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Successful country doesn't exist
Sep 11, 2007
By Mark Abley
Sixteen years ago, I visited a country that didn't exist. It stands at the arid heart of one of the world's most dangerous, poverty-ridden regions, and it's doing surprisingly well. But its success raises all kinds of questions – because it still doesn't exist.
The country is Somaliland. It occupies the northwestern corner of what maps and globes call Somalia. Not wanting to admit that separatist revolts can ever produce a legitimate outcome, governments here and everywhere refuse to accept Somaliland as the independent nation it is.
I flew into its capital, Hargeisa, in December 1991. "Have you ever seen Pompeii?" a UN official had asked me. "That's Hargeisa now. Only it wasn't a volcano that destroyed the place – it was man."
The city became a war zone in 1988. Forces loyal to former Somali dictator Siad Barre were battling the rebels who would soon create Somaliland. Barre's planes bombed the city from its own airport.
In January 1991, retreating east and south, his soldiers ripped up the phone lines, water pipes and electricity cables. They demolished roofs all over Hargeisa. And, as a macabre farewell gift, they left hundreds of thousands of landmines amid the debris.
My guide was a young man called Hassangeti Kayad. "Where there are footprints," he warned me, "there we can go. Only there." The city was full of amputees whose daring had outstripped their common sense.
In those days, Hargeisa had no running water, no electricity, no telephones and little food. It had no offices, either, except for the street corner where men sat on hardbacked chairs facing manual typewriters. They were the city's secretaries, its recording angels.
I remember a school without tables, blackboards or desks, its mud-brick walls covered by a canvas roof. Yet the school still functioned. The maternity hospital was in worse shape; beyond its green walls and pink door, there was only rubble. The chief mosque had survived, barely.
You wouldn't have thought the city stood a chance. But the rebels who took control amid the desolation made a crucial choice: they decided to banish guns. In the refugee camps I visited in nearby Ethiopia, half the men and most of the teenage boys were strutting around with semi-automatic rifles.
Sixteen years later, the Horn of Africa remains in desperate shape. Ethiopia and Eritrea have fought a bitter war and come to the brink of another. Sudan has endured civil war for decades. Djibouti is a seedy one-party state, Somalia a collapsed ruin that functions as a state in name alone.
But the people of Somaliland have created a thriving market economy and a reasonably functioning democracy. Thousands of exiles who fled during the war have returned home, bringing critical resources of money and expertise. Money also flows in from expats in Toronto, London, Cardiff and other distant cities.
The country has received only modest aid from beyond its contested borders. But that's not altogether a bad thing. It has remained mercifully free of the "help" inflicted on poor nations by the International Monetary Fund.
Its existence is enough to flummox anyone who believes that Africans need external guidance to build a functioning state – or who thinks that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Yet Somaliland also serves as a reproach to every other nation in the region and most on the continent. If it can grow in peace, why can't they?
Today, I'm told, food is plentiful in Hargeisa, and those manual typewriters have been replaced by Internet cafes. Somaliland has joined the world, though the world still prefers not to see.
Montreal journalist Mark Abley appears every two weeks on the Ideas page.
Source: Toronto Star