Greetings from Somalia…Oops, Somaliland - Anatomy of War and Peace Part 2

Greetings from Somaliland, a country you can't find on any world map, but has been in existence with its own flag, government, army and vibrant livestock export industry since unilateral declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991.

Where I am; The orange shaded part of Somalia is the unrecognised Republic of Somaliland

Located on the northern coast of Somalia near where the Red Sea flows into the Arabian Sea, Somaliland was first created as an entity by the British in 1888 as a meat supply base for their colony of Aden in what is today Yemen. Its predominant inhabitants are the Somalis of the Isaaq clan. In 1960, British Somaliland was merged with Italian Southern Somalia to form the Republic of Somalia.

The union was to be unhappy, as Somalilanders were to feel discriminated by the southerners who controlled the regime from the national capital, Mogadishu, located in the south, especially after army officer Siad Barre seized power in a coup in 1969. Civil war broke out in the late 1980s which cumulated in the defeat in southern forces in 1991 and declaration of independence of Somaliland with Hargeisa as capital.

Since 1991, Somaliland has been in relative peace. There have been free elections, national reconstruction and development. However, the country has not been recognized by anybody although a number of foreign governments are sympathetic to its cause. Few want to set the precedence of recognizing a breakaway state. The inconsistency of international politics is obvious in the case of Kosovo which in contrast to Somalia, has no standalone economy apart from aid, but has been recognized by a number of major world powers.

Some remnants from the 1991 war remains

Southern Somalia, with its heart based in Mogadishu, has in the last twenty years, become the byword for horror and anarchy. Countless militia forces and warlords battle for supremacy. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died not only from the fighting per se, but also from famine and disease. Unfortunately, the world often gets confused between Somalia and Somaliland, or is reluctant to grant peaceful and progressive Somaliland the recognition it rightfully deserves and crave for.

I arrived here last Friday and have witnessed incredible hospitality from the Somalilanders. I have been treated to free meals and endless tea by stangers, driven around by people I met only a day before and was even interviewed by the second largest local newspaper – my photo appeared on the next day's frontpage, albeit at the bottom. Everywhere, people have been keen to assure me one thing – Somaliland is peaceful, safe and well-governed, and is anxious to develop and move on. Tell the world about us, come and visit us, tell your government to recognize us.

Flag of Somaliland

From Asmara, I flew to Djibouti and then switched to Daallo Airlines, a Djibouti based airline, to fly to Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland. Daallo Airlines flew a small Russian plane with an outrageously tacky internal décor - fake leopard skin seats and wallpaper, together with flimsy seats and unworkable belts.

At least, the Ukrainian pilots did not look drunk, as experienced by an online reviewer and a fellow passenger on my flight. Another online reviewer said that when he checked in at Hargeisa Airport wanting to flying to Djibouti which was what he had paid for, he was informed that they did not have enough people wanting to fly to Djibouti that day and was asked whether he wanted to fly to Mogadishu instead, at no extra charge. I should consider myself very lucky.

I was the only non-Somali on the flight but many of the other passengers are members of the Somali Diaspora holding different passports (e.g., UK, Netherlands, etc). Someone later told me that most of the other passengers spoke Somali with southern accents. Apparently, many southern Somalis had settled in the peaceful north and their overseas relatives come to Hargeisa to visit them.

Upon arrival, I checked into the Oriental Hotel right in the city centre of Hargeisa. My first impressions were excellent. People were very friendly and I was greeted by many as I walked around the city centre. Everyone was very glad that I was here as a tourist.

Within a few hours of arrival, a NGO guy I met on the plane wanted to arrange a press interview of me, people on the streets bought me tea, and the hotel owner, who is an American citizen born here, welcomed me with long, entertaining conversations and more tea.

Everyone here wanted to tell the world about this small peaceful nation, about how different it is from Somalia, from which it broke away in 1991, and that Somaliland desperately wants international recognition.

I also tried the internet which cost only about US$1/hour, and was very fast broadband. It was amazing that you could find broadband in small, poor, unrecognized Somaliland, but not in more established Ethiopia and Eritrea.

I have been told that the Somaliland government interferes little in the economy, and there is so much competition, say, in the telecoms sector, that phone calls and broadband access costs are among the lowest in the world. I have also been told that Africa Online, one of the country's telecom operators, has its server and maintenance base in Singapore, as a result of which it offers highly competitive rates for international phone calls.

Me and my bundle of Somaliland Schillings - all that is worth only US$10!

