Helping the other 'Somalia'

In the north, Somaliland is forging an independent path to recovery

The chaos in Somalia continues. This month fierce fighting erupted yet again in the port of Kismayu, Baidoa, and the fertile Juba Valley. Earlier in the month, deteriorating security conditions in Mogadishu contributed to the failure of a peace mission led by Italian envoy Francesco Sciortino.

These events reinforce the public image of this East African country as being defined by trigger-happy warlords who have no wish to be coerced toward compromise. And it underscores the fruitlessness of promoting national unity through reconciliation, lending favor to an emerging viewpoint that peace should be structured through fostering regional governance within Somalia.

Subclan has been murdering subclan with senseless persistence since the overthrow of former president Mohamed Siad Barre eight years ago. These disputes long ago ceased to interest the outside world, especially the United States. This July, the Clinton administration underlined its perceived futility in helping this beleaguered country by suspending official development aid.

What's new is that not all Somalis want to express their differences at the end of a gun. In some areas, anarchy has been supplanted by self-government under a locally selected regime. The most mature of these administrations is the Republic of Somaliland in the northwest, which declared unilateral independence in May 1991. This new-boy state has coalesced through a mix of Western-style democracy and traditional, clan-based institutions. Its stability is underpinned by rudimentary parliamentary and judicial systems, a militia, and a skeletal police force.

This is a singular achievement when held up against the confusion that prevails elsewhere in Somalia. But Somaliland's commendable transition from war to peace, overseen by its president, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, may ultimately disintegrate in the face of international apathy.

Like the rest of Somalia, the region is the beneficiary of donor emergency funding. However, it has failed to attract the development funds needed for rehabilitation and reconstruction because the international community has yet to extend diplomatic recognition. This means Somaliland is out of bounds for the World Bank and the IMF, which are key to jump-starting fledgling economies.

There is also the additional challenge of absorbing a mass repatriation of refugees returning home. UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, has embarked on an ambitious program to close seven refugee camps situated across the border in eastern Ethiopia by 2000. The decision was prompted by the peaceful conditions in Somaliland and donor fatigue with the high cost of maintaining the camps. The economic and potential political impact of an influx of more than 100,000 impoverished people - roughly equal to 10 percent of the total population - is alarming.

Those returning after years in exile expect access to shelter, water, education, and medical treatment. But at Sheikh Nur, where many returnees live, there are only four water points for some 6,000 families. A school is finally under construction, but there is no dispensary. Indeed, the Egal administration is so alarmed by the prospect of sprawling urban ghettos that last month the president suspended the repatriations until funding can be found to create proper services.

UNHCR is mandated to implement short-term projects that cost up to $70,000 and have a duration of several weeks to several months. It is essential that the UN Development Program (UNDP) enter early in the repatriation process to coordinate the planning of infrastructure among UN agencies.

What is at stake here is more than the future of tiny Somaliland. The gap between coping with the aftermath of crisis and participating in the evolution of social services obstructs successful UN reform. Donors won't give development aid to areas that are considered to be in a state of emergency. This does nothing to reinforce the capacities that would forestall yet another emergency. The culture of relief and development is seriously adrift. It needs a sea change.

In the case of Somaliland, a shortfall in funds for UNDP's sustainable development projects means that the good guys are being penalized for the sins of their warring cousins. Somaliland must be assessed on its own merits, not by the mayhem elsewhere in Somalia. This is the only way to underpin the gains that have been made so far.

If this does not happen, there is the danger that the past will become prologue to another cycle of refugees in flight to Ethiopia because they cannot survive at home. The donors are right to wish to return them to the land of their birth, but they must invest in Somaliland before doing so. That way, they could be party to a success story in the Horn of Africa.

* Mary Anne Fitzgerald is Africa representative for Refugees International, a Washington-based humanitarian advocacy organization.

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