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A Journey Through Somaliland: A compilation of my observations and experiences in East Africa 

Mogadishu 

Descending on Mogadishu’s Aden Abdulle International Airport (MGQ) you’re immediately taken aback by the vastness of the Indian ocean. On the horizon stands the unmistakable silhouette of Ali Jimale, a Turkish style mosque and an obvious symbol of Turkish influence in the region. MGQ, itself a Turkish project, is a modern airport teeming with UN brandished aircraft. From UN Aid helicopters and private jets, it’s clear you’re in humanitarian mecca. 

Despite its challenges, the potential in Mogadishu is undeniable. Mogadishu is the second most populous coastal city in East Africa. The weather is humid but tempered with a cool coastal breeze. The greenery that surrounds the airport is a reminder that Africa is not the stereotype of a barren desert wilderness devoid of water and life. 

Despite the great potential for what could be the greatest city in east Africa given its location, climate, population, and natural beauty; Mogadishu is shackled by a decades-long history of corruption, violence, and insecurity. The insecurity is clearest in the over the top security precautions as we disembark from the plane and walk through several stages of security checks. The security personnel’s faces betray a subtle nervousness. There also seems to be a level of petty politics at play as we enter the airport international arrivals section only to walk to domestic travel one building over and return to the very same plane moments later. Why passengers would disembark only to come out a different door that reads ‘domestic travel’ seems like a tacit attempt to remind travelers that Hargeisa is domestic and that Somaliland is Somalia. Speculation aside, the airport is a modern one. I remember calling a friend who hails from the Mogadishu area, about the impressiveness of MGQ. This was in contrast to Hargeisa’s Egal International Airport (HGA). 

Hargeisa 

Here the airport is modest by comparison. The TV screens show ads for Ambassador Hotel, Dahabshiil’s EVC e-Dahab, and SO GASHO mobile. Below the ads are prompts reflecting the incompetence of whomever set up the ads with subtext captions. Messages that read “Final Version” “MP4 Cut” “This Version is not compatible…” cascade across the dusty and dated television screens throughout the airport. A small example of the overall shortcomings of an airport that has been the center of attention as Mogadishu and Hargeisa wrestle for control over Somaliland airspace. This latest saga follows Mogadishu’s recent attempts to politicize air traffic control in light of the Somaliland-Ethiopia MOU. In Hargeisa the climate is noticeably harsher.  In Hargeisa the climate is noticeably harsher. The climate bears significant resemblance to the people. Tough and unrelenting; traits Somalis have been known for in writings of Ibn Batuta and early British colonialists. Traits that have served us well in war and resistance but fail us today. In Japan a culture of excellence or “kaizen” has helped earn them a reputation for discipline, excellence, and duty. This could not be further from the case here. Minutes from HGA is the sight of littered plastic bags, water bottles, and of course farm animals competing for a share of the road. Goats, pedestrians and cars snake around one another in a choreographed dance everyone here is all too familiar with. This is not unique to Hargeisa, however. The same applies in places like Cairo and Karachi. I’m told by friends that the problem of garbage and congestion is especially pronounced in Mogadishu.

On first glance, Hargeisa-the capital of Somaliland, does not say Africa’s 55th state. “You judge too quickly”, I’m often reminded by friends. Many of my earliest impressions of people and places have been deeply misplaced, I would later discover. Somaliand would prove no exception. In the days and weeks since the underwhelming welcome I’ve come to appreciate the emphasis on function and substance over beauty. With a host of challenges facing the unrecognized country, captions on screens or goats on streets do not factor highly. Hargeisa in 1988 was reduced to rubble. The UN reported there was not a free standing structure in the city with most of its inhabitants displaced by carpet bombing from the Barre government. Thirty years later, high rises can be found across the city and many new buildings sprout up as men in green overalls scaffold the sides of buildings. Men in “Hargeisa Municipality” labeled overalls can be seen during the day excavating ground where water pipes are being laid, trees planted, and traffic lights installed. New roads are being paved and there is an energy for a new chapter in the city that many credit the young new mayor with a famous last name for. When I last visited Hargeisa in 2020 even the downtown had rocky gravel roads. Today, you can travel to every corner of the city on recently paved roads. These seemingly small projects make a city function. City services like street cleaners, infrastructure projects like Waheen market, and brand new government buildings to better serve the local population are a testament to the resilience of a people in an unrecognized country operating primarily on tax and port revenue. 

