HARGEISA, 20 October 2009 (Somalilandpress) – Inside the compound of the presidential mansion here, there is a circle of blue and white tiles about a metre across lying on the ground over a dirt mound. The decorative hump amid a dusty car park seems out of place, until a guard explains that it is a memorial.
Almost a year ago, a suicide bomber drove a lorry through the front gate of the compound and blew himself up at this spot, just metres from the president’s lavish two-story house. Five people died in the blast including the president’s secretary. Another 25 died in two other simultaneous attacks in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
Dahir Riyale Kahin, the president of Somaliland, was upstairs in his house when the bomb went off and was uninjured. Local authorities blamed the attack on al Shabab, an Islamic militia with ties to al Qa’eda that has been waging war in southern Somalia for the past two years.
The October 2008 Hargeisa bombings, a rarity in the normally stable northern breakaway region of Somaliland, underscored the threats faced by the man living in the president’s mansion.
An upcoming presidential election could install a new man in the president’s house for the first time in seven years, or it could put Mr Riyale back in the hot seat. Security will be a major issue of the campaign, as will gaining international recognition for Somaliland’s independence.
Unlike southern Somalia, which has been at war for two decades, Somaliland has a functioning government and security forces. It declared independence from Somalia in 1991, but so far no other nation recognises this and Somaliland remains a country that does not exist.
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“Recognition will come sooner or later,” Mr Riyale said in an interview from his mansion. “The international community will come to the conclusion that we have a right to self determination. We are a functioning state. There is no state in southern Somalia. We have become a victim of a failed state.”
Critics say Mr Riyale, the former vice president, has not done enough to achieve recognition since he ascended to power following the death of the previous president in 2002. He has yet to articulate a concrete plan for gaining recognition for Somaliland.
The last time Somaliland held a presidential election, in 2003, Mr Riyale beat his nearest challenger, Ahmed Mahamoud Silaanyo, by a mere 80 votes out of almost 500,000 cast. Then, an amazing thing happened: Mr Silaanyo stepped down quietly. Unlike in other African countries where hotly contested elections often lead to bloody protests, Somalilanders accepted the results peacefully and went on with nation building.
This year, Mr Riyale is back seeking another five-year term. Mr Silaanyo, a 72-year-old former resistance fighter, and Faisal Ali Waraabe, a professor who spent many years in Finland, are again his main challengers.
The election, which was scheduled for April 2008, has been delayed several times, most recently on September 27, because of security and logistical constraints. Politicians say it will now take place in January at the earliest.
As president, Mr Silaanyo, an economist and former minister of commerce, said he would empower women and youth, develop the country’s natural resources including exploiting potential oil reserves and keep the nation safe from Islamic insurgents.
“The president has passed his mandate, and he doesn’t deserve to be there,” he said in an interview from his quiet residence in the former house of a British colonial official. “If we agree [with the ruling party] on one thing, that is the need to protect ourselves from al Shabab. We do recognise the threat that they represent. We are on our guard as much as we can.”
The most comprehensive plan to achieve international recognition for Somaliland is from Mr Waraabe, 58, a soft-spoken Finnish citizen who entered Somaliland politics in 2001. Mr Waraabe, the dark horse candidate in the election, said he can achieve recognition within one year if elected.
“First we need to make a viable state that respects human rights,” he said. “Then we will activate the more than 400,000 Somalilanders in the diaspora and use them to lobby to get recognition in their home countries.”
Mr Waraabe said a strong government would serve to counter violent extremism. “Terrorism is a result of anarchy. If we make a strong state, there won’t be groups like al Shabab.”
While he did not outline a specific plan to achieve recognition, Mr Silaanyo said self-determination would come once the international community realised Somaliland is the most stable region of Somalia.
“We pride ourselves in being an oasis of peace,” he said. “It is the only asset we have … Once we are more developed, we will be able to sell ourselves to the international community.”
Mr Riyale, for his part, is running on his record of creating security in Somaliland. Suicide bombers did manage to kill innocent Somalilanders last year, but that was an isolated incident, he said, and al Shabab and its sympathisers in Somaliland have been pushed underground.
“We are the only government in the Horn of Africa that is fighting terrorism,” he said. “I am doing a lot to bring stability to this country.”