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Breakaway Somaliland prospers in shadow of war
With or without international recognition, Ahmed Hassan believes that his homeland, the breakaway would-be nation of Somaliland, is a remarkable success story
HARGEISA, Somalia, May 13, 2007 - Somaliland, which sits on the northwestern part of Somalia, unilaterally broke away from the rest of the Horn of Africa nation in 1991, four months after the overthrow of former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
This former British protectorate -- whose colonial rulers left in 1960 when it joined with Italian Somaliland to form the then new state of Somalia -- has since mapped out a path of relative security and prosperity, unlike greater Somalia where 16 years of unrest caused chaos and anarchy.
"It is Somaliland, not Somalia. We are two separate countries," said Hassan. "Here there is no violence. We can walk in the streets."
The money changer took pains to underline the sharp contrast between his peaceful separatist republic and war-torn Somalia, highlighting the fierce nationalism brewing in the region which is home to around 3.5 million people.
It is not completely immune from fighting, however. There was a clash last month with troops from neighbouring Puntland, a region that is self-governed but does not aspire to independence -- the latest in more than a decade of clashes over the path of their shared border.
But daily life is relatively calm.
On the bustling streets of Somaliland's capital Hargeisa, vendors sell everything from gold chains and spaghetti to contraband Rolex watches and foreign currencies, under the watchful eye of local police.
The lack of gunmen, roadblocks and bombed-out buildings strikes a sharp contrast with Mogadishu, the war-torn capital of Somalia.
The desert city of Hargeisa rose from the ruins after the fighting in 1991. But since then -- when clan elders oversaw the creation of the tools of statehood, including a constitution and parliament -- Somaliland has failed to secure recognition as an independent nation.
The breakaway republic has nonetheless held democratic elections, a feat many older African nations are unable to boast half a century after colonialists first started leaving the continent.
The domination of the region by one clan, the Issak, has helped it avoid the inter-clan violence that has wrecked the rest of Somalia, whose overall population is 10 million.
For some international observers, outside recognition of Somaliland would irk Somalia's transitional government and expand a conflict that has already defied more than 14 UN-backed peace initiatives.
But the region's isolation only stokes the flames of nationalism.
"We want to protect our reputation (as a safe place)," said Abdulkader Hashi Elmi, the head of a local hotel chain. "We have no intention of reintegrating with Somalia, even if peace returns."
Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin, elected in a multi-party vote in 2003, regularly repeats that the region will not rejoin Somalia and considers the war there to be a foreign event, even though many Mogadishu refugees have sought refuge in his region.
The failure to secure international recognition has denied Somaliland much-needed financial support, but free markets and remittances from the diaspora in the West help keep its economy afloat.
One country willing to invest in Somaliland is Ethiopia. It provides help the region is happy to accept despite Addis Ababa's involvement in the war in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops backing the country's weak government are battling Islamist insurgents and clan fighters.
In turn, landlocked Ethiopia relies on the Somaliland port of Berbera, giving Hargeisa considerable leverage.
Alongside five private Somaliland airlines, Ethiopia's national carrier Ethiopian Airlines runs six weekly flights between Hargeisa and countries in the region, mainly ferrying merchants and aid workers.
"We have little tourism here," said Elmi, lamenting that Somalia's conflict had affected business and discouraged all but the most daring of travellers from visiting.
But one day the sector would improve, he predicted. "We need to be self-sufficient."