The new mayor and council have capitalized on their election victory on a wave of anti-tribalism support and have inspired in local residents a renewed appreciation for the role of government in improving their lives. While in Hargeisa, I discovered, the same goodwill does not extend to the Somaliland government overall. In many ways Somaliland operates like a nonprofit, using only what funds it can generate from services it can charge for and grants from NGOs. Without access to debt financing and foreign investment capital, many of its accomplishments are made more commendable. Still I am surprised to learn people, seemingly universally, dislike Somaliland president Musa Bihi. He is seen by many as divisive, dictatorial, and heavy-handed. People are especially enraged by his handling of the Las Anod crisis, current inter-Isaaq tribal tensions, and perhaps most surprisingly his deal with Ethiopia and the infamous MOU. People by and large oppose the MOU not on grounds some on Twitter would have you believe (i.e. imagined aspirations for unity with Somalia) but a fear that Ethiopia, with its much larger population will overtake the country. 

Borama 

In the early days of my journey I had the opportunity to visit Borama. A place where a disproportionate number of my friends come from (you know who you are). Only an hour and half away from the capital it was an easy place to visit. Here, too, my preconceptions were challenged. On the road to Borama we find a well-paved highway as tree canopies line the road. When we pass Arabsiyo and Gabiley and reach the interpass between Tog Wajale and Borama something changes. If you go left to the Ethiopian border city you see the familiar well-paved road with its white and yellow markings. If you go right towards the road to Borama suddenly it gets a bit bumpier. The markings are gone and trees are few and far between. Worse yet as you enter the city road conditions worsen as we sway side to side navigating pot holes on a gravel path. I’m overcome with disappointment. How could this be? Both I and my friend suddenly find ourselves sympathetic to the Awdal state Cause making the rounds online. This too on further

inspection owes a simple explanation. The road we were traveling on was built by the UAE, it is a trade corridor from Ethiopia to Berbera. The road to Borama was built by the Somaliland government. These roads resemble the road to Burco and Ceerigaabo. In Hargeisa new roads have been a keystone and well celebrated accomplishment of the new mayor. Roads within cities are the purview of local governments. With new young mayors in Hargeisa, Burco,and Borama there is a lot to be hopeful for. 

On the topic of nationalism, it’s worth noting I use the various Somali bracelets as a proxy for gauging support for pro-Somaliland or pro-Somalia positions. In Hargeisa it was not strange to see sky-blue bracelets with white diamonds in neighborhoods and restaurants. It was even more common in Ceerigaabo where tensions are especially tense. In Borama there are no Somalia bracelets in sight. Arguably, and this is perhaps heretical to some ears, there are more Somaliland bracelets and flags than in Hargeisa. There is of course no replacement for real polls and qualitative studies but this is an unrecognized third world country with little capacity or desire on the part of the government or the private sector to explore. I do believe much of the brouhaha around Awdal state is a diaspora project encouraged and given new life by the Mogadishu government. For Samaaroon who left the region in the early 90s, amidst tensions with the SNM, they remain locked in time. For locals that trade and travel to Hargeisa, ship goods and cattle through Berbera, and conduct both business and politics in the country, Somalia has little on offer. State institutions collect taxes, regulate business, resolve disputes, and of course create and enforce laws set to ensure a stable business and political environment. 

