The former education secretary, Sir Gavin Williamson, sacked for incompetence, is being hailed in Somaliland as a pro-independence hero
By Harry Yorke
At the height of his powers as the government chief whip, Gavin Williamson would often be compared to Francis Urquhart, the ruthless parliamentary enforcer in the novel and TV drama House of Cards.
Five years on Williamson has been consigned to the backbenches with his reputation in tatters, having been sacked as education secretary for presiding over the exams fiasco. Comparisons with Urquhart stopped a long time ago; colleagues now liken him in far less flattering terms to Frank Spencer, the hapless protagonist of the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em
And yet, just eight months since being cast into the political desert, he appears to have found salvation in the most unlikely of places. Four thousand miles away, Williamson, 45, has become a household name in Somaliland, the de facto state nestled in the Horn of Africa.
The Yorkshire-born MP has unwittingly become the adopted son of the breakaway East African republic, having championed its campaign to be recognized as a sovereign nation while leading a recent debate in parliament.
Held on January 18, the event gained little coverage in the domestic press, with Williamson merely “chuffed” to have secured a decent turnout of MPs.
However, news spread rapidly throughout Somaliland, a former British protectorate in northwest Somalia, which broke away in 1991 after a bloody and protracted civil war. Later he received a flurry of text messages from Nimco Ali, the Somali-born FGM campaigner, and friend of Carrie Johnson, informing him that he was being lauded as a national hero.
For a man unused to public adulation, Williamson’s reaction was one of astonishment. “I thought she was just taking the Michael,” he said. “But then she started sending me pictures.”
Dozens of images show Somalilanders holding aloft banners with Williamson’s face and name emblazoned on them. Another, the front page of the Somali newspaper, The Horn Tribune, carries his picture and a headline praising his efforts. One well-wisher made a cappuccino with his likeness sprinkled on top.
It is not quite the divine status that the late Duke of Edinburgh enjoyed among a group of islanders in the Pacific, but is nevertheless something that Williamson has taken to heart.
“I was just completely overwhelmed. It’s perhaps not really what I’m used to. I was very, very surprised and very humbled,” he said.
On January 22, the republic held a national appreciation day in his honor. Thousands gathered to pay tribute to him and other MPs who had promoted their cause in parliament.
Williamson has since been handed a Somaliland passport, a national identity card, and even full citizenship, a right that would normally require the approval of a tribal chieftain.
In February, Williamson was invited to Somaliland with a small delegation of MPs and peers to meet its president, Muse Bihi Abdi, health and education ministers, and national security officials.
He was joined by Lord Udny-Lister, Boris Johnson’s former chief of staff, and Ali’s brother, Mo Ali, a film director. On his arrival, he was mobbed by crowds on in the capital, Hargeisa, with Somaliland’s media standing by to report on every second of his visit.
After returning to the UK, Williamson was instrumental in securing British aid after Hargeisa’s Waaheen market district was destroyed by fire in April.
A source close to Downing Street said Williamson had asked Johnson and Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, to issue public statements of support. Tongue in check, one ally of Williamson likens his celebrity among Somalilanders to that of TE Lawrence.
Williamson insisted the comparison as “definitely not justified”, while at the same time relating how, on his most recent visit, he was surrounded by a group of women chanting “freedom fighter” in Somali.
“It is a fascinating place — you can’t help but be intoxicated,” he said. “It puts a big responsibility on your shoulders because you know how important it is to so many people.”
A number of Williamson’s colleagues suspect he became involved in the campaign only to try to curry favor with a friend of the prime minister’s wife, but the cynicism seems unfounded. He said his interest in Africa dated back to his days as a student and friendships he kindled while a minister.
“I was very struck by how something so awful in many ways got so little attention,” he said of the Somali civil war, an ethnic conflict that began in the 1980s when rebel groups took up an armed struggle against the military junta led by the general Siyad Barre.
Barre was overthrown, with Somaliland declaring independence in 1991 and voluntarily demilitarizing. The region, while remaining one of the poorest in the world, has rebuilt and holds regular elections.
Located on the Gulf of Aden with Djibouti to the northwest and Ethiopia to its south, Somaliland is around the same size as England and Wales combined, but is home to just 5.7 million people. It is largely arid and its economy remains heavily reliant on agriculture and livestock exports, but it is seeking to diversify and develop closer trade ties with the West. Somalia, which as a former Italian protectorate is historically and culturally distinct, remains largely ungovernable. Military warlords and the Islamist terror group al-Shabaab control large areas.
Williamson observed these differences first-hand as defense secretary, after visiting the Somali capital of Mogadishu and later Hargeisa.
“I remember the differences in the security briefings: Mogadishu was all about the threat and danger, whereas in Hargeisa it was about making sure you drank bottled water,” he said.
Somaliland is unrecognized by the international community. The African Union opposes meddling by the western nations that carved up the continent, only to wash their hands of their former colonial territories as the winds of change blew in the 1960s.
While David Cameron’s government reviewed the UK’s foreign policy stance in the region in 2012, Williamson said the result was merely an attempt to salvage a nation that had been split irreversibly in two. Cameron is now said to privately acknowledge that the policy has failed.
It is this sense of injustice that led Williamson last year, knowing he was likely to be ousted as education secretary, to begin thinking about ways he could make his mark as a backbench MP.
“I hadn’t done an adjournment debate in nine years, I thought I was due one. I applied, and of course, there is a lot of cross-party support on this,” he said. “It’s what parliament is for. I wouldn’t pretend to speak on behalf of Somaliland, but hopefully, you can turn up the volume of their voices.”
During his February trip, his delegation traveled to the coastal city of Berbera, where DP World, the Dubai-based logistics giant, is helping to develop a deep-sea port with the assistance of hundreds of millions of pounds of British investment. British funds are helping to build a bypass connecting the port to Hargeisa and Ethiopia.
However, Williamson argued that while “Britain is making a big impact, the thing that would be most transformative is words of recognition”. He pointed out that while still formally part of Somalia, despite being independent longer than it has been in a union, Somaliland continued to have difficulty gaining access to the international banking system.
He said Somaliland’s historical sites, including the Laas Geel caves, home to some of the earliest cave paintings in Africa, should be designated by Unesco as world heritage sites.
Williamson believes Johnson’s desire to carve a new path for post-Brexit Britain has presented an opportunity. “Britain is the penholder for both Somaliland and Somalia, and we have the opportunity not just to manage the status quo but actually change things for the better, to make a difference, and to take the steps that are needed and required to improve the lives of millions,” he said.
Williamson was recently given a knighthood — an honor Downing Street insiders acknowledge as recognition of his role in helping Johnson become prime minister in 2019.
His reputation for being a kingmaker remains undiminished, with rumors swirling that he is helping Truss prepare a leadership bid in the event Johnson steps down. He insists this is untrue.
But would he rule out filling a post in the Foreign Office, were Truss to become a leader? “I’ve been lucky to have some amazing jobs, and it’s nice to pursue issues you care passionately about,” he replied.