One Culture, Two Nations

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

(Hargeisa, Somaliland/Somalia) Ali Mahamad Ali is a single dad and experienced negotiator. He mediated a handful of lucrative deals over the last few years and was featured in many international newspapers and broadcasts, including NPR and Danish National TV. His then line of work, which oversaw transactions of millions of dollars, provided a great sense of relief to each side, both the Somali pirates and their hostages.

The first time we met for tea, Ali explained that he had become familiarized with pirates a couple years back when a German couple was kidnapped. A German colleague residing in the area had called to request that Ali set up communication between the German foreign ministry and pirates and pirates holed up in a remote mountainous area. Fifty-one days, and a million dollars ransom, later, the man and woman were released.

The sea jockeys, better known as pirates, are part of one of the most lucrative professions in Puntland, an autonomous state within Somalia's Transitional Federal system. Last year an estimated $60 million was raised, a significant amount of cash for a country whose citizens earn fewer than two dollars a day.

Despite international efforts to limit the effects of piracy, the practice that materialized around 2005 has seen a surge in ships seized. Pirates attacked 217 ships in 2009, which almost doubled the number from 2008.

Ali said the pirates try to justify their actions by pointing to the fact that there is no central government or other authoritative body to patrol the waters bordering the Somali coast. He said they argue that they protect the waters and monitor illegal activities that include poaching and toxic waste dumping. Ali said he believes piracy mainly serves another important function.

Faced with few other viable options out of poverty, the Somalis of Puntland have discovered that piracy is the quickest and most profitable way to earn money. These men, who sometimes cannot even swim, risk heavy amounts of others' people money, as well as their lives, to get a good catch. Desperation ensues for those who return empty-handed to the large number of expectant community members and investors, and often they venture deeper into the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean to attempt to capture any vessel.

Their home country of Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991 when military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted. Called the world's most failed state, Somalia has gone through a series of changes in leadership since then, including warlords and U.S. backed Ethiopian troops. The southern region is currently primarily in the hands of the militant groups of Al-Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam. The internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate who is a former schoolteacher leader of the Union of Islamic Courts, only maintains control over about 2 kilometers of the capital of Mogadishu, its airport and the port.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees calls Somalia an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Of the total estimated population of just over 9 million people, at least 1.5 million people reside in internally displaced camps. (Many people believe this number to be much higher.) Over the years, hundreds of thousands of southern Somalis have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. An estimated 100,000 have fled the capital just since this beginning of this year, and numbers are expected to continue to rise as heavy fighting escalated last week (Editor: began about March 12th).

Famine and starvation, which became concerns 20 years ago, continue to be serious issues. The last UN report says that between two and three million people are starving in southern Somalia, most of who live in the IDP camps. It's an issue that has recently gained global attention with allegations that aid through the World Food Program has been bypassing those in need.

Media-wise, the Committee to Protect Journalists has named Somalia the second most dangerous country for journalists, after the Philippines. As al-Shabaab continues to seize news outlets, local Somali journalists are daily forced to choose between risking torture and death or fleeing the country, leaving significant gaps in information. Foreign journalists pay hefty amounts of money to travel with caravans of armed guards for just a few days at a time.

The violence in Somalia is sadly not isolated to its region. Just last summer, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly known as Carlos Bledsoe, conducted a drive-by shooting on a Little Rock recruiting office in a self-admitted jihad attack. Before returning to Arkansas a year before due to his overstaying a Yemeni visa, he had been found to have a fraudulent Somali passport on him.

In January of this year, shortly after the Christmas Day attempted hijack, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations issued a report about Somalia, and Yemen, that showed a strong connection between al-Shabaab and al-Qaida.

In its report, the members of the committee stated that because Somalia is a failed state, our concern is that [it and Yemen] could become safe havens for al-Qaida. According to the report, an al-Qaida base has already begun, and it is believed that many of its members have begun training members of al-Shabaab. In a strong word of caution, the report went on to say that there is little the United States can do to weaken al-Shabaab.

As Somalia remains in a seemingly endless state of violence and instability, Somaliland, the northern piece of a 1960 union with Somalia and current home of Ali, offers a different picture. Although it shares the same coastline as central and southern Somalia, Somaliland has been able to stand as a stark anomaly to the lawlessness and fear that grip its former partner.

For the last two decades, Somaliland, which unilaterally separated from Somalia in 1991, has tried to distance itself from the negativity of violence and piracy that surrounds this region.

The aggressive civil war that preceded the separation left an estimated 50,000-60,000 Somalilanders; another 80,000 risked further targeted bombing and starvation across the arid land as they took anywhere from a few days to several weeks to walk to the Ethiopian border. Those ‘fortunate' to reach the neighboring country were greeted with cold rain for comfort, mud for bedding and almost no food for months as they waited for camps to be developed. Until the mid- to late-1990s, parts of the larger cities still remained relatively empty: the majority of the Diaspora in refugee camps or flung around the world.

