Somaliland’s plight

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There’s an old saying: “A squeaky hinge gets the oil,” meaning those who howl the loudest gain attention, while the meek soldier on.

But when we don’t hear much about a country, it can be a sign of success: What do you write about in the absence of war, famine or bad government? When did you last see a lengthy piece on Switzerland? It’s neutral, wealthy and democratic, and you don’t get many headlines out of chocolate and well-run banks.

Sadly, this rarely applies in Africa. Corruption in Nigeria or Angola, tyrants like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and the genocide of Darfur in Sudan are big stories. But there is a democracy near the Red Sea that has been developing faster than many of its neighbors.

We all know Somalia, with its war-torn capital, Mogadishu, which appears now to be in the hands of an African Taliban, determined to impose a Muslim equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, with public floggings, torture and execution for those who resist their radical take on religion.

The country was formed in 1960 when the former British and Italian Somaliland — two states that had both been granted full independence by that time — merged into one with its capital in southern city of Mogadishu.

Like Yugoslavia, Senegambia (the short-lived union of Senegal and Gambia) and Libya’s attempt to merge with Egypt in the 1960s, the marriage existed in name only, while the people retained a mental independence. So it wasn’t surprising that, in 1991, when the Mogadishu government collapsed and dictator Said Barre fled to Nigeria, the English-speaking north declared itself independent.

A decade and a half later, no country recognizes Somaliland, but that hasn’t stopped the government at Hargeisa from making progress, as I saw on a recent visit. Tar roads cover much of its 137,000 square-kilometers, children are in school, hospitals have been set up, towns bombed by the late Said Barre have been rebuilt and, last year, Somaliland held the kind of general elections one would hope will come one day to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and even Somalia. Parties campaigned without hindrance, most of the media are in private hands and there was no intimidation of voters. So why is the country not recognized?

The European Union, America and most African countries accept Somaliland passports, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Dubai have direct flights to Hargeisa, and, on trips abroad, the democratically elected president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, is welcomed as a visiting head of state.

But the African Union has real fears. In 1993, it recognized the split of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but the two states are still at war. In theory, this could also happen with Somalia, which is determined to retake Somaliland, though Mogadishu has no army or even a public service.

More worrying is the precedent that could see other enclaves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria claiming the right to secede. But this is a nonsense because, like Senegal and Gambia which joined together in 1982 and split again in 1989, the two Somali entities were sovereign states when they merged in 1960. No other territory can claim this in postcolonial history.

The African Union recognized this in a statement following a fact-finding mission to Hargeisa last year and called on members to “find a special method of dealing with this outstanding case.” The mission report commends the new nation for its progress, but this document has yet to be tabled and discussed.

But Somaliland must make an effort to gain attention. To date, its media push has not been fierce enough, its demands too polite.

This month, Mr. Kahin and colleagues have been on a tour of Europe and Washington, but you would hardly have guessed: Only a small public-relations team to crank up things; no spin to feed the press.

For as long as the issue fails to make news, calls for recognition will be ignored and, like other successful states, Somaliland will stay out of the headlines. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. but it doesn’t change the fact that 3.5 million Somalilanders, having worked so hard to build a free, stable and economically viable nation, should be rewarded for their efforts.

The United States and former colonial power, Britain, could take the first step, but believe, correctly, that Africa should take the lead. However, it is time Washington and London opened debate about Somaliland in the United Nations.

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