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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
In a failed state 17.II.2009 06:16
He wore an AK-47 with a rainbow strap. That's the kind of image you never forget, something straight out of Full Metal Jacket only 30 years later - though, in the Horn of Africa, there are conflicting signs of which decade you're in. He was a guard at a military checkpoint and demanded where I was going; 'Hargeisa' was my response which, if you look at your map, is in Somalia. Somalia: the very word conjures up images of violence and chaos, of beggars and orphans and amputees, of a country-side strewn with landmines and mobs of angry men rampaging down the streets. Somalia, a by-word for anarchy and disorder, the most failed of failed states. Yet, when I look out my hotel window I see none of these things; I see paved, busy streets and market stalls and electronics shops and dozens of other signs of normal daily life; the road here to Hargeisa was strewn with checkpoints, but here there are fewer armed men than in Cairo or Tehran, not to mention Jerusalem. How is this possible? It is because I'm not in Somalia at all, but in Somaliland.

The difference, though seemingly small, is crucial. Somaliland is a breakaway republic in the north of Somalia - it is the part that was once British Somaliland, in contrast to its French counterpart, which became Djibouti, and its Italian counterpart, which is Somalia proper. Somaliland not only has law and order, but parliamentary elections and a functioning (if impoverished) economy; it issues its own visas and prints its own currency, and people are even starting to come back from places like Canada and the United States. Even though there is still the occasional terrorist incident by Somalians seeking to discredit the viability of Somaliland as an independent state: the Ethiopian embassy was bombed last month but (luckily for my friend Jean-Claude, who had no ongoing visas) re-opened today. Nevertheless it's no more dangerous than, say, Tripoli in Lebanon, and the streets are very safe with almost no crime at all, much as in every Muslim country I've visited. Somaliland is a stable, peaceful and democratic state in a region terribly bereft of such places - even Ethiopia, which is Christian and an ally and therefore enjoys a good reputation, is consistently ranked as one of the least politically free countries in Africa. The West should be holding Somaliland up as a sign of hope for the continent, but instead, not a single country recognises it formally, and only Ethiopia maintains any relations at all, through a 'trade office' that serves as a de facto embassy. Why?

There is an unspoken rule at the United Nations, and an explicit one at the African Union: 'don't mess with the borders.' The colonial frontiers, imaginary lines through the jungles or the plains or the sands drawn with no regard for the local people during the so-called 'Scramble for Africa,' are sacrosanct. For the United Nations, it threatens to become a Pandora's box many times greater than the difficulty of recognising, say, Kosovo and not South Ossetia, with thousands of Liberations Fronts and the like suddenly demanding recognition; for the African Union, well, every member has a province somewhere on his own territory that might like to follow in Somaliland's footsteps. So, on the map, this remains, for the foreseeable future, even though for the residents, or for visitors like me, it is anything but.

I think the greatest tragedy for Africa was the arbitrary way in which it was partitioned, and the saddest fact about it is that it cannot be undone: the simple separation of, say, the Lingala from the 'Democratic Republic' of Congo would create not a viable state but merely another frontier with border disputes, and probably another, smaller liberation front within them. As a consequence, the dirtiest word in all such disputes is 'Balkanisation,' which, in some cases, such as Slovenia or Montenegro, has not been terrible at all. I don't know why we remain so averse to the separation of countries, as if our existing list of nations were somehow the natural order of things, rather than what it really is, an attempt to fit complicated realities into the simple, comprehensible construct of the nation-state. We want every place in the world to have a flag, a country code, a dialling number and an Olympic team, so that we can easily organise the world; governments, moreover, want to have a single entity to deal with 'officially,' which is why the utterly hapless Somali 'government' nevertheless receives large amounts of funding and enjoys international recognition, while the Somaliland government, which actually governs, does not.

