The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 10. Hargeisa Nights

Hargeisa, Somaliland, July 2011

My first visit to Hargeisa, the Somaliland capital, came about by accident when I missed a flight to Nairobi and was forced to wait three days for the next one. The portly Indian pilot at the controls of the tiny UN hopper plane that was supposed to connect with the Kenya flight had touched down so hard on the gravel airstrip at Bossasso that he burst a tyre. There was no spare on board, or at Bossasso airport – which was a Potemkin village kind of place, with a swanky new smoked-glass passenger hall, but no maintenance facilities at all – so we were forced to wait while another plane came out especially from Hargeisa to rescue us.

When the new tyre arrived, there was no jack. The pilots then requested the dozen or so passengers to help them lever one wheel of the first plane up on to a rock. It was 35 degrees in Bossasso, and the passengers were mostly UN office workers in suits. ‘Only in Somalia,’ they muttered under their breath. But no one really minded, because it was better by far than sitting at a desk. UN staffers often have romantic souls – ‘missionaries, mercenaries or the brokenhearted’, as they like to say about themselves – and there was a definite sense of camaraderie on board when our plane finally reached Hargeisa at sunset, the last possible safe moment for a landing.

Hargeisa was a revelation: a big, bustling African metropolis, the first remotely normal Somali city I had seen. You could understand immediately why so many of Somaliland’s 3.5 million citizens wanted independence so badly, for what had any of the neighbours achieved by comparison since the civil war? In their view they owed their fellow countrymen nothing. Much of their capital had been razed literally to knee-height in 1988 by Siad Barre, whose bombers took off and landed from the airport I had just arrived at, on a plateau above and just next to the city. Tens of thousands were killed. The survivors still spoke of how the surgeons had been forced to operate on the dying while lying down, so continuous was the threat from flying glass and bullets. Hargeisa had been rebuilt since then, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the energy its citizens had put into the task, in which they had received no help at all from central government in Mogadishu. The only visible reminder of the past was a downtown war memorial, a Soviet-era MiG in Somali air force colours that had crashed in the act of strafing the city, now repaired and displayed on a plinth like an overgrown model Airfix.

I made friends with one of the other delayed passengers, a lanky, easy-going Kenyan Somali called Hassan, an AIDS worker who had previously been posted to Hargeisa and knew the city well. The following day we caught a rickety bus – a bus! – which sped us from the airport hotel down the hill into town, the boy conductor flirting with death as he hung by one hand from a rail by the open door. In the city centre was an immense covered street market, the East African equivalent of a North African souq, bigger by far than any other I had seen in Somalia. We dawdled like tourists in the winding, stall-packed alleys. Here was a shoe stall, the seller half-buried in an avalanche of sandals richly reeking of polish and new leather; there was a sari shop, hung high with bolts of cloth of every hue, like the harem in a folk tale in the Arabian Nights. Not for nothing was this region once called the Emporium of East Africa.

Yet Britain’s interest here, unlike that of the Italians to the south, was never precisely colonial. Indeed, British Somaliland was never designated as a colony but as a protectorate, which was only formally established in 1888. The original purpose was to secure a steady supply of meat for the British garrison at Aden in Yemen, a critical but resource-challenged coaling station in the voyage between Europe and India – which was why, until 1899, British Somaliland was administered not from London but from Calcutta, and was nicknamed ‘Aden’s butcher’s shop’.

(In the twenty-first century the export of livestock across the Gulf of Aden continues to boom, although the customers are no longer the British but the Saudis, who are obliged to feed the ever-increasing number of pilgrims who descend on Mecca each year. A record 1.83 million pilgrims completed the Hajj in 2011, a 50 per cent increase over the numbers a decade ago, and they were fed by some of the 4.2 million head of camel, sheep and goats that Hargeisa exports to Arabia each year. With half of its GDP and 70 per cent of its jobs reliant on the livestock business, the economy of modern Somaliland arguably depends like that of no other in the world on the growth of global Islam.1)

So many Indian political officers were employed in the protectorate that Captain Malcolm McNeill of the Somaliland Field Force wrote in 1902 that ‘in this manner, Indian ways and customs (and with them Aden prices) came into vogue in the Somali country, where they have remained until today . . . the coinage is in rupees, and Hindustani being spoken by very many Somalis is practically the official language of the country.’2

