By Cabaas Idiris, Ex John Drysdale

from The Guardian (London), ( 25 June, 1991)


John Drysdale reports on the unrecognized independence of the Republic of Somaliland.

THEIR economy crushed by civil war and their new state unrecognised by the world, the people of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland have hit rock bottom. Paradoxically, it has brought out the best In many of them, a realisation that their future lies in their own hands.

Jama Mohamoud, aged So, is an example. He was wounded in an engagement with the forces of Mohammed Siad Barre, since deposed as President of Somalia. Gangrene set in. His leg was sawn off below the knee in the bush, and Jama waited for it to heal. “That was the painful part,” he said.

He carved a wooden leg and secured it to his trouser belt. Now he walks briskly with only a walking stick, saying: “I’m lucky to be alive.”

On May 16 – four months after Siad Barre was ousted – the people of the northern regions of Somalia forced their political leaders to declare an independent Somaliland. Political leaders in the southern regions have refused to accept the declaration.

War and adversity seem to have heightened pride in the north. Children who forever held out a hand for baksheesh now disdain a tip for helping to carry baggage.

Paid only with rations, absurdly young ex-rebel soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing bits of uniform patrol the cities and man roadblocks. They generally keep security under control, as evidenced by the 800 miles I travelled without an armed escort.

Along with security has come a revival of private enterprise, long dormant under President Siad Barre who stifled the north’s vital export trade and closed the port of Berbera.

The breakaway attempt has its roots in 100 years of colonial history. The empires of Britain, Italy, France and Ethiopia all ruled the Somalis and it was the prospect of a united people in a Greater Somalia that led to the creation of Somalia in 1960.

The new country comprised the old Italian Somaliland in the south and the British Somaliland Protectorate to the north, but not the Somali-inhabited Haud and Ogaden areas which remained under the Ethiopians.

A military coup d’etat in 1969 replaced the democratically elected government and brought Marxist socialism under President Siad Barre.

But Soviet support switched to Ethiopia, and after a Somali invasion was repulsed by the Ethiopians with Soviet help in 1977, President Siad Barre changed to a course of ethnic nepotism and what amounted to genocide towards the main northern clan group, known as the Isaq. They in turn formed the Somali National Movement (SNM) in 1982 to overthrow the Mogadishu regime.

In May 1988 the two forces joined battle. The SNM held the rural areas and the Siad Barre forces held the depopulated cities, surrounding themselves with minefields, which are still in place today.

With the overthrow of President Siad Barre in January by the forces of the United Somali I Congress (USC) in Mogadishu, and the surrender of his army to the SNM in the north, the war – though not the internecine struggles of the Hawiye clan now ruling in the south – came to an end.

In the notch, a groundswell of opinion began pressing SNM leaders to seize the moment and declare Independence.

Little development aid has ever reached the north from the capital. Net foreign aid donations since 1987 to Somalia amounted to Dollars l.48 billion (Britain contributing $1.9 million). Out of this, the northern regions received 6.4 per cent, though their 3 million people are estimated to be 30-40 per cent of the country’s total.

The minimal economic interdependence of the two parts of the country is matched by a cultural divide, despite Somalia’s status – rare in Africa – as a homogeneous state.

While some northerners have become wealthy in Mogadishu, the dominant “Italian Somalis” of the south are distinct in their practices from the northern “British Somalis”. The only university (in Mogadishu) makes Italian a prerequisite.

The leaders of the new regime in Mogadishu have neither visited the north nor initiated constitutional proposals, such as regional autonomy.

But the priority in the north now is to revive the economy, left without electricity, piped water, postal services and telephones. Street trade has come to life in the shade of roofless, battle-scarred shops. Local engineers and architects are working on electricity, water and building plans.

Exports to the Saudi peninsula, however, are the life-blood of the northern economy camels, sheep and goats. Foreign livestock sales used to bring in 70 90 per cent of Somalia’s export earnings, predominantly from the north. They totalled $182 million in 1981. In the past two months, since the Berbera port reopened, exports have risen from nought to more than 1,000 head a day.

But lack of veterinary drugs and the absence of telecommunications are frustrating expansion; and trade. including the food imports, depends on fuel. A gift from Sharjah has filled up the Berbera fuel tanks but Arab Nur, the unpaid petroleum manager, says this is likely to run out by September.

The new central government has to rely on donations from overseas Somalis and on customs duties. The unpaid customs officer at Berbera, Ahmed Isman, showed me the first entries of duties paid – $42,000. It was a start for a resident people who desperately need outside help but cannot quite see their way to asking for it.

John Drysdale has just completed a three-week independent study of reconstruction needs in Somaliland.



  1. This is a publication from 1980s and soon after Somaliland reclaimed its sovereignty. But still a good read.

  2. Yes they started off well… Shame about the corruption, tribalism and complete chaotic unfair judicial system which is getting worse.