Ceerigaabo 

I arrive in Ceerigaabo, the capital of the Sanaag region on a small propeller plane. I head straight to my hotel. In my Hargeisa hotel there is a sign that reads “la ma ogola siigaar iyo khaatka” (smoking and khat is prohibited). In Ceerigaabo, my hotel door reads “no smoking, no khat, no guns, no bombs, no weapons of any kind.” Here one local tells me everyone has two priorities: own a home and own a gun. He tells me every establishment and home is flush with guns of every size. It is no wonder the city hosts a large Somaliland military presence. Given the history of violence and potential for violence the ratio of soldier to citizen I would assume is unparalleled in the country. Ironically, it was because of this military presence in 2020 I became a Somaliland nationalist. On this go around it’s a reminder of the country’s failure. The tension between tribes is felt everywhere. Here in Ceerigaabo, Somalia or SSC wristbands can be seen competing with Somaliland bracelets in some parts of the city. Cars and doors have etched out or spray painted SSC on them. On one quiet afternoon as the city took its post dhur siesta, I ventured towards my aunt’s school minutes from my hotel. Given my poor sense of direction, I found myself lost and surrounded by houses that all resemble one another. In a weak attempt at speaking Somali, I ask a man roughly my age for directions. He steps away from his house towards me and asks if I’m local or from the diaspora. I tell him I’m from the latter. He admits to being one as well. He asks me about my tribe. “Are you Isaaq or Harti”, he says. From the framing of his question I know he is likely Warsangeeli. Were he Isaaq he would be more specific. ‘Isaaq’, is not what any Isaaq in Somaliland would identify as. I tell him I’m Isaaq and suddenly his face and demeanour shift. It’s as if I’m now looking at a different man. The look of curiosity fades to concern. His eyes darting left to right. “You need to leave this area”, he tells me. “This is Harti area and its not safe for you”, he goes on. “Let me escort you back”. I’m in disbelief. I’ve walked into the Somali equivalent of Compton’s Crips and Bloods. My friend listens to the interaction on the phone every bit as amazed by the interaction as I am. This was the first of many incidents that made it clear to me Somaliland (at least in its eastern provinces) has a tribal problem. 

Berbera 

The final days of my time in Somaliland, I visit Berbera. The coastal city and a focal point of dispute between Somalia and Somaliland in the recent past. A corollary issue of port access for Ethiopia’s navy is the latest controversy. Known for its major port, the largest in Somaliland and Somalia, Berbera is one of, if not, the largest economic drivers in Somaliland. Berbera’s young mayor (a two-time incumbent) is credited for making the city the cleanest and arguably most progressive in the country. Farm animals are banned within city limits, garbage bins are found on street corners, and there are even sidewalks! A simple amenity in most western cities but sorely missed in places like Cairo, Hargeisa, and car haven Houston! There is hardly any traffic here; it’s quiet. I can hear the breeze, the ocean, the cawing of the seagulls. The beach has elevated lifeguard stations to overlook swimmers. There are swings used by young men likely unaware of the swings intended users. I cannot get over the fact there are no goats gnawing at littered cardboard boxes or chewing khat left on the floor. No chickens. No cows. Just silence and empty streets. 

Addis Ababa 

It’s the end of my sojourn in Somaliland. I’m at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport (ADD) waiting to return to Canada. ADD is grand and rivals Pearson, Abu Hamad, and Changi in its modernism. Passengers pass by Ethiopian women brewing traditional coffee and burning incense as they stop at one upscale restaurant or another. I need to change my sim card and ask a woman at a mobile stand for help. Before helping she asks where I’m from. “Somaliland,” I say. She grins, gives me a high five, and states, “we’re new allies now.” The interaction leaves me confused. Allies against whom? In any case it’s time for my flight.

About the Author

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Mustafa Ali is a Somali Canadian based in Edmonton, Alberta. He is a Founder Liaison and Tech Lead at Edmonton Unlimited, and a former stakeholder relations manager for the premier of Alberta. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and a Bachelors in Political Science, both from the University of Alberta.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of Somaliland Chronicle, and its staff. 

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Notice: This is an article by Somaliland Chronicle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Under this license, all reprints and non-commercial distribution of this work is permitted.

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