In representing a country that remains unrecognised by the international community, the Somaliland national team are making a statement both on and off the pitch.
Over on the south side of Dulwich Park, where middle-class couples go on romantic bike rides and young professionals dandle their children as they chatter idly at the Pavilion Cafe, a football match is taking place. Though played to the same backdrop of parkland and dense green foliage, the scene contrasts markedly with the genteel Saturday afternoons being had only a few hundred yards away. Contesting the game are Peckham Town, a non-league outfit who usually play in the Kent County Football League Premier, and a side whose white shirts and green shorts reflect the colours of their national flag. This is the Somaliland national team, and they are here to represent a country that the international community does not recognise.
When wearing the national colours of a country that is not officially acknowledged as independent, it is impossible not to make a political statement of sorts. It is a complex situation which has led to Somaliland existing as a de facto state but being snubbed by the international community, and one tied up in Somalia’s national legacy and historical divisions in East Africa. Comprising a sizeable chunk of territory in the north-west of what on a map of the world would simply read ‘Somalia’, Somaliland made a unilateral declaration of independence from its mother country in 1991, this after the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship and the end of the first stage of the Somali Civil War. Towards the end of his decades-long reign, Barre had attempted to preserve his crumbling regime by waging a bloody war in the north of the country – this on top of his customary human rights abuses – which many would now class as an act of genocide.
When Barre’s regime fell owing to pressure from various rebel groups in the south, the brutal treatment of Somaliland at the hands of his forces no doubt helped to foment a desire for independence. While the southern regions of Somalia have subsequently been plagued by further conflict, chaotic government, tribal tensions and fundamentalist terrorism, Somaliland has experienced a sustained period of relative stability and peace. It has its own currency, judiciary, army and police force, a workable state apparatus and a fledgling multi-party democratic system, making it considerably more functional than many of its regional counterparts. Drought conditions and fears of famine have made life in certain parts of Somaliland much more perilous in recent times, but the overall picture since their declaration of independence is considerably more positive than that of Somalia itself.
So why does Somaliland remain unrecognised and without de jure independence, despite its relative success as an autonomous and self-governing state? The answer is essentially that, owing to the precarious situation in Somalia – a country that harbours a whole host of secessionist movements and is criss-crossed with ethnic and tribal faultlines – the global establishment has decided that officially recognising Somaliland could set off a regional powder keg. As with many African countries, the borders of Somalia were drawn arbitrarily by the former colonial powers in the region, and as such they inadequately reflect ethnic demographics on the ground. The African Union, to which the rest of the world tends to acquiesce on such matters, has consistently refused to acknowledge Somaliland because to do so – at least according to their logic – might encourage secessionist states elsewhere.
Of course, this line of thinking should not necessarily take precedence over a people’s right to self-determination, especially when Somaliland is a functional nation state in practice. There is also a major precedent for its independence, which can be traced back to its colonial history as British Somaliland, but that is perhaps a geopolitical point of order for another day. One way or another, many Somalilanders desperately want their country to be recognised by the international community, and have attempted to raise awareness of their fight for nationhood in a wide variety of ways. One of the mediums through which they express their national identity is football, which brings us back to the stretch of parkland that serves as the home of Peckham Town.
The Somaliland national team is an embryonic entity, and still at a point where a friendly against a non-league side is a good test of their abilities. Just as Somaliland is unacknowledged by the rest of the world, so too is their football team unrecognised by international football organisations like FIFA and the Confederation of African Football. Instead they are associated with the Confederation of International Football Associations (CONIFA), a non-profit organisation comprised of de facto nations, autonomous regions, minority peoples, stateless populations and nations not affiliated to football’s world governing body. The national team is the brainchild of a group of Somalilanders living in Britain, and so has strong links to the Somali diaspora in Europe.
Somaliland fulfilled their first proper fixture in London in 2014 against Sealand, the enigmatic micronation based on an offshore platform in the North Sea. They drew that fixture 2-2, and have since gone on to compete at the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. Though they went out at the group stage of that particular tournament, eventually placing 10th out of 12 teams above only Raetia and the Chagos Islands, the experience of travelling to Abkhazia – a partially recognised republic north of Georgia – was a formative one. There was some controversy at the tournament, however, with the national football federation of Somaliland disassociating themselves with the team owing to their existence outside of its official remit and the affiliation with CONIFA, which some considered at odds with Somaliland’s ambition to be recognised by major international organisations. So, over the course of the competition, a team representing a marginalised nation found themselves somewhat marginalised in turn.