However inauspicious its origins, the relationship forged between Somaliland and Britain was a strong one, with a legacy that survives to this day. Local sailors employed by the East India Company settled at the northern end of the trade route in port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, establishing some of the earliest Muslim communities in Britain, which continue to thrive. The first British mosque was established by Somali and Yemeni sailors in 1860 in the Cathays district of Cardiff. Many of their sons and grandsons went on to serve in the merchant navy in both world wars. Hundreds of them gave their lives for Britain on the Atlantic convoys. The maritime flavour of this special relationship was perhaps epitomized by the imam of Cardiff, Sheikh Saeed Ismail, who was born in South Shields in 1930 to an English mother and a Yemeni sailor who was killed when his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in the Bristol Channel in 1939.* It was no coincidence that the inaugural meeting in 1981 of the SNM, the exiled Somali National Movement which led Somaliland’s rebellion against Siad Barre, took place in Whitechapel on the edge of east London’s docklands.

Like Somaliland itself, the SNM was dominated by a single clan, the Isaaq, who felt they had been marginalized by Mogadishu almost from the moment in 1960 when the British and Italian Somalilands had unified to form modern Somalia. In 1991, with Siad Barre ousted and the victorious SNM in control in Hargeisa, Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from the south. Thirty years after its foundation in London, the SNM was defunct, but its successor, the left-of-centre Peace, Unity and Development Party known as Kulmiye, was still the main force in Somaliland politics, and still closely connected to Britain. In 2010, when the SNM’s former chairman, the Manchester University-educated Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, was elected Somaliland’s president on behalf of Kulmiye, the British prime minister explicitly congratulated him in the House of Commons – although, like the rest of the international community, he fell far short of recognizing Silanyo’s goal of Somaliland independence.*

As Hassan and I wandered the city streets it became clear what inveterate travellers and traders the Somalilanders were. The foreign influence was obvious in the business names on display: the Miami Hotel, the Obama Restaurant and Café, even a fashion boutique called Posh, with a sign that read, in English, ‘Your elegance is our pleasure.’ Hassan put the number of Somalilanders who knew someone or had family abroad as high as 70 per cent, which was almost double the figure given by the UN for Somalia as a whole. Everyone understood that it was remittances from the diaspora that had paid for Hargeisa’s reconstruction. In fact, all Somalis, not just those in Somaliland, depended on money transfers to keep the region’s economy afloat. The Mogadishu government estimated that friends and relatives abroad sent back $2bn every year, an astonishing sum for a country with an estimated gross domestic product of just $6bn.3

Thanks to fierce competition between its six mobile phone operators, Somaliland was one of the cheapest places in Africa to make and receive a phone call. Every second shop in the main trading street seemed to be a mobile phone business, an internet café or a hawala office. Dahabshiil, one of the world’s biggest international money transfer businesses, was much in evidence. Founded in the 1970s by a Somalilander, Mohamed Duale, the company now had 24,000 agents in 144 countries, and generated profits of more than $250m a year. ‘Dahabshiil’ was the Somali word for a goldsmith, which Hassan thought very apt for such a fabulous moneyspinner of a firm. The commercial tradition was as strong here as it must once have been in medieval Genoa or Venice, and quite unlike anywhere else in Somalia.

The state had its own currency, the Shilling, yet it had no central bank. There were no automated cash machines, and no one used credit cards. Instead there were sections of town where the pavements were clogged with money-changers who kept their cash in crude metal cages, so confident in the honesty of the citizenry that they could leave their wads of mouldering banknotes unattended whenever they needed to, just as Mohamed Omaar had described to me in Mogadishu. At the same time there was a strong possibility that cash would be replaced altogether one day by mobile telephone banking, a development that would put Somaliland far ahead of the West. The main mobile banking service, Zaad, had accrued 300,000 users since its launch in 2009. It was even possible to buy qat using Zaad.4

As night fell, Hassan took me to an outdoor restaurant called Summertime, set in a pretty, stepped courtyard where a fountain played beneath soft coloured lights. The tables were buzzing with young families out for their evening meal. The normality of the scene was, once again, startling: a vision, perhaps, of what Mogadishu nightlife must once have been like. The atmosphere here put the Ruqsan Square venture in Garowe to shame. A waiter came over to tell us about the wireless internet available – ‘A hundred per cent free and superfast,’ he said – before producing a menu that listed a dish called Chocolate Fish. (‘Actually, it’s got nothing to do with chocolate,’ he said. ‘We just call it that.’)

