Neighbours in the Horn

Pictured on the map the road that runs east between the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and Hargeisa in Somaliland looks pretty straightforward. In an area of roughly 500km, Amharic-dominated, Christian, highland Ethiopia descends towards the Gulf Aden into dry scrubland and the traditionally pastoral territory of the Somalis. Pretty simple really.  Maps, however, can be deceptive and nowhere does this seem more true than in the Horn of Africa. Scales, altitudes and contours give hints and mould expectations but, ultimately, everything in this part of the world exhibits a diversity that makes a mockery of any cartographic definition.

Part of the fun of travel anywhere involves the matching of a preconceived image with a reality. The northern Horn of Africa is steeped in travelers mythology which dates back to Richard Burton’s famous, first footstep,in the mid 19th Century and stretches into popular modern imaginings of the, archetypical failed state, Somalia. Separating fact from fiction here isn’t always easy.

For a journey to Somaliland I’ve been in full tourist mode. I’m no Richard Burton – for one thing I’m pretty sure colonial-era explorers didn’t carry Lonely Planets. At the same time, as there are so few other foreign travelers in Eastern Ethiopia it is possible to pick up on that scent of adventure and sense of genuine wonder. The region has vast potential to develop as a location for independent travel and the beauty of the country would certainly warrant it. From cosmopolitan Addis Ababa the road stretches out through undulating green farmland and falls into a dusty interior populated by nomadic tribes people and their livestock. Beyond the savannah-like plains of Awash however, the road rises again into verdant highlands where the valleys sparkle with the reflected light of scattered tin-roofed settlements. This is chat country and the terraced hillsides are lined with this plant whose leaves when chewed (and they are, a lot) act as a mild narcotic. Chat is consumed throughout the Eastern Ethiopian and Somali Horn and the trade has developed into a massive and hugely influential regional industry – in many ways this little leaf ties these nations together. Afternoons in the ancient city of Harar are spent roasting coffee beans, downing multiple sugar laden cups of the rich brew and chewing the cud. Chat debris is strewn all over the floor and the cumulative stimulant effect is enough to set hearts palpitating to the same rhythm as the buses which bounce through in clouds of dust. Not that such intoxicants are really needed to get a kick out of a place like Harar where the nightly ritual involves the feeding of the local Hyenas. Skulking out of the darkened fields these magnificently scruffy animals howl and yap in deference to the old men who call them by name and hand over big chunks of meat.

From Harar I double back to the more modern town of Dire Dawa, the second largest urban centre in the country built up at the turn of the century for the new railway line running from Addis all the way to Djibouti and the Red Sea. It’s for this train that I wait three days. A definite Monday morning departure turns, on Monday morning, into a maybe Thursday. The section of the track running west and back to the capital is being currently overhauled and it seems that service on the stretch to Djibouti is, as a result, ever more unpredictable and sporadic. I’m forced, like the crowd of other disappointed Djibouti-bound punters, to negotiate a bus. From the Eastern edge of Dire Dawa onwards everything feels Somali – the leaves sold at the roadside stalls have turned from Chat into Qaat, and in the barren and rocky scrub land which runs east one can pick out the unmistakable silhouettes of nomads with herds of goats, donkeys and camels.

The tiny African country of Djibouti is definitely a Somali state, but is, at the same time, defined by a colonial history and modern geopolitics. Traditionally playing host to French legionnaires, Djibouti is now home to the Americans. It is from here that the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa operates to conduct intelligence and military operations in the Horn. The G.Is on leave in downtown Djibouti city show off fierce crew cuts and a general lack of discernible necks, whilst the burly legionnaires sport their snazzy desert boots and short shorts combos. In the heart of the city the Somali market buzzes with the intensity of semi-organised chaos, whilst a five minute walk will take you to leafy colonial squares and air-conditioned supermarkets patronised by white families driving shiny SUVs.

Short of time, I elect to jump into Somaliland by plane and show up bright and early at the airport to catch my scheduled flight. After waiting around outside for an hour or so while all the airport staff arrive for work, I am duly informed that there will be no plane to Hargeisa today. Several ticket-holding passengers gather up their luggage and set off back into the city. I inquire at the airline office and find out that a, no plane today, can evolve into a, maybe later this morning, to finally a wonderful, oh look, there it is’. The best thing about the delay is getting some time in the departure lounge to drink overpriced cups of tea and watch the F-16s use the runway for takeoff.

So that’s the neighbours. It’s a superficial glance to be sure, but is one that might give you some sense of context for this de facto independent but diplomatically unrecognized modern nation state of Somaliland. Somaliland’s fledgling democracy, (excuse the phraseology) is apparently reeling in a protracted constitutional crisis. The most recent postponement of the presidential election, scheduled for September 27th, resulted in clashes on the streets, police shootings and several fatalities. Once again Somaliland’s hard won and oft-ignored stability was rocked by political violence. The previous instance occurred last year with Islamist-linked bombings in Hargeisa and Bossaso in largely autonomous Puntland, which targeted government buildings, the UN, and Ethiopian commercial and diplomatic interests.

To some, Somaliland is as a country on the brink. Democratic functioning (another of the Republic’s previous claims to fame) is faltering and the whirlwind forces of insurgency which plague Mogadishu and the South of the country, could conceivably expand into a vacuum brought by destabilisation Somaliland. The stakes are no doubt high though that in itself may be a moderating factor. Political crises come and go in this part of the world (as do the staff of some international organizations who are pulled out of the country as soon as any trouble is spotted on the horizon) and already political concessions have been made. Whilst not without controversy, Somaliland’s Guurti legislature has, in effect, confirmed an extension of President Rayaale’s term of office, and an election will be unlikely to take place this year. Does this represent a return to normality for a large proportion of the population who are more concerned about putting food on the table than elite political wrangling, or does it instead epitomise the perpetuation of an inherently vulnerable and potentially combustible status-quo? This is a question I hope to explore during my stay in this fascinating corner of the Horn of Africa.

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