Somaliland's currency is the Somaliland Schillings. The currency suffered a serious devaluation a few years ago and the exchange rate today is Sd Sch 5700 = US$1. The largest banknote is only Sd Sch 500, which is worth slightly less than 10 US cents. All visitors arriving at the airport are forced by the government to change US$50 to Sd Sch at the rate of Sd Sch 3200 = US$1, effectively giving the government a discount of 45%! Even then, the Sd Sch 160,000 I got came in three thick brick bundles of 100 or more banknotes each! Many money changers use wheelbarrows to move money around the city centre.

Help me with the money!

Typical money changer in Somaliland


Abdirahman Mohammed Abdi (commonly known as Abdi Abdi), owner of the Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa, is 52 years old. He was born in Hargeisa to a wealthy family. His father, who had worked for the French Navy in the Far East, founded the Oriental Hotel in 1953. This was the first hotel in Somalia/Somaliland, and was once the favourite watering ground for British colonial officials in this faraway colony.

In 1972, Abdi Abdi departed for the US at the age of 16. His father told him to find himself a new universe, as Somalia, under the dictatorship of Barre, was turning communist. He became an American citizen, got himself into Boston University, and later, with Eugene, Oregon as a base, set up a diverse range of businesses, ranging from grocery chain and supermarkets to petrol stations, real estate and mail order centers. Life was comfortable in Oregon, with family helping out with the business.

However, Somaliland was always somewhere in his heart. In 2001, he returned to Somaliland and, with his life savings, rebuilt the Oriental Hotel from its bombed out ruins. A local told me it was such an incredible feeling to see the old Oriental, long a symbol of the city's prosperity, rose again.

Abdi Abdi told me he's not making money from this venture and he didn't need to. What was important was that, he wanted Somaliland to recover from the wounds of war. By reviving the hotel, he was not only providing employment to many people, but also contributing to the whole business atmosphere and hopefully, help promote Somaliland as a tourism destination as well. That is also why Abdi Abdi is very generous with his tourism advice to his guests, and helps them with logistics of seeing the different sights of Somaliland.

I spent hours chatting with Abdi Abdi, listening to his life story, tales of old Hargeisa and prospective business ventures. Abdi Abdi is a well informed person, and he admires Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister and father of the nation. From his father's stories of dealing with Chinese businessmen in the Far East and also his own days in the US, he is well aware of the business acumen of the Chinese. The Chinese and Indian could do a lot of good in Somaliland, but alas, everything has something to do with international recognition. He hopes that would come soon and he would welcome the Asians with open arms. However, without international recognition, nobody but the Diaspora would invest in Somaliland and that is not enough.

Guns and weapons are from days past

Abdi Abdi was not the only member of the Diaspora to return. The city of Hargeisa, in spite of the unpaved streets and messy traffic, looked like a boom town of sorts. New construction and businesses everywhere. The terrible war in the late 1980s up to Barre's defeat in 1991 had driven 1 million Somalilanders overseas. Some of these, like Abdi Abdi, have returned to set up new businesses, with capital and skills gained elsewhere.

As almost everything had been destroyed, there was no legacy infrastructure to adapt to, and no special interest party to take care of during the rebuilding process. Because Somaliland is not recognized, there is little handout from the international community. The government is as poor as the people, and it has little power – either political or financial - over private business and individuals. Neither could it provide any aid nor hindrance to businesses. There are no banks to finance ventures or insurance companies to insure property and assets. As such, Somaliland businessmen, whether of the Diaspora or not, have learned to be self-reliant, innovative and competitive.

For instance, there are five telecoms companies in Somaliland, providing one of the cheapest international call rates not only of Africa but also in the world. Money changers are everywhere, together with call centres (known as SubStation here). Walking on the streets of Hargeisa, the incredible energy of entrepreneurship, when compared to larger countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, is obvious to any casual observer. I wonder what further transformation could take place when Somaliland is recognized.

Yes, indeed, phoenix rising from ashes.


Ahmad Ali, Head of CCBRS, Somaliland's largest NGO, whom I met on the Djibouti-Hargeisa flight (and also drove me to Oriental Hotel), drove me to his office and described to me the operations of CCBRS, which includes helping the handicapped to set up and run their own small business and provision of artificial limbs and medical operations for the handicapped and victims of landmines. Then he treated me to a wonderful meal of roast lamb and rice, Somali style. I could not remember the last time I had such good roast lamb.