The Somaliland national team are something like a grassroots international side, then, organised outside their home country and self-reliant in terms of funds and support. Speaking to Ilyas Mohamed, currently the national team chairman, it becomes apparent just how much effort has gone into establishing the side. He tells me that the players and organisers have put thousands of pounds of their own money into travel, accommodation and equipment, and that they have to budget with the utmost caution depending on what’s coming up in their calendar. Their starting line up also varies considerably, with the team facing Peckham Town mainly drawn from London’s Somali community. For obvious reasons, the logistics of contesting a friendly in SE21 are considerably more straightforward than getting a team to Abkhazia.
When the national team travelled to the CONIFA World Cup, they managed to gather players based in other parts of Europe as well as a few from Somaliland itself, using social media to connect with eligible players and coaches before coordinating their travel arrangements. Still, because of financial and logistical restraints, this is only really feasible for major events. Their friendly against Peckham Town might not have an international profile, but it has drawn a crowd of around 120 spectators, this including a group of moonlighting Dulwich Hamlet fans who set off smoke bombs in Somaliland colours. Matchday contributions raise over £600 for charities attempting to tackle the drought in Somaliland, with the game having a stated aim of raising awareness of the cause.
“We try to stay away from politics, and focus more on the aspect of friendship,” Ilyas says of the team’s philosophy and view on Somaliland’s international standing. “Still, we want people to know that we are a struggling country, and we need the rest of the world’s support.” Whatever their present relationship with the powers that be in Somaliland, the national team clearly see their role as helping to raise the country’s profile, not only in pursuit of international recognition but also in terms of its immediate problems. “We have a dual strategy, and that’s to build a team football-wise and at the same time to raise awareness of issues like the drought,” Ilyas adds.
Nonetheless, Ilyas seems to recognise that it’s hard to shy away from the innate political statement of representing Somaliland, even if the national team would like to distance themselves from conspicuous political messaging. “At the moment, Somalilanders feel neglected, and we feel we have a right to be amongst the rest of the world. But as a team we are not aligned politically. It’s all about building relationships with people.” He certainly seems to want to build closer ties with the sporting authorities in Somaliland, mainly in the hope of increasing the resources available to the team. As it stands, their funds are largely donations from the British Somali community, with players and organisers sometimes resorting to collecting at shops and restaurants in order to fund the team.
Ilyas, who lives and works in London himself, was moved to help establish the national team after a visit to Somaliland in 2010. “When you’ve been living in London for a very long time, and then you go back, it’s a reminder of your history,” he says. “You’re grateful for what you’ve been given – a chance in life – and so these guys here have got together to give something back to the people.” Having witnessed the conditions there and thought about the disconnect between the Somali diaspora in Europe and their homeland, he decided that a national side would be a good way of building bridges and fostering bonds. “As these guys grew up, they didn’t necessarily have that identity of coming from Somaliland,” Ilyas says of the national team’s British-born players. “We thought: ‘Okay, well why don’t we initiate it?’ They have dual nationality, they are British as well, but we also want them to have a better idea of who they are.”
If there is one other development that Ilyas thinks would improve the team in the future, it is more experienced coaching and management. There is certainly a long way for Somaliland to go on the pitch, as evidenced by the fact that their match against 11th-tier Peckham ends in a 4-0 loss. Once again there are logistical issues at work, in that the lads playing mainly represent Sunday League sides and have relatively little time to train with each other. That said, they are still in good spirits come the end of the game, with the opportunity to get a national team cap on a pitch in West Dulwich not one which presents itself all that often.
Come full time, there are a few snatched moments to speak to central midfielder Khalid Jama and defender Guiled Hussein, both of whom have featured in the game and are visibly exhausted. No matter the complex geopolitical sensitivities of representing Somaliland, they give a fairly straightforward account of what it means to play for their national team. Khalid, who has made six appearances for the side including at the CONIFA World Cup, says: “It’s massive to play games for my team, my country. Hopefully we will one day get recognition from the international community and we can see this team at the FIFA World Cup. That’s what we’ve got to aim for.” While that might be a fair way off for Somaliland, there’s no harm in having a vision for the side. Meanwhile Guiled, a teacher by profession, is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “We’d like to see recognition from the rest of the world. Obviously, though, just representing your country – there’s no bigger honour than that.”
Somaliland poet jailed for three years in crackdown on writers
A poet has been sentenced to three years in prison in Somaliland as part of a wide-ranging crackdown against activists and writers.
Naima Abwaan Qorane, 27, was jailed on Sunday for “anti-national activity of a citizen and bringing the nation or state in contempt”.
