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A peaceful oasis in bloody Somalia

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With the war-torn south in anarchy despite massive outside aid, a peaceful breakaway republic seeks international recognition as it goes its own way with a homegrown mix of democracy and traditional problem-solving


April 08, 2007

Jeffrey Gettleman

New York Times


When the sun rises over the craggy hills of Hargeysa, it sheds light on a different kind of Somalia.


Trucks selling genuine soft ice cream hit the streets. Moneychangers, unarmed and unguarded, push cash through the market in wheelbarrows.


Politicians from three distinct parties get ready for another day of debate, which recently included an animated discussion on registering nomadic voters.


It's all part of a Somali puzzle: how one area of the country, the northwest, also known as Somaliland, can seem so peaceful and functional while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess.


"We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems," says Dahir Rayale Kahin, president of the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland, which has long declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia. "Our brothers in the south are still waiting ... for others."


But Somalilanders are waiting, too: waiting to be recognized as a sovereign state.


In 1991, as Somalia's government disintegrated and clan fighting in the south spun out of control, Somaliland, traditionally one of the poorest parts of Somalia, made its first declaration of independence.


In 2001, Somalilanders went to the polls and overwhelmingly supported a constitution drawn up in 1997.


But no country acknowledges Somaliland as a separate state and very few even contribute aid – which makes its success all the more intriguing.


Its leaders, with no Western experts at their elbow, have devised a political system that minimizes clan rivalries while carving out a special role for clan elders, the traditional pillars of Somali society.


They have demobilized thousands of the young gunmen who still plague Somalia and melded them into a national army.


They have even held three rounds of multiparty elections, no small feat in a region, the Horn of Africa, where multiparty democracy is mostly a rumour. Somalia has not had free elections since the 1960s.


Of course, Somaliland has not always been so stable, and Somalia has not always been so chaotic. Even now, critics say, the Somaliland government can be repressive and inefficient, and the mental hospital in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, seems to be evidence of both.


Patients are chained to their beds in dark, smelly rooms – but Somalilanders are quick to point out that at least they have a mental hospital, which the more populous south does not.


The Somalilanders' steady, underdog efforts to create a functioning state from the ruins of war seem to dispel the notion that Somalia is an inherently ungovernable, warlike place.


So, what happened?


When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got Somalia.


While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.


One result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa – but its traditional systems of authority were weakened.


That is partly why, many analysts say, warlords were able to outmuscle clan elders and dominate Mogadishu in the vacuum that formed after the central government fell in 1991.


The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact.


The two territories were granted independence in 1960 and quickly merged to form the Somali Republic, but it was never a happy marriage. By the 1980s, the Somali National Movement, a northern rebel group, was blowing up government posts.


In 1988, government fighter-bombers flattened Hargeysa, killing 50,000 civilians.


The Somali National Movement proved indispensable in the fragile years after the central government collapsed. It set up the guurti, a council of elders from every clan, which soon evolved into an official decision-making body.


Most council members were illiterate herders, but they became the glue that held Somaliland together. In a sparsely populated nomadic society, where many people live far from government services, clan elders are traditionally the ones to reconcile differences and maintain social order.


"They were a cushion," notes Ahmed Mohammed Silanyo, leader of Somaliland's main opposition party. "Whenever there was friction, these old men would step in and say, `What's wrong with you boys? Stay together.'"


In the 1990s, while clan warlords in Mogadishu were levelling the capital's fine Italian architecture, the guurti, along with rebel leaders, were building a government.


With the whole area awash with weapons and split by warring clans, Somaliland's leaders moved to persuade the militiamen to give up their guns – a goal that still seems remote in the south.


They moved slowly, first taking the armed pickups, then the heavy guns.


Again, this stood in contrast to the south, where thousands of U.S. Marines and UN peacekeepers failed to put a dent in clan violence.


"We had a higher purpose – independence," notes Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland's foreign minister. "And nobody in the outside world was going to help us get there."


That would prove to be a theme here. The less outside help, the better.


Over the years, southern Somalia has received tens of millions – if not hundreds of millions – of dollars in aid, and Somaliland almost nothing.


The difference is striking, though it is true that Somaliland may be easier to govern with an estimated 2.5 million people, compared with 6 million in the south, and a somewhat less complex clan structure.


Still, for elections in 2002, Somaliland leaders devised a system specifically to check clan power.


They limited the number of political parties to three to prevent a repeat of the fragmentation of the 1960s, when nationwide elections spawned more than 60 political parties, essentially one for each subclan.


It was an attempt to create parties based on ideology, not tribe, something that has proved quite difficult across Africa.


The leaders also turned the guurti, whose 82 elders are appointed by their respective clans, into the upper house of parliament – "Somaliland's senators," as people here say.


In some ways, Somalia's transitional government is now trying to replicate Somaliland's approach by including representatives of all the major clans.


But some experts say the transitional government is missing broad support, partly because because many of those selected to serve in the transitional government lack the stature of guurti elders.


The guurti in Somaliland can strike down laws passed by the elected House of Representatives, though the representatives can override the guurti with a two-thirds vote. It is a mix of tradition and modernity – Western-style democracy meets Somali-style politics – though some Somalilanders say it's time to renovate the system.


"We need to move on," argues Faisal Ali Waraabe, leader of the opposition Justice and Welfare Party. "The guurti helped get us through a crisis, but now we're trying to push our people from tribal loyalty to institutional loyalty, from clan loyalty to national loyalty."


Silanyo agrees: "It's ridiculous to have an elected body that can be trumped by an unelected body."


Meanwhile, the one issue that unites most Somalilanders is recognition. Somaliland has its own currency, its own flag, its own national anthem and even its own passport.


"And we have peace, a peace owned by the community," says Zamzam Adan, a women's rights activist. "You'd think in this part of the world, that would count for something."

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Ala Ilahow walalahayo sidoo kale ka dhig, anaga noo sii siyaadi nabad aan kujirno...amin.


Mahadsanid FAnisha inader.


EboniQue waran inabti?

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