In breakaway Somaliland, a bid to be stable regional citizen
The unrecognized territory hosts tens of thousands of Somali refugees and is trying and imprisoning pirates.
It might surprise you to learn that Somalia — that post-apocalyptic shell of a nation where Islamist insurgents, clan warlords, and now pirates hold sway over a helpless government — has some nice parts, too.Skip to next paragraph
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In Hargeisa, a visitor can walk the asphalt roads at dusk and freely breathe the sharp mountain air. The street markets are busy and boisterous, and hanging out there isn't likely to get you killed. Cellphone companies advertise mobile Internet service and the good hotels have wireless hot spots.
If this doesn't feel like Somalia, residents say that's because it's not. This is Somaliland, a northern former British protectorate that broke away from chaotic southern Somalia in 1991, established an admirably stable government, and hoped never to look back.
No country has recognized Somaliland's independence, however. The argument has always been that to do so would further destabilize Somalia, even as Somalia seems to be destabilizing well enough on its own.
So for now, this quiet slice of land along the volatile Gulf of Aden is an undeniable, if very reluctant, piece of Somalia.
A territory of 5 million people, Somaliland is trying to be a good regional citizen, hosting tens of thousands of refugees from southern Somalia and, lately, trying and imprisoning pirates, which few governments anywhere have been eager to do.
At least 26 men are serving time in Somaliland prisons for piracy. Last month, a European warship stopped nine men who were attempting to hijack a Yemeni vessel but allowed them to flee in a lifeboat. The would-be pirates washed ashore in Somaliland, where police and the scrappy coast guard, which patrols a 600-mile coastline with two speedboats and a tiny fleet of motorized skiffs, chased them down.
"We are patient. We always feel like we are getting close" to recognition, said Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, the polished foreign minister, betraying just a trace of exasperation in his near-flawless English. "Time will put Somaliland where we belong."
Yes, the territory has a foreign minister, along with liaison offices — don't call them diplomatic missions — in a handful of countries including the United States. It has a president and a bicameral legislature, as well as feisty opposition parties. It issues its own currency — crisp bills printed in the United Kingdom — and its own passports and visas.
It can't make deals with other countries for development projects, though, and no international banks have opened here. The economy remains mostly pre-modern and farm-based.
So you can understand Mr. Duale's frustration: While Somalia is a country without a functioning government, Somaliland is a noncountry with a reasonably functioning government.
The president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, won the first free elections in 2003 and was rewarded last year with a visit by the then-ranking US diplomat for Africa, then-Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer. This year, however, Mr. Riyale has sparred with opposition leaders over the timing of elections, which have been postponed twice and now are set for October.
Some foreign officials are worried that the young democracy is backsliding.