from Somalia is bad. But today, we're going to hear from a breakaway part of the country where things are much better. It's called Somaliland.
Several months ago, Somaliland held successful elections. It's trying to improve its economy and its relations with the outside world.
NPR's Frank Langfitt is just back from Somaliland, where he got a sense of the business climate there.
FRANK LANGFITT: This is the Somaliland trade fair. It's probably not like any trade fair you've ever been to before. For one thing, there are a lot of cops walking around with AK-47s, but there are also a lot of booths, people who are trying to hawk their products and get some foreign investment. Right in front of me, there's someone selling honey, across the way, there are a bunch of gemstones. And right down here, there's a tub full of camel's meat.
Unidentified Man: This is Somali traditional meat.
LANGFITT: Okay. I'll try a little bit. Let's see how this goes. Mm. It's quite chewy, but not bad. Kind of like beef jerky.
In Somalia, a country synonymous with war and anarchy, holding a trade fair is a big accomplishment. In Mogadishu, some 500 miles to the south, an event like this is unthinkable. There are simply too many bombs, mortars and snipers. But here 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 pretty safe, at least compared to the rest of Somalia.
Mr. GUELLEH OSMAN: Security is very good. It's been like that for a long time.
LANGFITT: So how late at night will you walk the streets?
Mr. OSMAN: When we're discharging cargos, for instance, I sometimes go and visit our warehouses. You can walk at 3 a.m. in the morning. It's not a problem.
LANGFITT: 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.
Mohammed Omer runs the Hargeisa plastic factory that makes trash and shopping bags.
Mr. MOHAMMED OMER (Hargeisa Plastic Factory): Our country has been destroyed of the civil war. Therefore, we are rebuilding. But it's too hard. Nobody recognize us, therefore it's not easy to rebuild without assistance.
LANGFITT: Somaliland occupies a poor, arid stretch of land along the Gulf of Aden. It's sort of Somalia's panhandle. And it's home to lots of camels, cactus and about three and a half 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.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omar - no relation to the trash bag maker - ticks off Somaliland's accomplishments.
Mr. MOHAMED ABDULLAHI OMAR (Foreign Minister, Somaliland): We are a peaceful country. We have been running our own affairs independently for 19 years. We have a good track record on the fight against piracy, fight against terrorism.
LANGFITT: 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, which 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.
Mr. JOHNNIE CARSON (Assistant Secretary of State, African Affairs): We think that both of these parts of Somalia have been zones of relative political and civil stability. And we think they will, in fact, be a bulwark against extremism and radicalism.
Mr. HUSSEIN ABDI DUALEH (Ministry of Water Mineral Resources and Energy, Somaliland): My name is Hussein Abdi Dualeh. I'm a naturalized citizen of the United States. I'm currently the minister of Mining, Energy and Water Resources for the Republic of Somaliland.
LANGFITT: Dualeh grew up in Somaliland but spent the last two decades working in the energy sector in California. Like many members of the new cabinet here, he says he's returned home to help out. At first, nobody back in California understood.
Mr. DUALEH: When I was leaving my old job, I had a hard time explaining to people that I'm going to Somaliland, because everybody was just going, whoa, what did you just say?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUALEH: You're going to Somalia? I said, no, I'm not. I'm going to Somaliland.
LANGFITT: Back at the trade fair, vendors say they received few offers of help. And some visitors - mostly international donor organizations -said they're still constrained by Somaliland's status.
Richard Walker works for the African Development Bank. This was his first visit anywhere in Somalia. He was surprised by the vibrance.
Mr. RICHARD WALKER (Economist, African Development Bank): It's been a lot more positive than what I expected; the street traders, the people, the trucks coming in out of town. So obviously, there's quite a lot going on there, people trying to get on in a bad situation.
LANGFITT: Walker would like to help Somaliland build much-needed roads, but it may only qualify for something more modest, like financial management training. The reason is simple: Somaliland may be the best thing going in Somalia, but nobody outside considers it a state.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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