Somalia is actually the second 'failed state' I've visitied; the first was, of course, Sudan, which does not fit the definition either. Once again, we hear the word 'state' and picture cohesion, but of course it has anything but: Sudan is a successful (though repressive) oil state in its Muslim northeast, which runs two failed client states in the south and Darfur. In fact, in addition to the Somaliland Liaison Office, Addis Ababa's Bole Road boasts an Office of the Government of South Sudan as well, highlighting the plight of that much-less-viable breakaway republic. When we hear about violence in Sudan or Somalia, we take it as a general statement of the characteristics of the country or its people, with little regard for the complexities of the realities on the ground. It's just easier that way; as The Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real time-saver. But everywhere I've been, the conditions of violence have been more complex, and their territory more circumscribed, than the media had led me to imagine. I've nothing to be afraid of here, except the government forbidding me to visit other cities out of paranoia; but I've been taught to be petrified of being in Somalia or Sudan my whole life.

The most common thing people tell me while I'm here is this: tell people about Somaliland. Although they conceptualise 'Somalia' as including Somalia proper, Somaliland, and parts of Ethiopia, they consider this government (the only viable one) the true one, and hope its reach will spread. It should be a great place for tourism, with its unspoilt Red Sea beaches, its friendly people, and the incredible neolithic paintings and the Las Gaal caves; I highly recommend for anyone who is in Ethiopia to come here at least for a few days, to see the sites and to help this fledgling country. I'm really glad I did so, and not just for the cachet of being one of only a handful of tourists here as I think some do. It really is, at the moment, a part of Africa that isn't geared towards extracting money from foreigners, and a fascinating look at daily life in one of the poorest places in the world.

And that's one thing that has to be remembered: although its roads are paved and full of cars, the country remains extremely poor, and that is far from it's only problem. Although on the map, the border of the region is clear, a man explained it to me like this: 'in Hargeisa, the government has a strong grip, but the further east you go...' and he trailed off, his hand slowly opening until it was clear there was no control at all. Moreover, in this heavily Islamic country, radical Islamism has its place as well, and there's one street near my hotel where the kids throw stones at foreigners - they're all wearing neat white shirts, so I think they are from one of the local Islamic schools. The last time this happened, though, there was instantly a crowd of dozens of people apologising, and a policeman explaining to me that this was a bad part of town - anti-Western feelings are very widespread.

In addition to these serious problems, the country has a lot of little quirks. The first is the money, the Somaliland Shilling, which is a normalcurrency in every respect except the denominations in which it comes: the largest is 500 shillings, which is approximately 16 cents, and when you change even ten dollars you get a brick worth 50,000 shillings and then another ten or fifteen thousand in a wad of bills, which inevitably bulges out of your pocket. The streets where the money-changers work are lined with walls of such stacks that look like small paper fortifications around their stalls. There are also the cars, which are all imported directly from Japan, many of them still carrying the names of companies or even kindergartens in Osaka or Nagoya. This would all be fine if it weren't for the fact that, even though the country drives on the right, Japan drives on the left; as a consequence, every single car has its steering wheel on the wrong side, and I have no idea what possible solution there could be for this. There's also the fact that half the time, when I admit that I'm single, the girls all giggle and someone mentions I need a Somali wife and is only half-joking. And finally, the African paranoia about taking pictures is so great here that photographing anything is met with an instant interrogation or shouts of anger, except for the town's war memorial - a MiG jet from the 1988 civil war with gruesome scenes of suffering painted on the side - which gets you an instant history lesson about the country.

So, I've visited a failed state and it has turned out not to be failed at all, and perhaps better off than Ethiopia and far less repressive than a place like Eritrea, a success story in the Horn of Africa. It's cheap here too, even though the Lonely Planet, with increasing paranoia, lists only hotels at $15 or more and says a military escort is unavoidable, which it isn't. I'm going to spend a few more days here and then head northward to French Somaliland; or rather, the of the Territory of the Afars and the Issa; or rather, as it is now known, Djibouti, which promises to be phenomenally expensive. I would have sent postcards from here, but there is no postal system and everybody uses FedEx, but I did find broadband internet which was quite a shock. And, once again, I'm faced with a dilemma for the end of the piece - should it have a Somali flag, or that of Somaliland. For me, a place that issues its own currency, visas, and license plates, to the total exclusion of those of the country that the United Nations recognises, is as close as it gets to nationhood. I'd have loved to use Somalia's sky-blue pennant as a break from the endless reds, blacks and greens of the Arab-speaking countries but alas, I cannot in good conscience do so, and so this is my post from Somaliland.

Hargeisa, Somaliland Som

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