Bittersweet independence

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On this day 47 years ago, the Union Jack came down on a remote corner of Africa and the former protectorate of British Somaliland, with its capital in Hargeisa, gained independence.

It was a day of celebration. Freedom had been granted without a fight; no insurgency like Kenya’s Mau Mau or civil war as happened in Zimbabwe. Alas, all that and worse would follow, but in 1960, Somaliland was seen as a place of promise, where races, religions and people from different backgrounds got on well. Indeed, many of the British civil servants were sad to leave and some stayed on as welcome members of our new republic.

A week later, we entered into voluntary union with the former Italian Somaliland to the south, creating Somalia with its capital in Mogadishu, but today the old boundaries are back and, while we can’t undo the past, we must learn from it.

So, please, allow me a few paragraphs while I chronicle what happened, because those events have shaped the way I and my people view the present.

Somalia got off to a good start, but the 1960s and 1970s were a tough time for democracy and all too soon we found ourselves ruled by a military dictator.

One by one, our freedoms disappeared. Media fell under state control; opposition parties were banned; critics vanished in the night and those who came back were scarred by torture. English — our second language in the North — was spurned by the Italian-speaking south; all power went to Mogadishu and, by the 1980s, Somaliland had became a poor relation with run-down schools, little investment and no say in how the country was run.

In 1985, the North known today as the Republic of Somaliland sought to regain its independence and so began a war of liberation. The late dictator Siad Barre, who ruled Somalia at the time, responded by bombing whole towns and villages and, when that did not turn the people of Somaliland, his army lined up thousands of civilians along the banks of the Maroodijeex river that flows through Hargeisa and opened fire on them with machine guns. The skeletons are still there, just below the sand. When Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia fell into chaos. The United States tried to help and President Clinton sent troops, but it was too little, too late. Unwilling to be trapped in a failed state, the former British Somaliland retook its independence on May 18, 1991, and, 16 years on, the peace and prosperity we had hoped for in 1960 is back on track.

Historically, our marriage with the South wasn’t that long when you think of countries like Czechoslovakia, which lasted almost a century before creating the Czech and Slovak republics. But like the nations of Eastern Europe that split from the Soviet Union, or Eritrea in its break from Ethiopia, the divorce is permanent and this is the key to understanding Somaliland.

If the South — still known as Somalia — underwent a miracle and became as stable as Botswana, as prosperous as Singapore and as democratic as South Africa, we would not go back into union. The two countries might work closely together, like the United States and Canada, but our independence will never be on the table.

This is not rhetoric. In a 2001 we held a referendum on the subject in which almost a million people voted; 97 percent endorsed the split. We were separate for 80 years as a British protectorate, gained our independence with the Queen’s signature on it, and have been on our own again for almost two decades. What remains is for the world to recognize our legal status as they did in 1960. This process requires a few robust states to follow up on the positive African Union 2005 fact-finding report on Somaliland. Rwanda and Ghana appear to be leading by example.

I believe that day is not far off, but when it happens there will be no lowering of flags, just an acceptance of history: that at midnight on 26 June 1960, Somaliland joined the family of nations as a free country in charge of its destiny. And that’s how we remain, with the bonus that in 2007 we have a real democracy and the kind of peace and prosperity that offers hope in a region where the even the word has long been out of use. That, surely, is cause for celebration.

Dahir Riyale Kahin is president of the Republic of Somaliland.

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