analysisBy Elias Gebreselassie
Hargeisa — Alongside Eritrea celebrating its independence from Ethiopia earlier this month, and only seven weeks before South Sudan is to officially declare its independence from Sudan, the self declared republic of Somaliland celebrated its 20th independence day on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.
Tucked in the North-western corner of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia's neighbour has not been recognised by anyone as an independent country.
Nonetheless, Hargeisa, the bustling capital with wide roads and 650,000 inhabitants, was teeming with people readying themselves to celebrate the occasion on Wednesday.
The colourful shops run by men clad in meweyen (traditional tunics) and women wearing direh (brightly coloured flowing dresses) or abaya (a more austere dress) were closed down for the celebration, one of the biggest Somaliland has held since independence.
The occasion marked the defeat of the forces of the former military ruler Mohammed Siad Barre by the Somali National Movement (SNM), a rebel group at the time, and Somaliland's subsequent declaration of independence from Somalia.
The festivities gave rise to a strong security presence to avoid possible terrorist attacks but this did not put a damper on the mood of the population who were out in force after several days of preparation to celebrate the occasion. Authorities not doubt remember October 2008 when the Ethiopian Embassy, the headquarters of the United Nations (UN), and the National Palace in Hargeisa were bombed.
The main celebrations took place on the evening of Wednesday at the National Palace where President Ahmed Mohammed (Silanyo) watched circus and theatre performances alongside prominent government officials, invited dignitaries, and the media. He also announced the pardoning of over 750 prisoners to coincide with the celebration.
Mohammed Abdi Gabose (PhD), minister of the interior, was among those being entertained. He tried to dispel fears that radical militant groups like al-Shabaab were preparing attacks on Somaliland to coincide with the celebration.
"We are dealing with an untraditional enemy that is undetectable," he told Fortune. "It mingles with the civilian population and since we have a large group of refugees who fled the fighting in Somalia residing within our borders, the group may plot attacks in our territory. Yet, we can detect these plots and stop them."
The theatre performance was sometimes comic in their depiction of the fraught relationship Somaliland has with its kin in Somalia and its friendship with Ethiopia.
Somaliland, with a population of roughly 3.5 million, has a festering border dispute with Puntland that has occasionally resulted in armed clashes.
The government insists that the border dispute with Puntland, on the eastern side of Somaliland, is an internal issue.
There have been some anti peace forces on Somaliland's eastern borders which occasionally have been aided by Puntland, according to Mohammed A. Omer, Somaliland's foreign minister.
"They have been called upon to cease support for these anti peace elements," he told Fortune.
Yet, the security threat coupled with the lack of recognition by the international community has forced the government to spend 60pc of its budget on security, such as intelligence gathering to avert terrorist attacks, the interior minister conceded.
Despite these, and in stark contrast to the violence racked anarchic Somalia, Somaliland is relatively stable and ruled democratically.
It has a republican form of government with the legislative assembly composed of an elected elder's chamber and a house of representatives as well as a cabinet nominated by the president and approved by the legislature.
Somaliland, which is holding a number of suspected pirates, is patrolling its seas and denting safe havens for pirates, according to Gabose. To date, no Somalilander has turned towards piracy, he claimed.
On the other hand, Somaliland's relationship with Ethiopia is mainly related to peace and security affairs, in addition to some economic issues.
The two are strategically located in the Horn, connecting Africa with the Middle East and Asia. They have had discussions to attract international investors.
Hirsi Ali Hassad, chief of the cabinet for Somaliland, confirmed that his government is talking to Chinese companies about constructing a road and railway line between Berbera Port and Ethiopia, but he declined to give details as discussions are at a preliminary stage.
This would improve not only trade, which heavily favours Ethiopia, but also connect Somaliland with the new soon to be independent state of South Sudan.
Somaliland's own independence celebration kicked off with marches held across the city. Police cavalry units and livestock traders rode camels though the main street, while armed personnel, police officers, government workers, and students of all levels of education paraded past the cheering crowds carrying banners.
"If you cannot remember the past, you cannot save the future," read a banner by 26th June Secondary School, named after the date Somaliland obtained independence from the United Kingdom (UK). It was an independent state only for a few days before being united with the Italian ruled Somalia to form the modern state of Somalia and rekindle hopes of a pan Somali republic encompassing Somalis in neighbouring countries.
Another elementary school carried posters of Ali Ibrahim (Sheikh), a freedom fighter for the SNM who died during Somaliland's bloody war of independence in the 1980s. The school is named after Ibrahim.
Another banner from New Generation University read, "Kosovo and South Sudan and East Timor: It is time to recognise Somaliland and accept the reality."
The lack of international recognition of its independence has stunted Somaliland's development aspirations, but the challenges of attaining international recognition are being tackled by a new strategy aimed at the practical implications of recognition.
"The lack of recognition means we do not have international institutions like banks and insurance companies hamstringing our ability to develop," the foreign minister said. "We are focusing on bilateral cooperation with the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) and have noticed a change of heart by Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU). These were helped by power shifting to the opposition party in elections last June."
Legally, only three political parties are allowed to participate in elections and conduct campaigns. These are the United Peoples' Democratic Party ( UDUB), the Peace, Unity, and Development Party (KULMIYE), and the Somaliland Justice and Welfare Party (UCID).
In July 2010, Mohammed and Abdirahman Abdillahi Ismail of KULMIYE were elected president and vice president, respectively for a five-year term, taking over from Dahir Rayale Kahin who was elected president in 2003.
The cabinet chief similarly senses a willingness from the international community to engage with Somaliland.
"The international community recently provided us with 100 million dollars," he said. "The UK has promised to increase its financial help to create a trust fund with our finance minister for our development."
The government is also happy with the signals and moves the Ethiopian government is making towards this process, according to Hassad, something that was reiterated by Omer.
"While my government maintains ties with Ethiopia in security, peace, and immigration, we know the AU is in the process of recognising South Sudan," he told Fortune. "As one of the African states sympathetic to our cause, Ethiopia is taking the lead in the AU in supporting our recognition."
While the friendly relationship between the two sides were dramatised for the entertainment of attendees at the National Palace on Wednesday, an adorned slogan on the building read, "The international community is obligated to accept the wishes of the people."