A muezzin sounded, and Hassan went off to pray. When he returned, grinning, he was accompanied by three old friends he had bumped into, Mohamed, Najib and Sabah, who sat down with us for dinner. All three of them were returnees from America. Sabah had been educated in Minnesota and spoke with a pronounced Midwestern twang. They were Westernized, sophisticated, and fun.

‘On no account should you touch the chocolate fish,’ said Najib sternly as we looked at our menus.

I asked why not, as it was ages since I had eaten fish, but neither he nor the others would tell me. They shook their heads and sucked their teeth in a unified display of mock horror. We ended up eating bread and shredded camel meat, limes and chilli sauce, all washed down with milky Somali tea. I never did discover what the chocolate fish was about.

The talk ranged happily over local politics (only slightly less corrupt than it used to be, they said), some of the surprising advantages of the clan system (it was a useful substitute for car insurance), the prospects for Somaliland independence (fading), and the increasing popularity of the veil over the last twenty years. This prompted an anecdote from Najib who, as a young man in his twenties a decade before, had been at home chewing qat late one night when he determined to go out in search of female company.

‘Qat can make you really horny, you know?’ he drawled, ‘and I was flying that night. My eyes were wide and my jaw was going like a piston . . . Man, I needed to get laid.’

It was a wet evening and so he set off in his car, kerb-crawling the streets of East Hargeisa, until in his headlights he spotted the wiggling backsides of what he thought were two young girls in abeyas and scarves, picking their way through the puddles at the side of the road. It was raining hard by then, and he pulled over to offer them a lift, smugly certain that they would accept.

‘But I guess I couldn’t see that well,’ Najib went on. ‘Qat can do things to your eyes sometimes – double vision and stuff, you know? – and it was raining, and the windshield wipers were for shit. And these girls come up and I get the fright of my life, because they’ve got, like, beards! And they dive into my car going, “God bless you, my son.” They weren’t girls at all, they were imams on the way back from the masjid . . . And I’m driving them along, and my knuckles are white from clutching the steering wheel so hard because I’m so high, and I’m trying to kick my qat bag under my seat so they won’t see it. I swear to God, man, I haven’t chewed since.’

It wasn’t only qat users who were confused by Somali women’s steady retreat behind the veil. Everyone around the table had a different theory about why it had happened. The only point of agreement was that the explanation was not simple. Hassan thought that for some women, the veil offered ‘solace’ for the trauma of the war. The imams, he noted, had been the first to rebel against Siad Barre, and had been ‘slaughtered’ in the mosques. The veil was therefore a symbol of resistance against oppression, as well as peace over violence, order over chaos. Najib, who ran a rape trauma clinic nowadays, knew a good deal about that. The conversation suddenly turned dark as the old stories of cruelty and sadism from the 1990s tumbled out.

He described one infamous checkpoint where travellers were summarily shot if they failed to recite from memory certain passages from the Koran. Another checkpoint near Baidoa was equipped with a pair of scales. The drug-fuelled militiamen in charge decided that anyone weighing more than 60kg had to pay a per-kilo fine, like a budget airline luggage allowance – except that any traveller who could not pay risked having their excess flesh removed, Shylock-style, with a panga. One man who objected was directed to go and negotiate with the checkpoint commander, who the militiamen said was asleep on a camp bed in a nearby hut. When the objector tried to wake this man, he discovered a bloody corpse beneath the sheets.

Innocent people could easily be killed out of boredom in these deranged times, or simply on the off-chance that they had a little money on them, a class of murder so common that it was known as a nesibso or ‘try-your-luck’ killing. There was also, unsurprisingly, a great deal of casual sexual violence. Najib recalled how one fearful elder invited a group of local militia leaders to dinner, hoping to tame their excesses with traditional hospitality. He ended up being forced to watch the gang rape of his wife and teenage daughters. In another notorious episode, a woman was stripped, raped and murdered by checkpoint militiamen who then threw her body into a nearby ditch with several batteries shoved up her vagina. When asked why, the men explained with a giggle that they had turned the corpse into a radio ‘in order to listen to the BBC’. The disregard for human life that Najib described was breathtaking, yet that, somehow, was not the worst aspect of the story. Callous evil was not new in the world, after all. What really shocked was the killers’ prankish, snickering humour, and the enjoyment they appeared to take in their depravity.

