Somaliland: Hargeisa Rose from the Ashes

The city of Hargeisa, capital of the Republic of Somaliland, was almost completely destroyed by the Siad Barre regime in the late 1980s, as Somalia slipped into the state collapse that resulted in famine, clan violence, civil war, and the rise of the Al Shabaab terrorist group. But while the international community pursued a series of top-down, externally-supported efforts to stabilise Somalia with little success, in Somaliland a bottom-up, self-generated peace process restored security, and a democratic, legitimate and effective self-governing region, centred on Hargeisa, emerged as the Republic of Somaliland. This Discussion Paper investigates the successes and challenges of Hargeisa in the areas of social and economic development, critical infrastructure and services, security and international relations, and suggests areas where other African cities could learn from Hargeisa’s experience.

The sovereign Republic of Somaliland appears on no maps. It is listed in no official register of the world’s countries, has no seat at the United Nations and no international country code.  Government officials are forced to use personal email addresses because there is no internationally-approved Somaliland internet domain, and the country is unrecognised by the international postal union, so the only way to mail something from Hargeisa is via the slow and expensive DHL shipping service. Instead, the country is described as the ‘self-declared but internationally unrecognised republic of Somaliland’ and considered by the international community to be a breakaway region of the Federal Republic of Somalia – the successor to Barre’s regime, inaugurated in 2012 after decades of lethal anarchy in the south, cobbled together by the international community with UN supervision and under the guns of an African Union peacekeeping force.  Everything in Hargeisa – from the peace treaty pulled together by visionary elders in 1991, to the city’s self-financed rebuilding, to the unrecognised state of which it forms a part, to the largely informal economy and homegrown political system that sustains it, is a bottom-up, do-it-yourself enterprise. This enterprise, evolving over the past 28 years through a remarkable process of civic self-help, emerged not only without much international assistance but, at times, against active opposition from the world’s self-appointed nation-builders and doers of good.


When Afrah and her family left Hargeisa in 1988 she was just seven years old; like many townspeople who fled that year, she remembers a very different city. Hargeisa was once the seat of government of Britain’s colonial Somaliland Protectorate and (for five days in June 1960) capital of the independent State of Somaliland. By the late 1980s it had morphed into a northern provincial city under socialist dictator Siad Barre’s epically dysfunctional Somali Republic and was rapidly collapsing. At least 80 per cent of the town’s buildings had been reduced to rubble, and more than 50 000 members of the region’s majority Isaaq clan had been massacred by government death squads in what observers later dubbed the ‘Isaaq genocide’

Even today, unmarked graves of dozens killed in the 1980s are still being discovered near Hargeisa. By late 1988 most of the city’s population of 500 000 had been put to flight by bombs dropped from MiG jets of their own Somali Air Force. Eyewitnesses told of warplanes launching from Hargeisa Airport on the city’s southern outskirts, turning back to bomb the town from which they had just taken off, then landing at the same airport to re-arm and repeat. It was one of Barre’s last acts of large-scale violence and repression before his brutal regime collapsed and he too was swept away.  A regime MiG shot down in the fighting by local guerrillas of the Somali National Movement (SNM) now serves as a war memorial, perched on a plinth in downtown Hargeisa’s appropriately named Freedom Square

Harg design

Looking out the aircraft window as you land today at Hargeisa Airport, with its modernised terminal and newly extended runway, you see an almost completely rebuilt city. Driving into town, you pass welcome signs from the Republic of Somaliland, official buildings bearing the government’s banner, neatly uniformed unarmed traffic police directing a bustling flow of vehicles, and a series of thriving shops, hotels, cafes and restaurants. Hargeisa’s population today is 1.2 million, roughly a quarter of the total population of Somaliland.6 The city has a safe, open, friendly vibe, even after dark – almost unbelievably so for anyone who has spent time in Mogadishu, or even in other East African cities such as Mombasa, Maputo or Dar Salaam.

Many buildings are under construction; market stalls stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables (mostly imported from Ethiopia) and manufactured goods (from Vietnam and China) line the roads. To be sure, those roads are absolutely terrible, sheep and goats graze the city streets, and a fine grey dust covers almost every surface. At 2:30 each afternoon – peak period for khat, since trucks distributing the drug arrive from Ethiopia around 2pm through checkpoints where officials collect excise.  Vehicles strop randomly in the street while satisfied customers wander with leafy topped bunches of the tightly wrapped twigs. But modern malls and supermarkets are also springing up; billboards advertise banks, boarding schools and universities, and the MiG monument – which, in photographs taken as recently as 2012 appears to sit in an empty square – is surrounded by stalls and overshadowed by bank buildings and telecoms offices.  Given all that, you could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in the thriving capital of a rapidly developing, well-governed, independent sovereign country, a town focused on commerce and construction, and determined – 30 years after its destruction by Barre – to put the past behind it. But you’d be wrong, for Hargeisa is an invisible city

Harg neoghbors

Observations on Banking, Remittances and Financial Transfers Again,

Hargeisa is far from unique here and there is much that other cities can learn from its experience. Remittances have the most beneficial effect on overall development and economic growth if they flow through a regulated financial system; but as of now, all remittance activities in Somaliland are controlled by Hawala systems and private banks, limiting the benefits of remittances for the wider community. For the moment, Hargeisa’s experience suggests that some form of regulation and taxation could represent the best solution. Several respondents agreed that the government should consider imposing a modest levy (on the order of 1 to 1.5 per cent) on incoming remittances, combined with a clear commitment for this to be spent on public improvements (roads, water, electricity) and human services (health and education).

Diapora money

Others argued that providing individuals and families in the diaspora with an opportunity to make an investment in a general health, education or infrastructure fund, or to contribute to a nationally-approved investment vehicle, might provide a means to better leverage investment capacity within the diaspora. This could be worth considering for other cities also. Several respondents – including local business owners, government officials, and visiting external investors – also expressed the need to complement existing Islamic banking systems with a conventional banking option to enable business loans, credit purchases, creation of local investment funds and other financial services currently not available (or available only with considerable difficulty) to businesses in Hargeisa. While no respondent suggested that Islamic banking should not remain a key part of the city’s financial infrastructure, and all agreed that companies like Dahabshiil play an important and valuable economic role in Hargeisa, most agreed that a conventional banking option would open up opportunities for faster and more equitable economic growth and business development in the city. For other cities that already have access to both Islamic and conventional banking, Hargeisa’s experience thus offers key lessons.

About the author

Dr. David Kilcullen is a Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, is CEO of the research firm Cordillera Applications Group, and has been an associate of the Brenthurst Foundation since 2012.

Credit to: The Brenthurst Foundation

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