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ON LOCATION: IN SOMALILAND
By Will Reno
HARGEISA, Somaliland, August 13, 2006 – Diplomats and international lawyers know this place as the northern bits of Somalia. To the extent that Americans know it, it's linked to the ill-fated U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s.
The people here distance themselves from all that. They call this place the Republic of Somaliland. They insist that they be called Somalilanders, not Somalis. In their minds, they are not part of a country most of the world associates with disorder.
I have come here to research a book on people who make their own peace when surrounded by war. The rest of the world does not recognize that the people, after much suffering, have built their own state, which they proclaimed on May 18, 1991. This is especially interesting to me because as an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, I study how communities in war zones manage to stop fighting and create order.
Through the 1970s and 1980s the people here suffered the oppressions of a military dictatorship based in the south. Ruined buildings remain, reminders of the repression that culminated in 1988 with the city's bombardment.
According to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human-rights organization, this operation took 50,000 lives, or about 1 in 5 of the city's population at that time. This is the event that forever foreclosed any possibility of reunion with the south.
Somalilanders argue that their persecution was far worse than what Serbia's president and internationally acknowledged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic meted out to Kosovo in the late 1990s.
Like Somaliland, Kosovo was part of a state that persecuted its own people on the basis of their community identity. Unlike Somaliland, the governments of the world agreed to recognize Kosovo's right to a separate existence, likely to culminate in their independence. The people here say: "How can the world have forgotten us?"
It is the ironic misfortune of Somalilanders that Mogadishu lacks its Milosevic. There is no single authority there with whom to negotiate or to coerce into accepting the independence of Somaliland. The old dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, fled in January 1991, and in diplomatic terms, the place has remained in limbo ever since.
Educated Somalilanders point to their society's achievements since 1991. They show off a local library, clinics, a mental health facility. They have had help with this from residents who have returned after a widespread diaspora.
Political party leaders and government administrators, for example, are conversant with Chicago topics.
More important, these returnees bring to Somaliland a liberal and cosmopolitan view of the world.
Returnees from Canada, the U.S. and Britain bring democratic ideas about government. They organize groups to press for women's rights. They insist on vigorous local government and can be quite critical of how it operates. They combine these ideas with traditional ideas of egalitarianism that they inherit from their nomadic ancestors. They applaud the inclusion of elders in government, a significant innovation in African politics, where many complain of the "artificial" imposition of foreign ideas of government.
Amid all this, the country wears another face. The hard stares in the market directed at Americans and the constant blaring of the loudspeakers on the mosques illustrate the growing popularity of fundamentalist Islam. Islamic schools called madrassas sprout up as alternatives to the secular schools.
For people who cannot get a passport to travel--because Somaliland is not a recognized state, other governments will not accept its passports -- religious education funded by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states offers people a different way of connecting with the outside world.
It is a familiar sense that I remember from my work in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In all of those places before wars began, the local middle class and liberal elite would tell me that war was impossible there.
Yet watching the BBC in the hotel, I can see that the war in the south is creeping north.
To prepare the way for the religiously pure society of the future, the fighters kill the women's rights advocates, peace activists, policy specialists and others who would moderate the country's politics.
For the people here, these problems boil down to the question of recognition. They say the lack of recognition separates them from the foreign diplomats, businesses and travelers with whom they share ideas. It ties their hands against people whose international connections do not depend on niceties of diplomacy and state recognition.
They argue that Somaliland was a separate British protectorate from 1884 to 1960, and that it enjoyed several days of independence until it was joined to the Italian-ruled south.
Somaliland presents the world with the classic dilemma of self-determination. Many diplomats argue that to grant recognition would encourage other separatists and lead to an increasingly fragmented map.
U.S. and European diplomats, for instance, fear this would pull apart other states and make already complicated foreign policy even more complex. Officials in other African countries are concerned that disenchantment could spread to their own countries.
Somalilanders counter that they already were a country before joining Somalia, and that recognition would not break precedent. They argue that supporting their accomplishments would contribute to stability in the region.
Recognition, they argue, would do that.
From my vantage point, they have a good argument.
Will Reno is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.
Source: Chicago Tribune