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.
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."
In theory, Somaliland's experience – blending traditional sources of clan authority with elected governance – could serve as a model for Somalia itself, just as it has for the neighboring state of Puntland. But Mr. Jhazbhay says that in the past 18 years, Somalia and Somaliland have drifted apart. Many Somalilanders simply want to move on with their lives, he says, and their patience is running out. "After 18 years, you have a neglected state. You have a total decay of the infrastructure."
'De facto' state
With 3.5 million citizens and an economy based largely on livestock – much of it destined for markets on the Saudi Arabian peninsula – Somaliland was once a nation easily forgotten. But Somaliland's bid for recognition seems to be gathering steam. In the waning days of the Bush administration, then-undersecretary of state for Africa Jendayi Frazer visited Hargeisa. Somaliland officials were invited this month to an EU parliament conference on "de facto states."
Even the African Union, long wary of redrawing the boundaries of African nations, issued a report in 2005 arguing that recognition of Somaliland "should not be linked to the notion of "opening a pandora's box."
Islamists lay claim with bombs
There are those, of course, who are opposed to Somaliland independence. On Oct. 29, 2008, a young Islamist – a Somali-American from Minneapolis, named Shirwa Ahmed – drove a car packed with explosives into the Ethiopian Embassy in Hargeisa, killing 20 people. The attack, and four others set off simultaneously by a radical Islamist group called Al-Shabab, was viewed as a signal that Islamists were intent on creating a Greater Somalia, by force if necessary.
'We must go our own way'
Like many Somalilanders, Abdulkadir Hashi Elmi, a prominent businessman, views his country's independence as "irreversible."
"The people of Somalia and Puntland were colonized by the Italians, and during Italian rule they were trained to rule in the Italian way," he says with a wry smile.
But while Italian settlers profoundly changed Somali culture in Somalia itself, he says, Somaliland was left largely untouched during a period of British rule, because the British largely allowed clan elders to run their own affairs until independence in 1960.
"Somalia will be difficult for years to come, because now nothing is in their hands, it is in the hands of the warlords," says Mr. Elmi, who owns the Maan-Soor Hotel in Hargeisa. "Somalia doesn't have any hope to recover, not in our generation. That's why we must go our own way."
Abdaillahi Ismail Ali, Somaliland's interior minister, says that his country is happy to provide a model for its neighbors and to provide a forum for clan leaders in Somalia to resolve disputes the old-fashioned way, through consensus. But Somalia can forget about taking Somaliland back, he adds.
"We believe – every Somalilander believes – that we cannot be reunited with Somalia," he says. "We had hopes of making a Greater Somalia, but that dream died. We realized that whenever we try, we always get shot."