Part of a trip from Kenya to Egypt, stopping along the way in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Sudan.


– visited November/December 2014 –

Somaliland? Have you ever heard about this place? Probably not.

But you have heard about Somalia and you probably associate it with war, terrorism, poverty, famine and all out chaos. That is why, the Somalilanders decided not to be part of it anymore. On a map, Somalia is shaped like a seven. Most of the upper stroke of that seven is the Republic of Somaliland. It is independent and stable, but recognized essentially by no one.

In colonial times, three territories with a majority population of ethnic Somalis existed. French Somaliland (todays Djibouti), Italian Somalia (shown on this map in various shades of blue and green) and British Somaliland (yellow and greyish).

Political Situation in Somalia, July 2017

British Somaliland became independent on the 26th of June 1960 and on the first day of independence the Somaliland Legislative Assembly approved a bill to allow the union of the “State of Somaliland” with the “Trust Territory of Somalia under Italian Administration” which was set to become independent a few days later. The marriage was not happy. The new constitution developed during 1960 found little acceptance in Somaliland and was seen as favouring “the South”. In the subsequent referendum, boycotted by many, it was rejected in the former British Somaliland but adopted in the nation as a whole. In December 1961, this led to an uprising that quickly failed. For the next decades, Somaliland was marginalized by “the South” as Somalia fell under the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre. In the late 1980s, the country descended into a full-blown civil war, with planes commanded from Mogadishu dropping bombs on Hargeisa, Somaliland’s “metropolis”. In May 1991, the dictator left the country and Somaliland declared independence. Finally, free again.

While Somalia descended further into chaos, Somaliland was stable and peaceful, allowing the people to slowly rebuilt their lives. In 1998, the establishment of another independent territory on Somali soil, Puntland (in the north-east as seen on the map), led to claims on Somaliland’s territory and occasional clashes but generally Somaliland followed its positive path. Somaliland is not perfect but compared to its neighbours it holds up well. As I visited, Somaliland had been de facto independent, with all the hallmarks of an independent country, for 23 years. Over this time, it received practically no assistance from the international community. As some other territories (unrecognized states) it is stuck in limbo as the international community is unable to find a proper way to accommodate these entities.

Territorial integrity is a principle under international law that prohibits the changing of borders by force. It is a very sensible principle as it discourages from waging war as it prevents the victors from keeping the spoils. I support this principle as without it, the world would see even more fighting. This is the reason why no one has so far recognized Somaliland. But there is also another side of the medal as this non-recognition has severe consequences for the people living in these territories. Everything involving other countries is more complicated. How do you travel if your passport is not recognized by other countries? How can young, bright people go to a foreign university if they cannot even travel? How do you trade with a country that does not officially exist? My German mobile phone stopped working the moment I crossed the border. Can an unofficial country take part in international payment systems? Well, money always finds its ways, middlemen arrange deliveries to wherever but generally this makes things more complicated and more expensive than they should be.

The world knows a bunch of these territories. The break-up of the Soviet Union alone led to the establishment of Transnistria (broke off from Moldavia), Abkhazia and South-Ossetia (both from Georgia) and Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh (from Azerbaijan). There is even one such territory within the European Union (Northern Cyprus). In that case, the unrecognized state essentially exists since 1974. Catalonia might one day become another. Being not recognized does not totally prevent a country from developing, becoming rich and successful as Taiwan has proven to the world (whose recognition was basically taken under its feet in 1971 and given to mainland China instead). But it definitely makes this path more difficult.

Many of these territories have a strong neighbour or supporter who lends a helping hand. A friend of mine from Abkhazia travels on a Russian passport (freely given to Abkhazians), has a Russian credit card and if I want to send her a postcard, I send it to the main post office in Russia’s Sochi. But this helping hand can also develop into an unwanted embrace. Abkhazia wants to keep a certain distance but if no one else wants to play with you, you are often forced back into the hands you might want to leave. Other places like Artsakh are totally happy with a close connection with their Armenian brethren. Somaliland has no big brother to lean on, at least Ethiopia is friendly.

What could be a way forward? To give up the principle of territorial integrity makes no sense but to prevent the Somalilanders from fulfilling their full potential just because the rest of Somalia cannot get its act together also makes no sense. I have no perfect solution to propose, many of these territories have been founded in bloody wars, often with accusations of ethnic cleansing. I certainly do advocate for renewed attempts to solve these conflicts and to be ready to give a country like Somaliland the means to fulfil its potential. In the horn of Africa, Somaliland is ranked the highest by the Freedom House index. And by the way, the principle of territorial integrity has recently been broken, at the time of my visit to Somaliland, Kosovo had been recognized by 107 countries since declaring its independence from Serbia in 2008. Major countries like the U.S., France, Great Britain or Germany recognized it right after its declaration. How to explain to my Abkhaz friend that Kosovo has received what Abkhazia is not allowed to have?

There is also another injustice. The moment we need something from these countries, we find a way to deal with them. The horn of Africa has a piracy problem which has seen plenty of ships hijacked in the previous years. And of course, the EU can send someone to help with Maritime Capacity Building to improve the Somaliland Coast Guard, that is in our interest. But are we also there if the Somalilanders need help? I doubt it.

