Few pieces of real estate have as dark a history as the grounds of Hargeisa’s Edna Adna University Hospital. Over the course of its history, it has served as a colonial military parade ground and the site of some of the worst excesses of the Siad Barre regime that ruled Somalia with an iron fist between 1969 and 1991. A regime whose end sparked the country’s brutal civil war.
Yet out of the ashes of conflict has emerged a hospital that boasts the most advanced health care facilities in this breakaway region of Somalia. Indeed, the hospital is also symbolic of the important role that the Somali diaspora has played in redeveloping the city and Somaliland. However, while many expatriates continue to invest in the development of the region, their success has bred resentment among many Somalilanders who did not or could not leave the region during the civil war. This dynamic, in turn, casts doubts over the long-term sustainability of Somaliland’s development and security.
The suffering inflicted on Hargeisa, during Somalia’s civil war was substantial. The city was bombed from its own air base by the Barre regime during Somalia’s Civil, Edna Adna who would later serve as Somaliland’s Foreign Minister recalls that only three streets were really drivable at the wars end. Few cities in Sub-Saharan Africa were ever exposed the full brunt of Soviet Union’s Cold War arsenal as Hargesia was.
For locals the brutal war did more than create refugees, it created a new national identity. In 1991, Somaliland declared its independence. Few noticed. Indeed for the past 23 years, the breakaway republic of Somaliland has fought to gain international recognition for its 3.5 million citizens. From the outset, its diaspora community has played a key role in this campaign and the city’s growth.
According to the Somaliland Diaspora Agency, approximately 200,000 Somalilanders living abroad add at least half a billion dollars to Somaliland’s economy each year. Yet, while the reliability of these figures is questionable there is no doubt that diaspora returnees currently dominate the country’s government. Take, for example, Hussein Abdi Dualeh. Somaliland’s energy minister spent several years in California working for Chevron or Foreign Minister Mohamed Bihi Yonis a former United Nations diplomat who once studied in Canada and Germany.
At one intersection the hulk of a Soviet MiG-15 which crashed during the civil war is mounted on a podium as if soaring into the sky, but it’s the city’s population which is truly climbing. Hargeisa’s population is roughly 650,000 and is one of the fastest growing cities in the Horn of Africa with a growth rate that Somaliland authorities have struggled to cope with.
Near the bustling bazaar, Mohammed Fahed offers his opinion on the changing city. The butcher relaxes in an open air café with stains of blood on his shirt. On one corner is a building bearing the bullet holes of the civil war while down the street lies an older building that locals say was built by the Ottomans during their brief occupation of the area in the 19th century. Scaffolding which heralds the rise of new five or six storey hotels creeps into the background. “None of this was here before the last five years. The expatriates, they are the ones building such things,” Fahed says pointing toward the hotels. Fahed also explains, though, that he thinks much the diaspora are aloof to the region’s problems.
Not far from the Souq is the Oriental Hotel. First opened in the 1950s it is Somaliland’s oldest hotel. Destroyed during the Civil War it has been refurbished to meet the needs of gold traders who often congregate in its shaded courtyard. Here Jamal Ahmed is even blunter about the country’s current trajectory. While working as a security guard in Seattle, Washington he carefully saved to open a business in Somalia exporting animal hides abroad for leather production. He chews leaves of qat, a wildly popular mild narcotic leaf, and discusses the city’s development.
“The refugees have come back and are building businesses and have learned skills while abroad. The civil war was the best thing to happen to Somalia.” He says with a smile, but such grim humor over a conflict which cost at least 250,000 lives is not shared by the thousands still living in internally displaced people’s camps across Hargeisa or by the unemployed. In the three largest IDP camps, many internally displaced persons still live in corrugated metal houses built by international development agencies. Others take refugee in traditional Somali buul, huts often patched together with everything from palm fronds to plastic bags and tarpaulins. According to 2013 figures from Somaliland’s National Development Programme, unemployment is higher in urban areas than rural ones ( 61.5% versus 40.7% in rural areas). The youth are the hardest hit with unemployment as high as 75% – in cafes across the city many of these men savor glasses of coffee sweetened with camel’s milk, a popular local drink.
