The West has proven a valuable source of democracy-building and development aid for Somaliland, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it republic in northern Africa. But it is China that has been willing to gamble big on the economic-development projects it needs most.
“When you talk about infrastructure development, China is one of the leading countries in the world,” said Somaliland Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Omar, who is in Washington this week. “You cannot get roads built and bridges done, and ports done and airports, with humanitarian and development assistance.”
“Contemporary development assistance focuses on what I would call ‘soft sector’,” Omar said: things like institutional development, education, health, capacity building. “Aid is not aimed to build roads—and for the economic development you would need to develop that infrastructure,” Omar said. “The Chinese are very good at that.”
Chinese oil company PetroTrans plans to turn Berbera port into a modern facility, in a deal with the Somaliland government that will help PetroTrans export the natural gas it extracts from Ethiopia. Modern roads connecting Somaliland and Ethiopia will be part of the deal, which has yet to be finalized, Omar said.
Somaliland’s democracy is still far from perfect, 20 years in transition from dictatorship, said Ibrahim Hashi Jama, a Somalilander and a lawyer now living in Britain. It also took a long time to build: Clan meetings on the constitution began in 1991, but the document was not finalized until 2001. Building up the judicial system to check government power and make sure that elections happen on time remain major challenges.
The government is “an eclectic mix of our own,” Jama said in an e-mail: a U.S.-style president and separation of powers, but a parliament that includes a "House of Elders," a body similar to the U.K.'s House of Lords that has a special focus on traditional issues. Somaliland is an Islamic state, and sharia is the basis of its constitution and legal system.
Somalilanders themselves were “the ones who decided they were going to have a stable Somaliland,” said Paul Fagan, Africa director for the International Republican Institute. “They came together across clan lines, set aside their differences, and did it with no international intervention whatsoever.”
The Somaliland system balances Islamic law, tribal tradition, and republican governance with respect for human rights and a commitment to fighting terrorism.
“There aren’t many places like this in the world,” Fagan said. He called Somaliland an “easy place” to work because the government wants to improve its democracy and eagerly cooperates with capacity-building efforts.
The institute is helping Somaliland’s legislative branch develop, a project financed by USAID. USAID and Britain’s Department for International Development both set aside unique aid budgets for Somaliland.
Somaliland’s government believes it can set an example for Arab nations beginning to wrestle with regime change—and it may have something to teach the Western aid world as well.
“We offer a lesson” for other countries going through a democratic transition, Omar said. “Somaliland did it. Why can’t you do it? And with limited resources and limited possibility and support, we have done it, and we are still working on it.”
Omar traveled to Washington this week to raise his country’s profile and ask for humanitarian and development assistance. Lack of political recognition has hampered his country’s ability to attract humanitarian and development aid—not to mention foreign direct investment.
But Omar, Jama, and Fagan all agreed that Somaliland is ready to move to a new phase and that economic investment is going to be vital, if the impoverished, arid country is ever going to develop. Until Somaliland is officially recognized as an independent nation—and not part of Somalia—it will be extremely difficult for foreign businesses to take on the risk of investing there.
China has increasingly taken a more active role in Africa. As state-owned companies move in to extract African resources, Chinese investment in the continent has skyrocketed. Chinese involvement in Africa has worried some Western observers, but Omar argued that partnerships with China and the West were both vital and would complement each other.
“The Chinese seem to be taking a bit more risk than any other country,” he said. “And where else would you go in this climate of economic difficulty? China has got the most cash and investment."