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The literary story of Somaliland has been muted by hypocrisy

By Khainga O'Okwemba | August 13th 2016

Our nation is renowned

For its honesty, for humility;

Woven from a silken thread

Our people would harm no-one

Fearing Allah, their feelings

Are slow to stir – still,

They are not so easily duped


The story is told of a young Somaliland professional who left his country in the wake of its destruction by the dictatorship of Siad Barre to look for greener pasture elsewhere. Our friend went to Europe where he would live for the next 25 years, serving as a civil servant in his new sanctuary, and as an Agricultural Economist consultant. When he returned home, he was always spotted with a hand luggage, presumably carrying a laptop. A Somalilander who had watched him for quite some time went to him and said, “my brother, where are you from?” “From Somaliland,” our friend cried.

“Are you sure?”

“I have been away for 25 years.”

“I see!!!”


“Don’t worry so much about your bag; nobody will take it away from you!”

I left Somaliland for Kenya after a wonderful gesture of brotherly and sisterly love. I had been a guest at the 9th edition of the Pan-African-oriented Hargeysa International Book Fair, which ended on July 28.

Khainga O'Okwemba (left) and Director of Hargeysa International Book Fair Prof Jama Musse Jama in Somaliland. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

On the morning of my departure, I had a quick interview with the founder of the book fair Prof Jama Musse Jama, a longtime friend, and Ghanaian writer Amma Darko. On my way to Egal International Airport, I realised that I did not have my phone. To cut the long story short, when I arrived in Nairobi, Prof Jama wrote me to say that I had left my phone at the residence hotel, and that he was sending it to Nairobi! So that is Somaliland. Why was I involved in these two incidents, first as a witness, and second as a protagonist? Ahoy! Every writer who aspires to completeness must give voice to the mute. The story of Somaliland is as fascinating, as it has been muted by the hypocrisy that pervades the world we live in today.

Long before the scramble for Africa that informed that coven-like gathering in Berlin, Sir Richard Burton had visited Somaliland in 1854 and described it as “a nation of poets.” Thus we have the extract at the beginning of this essay from the poetry of the legendary Somali poet Hadraawi. Notice in the poem the virtue of “honesty” and “humility.” Pick any of Hadraawi’s poems, Clarity, Life’s Essence, The Killing of the She-Camel, or Has Love Ever Been Written in Blood, and you will find yourself in the grip of one of the greatest living poets on earth today. Here is Hadraawi again:

Let these few lines be as striking

As the stripes of an oryx

As visible and as lovely -

I simply place them in plain view


When I met Hadraawi in 2012 in Djibouti I simply described the poet as “a legend.” Maxamed Ibraahin Warsame ‘Hadraawi’ served five years as a prisoner of conscience. When he was released, the British offered him political asylum. However, rather than turn the predicament of his country Somaliland into political merchandise, Hadraawi declined to take the offer. When I published my Hadraawi essay, Egyptian writer Ekbal Baraka said, “Thank you for introducing this great Muslim poet. It is a shame that we in the Arab world do not know about him!” Ekbal took the trouble to translate my essay into Arabic.

The story of the great poet and his homeland is not only unknown in the Muslim world, but to all of us. This brings us to the thrust of this essay as summed up in the title: Literature andSomaliland’s Quest for International Recognition. In 1885 European countries convened in Germany and curved Africa into their spheres of influence. The Somali nation is a classic example of that “scramble” that Kenyan writer Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo has described as the height of “idiocy.”

The Somali-speaking people were fragmented into five different regions: Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Somaliland. The last three became French, Italian, and British colonies respectively. Of the five Somali-speaking territories, British Somaliland – whose capital city is Hargeysa - was the first to gain independence from Britain on June 26, 1960, (long before Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). Four days later Somalia Italiana – whose capital city is Mogadishu - was granted independence and on July 1, 1960 the former British and Italian colonies merged. It was a disastrous marriage from the word go, but which was compounded by Siad Barre’s bloody military coup d’état in 1969.

For the people of Somaliland, Siad Barre’s rein was synonymous with a programme of killing, maiming, annihilation, bombing of physical spaces, towns, villages, homes, markets, a “genocide” yet unspoken about as cultural activist and intellectual Zahra Jibril observes in an interview. One needs to read the prison memoirs of Mahamed Barud Ali, The Mourning Tree, to sense that mayhem and brutality. In 1982 Somalilanders started a guerrilla warfare that in 1991 drove Siad Barre out. It was then that Somaliland traditional leaders convened a meeting to deliberate on the destiny of their people.

On May 18, 1991, the Republic of Somaliland announced it had reclaimed its lost independence and thus severed links with Somalia Italiana. The country’s top ranking diplomat, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Saad Ali Shire in a lecture, The Building Blocks of a Nation, and in a subsequent interview said the priority was to begin rebuilding the destroyed lives of people and put in place a framework for the nation’s regeneration. Twenty five years later, like the phoenix, Somaliland is alive, thriving, beautiful, and peaceful. The country has secured its borders, is able to maintain peace, has a functioning parliament, a trusted judiciary, a disciplined military, a dutiful police service, a central bank with its own currency, and above all, an admirable democracy where we have had an incumbent president losing elections at the ballot with just 80 votes, and peacefully handing over “power” to his fellow countryman!

This is the Somaliland the world has ignored and continues to postpone her recognition preferring instead to pumper tyrants, prop failed states, and support undemocratic regimes in Africa. Somaliland exposes the insolence of the West. Somaliland mocks the puppet leadership of Africa.

South Africa and Rwanda have pushed for Somaliland’s recognition, backed by AU’s own fact-finding missions. But as international lawyer Quman Jibril says, her country may have fulfilled the legal requirements for recognition, what is lacking is political goodwill from African leaders.

At this year’s book fair the theme was leadership and creativity and Ghana was the guest country. Africa is crying for a visionary and inspiring leader. In Somaliland, I visited the staggeringly beautiful rock art at Las Geel. There are 149 sites of these exquisite rock caves with paintings and writings about domestic and wildlife, people, farm and war tools. The rock paintings of Las Geel are an affirmation of life and a celebration of art dating 10,000 years ago. Yet UNESCO refuses to listen to pleas of Somaliland for protection of this world heritage site. So this is the homeland of Hadraawi!

-The writer is the President of PEN Kenya Centre, a poet, journalist and essayist

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