Hargeisa Somaliland September 11 2001 — Lunchtime and many mealtimes since
The television was on in the Hotel Mansoor foyer, CNN News and Al Jeezera playing as the second aircraft flew into the Twin Towers.
People were already talking. Not excitedly but in hushed, worried, tones. Somaliland may have had a decade of independent, relatively successful, development after declaring itself no longer in the Somalia emergent post the independence movements of the early 1960s. But, as far as people watching the unfurling news were concerned, Americans remembered Blackhawk down and Mogadishu, struggling to place Somalia/land and its nuances on a map when new weapons of retribution started flying.
Somalilanders, particularly capital dwellers, are urbane, regularly cosmopolitan with a Worldliness few other People can emulate. As the conversation switched between Somali and English, calls were already being made to check with relatives in the United States as to what was going on. I sat down on one of the three sofas making up the other sides of the square around the low coffee table in front of the flat screen television.
My friend and colleague, Jesper, walks behind me and jokes ‘I am going to phone the Boss and tell him he made a mistake contracting you if you are already watching TV at lunchtime, second day on the job’.
We had flown up to Hargeisa from Nairobi the previous day, I had started as the European Commission’s Liaison Officer Hargeisa on September 1st, Jesper was kindly introducing me to the government having sat in the chair for a couple of months before taking up his role within the Delegation itself. I was a local hire by the Commission; totally deniability if anything were to happen. The European Union, the Commission, was neither a leader nor a follower; we mirrored the Member States and so recognised Somaliland’s achievements but not its political call for statehood.
‘Jesper, better sit down and see this. Think our afternoon is about to change as terrorists have flown aircraft into the World Trade Center New York.’
Questions swiftly developed as to the implications. Somalilanders knew there would be reactions to these terrorist acts probably resulting with the innocent finding themselves in the path of intelligence manipulated by popularist agendas. Terrorists claiming to bomb based on Islam would swiftly create political rhetoric against any Muslim. Somalia, sadly by implication, Somaliland, would be in-line for American retribution.
We started to ask about list of all EU contractors in Somaliland? Were they EU citizens? Were we able to look at all Member State citizens? A daunting task given Somalilanders have long been travellers; a trait exacerbated by Barre’s destruction of people and places in the late 1980s killing many, see Pulitzercenter Somaliland’s Forgotten Genocide, and causing far more to flee for their lives. We ran into the racist elements appearing in so many guises. Some were already seeking to justify inaction because the tone of skin seemingly changed obligations to the colour of the passport. Legal requirements if we were asked to take all EU nationals out of what was seen as a fragile place where further extremists’ actions could follow in a concerted set of actions.
By Thursday, 13th, we had flown out virtually all the people who did not call Somaliland home. The vast majority had caught the sense of apprehension felt by all. The physical damage from Barre’s prosecution of a war very much still apparent with massive mental issues resulting from years under bombardment when open warfare replaced the repression of a dictatorship hell bent on destroying people’s will to live freely. But the resolution of people had shown through and, now, as terrorists attacked the United States of America, people I listened to in Hargeisa knew repercussions were coming. Somaliland would not be a target for America, its links into the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab were known but Somaliland did not harbour training centres and had deliberately distanced itself from the chaos of southern Somalia.
Since September 2001, 911, Somaliland would suffer terrorists attacks, as would Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia. Kenya and Tanzania had seen Al-Qaeda’s mayhem in 1998 Crisisgroup East African attacks timeline. The Westgate Mall Sept 2013 attack possibly being the most infamous but certainly not an exception to what has been a litany of attacks where innocent people have become victims in a wider set of power problems.
Following the first week after the 911 attacks, we started to have more sanguine conversations. Proactive actions were undertaken in how Somaliland could bolster the safety of all people within its recognised borders given its unrecognised statehood. The power of community and security from within was a critical ingredient. People knew other people and if they did not fit in, then this would be flagged to the necessary authorities. Egal was President and continued to have a firm grasp on how to unify behind Somalilanders rediscovered sense of purpose.
The 10 days following 911, we took everyone who wanted to leave out of Somaliland. One gentleman appeared in our EU office 8 days after 911. Having been in Burao, working for a UN organisation which had seemingly not heard of health and safety, the arrival of Marco elicited some quality Anglo-Saxon phrases — ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where have you come from?’ And, most starkly ‘Who the $#@! cares so little they do not even inform anyone you are travelling around Somaliland?’ Marco left Thursday 20th as we started to think — ok, this time we have fudged our way through, but what if……..
Within the 27 months I lived in Hargeisa as the EU’s ‘man on the ground’, we saw further acts of violence. The manner individual minds were, are, manipulated became very apparent. The murders of two teachers and a health worker in 2003 were, at first, put down to Al-Qaeda influence but, conversations with key people, swiftly saw this as lazy analysis and we saw how individual and local grievances were the drivers for perpetrating these crimes. Without quality engagement, local grievances are manipulated by some to ensure they are not held accountable and can blame some global movement reinforcing their own power base.
I never felt unsafe in Somaliland. Quality people around me and the government respected the European Union and its Member States in their delivery of practical work supporting people. SARS-CoV-2 prevented my recent times with people but, still, the dialogue continues and I know there is hot tea brewing and positive conversation beckoning whenever I return.
911 changed the dynamics far beyond New York and the direct engagement of American (and British) troops in Afghanistan and Iraq 2003. To put it very prosaically, the bravado of more militarism has resulted in a few getting richer selling the means to wage conflict where the many lost out. Where going in was easy but little or no substantial thought seems to have gone into much beyond more ‘stand-off distances’, Hasco barriers and the paraphernalia further distancing people talking strategy from those who live the results and consequences of those strategies.
In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland, we were to witness massive shifts as events unfurled. People in Hargeisa and Bossaso were to be direct victims of an Al-Qaeda / Al Shabab set of bombings in Somaliland and Puntland (NYTimes)in October 2008. The situation had changed, and international agencies were regularly linked to the global agendas, including Bush and Blair declaring their ‘global war on terror’. Twenty years on, the quest for headlines — Unpublished memos warned Blair — show the beauty of hindsight but does not explain why so poor decisions were taken committing people to kill and be killed without understanding cause and effect in complex settings far removed from the lectern outside the White House and 10 Downing Street.
From the Somaliland perspective, the relative peace and the tightness of communities was built on. But the breaches were there and how the different external influences and drivers caused issues resulted in changes that have been for the negative in several ways. In the name of security, we have witnessed the few in power often seek to reduce accountability; regularly joining the internationals behind barriers and stand-off distances. A familiar situation found elsewhere? Most definitely.
Without openness, despite the protestations of the current UK PM Boris Johnson, terrorism has affected a breakdown of accountability. Has been part of the devaluing in trust felt toward politicians virtually everywhere. Johnson’s ‘we’ is to be questioned. Divided who from who? Look again at how we have all worked responding to Covid-19 in the light of the last twenty ‘war on terror’ years.
But, let us recognise the positive achievements as individuals have come together in any number of places to confront the ignorance spawned by politicians seeking soundbites, actions based on bygone days and machismo posturing. Citizens of Somaliland, wider Somalia, East Africa know the answers to extremism come from within. Not from shows of force perpetuating the need for yet more force.
Across the African continent and back into those countries where trillions of dollars have dropped to achieve little for the people not behind security walls, people are aware these root causes continue creating fertile breeding grounds for extremism and will not be addressed until the problems manipulated by leaders are placed into accountability frameworks where security barriers are no longer required because we have mutual trust and support.