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Somaliland between clans and November elections

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
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Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland
Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

Hargeisa may not feel like a capital city in terms of grand or high-rise buildings, but it certainly sprawls over its highland valley – the homes of an estimated 760,000 people covering 75 square kilometres. Direct flights to and from Dubai, Addis and Nairobi enhance its image as a transnational centre. In any case, many would argue that Hargeisa should not qualify as anything more than a regional capital of the larger Somali republic.

Ahmed Yusuf Yasin, the former vice-president of Somaliland
Ahmed Yusuf Yasin, the former vice-president of Somaliland. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

A former British protectorate, Somaliland hastily joined with Somalia (then under Italian trusteeship) following Somalian independence in 1960. It broke away from Somalia in 1991 as the republic descended into chaos and civil conflict. Never formally recognized by any country or international organization, it appreciates a ‘special relationship’ with UK and EU donors, but maintains that international fixation on ‘sovereign borders’ has deprived it of the broader foreign investment and trade linkages it deserves.

A bride before her wedding sitting with her bridesmaids.
A bride before her wedding sitting with her bridesmaids.
Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

Largely economically self-reliant, funds from the diaspora have invigorated the construction and real-estate industries, and along with Kuwaiti and Turkish charities have improved public services, colleges and hospitals in and around Hargeisa. However, the rest of the economy has seen less growth. The trade in qat (a mild narcotic) still comprises over 60 per cent of GDP, taxation of business is still less than it should be, and the formal unemployment rate for young people under 35 is 75 per cent . With few opportunities locally, many Somalilanders undertake tahrib, or illegal migration – with one of the highest rates of tahrib in the region.

Its relationship with Somalia remains acrimonious at best. Reconciliation talks collapsed in March 2015. Although they will likely resume under Somalia’s recently elected President Farmajo, prospects for reunification remain remote, especially as memories of union between 1960 and 1991 fade. Pending investment and political concessions from the Gulf states will embolden such hardline positions, as will ongoing insecurity in Somalia.

This is not to suggest that support for the national agenda is unanimous within Somaliland. Outside the Burco-Berbera-Hargeisa triangle, where the majority Isaaq clan dominates, there are secessionist movements, especially in the east; Khaatumo state has been pushing for independence from Somaliland since 2012. Armed resistance in this region, also disputed with the neighbouring regional state of Puntland, has sporadically turned into fierce military confrontation. In these areas, movement for foreign NGO/UN workers and media is prohibited; though even in Hargeisa foreigners are required to be escorted by government special protection units under strict curfew.

A young woman plays basketball at Socsa (Somaliland Culture and Sports Association)
A young woman plays basketball at Socsa (Somaliland Culture and Sports Association).
Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

Thus, despite its ‘exceptional’ peace and stability, the reality is that Somaliland remains fragile. It too was formed through its own civil wars (from 1991-93), and while clan-based resolution of conflict brought a firm popular commitment to stability, it also slowed progress towards human and civil rights – restricting space for open dialogue and criticism of the staunchly nationalist government.

This will all be on display in the presidential elections due in November 2017. Political gatherings will be met with heavy-handed security from state-owned paramilitary groups; and the independence of civil society and media will be greatly restricted. While President Silanyo has stepped aside for liberation-era military commander, Musabixi Abdi – honouring a decade-old agreement – he and his close family have also shored up enough private contracts and government appointments to stymie any genuine transition.

Awoman selling gold from a stall in Hargeisa market sits behind a display case.
A woman selling gold from a stall in Hargeisa market sits behind a display case. Photo by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

The corruption and nepotism practised by the ruling Kulmiye party since 2010 will likely remain a mainstay, even if the opposition proves successful. Few domestic safeguards exist to ensure otherwise, as parliament has not seen elections since 2005, and the house of elders, Guurti, is still largely beholden to the executive.

All photos by Liba Taylor/Panos Pictures

Fact file

Leader President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud ‘Silanyo’ – though handing over to Musabixi Abdi in November 2017.
Economy GDP per head is estimated at $348 but this is highly speculative (only Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi have a lower income per capita).
Monetary unit Somaliland shilling.
Main exports Qat, livestock (camels, sheep, goats), hides, fish, and frankincense. Gulf states finally lifted the ban on livestock imports in July 2017, reinvigorating livestock earnings, which contribute 30% of GDP. The construction and real-estate sectors continue to grow with diaspora investments; mobile phone rates and banking maintain some of cheapest rates and accessibility across the continent. Poverty in urban areas is 29%, but rural poverty is 38%.
People Approximately 3.5 million, despite no national census; there are approximately 40,000 IDPs in Somaliland from the civil war.
Health Infant mortality: 77 per 1,000 live births (Ethiopia 41, UK 4). The lack of investment in social services has taken a toll on human development, and significant rural-urban divides in access to services. Primary school enrolment rate: 51% in Grades 1-4 (compared to 87% in Ethiopia).
Environment The Awdal, Sahil and Maroodi Jeex (Woqooyi Galbeed) regions are fertile and mountainous, while Togdheer is mostly semi-desert with little fertile greenery around. The Awdal region is also known for its offshore islands, coral reefs and mangroves. Over 60% of the population are pastoralists or farmers.
Culture Somaliland has a rich oral culture, with songs and poems deriving from the heroic warrior past, and shares a common language and ancestry with the Somali people. As in Somalia, the clan system dominates marriage, politics and social interactions. The Isaaq make up 80% of the population, making Somaliland considerably more homogenous than Somalia.
Religion Islam; women are semi-secluded. Somaliland is religiously more conservative than Somalia, and the niqab has become more common for women.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★★ Despite the collective culture, and clan allegiance spurning mutual support and an egalitarian attitude, the return of diaspora has increased inequality. The World Bank reported 2013 Gini coefficients of 45.7 in rural areas and 42.6 in urban areas (Ethiopia 27 rural, 37 urban). 2003 ★★★
Literacy ★★ Low at 44%, and significantly lower for women (around 20%). There is a lack of schools and the student-teacher ratio is high in those that do exist. The school system is ill suited to the lifestyle of nomads (60% of the population). 2003 ★
Life expectancy ★★ 55 years (Ethiopia 65, UK 81) 2003★
Freedom ★★ In the justice system, freedom exists for those that can afford it, with many seeking justice through traditional legal structures or shari’a rather than the national legal system. 2003 ★★★
Position of women ★★ Women remain politically under­represented (less than 5% in government). Rates of sexual violence are high and underreported. UNICEF reported that the rate of FGM for girls under 14 in Somaliland had dropped to 25% by 2013, following a social and religious awareness campaign. 2003★★
Sexual minorities ★ Homosexuality is illegal and is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though it is unclear whether this applies to women.
New Internationalist assessment ★★★ While political institutions are more robust in Somaliland than in Somalia, politics are still largely founded on informal rules, and the constant shifting of clan-based allegiances and power. While built on a foundation of compromise, consensus and self-reliance, vested interests and powerful clans still wield power through executive orders and state capture, dictating the terms of the game. With no formal opposition representation and weak domestic safeguards, the executive operates with relative impunity. 2003★★★★

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