The others around the table fell silent when Najib had finished. They were all in their thirties, which meant that all of their childhoods had been disrupted by the war – and who among their generation didn’t have a tale of suffering to tell? It was as though the stories of evil perpetrated by their countrymen offered glimpses of the dark side of their own Somali souls. The serenity of this balmy evening, the good food and company around the restaurant table, no longer seemed banal but, briefly, priceless. The Somaliland urge to cut itself off permanently from the old source of so much horror was clarified for me. The state had cleansed itself of the taint of civil war, and would do anything to avoid recontamination. Peace was a privilege to be treasured and defended at any cost.

This attitude had made Somaliland one of the darlings of the West. Hargeisa’s embrace of democracy was one of the developments that led the US to adopt, in 2010, a new ‘twin-track’ approach to Somalia, which meant supporting both the autonomy-seeking stable regions like Somaliland and the centralizing mission of the government in Mogadishu. The policy amounted to a kind of Plan B in the event of the TFG’s failure, for there were many who argued that Somaliland’s constitution could provide a model for the rest of the country. Ignatius Takawira, a Zimbabwean UN official who helped monitor the 2010 presidential elections, called Somaliland’s election laws ‘unique and rather brilliant’. The constitution limited to three the number of political parties allowed to contest the presidency, and all political campaigning was banned until just three weeks before the election.

‘The flags go up, the flags come down, and then they vote,’ said Takawira. ‘That’s clever, because it avoids a prolonged fight – and I saw it working. At election time in Zimbabwe, my people just kill each other.’

Somaliland’s political elite was unusually well supported in Britain, where a small group of politicians with Somalilander constituencies, led by Alun Michael, the Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, lobbied vociferously on their behalf. London’s official Horn of Africa policy was to back the TFG in Mogadishu, which obviously precluded the recognition of Somaliland sovereignty. But this did not prevent Alun Michael from demanding greater ‘respect’ for the Hargeisa government and its functions. Modern Somaliland, he argued, was ‘a beacon of democracy’ that deserved to be acknowledged as a ‘distinct entity from the rest of Somalia’.5 When I went to meet him in Westminster, the MP went further, arguing that the case for Somaliland’s independence was ‘clear and unanswerable’ – although he also insisted that it was for Somalis, not him, to assert that case.

Such advocacy irritated many Somalis outside Somaliland. Puntland, which still regarded the SNM’s unilateral declaration of secession in 1991 as ‘high treason’, was particularly touchy about London’s perceived doublespeak. In Garowe, President Farole had grumbled about Whitehall’s blatant favouritism towards Hargeisa, especially when it came to the distribution of aid. A handful of ‘MPs and Welsh lords’, he told me, were ‘obsessed’ with Somaliland. He perhaps had a point. In 2006, the Welsh National Assembly officially invited the Hargeisa government (but not the Garowe one, and certainly not the TFG in Mogadishu) to attend the royal opening of the Senedd in Cardiff. And it was only in 2011 that the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Somaliland, chaired by Alun Michael, had changed its name to include the words ‘and Somalia’. Michael explained that Somalia’s government had not been elected, unlike the Hargeisa one, and that the whole point of the APPG system was to promote dialogue between democratic parliaments. He was technically correct, although to the Farole government in Garowe, the omission still felt like a slight to Puntland.*

However robust Alun Michael was in his defence of Hargeisa’s cause, the case for Somaliland sovereignty did not seem to me to be quite as unanswerable as he claimed. For one thing, according to Hassan and the others at the Summertime restaurant, Somaliland’s younger generation were deeply uninterested in the campaign for independence, which Najib described as ‘an old man’s dream’. There had been no referendum on independence since 2001. Since then, they thought, the true locus of Somaliland as a nation had shifted far beyond the former protectorate’s borders. When remittances accounted for a third of all household income, it was clear to them that their nation existed, if it existed at all, somewhere in the international ether. It was not the separatist ambitions of a cabal of ageing revolutionaries that would ensure Somaliland’s future, but the power of the internet harnessed to the economic might of the diaspora.

