HARGEISA, – In a corner of the Horn of Africa, a rash of weddings is a barometer of better times in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. Freed from nearly a decade of conflict, Somaliland this year is reveling in peace and relative prosperity, which means an increase in disposable income and thus in spending on weddings.
Fawzia Abdi Farah Jome runs a wedding business in Hargeisa, the breakaway republic’s dusty capital, and charges up to $200 — enough to feed a family for three months — for the hire of a bridal gown, bride’s hairdressing and catering. “Before I was afraid to spend money on my business for fear something would happen and I would lose everything,” she says. “But now that the fighting has stopped and the situation is settled, I’m very hopeful. I’m trying my best to expand and make my business bigger and bigger.” The economic revival is bringing back life to Somaliland, which has just over one million people but has received no international recognition since it proclaimed itself in northwest Somalia in 1991.
Livestock exports, Somaliland’s major foreign exchange earner, have risen since 1994 by nearly 70 percent. The average family is estimated to be 25 percent better off than in 1991. Politically too, signs are encouraging. Clan leaders agreed an informal peace pact this year and held elections, which re-elected President Mohamed Ibrahim Egal for a new five-year term.
Some 400,000 refugees who fled at the height of fighting in the late 1980s have returned. The U.N. refugee agency plans to repatriate 290,000 others who remain in camps in Ethiopia.
Business people who fled to the Persian Gulf and the West are also returning and bringing their money and families with them. A major reconstruction program has been rebuilding for the last year much of the city which was bombed to rubble in 1988 by the forces of late Somali president and dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
In almost every street, work is in progress repairing gutted and damaged buildings and numerous new homes are going up. Markets are thriving and packed with goods that would not have been seen a year ago. Colorful signs proclaim the arrival of new businesses a second private Somaliland telephone company, electrical goods shops, pharmacies and restaurants.
Seen by many as a symbol of the new peace is the reopening scheduled for June of Hargeisa’s airport. Damaged in heavy clan fighting in November 1994, it has been repaired with the assistance of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
After re-election, Egal vowed to push ahead with rebuilding and imposed a two percent tax on all trade to raise funds.
“We will try to give any Somalilander who is prepared to exert his own energy to try to build up himself, his home and his business whatever economic and moral support we can from that fund,” he told Reuters.
But the president is galled by the failure of any country to recognize Somaliland as independent of the rest of Somalia. “We feel we have a contribution to make — first to Africa, second to the Arab world and thirdly to the international community,” he says. “We are a pivotal point in the stability of the Horn of Africa.
“I think the world is losing something by ostracizing us.” Lack of international recognition deters foreign investors and means money flows out of Somaliland as businessmen trading abroad are forced to hold bank accounts in other countries.
But some commentators see some advantages in being ignored. John Drys dale, a consultant on the region who lives in Hargeisa, says the absence of the International Monetary Fund means Somaliland has been unable to borrow and is therefore in the advantageous position of having no foreign debt.
In a bid to shore up the economy, Khat has been planted for the first time since Barre ordered the narcotic plant uprooted in the 1980s. The crop was planted four years ago and will be mature from 1998.
Somalilanders spend nearly $100,000 a day buying Khat grown in Ethiopia. The leaves act as a mild stimulant when chewed. Egal says locally-grown qat will only be used for local consumption to stop the drain of cash to Ethiopia. “Our people have been through a great deal of destruction,” he says.
“Now is the time they should be inspired to work, to reconstruct, to recover. Khat is an obstacle to that. The whole afternoon is wasted chit-chatting and chewing this blasted herb.”