Op-Ed: The cost of being a Somalilander: A personal journey

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By Barkhad M. Kaariye (PhD) @BarkhadKaariye

Addis Abeba – It was a dark, cloudy night about 36 years ago. Everyone in Hargeisa and Somaliland’s other major cities was scared as the hills echoed the frightening sounds of artillery shells flying over and into the city. My father and other larger family members were unable to get their belongings and fled for their lives because the MIG-17 fighter jets were launching indiscriminate aerial bombardments. The Somali Republic’s national army, whose main mission was to defend citizens, instead killed, massacred, and bombed them. To my knowledge, the Somali Air Force’s MIG-17 was the first combat plane in the world to take off from an airport and shell the city itself.

My family and I were fortunate to be among the almost 2 million Somalilanders who made their way to Ethiopia alive; we had to walk hundreds of kilometers away from our home. Unlike other Somaliland infants, children, and women, I was fortunate enough to survive at such a young age. Reaching out for assistance is never easy for survivors, and we had to walk hundreds of miles to get there. Indeed, we survived; however, the Somali regime and its hired foreign pilots mercilessly massacred about 260,000 Somalilanders. The sole crime committed by these poor and unarmed villagers was simply “being themselves” and saying, “Enough with the injustice.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the Somaliland-Somalia situation, let me provide some background information. Somaliland was the first East African republic to achieve independence from European powers. Somaliland was never colonized; rather, it was a British protectorate, whereas Somalia was an Italian colony. Somaliland gained independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, and nearly 34 countries recognized it, while Somalia was under United Nations trusteeship management. Four days later, Somalia gained its independence. And our predecessors made one of the most costly blunders in our history: seeking to unite all Somalis under a single administration. On July 1, 1960, Somaliland and Somalia were merged without legal basis, becoming the ‘Somali Republic’.

The relevant government institutions in both countries have never ratified the union. Meaning that Somaliland has never been a part of Somalia or its newly established ‘federal system’. Somalis in Djibouti, Jigjiga, and Kenya’s NFD (Northern Frontier District) rejected unification and elected not to join. One year later, in 1961, Somaliland intellectuals and military officers saw their error and attempted a coup to restore Somaliland’s sovereignty, but it failed. That’s when Somalilanders were exposed to injustice, which culminated in extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity, and, eventually, genocide by the Somali government.

To safeguard suppressed citizens, Somaliland intellectuals living abroad organized the Somali National Movement (SNM), which included an armed component that waged war against the regime. Because of the founding of SNM, the Somali government expanded its aims beyond cities and into rural areas. They devastated and dumbed down the population, poisoned it, and then bombarded it. That act resulted in an increase in the number of victims and civilian deaths. Fortunately, SNM’s courageous soldiers won the fight and deposed the tyrannical regime led by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. SNM leaders, elders, and other intellectuals convened on May 18, 1991, to declare the restoration of Somaliland’s sovereignty.

After a decade of constructive reconciliation and state-building activities, the first constitutional referendum was held in 2001. Somalilanders voted for the return of their lost sovereignty. Since then, the Republic of Somaliland has held around eight democratic one-vote-one-person elections, with five different presidents rotating office peacefully. Somaliland has been democratic and peaceful for three decades, with its own government, flag, currency, and army. For the past three decades, Somaliland has served as a barrier between neighboring countries, particularly Ethiopia and Djibouti, and the rest of the area from terrorist assaults and other forms of instability.

Because we share a border with Somalia, which is home to regional, continental, and international extremist groups such as Alshabab, ISIS, and Al Qaeda, we were exposed to orchestrated attacks, but we were able to circumvent the majority of them with little outside help. Piracy was never an issue for us because Somaliland coastal guards prevented pirates from operating in our waters. All of these efforts were made with our citizens’ contributions and willingness.

Back to my point: as Somalilanders, we lost our bravest men and women in order to reclaim our sovereignty. Others were disabled as a result of their sacrifice, but ‘there is a light at the end of the tunnel’. The latest MoU between the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of Somaliland brings light and hope to approximately 130 million people in both nations. It is time for the world to recognize our people’s rights and credit their achievements over the last three decades.

Our people paid a heavy price for their sovereignty. They created their own government, stability, and peace by contributing both financially and with manpower. This gift crossed borders and helped neighboring countries be stable. If democracy is worth dying for and sacrificing for, Somaliland’s people have done so. If peace is important to the international community and other international institutions, such as the United Nations, we have done our share and will continue to do so in other countries.

The people of Somaliland have long demanded full recognition. Sea access was another demand for Ethiopians. The recently inked MoU between the two countries meets these two lifelong goals. This Memorandum of Understanding is for a development partnership pact that will lift the people of both countries out of poverty. It encourages regional collaboration while addressing regional security challenges, particularly maritime security. Around 74% of Somaliland’s population is under the age of 40. They have never seen any government, flag, or nation save Somaliland.

I started as a two-year-old refugee in an Ethiopian camp and am now proudly serving as Deputy Head of the Somaliland Mission to Ethiopia. That is what being a Somalilander means to me. That is why I am so happy to identify as a Somaliland citizen. We deserve to be fully recognized as citizens. Our younger generations have the right to travel the world with their own passports, without restrictions. Keeping people in a country that the world does not fully recognize will exacerbate instability, encourage extremism, and give rise to unemployment rates.

Simply put, we expect anyone with common sense to adhere to this MoU and any subsequent legal frameworks. The inhabitants of these two countries will not tolerate any efforts that aim to keep them economically and politically isolated. AS

Editor’s Note: Barkhad M. Kaariye (PhD) is serving as the Deputy Head of Mission at the Somaliland Embassy to Ethiopia.

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