I asked if there was any micro-credit organization in Somaliland. He said there was one but it failed and shut down. The problems with micro-credit here is two-fold. Firstly, the climate of Somaliland is very unstable and some years can be disaster years for animal husbandry and agricultural sectors, which are the two mainstays of Somaliland. Secondly, Somalis have a traditional obligation to help people in the far extended family or clan, which means that there are always people to help out in one's extended family. When put together the first and second factors, micro-credit lenders are almost never able to repay the loans. Hence outright grants might be a more workable approach than loans.

The Horn of Africa with me at the lower left corner

Mohamed, Ahmad's finance officer, picked me up in the afternoon to bring me to the office of Geeska Afrika (Horn of Africa in Somali) where I was interviewed about my journey around the world and my current trip to Somaliland. The picture of a terribly unshaven face of mine appeared at the bottom of the front page of the paper the next day. A few staff of my hotel alerted me to it when I turned up for breakfast. As I walked around the city centre, more than a few strangers walked up to me, saying, "Welcome to Somaliland, Mister Singapore."

Mohamed showed me various sights around Hargeisa and introduced to his friends. Interestingly, Mohamed and his friend, Abdi, were graduates of the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. They are well versed with the complexities of Malaysian politics and have followed the recent elections there. They hold rather objective views on the work ethics of the different ethnic groups, have considerable admiration for the Chinese, and agreed that Malaysia's NEP had led to distorted outcomes. Somaliland should avoid making mistakes of its Muslim brothers. The Islamic World, they highlighted, is full of hypocritical leaders and misguided policies and priorities, hence the reason why they had fallen behind many parts of the world which are not anywhere as richly endowed with natural resources as the Islamic World.


Genealogy is very important to Somali people. Somali clans always make sure their people memorise who their ancestors are, often up to over 20 generations, all the way to the founder of the clan who is usually an Arab who came over to Somalia. The Isaaq of Somaliland, foe instance, claims decent to Isaaq, an Arab from Arabian Peninsula, and through him, all the way to the Quraysh clan of the Prophet. I asked a few Somalis whether they could recount all that and it was always in the affirmative. Their fathers always force them to memorise that from the age of seven. When Somalis meet, they sometimes ask which tribe or sub-tribe the other party comes from, and then trace their ancestors to see when any overlap took place.

It was said that when the US government announced that they would give green cards to minority clans in Somalia but many from the main clans of Hawiye, Daarood, Isaaq and Reewin also claim descent from minority clans. So the US government engaged clan elders from the minority clans and sub-clans to question the applicants to see if they know their genealogy, which has proven to the best way of verifying their origins. Unfortunately, this is also the way clan militias differentiate between people they come across in the vicious clan wars in the south.

During my stay in Somaliland, I discussed with the locals the likelihood of international recognition, which is so critical to the country. Some general views are as follows:
- US: Favourable, but African Union has to take first step; Sources say US has been offered the option of using Berbera harbor if they recognize the country.
- Arab countries: Not in favour as they are adamant that no Muslim country should become smaller.
- Djibouti: Not in favour as Djibouti does not want a larger neighbour competing with it.
- Ethiopia: Not in favour because they currently support the puppet Transitional Government of Somalia, which wants to preserve old borders.
- Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania: May be favourable.

Me at the Independence Monument

I saw huge crowds at the Independence Monument, listening to the leader of the anti-Ethiopian, anti-American Islamic Courts of Mogadishu, now based in Nairobi, speaking on BBC Radio Somali broadcast. Somalilanders continue to be emotionally attached to Southern Somalia in some ways, despite their heroic struggle for independence and the bad experience suffered in the past. I wonder what would happen if Southern Somalia pulls its act together and gets united again. Whilst the Somalilanders I posed this question were adamant that reunification was impossible, I suspected the reality might be a lot more complicated than that.

Graphic images at the base of the Independence Monument

The independence monument has a Somalian bomber plane perched on its top. During the civil war against Barre's oppressive regime, this plane, piloted by South African mercenaries, was among those that took off at Hargeisa airport a few kilometers away to bomb the city. 95% of Hargeisa was destroyed during this war, and the pedestral of the monument had graphic images of murdered civilians, and severed heads and limbs, all portraying the horrors of war.


My armed escort at Las Geel

Abdi Abdi arranged a car driven by Abdullah, plus a security guard with an aging rifle, for a visit to Las Geel, the most famous attraction – if the term is appropriate – in Somaliland. We drove out of Hargeisa which is practically flanked on the southern side by sand dunes and on other sides by dry treeless mountains, towards the ancient port of Berbera to the northeast.

