Somaliland Struggles For Recognition
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Somaliland calls itself an independent republic, but the rest of the world calls it the northern region of Somalia. Somalilanders have their own president, their own parliament, and their own passports.
Now, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, they're waiting for the rest of the world to show them a little respect.
GWEN THOMPKINS: Ever have that dream where you wake up one morning and nobody recognizes you? It's sort of like being in the "Twilight Zone" or a topsy-turvy episode of "Lost." The people of Somaliland have been living that dream every day since 1991. That was when Somalia's military dictator, Siad Barre, lost power in a ruinous civil war and this northern coastal region of the country declared itself an independent republic.
From that day to this, Abdillahi Mohamed Dualeh has been waiting for somebody, anybody to recognize his homeland.
Mr. ABDILLAHI MOHAMED DUALEH (Foreign Minister, Somaliland): One brave country announcing Somaliland, this is the ultimate call.
THOMPKINS: Dualeh is the foreign minister of Somaliland. He has been sharpening the national argument for international recognition to a fine point. Sitting in a conference room of a hotel that becomes the capitol city's political center after dark, Dualeh leaned in for his first pitch. If world powers can recognize East Timor, he says, they can certainly recognize Somaliland, which has a lot more going for it than East Timor did back in the late 1990s.
Mr. DUALEH: Our case is, in fact, even much better because ours is a unique case. We have a leader case. We do have a moral case. We do have a historical case.
THOMPKINS: And now, for a moment of geography. The Horn of Africa has a long hot coastline on the Gulf of Aden, with lots of camel-colored sand meeting clear, shimmering water. Here, the Gulf is warm and inviting, with the exception of some mean looking crabs that come and go with the tide. More than 400 miles of this unfettered beach is Somaliland, squeezed in between Djibouti to the west and Somalia proper to the east. The greater region also includes Ethiopia and Yemen.
Dualeh says his country is an oasis of democracy in a neighborhood where power rarely changes hands without a fight.
Mr. DUALEH: We are a de facto state. Whether states like us or not, we are here and we are here to stay.
THOMPKINS: But imagine their frustration with no invitation to join any conclave of world powers. People here say they paid their dues for statehood. Somaliland was an independent territory for five whole days after Britain gave it up as a protectorate in 1960. Then Somalilanders united with Somalis on the rest of the Horn, who were newly freed from Italy. And when the union soured, Somalilanders fought a harrowing campaign of succession.
Ahmed Mohamed Solanyo is a leader of Somaliland's political opposition. During the war, he ran the breakaway Somali National Movement.
Mr. AHMED MOHAMED SOLANYO (Chairman, Kulmiye Party): Siad Barre was a very powerful dictator with a very cruel record. And even planes taking off from the airport programmed(ph) to the government were bombarding the progression.
THOMPKINS: Some of the carcasses of those planes, as well as stricken cars and tanks, still litter the capitol city of Hargeisa and also the airport at Berbera. They blend into Somaliland's beige landscape of sand and scrub along with the birds, the camels, the goats, and the enormous tortoises that cross the road.
In the nearly 20 years since Siad Barre's government came tumbling down, as other Somalis on the Horn descended into anarchy, Somalilanders rebuilt their state, their economy, and their peace of mind. Here, they have both democratic and traditional clan structures of governance. They export camels and other livestock to the Arab world. And the Port of Berbera is a key commercial throughway for landlocked Ethiopia.
The economy could be better. Unemployment is high and most people live quite modestly. But Dualeh says that the boon of modest living is self-reliance.
Mr. DUALEH: Our contribution to the international community, to Africa, is the fact that we have gone through this without begging or asking them for assistance.
THOMPKINS: Somaliland has virtually no contact with Mogadishu down south. But the democracy here does have its troubles. President Rayale Kahin has delayed elections twice amid growing concerns about corruption within his administration. Last year, suicide bombers, believed to be associated with al-Qaida, made unprecedented strikes against the United Nations' compound here, an Ethiopian diplomatic compound and the presidential palace.
And Somaliland's coast guard is struggling against the growing blight of piracy in and around the Gulf. Western donors are directing $200 million to build up Somali security forces on the Horn, but none of that money will come here. Kahin says it's because Somaliland has become a victim of its own competence. No other Somalis on the Horn have a coast guard.
President RIYALE KAHIN (Somaliland): We believe that we are part of the international community and we have a moral responsibility to play our role. Whether we get donation help or not, we are doing our duties.
THOMPKINS: Somalilanders travel frequently to Britain and other points west. But on the issue of recognition, Western diplomats say they will take their cue from Africa. If African countries recognize Somaliland, so will they. And yet, African leaders are reluctant to do so, some say for fear of promoting breakaway republics elsewhere on the continent.
Rashid Abdi is a Somali watcher for International Crisis Group in Nairobi. He says that the peace and stability Somalilanders enjoy is probably more important than foreign approbation.
Mr. RASHID ABDI (Somali Watcher, International Crisis Group, Nairobi): Recognition ultimately will give Somalilanders the respectability it deserves. But for God's sake, stop obsessing about it. Stop this desperation. You know, for the world owes you nothing. Democracy is its own reward.
THOMPKINS: So, at the heart of the matter is a variation on a familiar question: if a democracy grows on the Horn of Africa and no foreigner recognizes it, does that make it any less a democracy?
Somaliland has a sweet thing going here and the graffiti on the wall at the Berbera Airport suggests that the people are motivated to keep it intact. The quote is not attributed but has a familiar ring. It says, ask not what your country can do. Ask what you can do for your country.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Somaliland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.