Exploring Somaliland

To explore Somaliland’s east, you will need to arrange a tour. That is costly and I do not have enough time, so I stick to more well-trodden paths in and around Hargeisa (the capital) and the port town of Berbera. Hargeisa is a dusty city of little interest where one of the major attractions is the MiG-Monument, a Soviet-built fighter plane that once attacked Hargeisa in the service of the Somali air force. The animal market, where camels and goats are sold is another attraction. I get a friendly reception all over Hargeisa, have wonderful food in an unassuming restaurant and am taken by the peaceful atmosphere. The Somaliland Shilling has little value, exchanging 50$ gives you wads of cash. The money changers have their cash in metal cages and in the evening, they just close them, put a small lock on it and leave for the night. The money is still well visible.

Laas Geel is Somalilands most famous attraction. Its rock art is estimated to be about 20,000 years old; it only became known to the wider world in 2002 and is in an exceptional state of preservation. Getting there is not easy as you need a permit, a guide and of course some transportation. I ask at the hotel. They propose a trip for 120$, quite pricey. For the permit, I have to go to the ministry of tourism anyway. They make me an offer I cannot really refuse. 90$ for the whole trip. But they also tell me not to talk about it, they are obviously not supposed to take away someone else’s business. I still need to get something from the hotel and they tell me to walk the last few blocks so that the hotel does not find out. Our crew is a driver, an armed guard and a guide we will meet on site. Outside of town, we pass the Kuwait Educational Charity Academy. Classrooms, dormitories and a big mosque. Laas Geel is in a beautiful, barren landscape and the rock art is full of beauty and full of colours.

A shared taxi brings me to Berbera, Somaliland’s most important harbour. The town has a lot of beautiful old buildings from colonial and richer days. It is painful to see, how the inhabitants are struggling with the upkeep of the houses. With many, they have already lost significant battles. The beach is full of plastic waste and in the harbour are many sunken ships.  

Leaving Somaliland

There is no road from Hargeisa to Djibouti. There is just the desert. To avoid the heat, the jeeps go overnight. As I leave the taxi at the designated spot where the jeeps are leaving, a young man approaches and tells me the ride would be 40$. As always in these situations you don’t immediately know, if he is the one in charge of if he is just the fastest or loudest. Better take it slow and observe the situation. He is not in charge, the guy who is really running the rides gives him a stern look and tells me its 25$ like for everybody else. The ride will not be super-pleasant as we are sharing a row meant for three with four people but I can assure you, at some point you stop feeling the pain. There are benches in the back of the jeep as well.

It takes some time to get all the bags safely on the roof and as we finally leave, I am surprised that we stop after only a few kilometres. The men all leave for a shop selling khat, and retire to the attached chewing area. Khat is a plant containing some stimulant and fairly common around the horn of Africa. It can be compared to Asia’s betel nut or the coca leaves of South America. Stimulating in the short term but with long term effects that are similar of alcohol abuse. If they start chewing khat, this is not just a stop of five minutes. Our two drivers have gotten active on the vehicle. For some reason they make an oil change. As if there had been no time for that all day. Or maybe they want to do it in darkness? To my horror, they just open the drain plug and let all the oil run into the sand below.

We are finally ready to leave. What happens next, is totally incomprehensible to me as it unfolds. As a traveller to remote places you have to be ready to accept things as they develop, to accept that many things are out of your control, in a place where you do not speak the language, where you do not know what is the usual way. I have no fear, I trust the people around me. We leave the town, we stop, we turn around. The driver shouts, someone gets out of the car, the driver speeds away. Nearly everybody seems to be shouting “nooooooooo”. The driver stops, sets the car back, leaves the vehicle and gets busy with the bags on the roof. We leave the town again. We stop again. Everybody seems to discuss something; many have their phones out. I just do not have the slightest clue what is going on.

We get out of the car. Omar speaks very good English with an American accent; he has spent a few years there. I ask him. The guy who left the jeep, he was supposed to go to Djibouti with us but he got scared, he was accusing people of wanting to harm him, of trying to kill him. “You know, he is from the south”, his way of saying that there is a fucking war going on in Somalia and it does destroy lives, either directly or indirectly. When he got out of the car, the driver was so angry that he wanted to speed away with the bag of the guy still on the roof. That was when everybody was shouting “no”. The next stop was caused by the owner of the car. He actually refunded the money to the guy but then he had an empty seat that he wanted to have filled and paid. But there was no other passenger available. When all the people seemed to discuss, they were actually all throwing some money in, all of them with their phones (Kenyan MPESA has revolutionized mobile phone payments and they are widely used around the region). I ask if I should chip in some money. It is already all settled, everything is good, we are ready to go now. The richest guy on the car seems to be the only one who hasn’t contributed anything to our departure. We finally leave, this time for good.

As the first rays of the sun appear, a Gazelle watches us pass. How can you survive in that landscape? We stop in the last village before the border. It is not far, I can walk and suddenly, approaching Djibouti a tarmacked road rises out of the sand.