A country’s national day affords its people a chance to look back at their past, and consider where they might be headed to in the future. Many Somalilanders celebrating independence day today will remember the first, it took place just 26 years ago on 18 May 1991. The struggle they remember today was bloody. In a small country, it was a conflict that touched every family, every person in Somaliland.
For many, the commemoration of those who gave so much for Somaliland carries extra weight this year. Not only is Somaliland and the region on the brink of famine, but the progress made since the declaration of independence seems to be under threat.
The world has ignored Somaliland’s claim to independence, but in doing so it has perhaps also ignored one of the Horn of Africa’s few recent success stories. Recognised only as an “autonomous region,” Somaliland has made far more progress in building peace and transitioning to greater democracy than Somalia. Though it has not been immune to extremism, Somaliland has not experienced even close to the same level of violence as the south.
In any country that has emerged from years of dictatorship and civil war, such progress is always fragile. Somalilanders have already paid a high price for the autonomy they enjoy, they have since played their democratic role in elections and referendums, but threats to that progress are already clear.
When media outlets published claims of corruption and nepotism in the police force earlier this year, the authorities responded by arresting the reporting journalist. This followed similar arrests and intimidation of the media after parliament’s deeply controversial decision to allow the United Arab Emirates to build a military base in the port of Berbera.
More than almost anything else ― apart from the famine facing the region ― the decision to allow a foreign military power to set up a base in Somaliland casts a shadow over this year’s independence day. So heated was the debate in parliament that soldiers escorted opposition MPs out of the chamber following the vote.
When so many can still remember those who gave their lives for independence and sovereignty, there are serious debates to be had about the right forum to make such important and emotive decisions. When families have shed blood for control of their lands, shouldn’t they be asked directly for their consent?
These debates become even more important when senior officials allege the deal was driven by corruption at the very top of government, in both Somaliland and Somalia.
Somalia’s auditor general told a reporter that leading figures had been given “bags of cash” in Dubai to go ahead with the base. When there are few clear public benefits of the decision, questioning the probity of the deal becomes essential. If a country truly wants to be recognised as an independent nation, for example, why did it not use such a rare opportunity to exercise diplomatic leverage?
The allegations of corruption come at a time when many see deliberate attempts to edit and tamper with Somaliland’s history, to forget those who sacrificed so much for autonomy. They are wary of the minimizing and even erasure of key figures from the recent past, those who were central in the struggle for independence but who it is politically convenient for those currently in power to forget.
Somaliland and the rest of the region currently face the grave threat of famine, which must be the priority for local governments. However, when this crisis has been dealt with, there is a need for Somaliland to come to a national understanding about its history. It needs to commemorate and honour its past so that the lessons can be learned, and ensure mistakes are not repeated.
When so little history separates the birth of Somaliland and today, it is even more shocking to see efforts to erase history for the benefit of narrow political aims.
National days should be about recognising the sacrifices of the past, honouring and remembering those lost and those who remain with us. Despite the attempts to rewrite history, most Somalilanders know where they have come from. While they thought that their struggles had given them a clearer view of where they might be headed, I am afraid the view will be more obscure this independence day.