Prosecutors said she had expressed opinions on social media that undermined the semi-autonomous state’s claim to full independence.
In a second case on Monday, the same court sentenced Mohamed Kayse Mohamoud, a 31-year-old author, to 18 months in prison on charges of “offending the honour of the president.”
The case against Mohamoud was based on a Facebook post saying the “president is a local”, according to the charge sheet seen by activists.
It was offensive to the president because the president was “a national president” and not a local official, the presiding judge said.
Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared unilateral independence from Somalia in 1991 as the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed, but has not been recognised as a fully autonomous state by the international community.
It is effectively self-governing with its own elections, constitution, courts and currency. President Muse Bihi Abdi was elected last year.
Since December there has been a series of arrests and detentions of activists, bloggers and writers. Local human rights workers say at least 12 journalists have been detained, some for up to three weeks.
“The detention of my client was illegal, the charges made against her are politically motivated and the sentence is unfair,” Qorane’s lawyer, Mubarik Abdi Ismail, said. “The the judge was not independent and therefore he could not deliver a free trial.”
He said the poet had been threatened during her interrogation. “On one night while Naima Qorane was in [police] detention in Hargeisa, two hooded men entered her cell and threatened that they will rape her if she would not provide passwords of her mobile phone and her social media pages particularly her Facebook. They took all passwords,” he said.
“In March, two [police] and intelligence officers came to Qorane’s cell and demanded her to tell everything and confess her crimes … they threatened that they will bring very strong men who would rape her, and then that they would kill her and dump her body into unknown place. They returned the second night and put a loaded pistol of her forehead and threatened that was her last minute in life.”
Qorane was also denied visits from her family for a number of weeks after her father spoke to the media and, though held for political offences, she was not separated from other detainees. She is now being held in Gabiley women’s prison.
Ahmed Hussein Qorane, Naima’s father, said he was given only limited access to visit his daughter and was not surprised by the sentence. “My daughter is innocent … She has nothing to do with what they alleged. She must be released without condition. They did not allow her to see a doctor. She has bad toothache. They beat her in the detention and her left knee is swollen while she has an injury on her thumb,” he said.
Much of Qorane’s poetry evokes the lost unity of Somalia, but does not explicitly mention Somaliland or its future, supporters say. She read her works at a TEDx conference in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, last year.
Guleid Ahmed Jama, the chair of the Human Rights Centre-Hargeisa Somaliland, said the imprisonment of Qorane and Mahamoud were contrary to the constitution.
“This shows that the judiciary is being used to suppress critical voices. We are very concerned about the judiciary’s acts that are putting people behind bars for expressing their opinion. Somaliland is a democracy. We have a very good constitution. The government needs to respect that constitution,” he said.
Qorane said in 2016 that she had received death threats and been warned to leave Somaliland. “If it happens – though I am not expecting it – jail was built for people not for animals … I will be released one day and the prison experience is not going to change my views,” she said in a local media interview.
There has been no official statement from the Somaliland authorities.
— U.S. Mission-Somalia (@US2SOMALIA) February 12, 2018
Said Abdi Hassan, an activist in Somaliland, said Qorane’s sentence was unfair. “She was detained because of her views which everybody has the right to express without fear,” he said. “How can a country claim to be seeking recognition while they disregard rights of the people.
“But we want to tell Naima that even if she is jailed forever, her views will be active. She is a role model for many of our youth by calling for unity and against tribalism.”
Officials contacted in Somaliland said they were unable to comment on the case.
Additional reporting by Abdalle Ahmed Mumin
Somaliland: Female poet jailed over unity calls
MIDDLE EAST MONITOR — A court in Somaliland has sentenced a female poet to three-years in jail after she called for unity with Somalia amid ongoing regional tensions, Garowe Online reported yesterday.
Naciima Abwaan Qorane was arrested in January at Igal International Airport upon her return from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu where prosecutors claimed she had recited poetry calling for unity.
Qorane was charged by police in Somaliland with “anti-national activity and violating the sovereignty and succession of Somaliland”. Somaliland’s prosecution claimed that Qorane called Somaliland a “region” and “insulted and defamed” the government.
Read: Somalia’s quandary with UAE: A port in Somaliland
“We are very concerned about the conviction and sentence of Naima. Freedom of expression is enshrined and protected by the Constitution of Somaliland,” Guled Ahmed Jama, the director of Human Rights Centre, said.
A breakaway, semi-desert territory on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991.
In a recent struggle for power between the two states, Somalia rejected a $422 million tripartite port agreement between Ethiopia, Somaliland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) logistics port company DP World as “null and void”.
