Africa, Headlines

POLITICS: Uncertainties Mark the Demise of Somaliland’s President

Katy Salmon

NAIROBI, May 7 2002 (IPS) - The death of a man that some describe as the “father figure” of Somaliland is being marked with a week of national mourning.

Some 3,000 mourners gathered to witness the burial of Somaliland president Mohamed Ibrahim Egal in the port town of Berbera, Monday. In accordance with his last wishes, the 74-year-old ruler was buried alongside his father, Haji Ibrahim Egal, a wealthy businessman.

Despite the grief, analysts are confident that the tiny country – which has not been recognised by any other state – will survive his demise.

“It is significant that they moved very swiftly to elect a new leader. There was no dangerous power struggle as some people had thought would occur,” says Ahmed Rajab, editor of the London-based newsletter Africa Analysis.

“Egal’s personality was stamped on Somaliland, but Somaliland was there before Egal, and I think it’s safe to assume that it will remain after him,” says Matt Bryden, coordinator of the War-torn Societies Project in Somalia, a UN-funded body that helps post-war countries rebuild their political institutions.

Vice-President Dahir Riyale Kahin was inaugurated late Friday at an emergency meeting of senior government officials soon after Egal’s death. Egal died after undergoing bowel surgery at a military hospital in Pretoria, South Africa four days after he was first hospitalised.

The self-declared republic of Somaliland broke away from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Egal was elected president by clan elders and a constituent assembly in May 1993. His term of office had recently been extended by one year.

Somaliland is a remarkable success story in the midst of the chaos that dominates the rest of the impoverished, war-torn Horn of Africa nation. It is relatively peaceful and well run.

While the Somali capital, Mogadishu, remains a lawless, dangerous place, terrorised by competing armed factions, Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, is one of the safest cities on the continent. Several airlines and telecommunications companies operate out of the dusty little city, which also offers the cheapest internet access rates in the region.

Somaliland has its own flag, its own coinage, its own car number-plates, and a competent police force. All of this on a shoestring budget – because it is unable to access donor money or loans.

The breakaway state has failed to win recognition from the international community, which insists that Somalia, although without a central government, should remain a unified nation.

This reluctance to endorse Somaliland’s independence is based on the principle – enshrined in the Organisation of African Unity charter – of the inviolability of colonial borders. In reality, everybody is afraid of a proliferation of mini-states, which would be unsustainable and could lead to endless border disputes.

The most immediate fear is that Egal’s death could swiftly undo the remarkable achievements this fledging state has achieved. If there is a power struggle, the resulting instability could see a return to armed conflict.

However, Bryden believes this is unlikely. “Egal’s was an administration and not a faction. Somaliland is in the process of establishing institutions of government that are young and weak, but they are not dependent on a single personality,” he says.

The danger point here is Somaliland’s neighbour, Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of Somalis, including Somali President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, held protest in Mogadishu, Sunday, accusing Ethiopia of helping to divide the country.

“The Ethiopians are meddling in Somali affairs,” says Rajab, pointing to their involvement in a power struggle in another breakaway Somali mini-state, Puntland, to the west of Somaliland.

“They are using Puntland to disrupt any semblance of unity suspecting that there are elements within Puntland that want to destabilise Ethiopia,” he says. Some Ethiopian secessionists, called the Oromo, maintain bases in Somalia.

“They would like to have someone in power there who is sympathetic to the Ethiopian cause. I think that is a possibility that must be taken note of,” agrees analyst Herman Hanekom of the South African-based Africa Institute.

However, Rajab is sceptical of Ethiopia’s chances of success. “They would have to find allies in Somaliland and I don’t think they would find it easy to do so. There is peace in Somaliland and that is the norm and I don’t think people want to give it up,” he says.

Another big question is whether Egal’s death could precipitate reunification with the rest of Somalia.

Egal repeatedly opposed efforts to reunite Somalia, which he saw as a threat to Somaliland’s autonomy and threatened to drag Somaliland back into the country’s long-running civil war.

“As far as we are concerned we have nothing to do with Mogadishu. We are sorry about what is happening to them and their failure to solve their own problems, but we have solved ours. There is no reason why we should be lumped with them,” he said.

Egal refused to support the Transitional National Government (TNG) for Somalia that was chosen by clan representatives at the Arta conference of August 2000.

This TNG is at the centre of efforts to organise a national reconciliation conference, scheduled to take place in Kenya later this month. Will Somaliland now join in? Analysts think not.

“Egal’s death won’t drastically change the set up because the people of Somaliland are resolved to maintain their independence. I don’t think there will come any counter force to force a return to Somalia immediately,” predicts Rajab.

However, he is quick to add “that doesn’t mean that Kahin will not be challenged in the future”.

Many Somalis still support the concept of a Greater Somalia. “They are essentially one people, although different tribes. Egal, personally, was an ardent PanAfricanist. So the question of unity has been in their minds,” Rajab explains.

“But I think they will only consider reuniting with Somalia if their status is safeguarded, for example in a confederation,” he says.

It is important to remember that Somaliland voluntarily joined with the rest of Somalia. Under colonialism, Somaliland was ruled by the British, unlike the rest of Somalia, which was an Italian colony.

Somaliland was granted independence in June 1960, four days before Somalia, to its south. The two united the next month to form the Republic of Somalia.

Egal served as Prime Minister of Somalia from July 1967 until Oct 1969, when Major General Mohamed Siad Barre overthrew the government and imprisoned Egal and several others.

After 12 years in prison under Barre, Egal took up opposition to his military regime, overthrowing the dictator in Jan 1991.

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