Since declaring itself as a separate country, Somaliland has developed similar structures to other countries. Its currency, which remains worthless outside its borders, was launched in 1994; all Somalia-issued bills were subsequently banned from use just three months later.

Ministries covering everything from tourism and culture to education have been established. The first president was democratically elected in 1991 and two presidents have since taken his spot. The Somaliland Armed Forces, including a navy, have developed and contribute to the very low level of violence and terror. Armed escorts are required to accompany foreigners, and cars are stopped to have interiors scanned both in the capital and at checkpoints frequently located along the main roads.

The uniquely Somali culture, which draws from Islam's obligation to take care of the poor, as well as loyalty to clan members extending generations, means that Somaliland sees significantly less homelessness and starvation than other African nations. This fact is underscored by the fact that an estimated $US 1 billion annually is sent in remittances, making up about 18 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

Yet, despite all these efforts to ensure a functioning, thriving government and people, Somaliland still awaits international recognition from the African Union and consequently the rest of the world. Many factors play a role, including the reluctance of Arab countries to accept the two separate entities.

Somaliland also garners little international attention, keeping the issue on a global backburner.

Somaliland is not on the horizon because it is peaceful, said Muyhadin Saed of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies through the University of Hargeisa. It would lead headlines if it bled.

He further explained that Somaliland experiences negative peace. Despite the lack of open violence in the country, Saed said people still suffer from structural violence like lack of justice and healthcare; this prevents individuals from reaching their full potential.

War, drought and periodic international bans on the Somali livestock have led to a shift in the traditionally nomadic culture and a migration to the cities. Unemployment and underemployment run rampant, as there is very little work for Somalis to do.

The most recent presidential election has been postponed at least five times since early 2008 due to suspected voter fraud and politics between the three parties. While talks to reschedule the election resumed in early March, it is unlikely the country will see it until this summer at the earliest.

The capital of Hargeisa provides any passerby with daily reminders of the brutal war. In between multi-story glass-plated buildings and aluminum shacks selling Ethiopian coffee, a good number of buildings, including former schools and hospitals, stand in ruins. Roofs are gone, and multiple bullet holes litter the walls that still exist. The majority of these concrete structures have been rebuilt or rehabilitated to accept new inhabitants. Many, however, remain broken and unused, shells of what existed before the three-year campaign to exterminate the northern Somali population that began in 1988.

Shoes, clothing and other material remnants of victims targeted as they tried to escape the bombing are present to this day. I am told that parts of skeletons, including skulls, continue to emerge after the twice-yearly rainy seasons. Despite multiple sweeps across the country, fears haunt the survivors that one of the more than 800,000 mines planted during the civil war are still around. Undiagnosed post-traumatic disorder plagues a large number of the citizens, and the slightly narcotic drug, khat, has taken over people's incomes and culture of work.

Oddly enough, it seems the only saving grace from Somaliland's status as a non-state has been its inability to borrow money from IMF and other international agencies. While the lack of money has contributed to the stunt in growth, Somaliland has escaped the crushing debt its fellow African nations are staggering under.

Despite the setbacks, Somalilanders are resilient. Former refugees and well-educated returnees who account for the far majority of the population have now returned to Somaliland and are developing hospitals and schools. In addition to Edna Adan, the former foreign minister of Somaliland who set up a maternity and teaching hospital, other returnees have begun developing state-of-the art facilities to treat and educate Somalis.

Dr. Hussein A. Bulhan, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and authored The Politics of Cain, is now head of the University of Hargeisa as president and chancellor. Bulhan is working to make the major university not only a place for which graduates can be proud, but also one that international employers and graduate schools will recognize.

Dr. Ahmed Hussein Esa, the former head of the Flow Cytometry project at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has co-founded the secondary school of Abaarso Tech. The school educates the country's brightest girls and boys in science, math and logic, regardless of their abilities to pay. Esa's dream is for these students to land spots and scholarships to major universities in the United States and United Kingdom, gain degrees in engineering and other badly needed skilled professions and continue the tradition of returning to their homeland to help others.

While violence continues to dissolve the once magnificent city of Mogadishu and the rest of its country, formal international recognition for Somaliland could be the first step in protecting peace and stability for at least a portion of this region's inhabitants. Many fear that continuing to tie the two nations together will not result in stabilization of the southern region, but rather lead to the downward spiral of the northern region into a similar state of violence and lawlessness.

Until then, the Somalilanders plan to continue developing badly needed services and structures, offering their refuge to others and all the while waiting for the closest thing to their fairy tale ending.