Silanyo had another problem, which was that his Kulmiye Party was still fundamentally a civil war clan organization – and many of the younger generation were out of patience with that, too. For all the proud rhetoric, Somaliland in some ways was a paranoid, mono-clan police state no different from Puntland, its neighbour and chief regional rival: Isaaqistan versus Darodistan. In Hargeisa, non-Isaaqs were almost automatically suspect. In the street market earlier that day, Hassan confessed that he had deliberately avoided speaking to anybody for fear that his accent might be identified. As a Hawiye from the Kenyan border town of Mandera, he said, his ‘southern dialect would cause problems’. Silanyo’s predecessor as president until 2010, Riyale Kahin, had been a high-ranking officer in Siad Barre’s feared National Security Service, and hotel guest lists were still rigorously checked every two days by an efficient and well-funded intelligence apparatus on the lookout for any potential enemy of the state.

Hargeisa was not as secure as it seemed. To Silanyo’s great chagrin, some of al-Shabaab’s most senior leaders were Isaaq clansmen, including Ibrahim al-Afghani and Moktar Godane, who was born in the Somaliland capital. Confidence that al-Shabaab would never gain a foothold here was badly shaken in October 2008 when suicide bombers simultaneously attacked the presidential palace, the UNDP office and the Ethiopian consulate, killing twenty-five. The state’s paranoia was perhaps understandable, but there was still much about Somaliland that did not fit with the modern democratic image of itself that it liked to project to the world. Riyale Kahin routinely circumvented the courts via ‘security committees’ that had no basis in the constitution, and which regularly sent common criminals to prison on the basis of little or no evidence. When human rights observers visited Mandhera prison near Hargeisa in 2009, they found that over half of the prisoners had been sentenced by the security committees, not the courts.6

Silanyo had at least abolished the security committees when he became president, but his continuing heavy-handed treatment of the press was hardly the mark of an instinctive democrat. Dissenting journalists were regularly and arbitrarily arrested and held without charge. Ali Ismail Aare, a reporter for the weekly Waheen, was detained in 2012 for photographing a service station and a building belonging to the vice-president. So was Yusuf Abdi Ali of the London-based channel Royal TV, after being accused by a local NGO of making false allegations of corruption.

The most troubling incident came in January 2012 when twenty-five journalists were arrested, and a local TV station, Horn Cable TV, was shut down following a raid by a hundred policemen in seven armoured vehicles. Their crime was to have reported on an unauthorized clan meeting in the province of Sool, which bordered Puntland to the east. Silanyo described their coverage as ‘anti-Somaliland propaganda’; he later called Horn Cable a ‘nation destructor’.7

Sool, along with two neighbouring provinces, Sanaag and Cayn, had been causing Hargeisa a headache for years. Although originally a part of the British protectorate, their inhabitants were not Isaaq but Darod. Garowe had always considered them natural citizens of Puntland, therefore. But in 2007, Somaliland re-staked its claim by sending its troops to occupy the region. A bad-tempered dispute had been rumbling between the two states ever since. To make things even more complicated, a local secessionist movement called the HBM-SSC – Hoggaanka Badbaadada iyo Mideynta, the ‘United Defence League’ of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn – had been gaining ground recently. The territory it claimed for itself accounted for perhaps a third of all Somaliland, and included three sizeable towns. The possibility of significant oil reserves being discovered in the region, as well as reports in early 2012 that al-Shabaab elements were infiltrating northwards, made this region even more inflammable. No wonder Silanyo was nervous. The dispute to his east did indeed have the potential to ‘destruct’ his nascent clan-nation, even before he had achieved the international recognition for it that he so craved.

* Sheikh Saeed died in March 2011, aged 81.

* ‘This is an area of the world of enormous importance for our own security . . . [I welcome] the peaceful and credible elections in Somaliland. These are an example of genuine democracy in an area of the world not noted for it, and the UK provided funding for election supervision. We are keen to engage with the new government, and I believe the key . . . is to prevent terrorist groups establishing their foothold in Somaliland as they have in Somalia. This is vital, and yes, the government will continue to engage.’ David Cameron, House of Commons, 8 July 2010.

* As this book went to press, the APPG’s name had still not been updated on the chairman’s own website,