Tensions escalated when the UAE went ahead with the port deal despite strong opposition. Somalia’s members of parliament voted for a law to officially ban DP World last month.
AP Interview: Somaliland president defends UAE military deal
AP — Somalia’s breakaway northern region of Somaliland declared its independence nearly three decades ago, but despite having its own currency, parliament and military the predominantly Muslim country hasn’t been recognized by any foreign government.
Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi is hoping to change that by aligning his country’s interests with energy-rich Gulf Arab states eager to expand their military footprint in the Horn of Africa along the vital shipping corridor of Bab al-Mandeb, the entryway to the Red Sea for ships from Asia and oil tankers from the Gulf heading to Europe.
Speaking to The Associated Press in the capital, Hargeisa, on Tuesday, Abdi defended an agreement that allows the United Arab Emirates to establish a military base in Somaliland.
“Our government is not so strong and our zone needs to be protected,” he said. “I think we need a friendly country to have a cooperation with military security, we need it.”
Securing the Horn of Africa has become increasingly important for Gulf countries since March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition launched a war against Iran-allied rebels in Yemen. On Tuesday, the coalition, which includes the UAE, said the rebels attacked a Saudi oil tanker in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, causing minor damage.
Abdi declined to disclose how many Emirati troops would be based in Somaliland or when construction of the base will be complete. The lease for the base is for 25 years.
“Yes, we are allied to the United Arab Emirates and to Saudi (Arabia),” Abdi said.
“All our business, main assets, are in Dubai. All our imports depend on United Arab Emirates, their ports,” he said. “We have relations of business and economic ties with them, so we are allies with them.”
Abdi, who won elections in November, spoke Tuesday from his office in Somaliland’s capital of Hergeisa, home to around 1 million people. Somaliland is far more peaceful than Somalia, where the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group carries out frequent attacks.
Except for a Coca-Cola factory outside the largely impoverished city, there are no visible signs of multinational companies. The city, which moves without traffic lights, is not home to any major international hotel chains, American fast food restaurants or bustling shopping malls.
Instead, the country is capitalizing on its strategic location near Bab al-Mandeb.
Somaliland signed an agreement last year with one of the world’s largest port operators, DP World, to operate its Port of Berbera. The agreement with DP World, which is majority-owned by the Dubai government in the UAE, was signed the same year that the UAE’s plans to build a naval base in Berbera were revealed.
It’s the latest example of how DP World’s business dealings in East Africa increasingly mirror the UAE’s military expansion in the region.
The UAE, which is also reportedly building up a long-term military presence in Eritrea, is not the only country with troops in East Africa. Turkey opened a military base in Somalia last year. Neighboring Djibouti is home to a U.S. base that launches drone missions over Somalia and Yemen, as well as a Chinese military base and Japan’s first overseas base since World War II.
Last week, Somalia asked for the United Nations Security Council to intervene to stop the UAE from building the military base in Somaliland. Somalia said the agreement between the Gulf state and Somaliland, which it refers to as the “Northwestern Region of Somalia,” was made without the consent of Somalia’s government and is in “clear violation of international law.”
Somaliland’s minister of foreign affairs, Saad Ali Shire, said his country’s alliance with the UAE is a sign of the growing “realization that Somaliland should be recognized.”
“We feel that we have the right to be recognized. We have the right for self-determination under the U.N. charter,” Shire told the AP. “That’s a fact which I think everybody should recognize, and perhaps the UAE is finally coming around to recognize that fact as well.”
DP World’s recent expansion into Somaliland creates an alternative corridor for imports for landlocked Ethiopia, a country of 110 million people and the largest economy in the Horn of Africa. Cargo going to Ethiopia currently constitutes 15 percent of Berbera port’s operations.
DP World holds a 51 percent stake in the port, Somaliland holds a 30 percent stake and Ethiopia holds the remaining 19 percent.
DP World operations in Berbera threaten Djibouti’s near monopoly on Ethiopia’s imports and exports. Djibouti’s port provides Ethiopia with more than 95 percent of Ethiopia’s imports.
The deal with Somaliland prompted Djibouti to abruptly end DP World’s contract for its Doraleh container terminal in February.
DP World’s Berbera operations manager, Ali Ismail Mahamoud, acknowledged that the port is a competitor in East Africa. He spoke to the AP on a recent visit to the port.
“Whenever you open a port near another port which is close to it, definitely you have to be competitive. (We are) not purely competitive with Djibouti, but I would define it as we have to be competitive,” he said.