Somaliland: Africa’s Potemkin by Ali Fatah

May 13, 2011

A definition: In 1787 a Russian general, Grigori Potemkin, (who previously conquered the historically Turkish Crimea peninsula) erected one dimensional frontage of what appeared to the uninitiated a series of planned  villages along a route travelled by Impress, Catherine II—all to impress (some say, deceive) the Queen.  Hence, the term Potemkin village!

 

Somaliland is Africa’s Potemkin village. This rebel territory is marked by knotty conflict between the story bound images projected by its secession-minded elite (along with a couple of boosters from abroad) and the oppressive reality that exists on the ground. That Somaliland politicians mislead the international community does not conceal this veritable truth. No matter, they persist in presenting to the world a façade (not the true form) of a functioning democracy, where the rule of law is respected.  Again, the objective reality is something else altogether.

Nothing is farther from the truth! Somaliland’s well coached, progressive public image is in many ways the diametric opposite of the way in which the secession-obsessed enclave tries to conduct its affairs.  Journalists are routinely harassed and frequently muzzled, while any profession of support for Somali national unity is criminalized.  Worst of all, the enclave’s head honchos maintain a reckless policy the main stay of which is to browbeat neighboring regions, including Sool, Cayn, Awdal, and to a lesser extent, Sanaag.  Why? To annex and/or occupy these regions, which are predominantly populated by pro-union clans.

This is because tribalism is rife in the would-be breakaway region calling itself Somaliland.  Within their territory, politics and economics are dominated by ruling Isaaq clan with token representation for all the other clans that they hope corral to their side.  The urban elite of the enclave drive secession for a number of reasons not the least of which is to enhance intra-tribal affiliation within their camp.  As the single most important common denominator in this regard, secession is a tool for uniting all the self-described "Somalilanders"; it provides their true believers an emotionally-laden rallying call without which cohesion in the enclave would evaporate overnight. The politicians there know this well and are terrified  by it as they recognize the transitory nature of ethnic or tribal stacking as means of amassing power.

The numerically negligible non-Isaaqs in Hargeisa find the system stacked against them at every turn.  And thus they do not stand a chance in moderating it in the least. 

A major problem driving the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Somaliland and the neighboring non-Isaaq communities is that political hacks in Hargeisa have indoctrinated the Isaaq clans that they are a distinct tribe, different from other Somalis.  Yet the population is indistinguishable from other Somalis in every way.  This alternative identity perhaps explains, at least in part, why the tribe decided to hitch its political wagon on the wrong star, namely foreign benefactors without regard to their politics as regards the Somali national interest. The secessionists also believe, rather erroneously, that British colonial officers that departed from the Somali peninsula long ago bequeathed to them a mantle to rule over the northern territories that the Brits once loosely administered by fiat, as a so-called protectorate. To justify such an inscrutable sense of entitlement, the secessionists elected to operate under a false flag, namely the claim that Somaliland is a fount of freedom and democratic governance.  Not only that, they insist on having the right to secede as a new nation, separate from the rest of the Somali nation.   

By way of rationale, they offer half-baked ploy to justify their new if wrong-headed mantra: "Isaaqs were abused under the military dictatorship (of a generation ago) and for that we want to secede".  Never mind that every other Somali clan suffered under the same regime.  And, that none of the other communities wants to dismember the nation to pursue similar vainglorious ends.   

The unfortunate decision by the elite of the secessionist enclave,  to put all their proverbial eggs in the problematic basket of foreign patrons irrespective to their politics or agenda further muddies the political waters of the wider region. The overriding aim is to gain an unlikely foreign support for secession of the northwestern regions along the long defunct protectorate borders. That the so-called protectorate borders were superseded by the Somali national borders that were established at the dawn of independence, in 1960, are put aside as an unwelcome truth by Somaliland activists!  They seem to be saying, "Do not confuse us with inconvenient historical facts and legal justification"!  

Yet, when people of other northern regions disassociate themselves from Somaliland and its secessionist agenda, they encounter with tribal chauvinism and outright aggression.  In fact, Somaliland politicians of all stripes do not pat an eyelash to call for attack on those northern communities that resist clan domination and secession.   The aggressor's excuse is always the same: "we need to safeguard the territorial integrity" of Somaliland—the same Potemkin village (that stands on stilts of fabricated history and half-truths).

The "democratic and freedom fount" narrative that is fixatedly promoted by the elite of the fiefdom is entirely for foreign consumption.  It was conceived and custom-made by a talented politician, namely the late Mohamed I. Egal.  From the outset the object of Somaliland’s affection was, as mentioned above, to attract foreign benefactors that may lend support to the secession project.  This need brought Somaliland to establish symbiotic relationship with a whole host of NGOs, UN agencies and an alphabet soup of groups and freelance organizations that are collectively referred to as the "lords of poverty". 

Mr. Egal was shrewd enough to split the difference with them; but his successor, Mr. Riyale Kaahin, surpassed that performance and was able to milk the ubiquitous organizations to his personal advantage.  The current Chief, Mr. Siilaanyo, is simply traveling on a well trotted byway.  And so a welfare entity that panhandles with the best of them on an international scale was born out of the ashes of the long struggle for tribal domination in northwestern regions of Somalia.  But there is a downside to all this make-believe world of being proud pauper at the international level, especially when it comes to seeking foreign handouts, and an aggressive invader at the national scene.  It is as counter-productive as it is unsustainable. 

Finally, Somaliland politicians would be well-advised to change course as they are leading their constituents into a blind alley.  Granted, Somalis in general have not yet found their way out of the political maze in which they find themselves.  However, Somalis outside the enclave know where they need to go even if the roadmap that would take the nation home into peace, prosperity and brotherhood is not clear enough just now. So, the secessionist elite in Hargeisa need to let their people off from under their collective thumbs.  They should allow these innocents to join with the rest of their brothers and sisters in the sacred national quest to remake the beloved country—Somalia.

Ali A. Fatah
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