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In Somalia's break-away corner, an oasis of stability

The self-declared republic of Somaliland has elections, a strong economy, and zero tolerance for extremists or pirates. But no one recognizes it.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2009

Hargeisa, Somaliland

At first glance, the dusty streets of Hargeisa look like much of the rest of Somalia. Traffic jams consist of the occasional late-model Toyota Corolla encountering a string of donkey carts or a slow-moving flock of goats. Roads, water pipes, and electrical power grids have been untouched for nearly 40 years, but the mobile phone system runs just fine, thank you.

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But Hargeisa is not at all like the rest of Somalia, and according to its elected leaders, it is the capital of an entirely separate country: Somaliland – a country that no one besides the Somalilanders themselves recognizes.

A self-declared independent republic since 1991 – when civil war broke out after the fall of Somali dictator Siad Barre – Somaliland is an oddity in the conflict-prone Horn of Africa. A multiparty democracy with an elected president and parliament, a secular Muslim country with no tolerance for extremism, a thriving free-market economy with precious little foreign aid, and a strict law-and-order state with no patience for piracy – Somaliland is exactly the kind of country the Western world loves to embrace.

"We are the key," says Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland's foreign minister, during a recent interview. "This is the only safe haven you've got [in the region]. This is the only government with the public will and muscle to deal with the issue of piracy. With Somaliland, you have the only willing partner."

He pauses. "This is a terrible neighborhood," he says, referring to the ongoing civil war in Somalia and the piracy in Puntland, another self-declared republic to the east. "We are building this nation from scratch. We are not doing this to appease others. But we need to get the capacity [through foreign aid] if we want to sustain this."

Unstable by association

Denied recognition by the Western powers for nearly two decades out of fears that it would encourage breakaway movements in Darfur, Congo, Nigeria, and elsewhere, Somaliland has created an alternative Somali nation in slow motion, in a region with more than its fair share of war, famine, criminality, and extremism.

Lack of recognition has very real consequences for ordinary Somalilanders – being seen as a province of Somalia discourages foreign investors, to say the least – but Somaliland officials say their moment may finally have come. The rise of piracy, and the very real threat of an Islamist takeover in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, may be providing Somaliland with its best argument for recognition, as a separate, stable, friendly country in the region.

A model for Somalia

"Somaliland is a melange of traditional clan elites with modern governance," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somaliland expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane. "They have a home-grown method to form agreements and consensus. In three months after independence, they disarmed militias, set up a police force, began tax collection."