Yet, in the hills overlooking Hargeisa a nouveau rich comprised mainly of expatriates or relatives supported on their largesse build new homes. Other returning expats take up semi-permanent residence in the new hotels. Catering to expatriate tastes, hamburgers are now served alongside Somali favourites. Many Somalilanders at the airport boast Canadian, Scandinavian or American passports. Hargeisa’s international airport recently extended its runway 7,875 feet to better accommodate more international flights and in December of this year Emirati Airline FlyDubai announced direct flights from Dubai to Hargeisa.
“ If you want to build in Hargeisa and have a problem you can go directly to a minister’s office,” Jamal says explaining the close relationship expatriate investors have with the de facto state. Yet the cozy relationship between expatriates is seen by some as blatant corruption, as people displaced to various parts of the city during the civil war are now finding they have no formal property rights in the eyes of the government.
Statistics from a recent study conducted by Shuraako, an American NGO focused on Somali development suggest that in Somaliland as much as 66 of percent of the population now receives remittances. One of the main beneficiaries of this cash flow has been Dahabshiil, a UAE-based money transfer service that was founded by Somalilanders and has a revenue of over $300 million per annum. Dahabshiil has sought to capitalize on its importance to Somaliland by building the city’s tallest structure in the city centre, a few blocks from the Oriental Hotel and the bazaar.
Many expatriates and international NGO workers congregate far from downtown at the Mansoor Hotel. Here, semi-tame gerenuk, antelope and gazelle take turns grazing on the scanty thorn-bush foliage as guests sip fresh orange juice under shaded tables (Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Somaliland). Halfway through a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice in the hotel’s café, an aid worker explains that, “Given the lack of opportunity for many in the population, Hargeisa could easily become a breeding ground for terrorism there is resentment between those who stayed and those who are returning now often to scoop up a cozy job in a Somaliland government ministry. This resentment is growing and increases the likelihood of violent extremism and it’s something the international community is worried about.” Yet it is exactly the lifestyle of Western expatriates and wealthy diaspora Somalilanders that drives much local resentment.
Over the past summer Somaliland has seen at least three mysterious explosions. These “Shaani” as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are locally known, are believed to be part of internal power struggles according to local press reports. Some of these struggles spilled into the open in the fall of 2014 when President Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud Silaanyo established the Oil Protection Unit, a paramilitary organization designed to assuage the fears of Western investors that their interests in the country might be threatened. Critics declared the move a power grab, arguing that parliament had been subverted.
Indeed, security concerns have already tarnished the country’s fragile link to international finance. International terrorism finance experts have long worried that amongst the millions of dollars wired to Haregaisa by the Somali diaspora are funds intended for Al-Shabaab. Barclays, the last major British bank involved in wire transfers to Hargeisa, moved to end such transfers in the summer of 2014, a move deplored by Somaliland’s government. A few ATMs sit optimistically idle in Hargeisa, with their owners hoping that Somaliland will muddle through these troubles and the country spending 54% of its annual budget of $212 million on security.
Continued economic growth is needed as the country continues to try and gain de-facto recognition of its status through increased ties to the global economy. A oil find would be windfall for the government. Yet growth is increasingly exacerbating political tensions. Direct FlyDubai flights will help access to Somaliland easier for international oil prospectors and will increase links to the world outside, but it will also bring more diaspora investors, money, and the potential for political headaches.
From the roof of Edna Adna’s 69 bed hospital one can see many buildings under construction as the city spreads into the hills. The hospital’s infant mortality rate is 16 in 1,000, a third of Somaliland’s average and an extraordinary achievement. Yet, it will take many more angel investors like Edna Adna – and good politics on top of the money – to solve Somaliland’s economic and social issues.