Discovered by French archaeologists in 2003, Las Geel is a Neolithic site where ancient men had painted images of life between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Preserved by obscurity and remoteness of the site, the paintings of Las Geel were bright and colourful, and its discovery was one of the most important archaeological finds of this century.

After slightly more than an hour on slightly potholed road, we drove off into the bush, now with the head of local security based in a village by the main road. It was a bumpy ride across huge rocks as well as pebbles and thorny growth. We came across camels, gazelles and birds of prey.

We arrived at the guardhouse for Las Geel after about 45 minutes. I browsed through the visitors book with entries dating from 2005. Most visitors were either Somalianders, Africans, Europeans (especially Norwegians) and Americans, though there were a number of Japanese and three Malaysians. I appeared to be the first Singaporean visitor. The site seemed to have attracted twenty to thirty visitors year-to-date 2008.


There were three caves or shelters opened to visitors. The paintings within were beautiful and well-preserved with sharp, vivid colours. There were paintings of men, women, dancers, hunters, a man milking camel, cattle – cows, bulls with unusually elongated lyre-shaped horns and even a pair of copulating cattle, dogs, elephants, a giraffe with large head and unknown creatures the mankind of today cannot recognize.

Me at Las Geel

I took many photos not only of the many cave paintings but also of the panoramic views of the surrounding plains and mountains. I was told that archaeologists are still exploring surrounding areas and it was said there are other similar sites around. This is definitely a site that deserves a World Heritage status and I wish Somaliland luck in getting them listed and also in preserving them for perpetuity.

Human worshipping the bull, Las Geel

I considered whether to go on to Berbera, Somaliland's most important and historical port, which had attracted among others, ancient Greek and Roman traders, Arab seafarers and Chinese junks. From this port, a Greek chronicler noted, myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, duaca, Indian copal and macir were supplied to the Mediterranean World. Duan Chengshi, a Tang Dynasty scholar, even mentioned the trading of slaves here.

Cattle in an... ahmm position, Las Geel

The British explorer Richard Burton was very certain of the importance of this port. He said, "In the first place, Berberah is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of East African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the western Erythraean shore, from Suez to Guardafui. Backed by lands capable of cultivation, and by hills covered with pine and other valuable trees, enjoying a comparatively temperate climate, with a regular although thin monsoon, this harbour has been coveted by many a foreign conqueror. Circumstances have thrown it as it were into our arms, and, if we refuse the chance, another and a rival nation will not be so blind."

Berbera today also has a long runway, built by the USSR in the 1970s and according to Wikipedia, "from the 1980s onward was designated by NASA as an emergency landing strip for the U.S. Space Shuttle."

I discussed with Abdi Abdi the possibility of taking public buses there but Abdi Abdi said it was his prerogative to ensure that I do not get into trouble. There had been incidents in the past – some German aid workers were killed by infiltrators from southern Somalia. He suggested I engaged a driver and security guard to bring me there instead, though this was a lot more costly.

I enquired and also confirmed there was nothing much to see in Berbera today, apart from a good beach and some cliff-side scenery. Historic Berbera was long destroyed or buried underground. In fact, the NGO guy, Ahmad Ali told me that the city, despite its importance as the key revenue owner for the government (75% from harbor dues here), has no running water and electricity. And so my decision was made to stay put in Hargeisa and take it easy the next day.

The amazing area around Las Geel


I visited Hargeisa's camel and livestock market instead. Hundreds of camels were brought there by nomads and traders from all over the country, and they were traded through an ancient auction system using agents and an ancient secret trading code.

Livestock is the key export of the country. Somaliland was first established as a protectorate by the British to supply meat for the coaling station for their strategic colony of Aden. Today, it remains an important supplier of camels and goats for the Middle East. Unlike many countries that supply meat to export markets, Somaliland, unfortunately, supplies livestock alone. Its camels and goats are slaughtered elsewhere and hence the country obtains very little value add. "You should consider setting up an internationally accredited abattoir and meat processing plant in Somaliland," I told Abdi.

With this, I am ready to move on. On Monday, I would fly to Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and spend the next two weeks exploring the northern historical cities of the ancient kingdom of the Queen of Sheba and the Emperors and Kings of Kings of Ethiopia.

Take care and good bye!

Wee Cheng