WHILE the rest of Somalia has seen civil war and massive starvation over the past two years, the north has remained relatively peaceful.
But armed banditry, land disputes, and the failure of regional leaders to make economic progress could lead to civil strife and the kind of hunger the south has seen, Somali and outside experts warn.
Now, in a secondary school at the edge of this small town, where donkeys, camels, and pedestrians far outnumber vehicles on the dirt streets, long-robed Somali elders from all over the region are meeting to try to preserve peace.
"This conference is going to be a turning point in Somaliland," says Ahmed Imail Abdi, one of those attending the talks.
Somaliland is the name northwestern Somalia adopted in declaring its independence from the rest of the country in May 1991. Not a single nation has recognized Somaliland, held back by Organization of African Unity sanctions against abandoning colonial borders, a position supported by the United Nations and the Arab League. Elder power
The conference, which is expected to continue until mid-March, amounts to a critical test of the peacekeeping powers of Somali elders. The Issaq clan is dominant in Somaliland, and their elders are attending the meeting. But the conference has also drawn representatives of the major non-Issaq groups, including the Warsangeli and Dholbahante, sub-clans of the Darod, and the Issa and Gadabursi, sub-clans of the Dir.
"It's very important," says Bonnie Bergey, Somalia representative for the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions. She attended part of the conference, and says the elders will either "come to some kind of agreement where they will govern themselves, or things will escalate into anarchy."
Civil war almost broke out in early 1992 when Issaq sub-clans fought in a dispute involving the port of Berbera, a part of Somaliland. But elders managed to restore peace.
"The elders got together and said: `Enough is enough,' " says Mat Bryden, an adviser on Somalia to the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya. "They usurped political authority and drew up a cease-fire," he says.
Most political authority in Somaliland is exercised by the Somali National Movement (SNM), one of the key rebel groups that fought to get rid of Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre, who was ousted in January 1991.
In contrast to the south, where Somali militia and associated armed gangs have ignored elders, even killing some of them, elders in the north have been able to retain more influence, especially in the northeast.
The influence wielded by elders reflects the homogeneity of the north (there are fewer clans) and the fact that the armed movements in the north exerted more control over their fighters, Mr. Bryden says.
"Northern elders were the glue that kept society together," says a Western diplomat. "Their moral suasion is the foundation upon which a durable government [could be based]." Economic help first
But the question of recognition and a durable government for Somaliland is less urgent now than security and economic assistance, according to many Somalis and Westerners here. Even some of the elders coming here for the conference were robbed on the road by armed gangs, many of which are affiliated with the former SNM army.
"We don't need recognition," says Abdurahman Aw Ali, governor of this province and an SNM supporter. "When we get [economic] help, we'll get stability. And when we get stability, we'll get recognition."
Somaliland is not likely to get recognition soon, but economic and security assistance are potentially not far off, says the Western diplomat. "There are people lined up to be of assistance," the diplomat says, speaking of private relief and development organizations.
The UN recently announced plans to send its troops into the north when they take over from the United States, perhaps as soon as April. Both the diplomat and Bryden say the UN should play less of a militaristic role and concentrate more on establishing police forces, or militias, and establishing and funding jobs or educational training for current gang members who will be asked to disarm.
Ayub Ahmed Sheikh Nooh, conference vice chairman, says the elders will discuss the question of what to do when the initial two-year term the SNM set for itself in running the Somaliland government expires in May.
Many Somalis of various factions are unhappy with the performance of Somaliland President Abdirahman Ahmed Ali, an Issaq, and want him replaced.
"Decentralization" of Somaliland's government is the key to keeping stability in this region, says Mahamoud Alin, a Somali professor of mathematics who is participating in the conference.