All of this was accomplished just next door to the failed state of southern Somalia, where millions have died from hunger and civil war. During the famine in 2011, it was Somaliland that offered humanitarian aid to its southern neighbour.
“When a house next door to you is on fire for 22 years, and you still maintain peace and stability, it’s a remarkable achievement,” says Sadia Abdi, director of the Somaliland office of ActionAid, an international anti-poverty group.
“The international community seems to be turning a blind eye to us,” she says. “It has to open its eyes.”
Flying into Somaliland gives any visitor a vivid glimpse of its challenges. Descending toward the runway of Berbera airport, you gaze out over the scattered thorn trees of a seemingly lifeless desert. The airport tarmac is empty under the blazing heat, except for a few carcasses of wrecked planes. Sand drifts over the potholed road to the capital, Hargeisa. Aside from the tin-roofed shacks and cinder-block buildings of an occasional village, you see little more than herds of goats and camels in the scrubland along the road.
Yet look more closely: The scaffolding and piles of bricks at the airport are signs of expansion. Tall buildings are rising in Hargeisa’s construction boom, and there are traffic jams in the bustling city streets.
The telecommunications sector is thriving, with most people using mobile money on their cellphones to pay for their daily purchases. And there is talk of mineral and oil discoveries, sparking excitement about a natural resources boom.
A stateless history
One reason for Somaliland’s success is the relatively light hand of its former colonizers. While southern Somalia was governed by authoritarian and fascist Italy, the north had an almost stateless history. It was colonized by Britain, which treated it with “benign neglect,” according to researcher Gérard Prunier. As long as it provided a steady supply of cheap meat for the strategic British garrison across the sea at Aden, the north was allowed to maintain its traditional system of decision-making by clan-based assemblies.
The south and the north were both granted independence in 1960. For five days, the former British protectorate in northern Somalia was an independent nation. Then, in a hopeful moment of pan-Somali nationalism, it decided to unify with the south, creating the Somalia that has officially existed since then.
But after the military takeover by Mr. Barre in 1969, political parties were banned, hardline Soviet-backed socialism was introduced, and repression grew worse. Exiles from northern Somalia formed a rebel militia, the Somali National Movement, which gained power in the northern cities by 1988.
The southern-based regime struck back with a horrific wave of artillery attacks and bombing strikes, killing an estimated 50,000 people and forcing a million to flee their homes. Regime forces slaughtered cattle in the north, poisoned wells and tortured civilians.
After the Siad Barre dictatorship was finally overthrown in 1991, the north declared independence and the south fell into civil war. For two decades, most of southern Somalia’s peace negotiations were foreign-funded boondoggles at luxury hotels in Kenya, Ethiopia, London and Djibouti, led by warlords who had every incentive to prolong the talks to collect their per-diem payments and enjoy their five-star accommodation.
In Somaliland, by contrast, peace among the clans was negotiated by traditional assemblies of elders from every clan, funded by the Somalis themselves, in their own cities – which created financial and social pressure to hunker down and reach an agreement.
“Our ideas and agendas were indigenous and inclusive,” says Bobe Yusuf Duale, a scholar and former Somaliland cabinet minister. “That’s what saved us.”
A peace deal in Somaliland was reached in 1997 and a new constitution was approved in a referendum four years later. The role of the clan leaders was formalized in a House of Elders, the upper house of a bicameral parliament. The constitution allowed a maximum of three political parties in national elections, based on those that won the most votes at local elections, which forced each party to reach across clan lines to form broad alliances.
Since then, Somaliland has been generally free of military conflict, although in 2008 it was hit by a wave of car bombs for which southern-based Islamist militants were blamed. The terrorist attacks led to the creation of a special police unit to provide security to all visiting foreigners, including police escorts from the airport.