As the crowd chants, “Give us recognition!” the world’s most quixotic Independence Day parade marches through the dusty streets of Hargeisa. There are gymnasts and circus performers, flag-festooned camels, mounted police on colourfully tasselled horses, a convoy of rocket launchers and red-bereted soldiers with old rifles and Kalashnikovs.
The spectators roar. Women ululate. Marshals use sticks and whips to beat back the surging crowds. The parade marches on: firefighters in helmets, livestock herders, industrial trucks piled high with bags of detergent and even a float from the state water monopoly, proudly displaying a functioning shower. An elderly lion, chained in a truck, is draped in the Somaliland flag.
For all the spectacle of its annual celebrations, this self-declared sovereign state in the deserts of northwestern Somalia is no closer than ever to its dream of global recognition. Foreign diplomats typically refuse to attend the annual independence day parade. But Somaliland’s achievements cannot be ignored by anyone who wonders how to build peace and democracy in the world’s most forsaken corners.
Somaliland has emerged as an oasis of stability and democracy in one of the most volatile and violent regions in Africa. With five consecutive elections monitored by independent observers over the past 12 years, it has managed to create the freest economic and political systems in the Horn of Africa.
To do so, it has overcome obstacles that might seem insurmountable: poverty, isolation, civil war, high levels of illiteracy, severe shortages of natural resources and, most notably, almost no bilateral foreign aid. Somaliland’s success is so remarkable that scholars, including such global figures as U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama, have been wondering whether it might actually be a result of the lack of aid.
Most countries officially consider Somaliland a region under the formal authority of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia – even though Mogadishu and the rest of southern Somalia have been consumed by war and chaos for the past two decades. Because its independence is unrecognized, Somaliland’s government does not receive any direct bilateral aid from foreign donors (although it receives some private aid).
“With no foreign assistance, the Somaliland government did not have an independent revenue base, making it dependent upon the continued support of its constituents,” Nicholas Eubank, a Stanford University researcher, wrote in a 2010 working paper subtitled “Lessons from Somaliland.”
Somaliland’s government survives on taxation revenue, which, in turn, requires a degree of political accountability and transparency. In contrast, there are 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where foreign aid is so massive that it equals more than half of government spending.
“If these aid levels damage the quality of governance in recipient countries – as Somaliland’s experience suggests they may – then it might be the case that, in the long run, less money may actually do more good,” Mr. Eubank wrote in a blog post.
Somalilanders agree with the scholars: The lack of aid is an advantage in many ways. It has helped bring economic resilience and peaceful elections to resolve disputes. And its institutions are forced to be democratic and inclusive, because otherwise the government would have no hope of coaxing taxes from citizens and the business community.
Somaliland reasserted its independence this week when it refused to take part in a European Union conference in Brussels on the future of Somalia – even though the EU countries were offering $2.4-billion in new aid to Mogadishu.
“Somaliland lacks the ‘dependency syndrome’ that many African nations suffer from as a result of the never-ending foreign aid infusion,” says Moustapha Osman Guelleh, an entrepreneur who opened a $20-million Coca-Cola bottling plant in Somaliland last year.
From war to peace
Two decades ago, Somaliland’s major cities were lying in ruins, destroyed by years of civil war and aerial bombardment by the regime of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Its victorious rebel forces were fractious and prone to violent feuding. Yet within a few years it had forged new democratic institutions for its 3.5 million people.
“If you wait for someone else to pull you up, you’ll have to wait forever,” says Shukri Ismail, a former Somaliland election commissioner and founder of a non-profit health and education organization here.
“We started from nothing. We relied on ourselves, and everyone became involved in peace-building.”