Berbera’s pristine coastal beaches and maritime economy are a complete contradiction to the chaotic image presented in popular media about the Horn of Africa and Somaliland. Edward Wanyonyi investigates why this might be.
For the outsider, “Somali” connotes anarchy and chaos and Mogadishu’s Bakaara market (made famous in the movie Black Hawk Down) depicts the traumatic failure of US Special Forces in a botched operation in 1993.
However, Somaliland’s relative peace and stability over the past two decades plus, and its democratic elections, place it on the cusp of transformation and regional projection.
This article argues that Berbera’s tourism potential and the socio-economic turnaround taking place in larger Somaliland is part of a suppressed narrative of home-grown, post-conflict reconstruction.
This effort at nation-building, if given prominence and resources, makes redundant the international community’s preference for intervention. At a time when the international discourse around self-determination is shifting with the recent secession of South Sudan, the positive steps made in Somaliland, over the past two decades, towards democratic consolidation present a chance to interrogate the claim that secession efforts open a Pandora’s Box in terms of encouraging other regions to secede.
Barely two hours’ journey from Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, Berbera is a city bursting at the seams with activity courtesy of its booming port which serves as a key export gateway to the Middle and Far East.
It is the face of Hargeisa’s resilience and defiance of the international isolation following its breakaway and autonomy from Somalia 24 years ago. The possibility of ongoing discussions concerned with its ongoing quest for self-determination may soon bear fruit. Among other things, this would mean that Ethiopia, with its over $1bn-a-year export economy, might look to Berbera rather than exclusively depending on Djibouti as it does now.
Perhaps even landlocked South Sudan might be interested to tap in to this port. Moreover, there has been a renewed foreign investor interest in Somaliland’s energy and extractive resources sector. They could be key to developing energy resources.
According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Saad Ali Shire, Somaliland offers investors one of the best returns on capital, despite its de facto isolation in terms of international recognition.
For one thing, the amount of profit that foreign investors can repatriate is not capped. Upon arrival, they are offered a three-year tax break while corporation tax is barely 10% per annum. Coupled with the fact that VAT is only 5%, there is an increasing cadre of highly educated Somalilanders who are emigrating from the diaspora with relevant technical and professional skills. If one looks at the cement sector for example, the first cement-producing factory in the Horn of Africa still occupies a coveted location. Unlike other places in the world where raw materials are separated by vast distances, in Berbera, limestone, gypsum and iron ore deposits are located within an area of 16km. Furthermore, these deposits produce the best quality cement and although geological surveys have not been completed, it is possible that Berbera holds the largest gypsum deposits in the world.
However, this bouquet of fortunes, though lucrative on paper, is threatened by a confluence of regional and international geopolitical interests. First, a stable Hargeisa would signal that the current approach undertaken by the international community towards the stabilisation of Somalia has been ineffective and a mirage in terms of peace-building.
Hargeisa’s economic boom advances its claim to de jure recognition, which simply means that there will be a reconfiguration of regional pacts and treaties to reflect the new order.
A report by the International Crisis Group, Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, reveals that while international funding towards the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has significantly increased the number of offensive operations against Al-Shabaab, addressing “longstanding social – often clan-based – grievances through parallel local and national processes, as the basis for the revival of conventional governmental authority” is absolutely critical.
Al-Shabaab cannot be treated as a juvenile insurgency that will be defeated simply by increasing troop numbers. It requires a clear, coordinated, hold-and-transfer strategy that can also dissuade pacified regions from the obsession of creating autonomous regions that weaken further the capacity of the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. Furthermore, simply giving regions “cleansed” of Al- Shabaab fighters the all-clear signal does not necessarily eliminate the appeal, support structures and networks that the group relies upon for its recruitment and counter- intelligence operations.
This is true in countries that are emerging out of periods of conflict such as Angola and Rwanda and those that gain new-found independence such as South Sudan.
Thirdly, international peacebuilders will now have to come to terms with this unorthodox means of state formation and statebuilding, born on the periphery of international mediation efforts, summits and the frenzy surrounding them.
While useful, Hargeisa’s breakaway and silent statebuilding creates room for exploring what other methods are more cost- effective for lifting a country plagued by war and placing it on a path towards reconstruction.
According to Fatuma Said, the foreign affairs advisor to the chairman of the opposition party Wadani, Somaliland needs to move beyond using its lack of international recognition as an excuse for state incapacity and get on with the business of providing essential services.
She argues that while a free market model is encouraged, it has to come with a robust regulatory regime that cushions the public from the ravenous appetite of the private sector. For this to happen, increasing the number of oversight institutions that can provide checks and balances to the state besides parliament and the Guurti (Upper House of Elders) will put the government on its toes and ensure that citizens can also derive the benefits of the free market economy.
If the resolutions that were passed during the recent National Conference on Foreign Policy and direction are anything to go by, there is a need for a new strategic direction in approaching its quest for international recognition and to project a wider new narrative about home-grown post-conflict reconstruction and statebuilding interventions.
For anyone walking along the coast of Berbera in the late afternoon, the gentle lapping of the waves from the Red Sea along the Gulf of Aden brings with it a warmth to the feet and that revitalising feeling that is often associated with world travel destinations such as Hawaii in the US, the north coast of Barbados or even Sydney in Australia.