Somaliland – Sleeping-Walking Into Disaster

Commentary, Globalization, Guled Ismail

The approaching menace is so tangible it has been visible on the horizon for at least the last two years. It has been sending warning signs with klaxons blaring but we adopted a collective policy of hear no evil see no evil.

The menace will be in the form of famine and break down of social order followed by complete collapse of biblical proportions.

Somalilanders have been living and relatively thriving on false economy for many years. We were importing everything from matches to motor cars with remittances sent in small amounts by thousands of mothers and sisters and aunties and great uncles from the four corners of the world and promptly spending it on Indian rice, Chinese soap, Saudi oil, Ethiopian drugs and Japanese cars. Our tastes and consumption patterns changed dramatically in less than a generation. We no longer saw camels as means of transport as our fathers did we wanted Toyota Landcruisers. Our women were no longer able to make lahoh from coarse sorghum they wanted smooth American wheat. The very idea of producing our own food became an alien concept. We wanted pure Durum Spaghetti and since we couldn’t grow durum we just have to import the finished product from Italy. Auntie will send the money she saved from her meagre welfare handouts in some derelict housing estate in some freezing corner of Europe.

After the liberation of Somaliland in 1991 cheap fuel was imported by nifty small traders who retailed it at incomprehensibly low prices on the newly refurbished forecourts of Burao and Hargeisa. Expatriate Landers who returned home to take part in the rebuilding of the motherland or more commonly just gawp at the spectacle of the destroyed cities were baffled to find people drove better and bigger motor cars than they did back in Europe and America. The gas guzzling 4X4 became not so much a status symbol but a must have for everybody from the establishment Khat trader to the aspiring ex camel herder.

If this state of affairs was always unsustainable, the manner it came to an end was as unexpected as it was multifaceted and global in nature. A maze of occurrences and coincidences each not particularly significant on its own but all interlinked in some vague way conspired to cause mayhem of global proportions.

First came the realisation that all these cheap Chinese made tat we buy in our markets needs fuel as part of the manufacturing process you see. It meant fuel prices went up. When the Indians decided they wanted to have cars and refrigerators the fuel prices went up again. Quality Italian Durum, which was actually grown in Canada went up because the combine harvesters have to compete for fuel with those Indian refrigerators. There was nearly a revolution in Italy but we went on buying our beloved Spaghetti anyway.

And then came the global warming hysteria, an idea that has more to do with Europe’s prosperous middle class politics and media than it has to do with Science but which no politician in the West could be seen to question let alone oppose. It basically makes three claims: that the world is warming up; we are causing it; and it is a bad thing. Each of those claims could be challenged but no one dared to be seen on the `wrong’ side of this `debate’.

We in Somaliland didn’t even know the `debate’ was taking place but we certainly did not escape its impact. Some bright spark somewhere in this green global warming swamp decided it was a good idea to put food into combustion engines instead of human mouths. Vast swathes of the world’s most productive arable lands in America and Brazil were converted into `biofuel’ farms. The result is man-made shortage of food across the globe while, ironically the biofuel mass production did not affect the price of fossil fuels at all. It, continued to go up and up.

As nations ran out of staples, the world’s biggest exporters stopped selling food. China, India and Thailand refused to sell Somaliland traders anymore rice. The Burma typhoon didn’t help either. Food donors like America who used to insist on giving cheap wheat to the world’s starving said they would rather give aid agencies hard cash. People like the UNDP who feed our schoolchildren are finding it harder and harder to find food on the world markets.

The poorest of the poor are now starting to eat less and less in every town and every hamlet all over Somaliland. The Hargeisa media is not reporting it because it is in complete shock; just like the rest of the country. We stand frozen in front of an impending catastrophe.

Yet we could do a great deal to mitigate the disaster about to sweep away everything we achieved over the last two decades. We could encourage sorghum production by digging wells in the arable areas of the far west and along the dry river beds and wadis which crisscross Somaliland. The government could offer free land in those regions to anyone who wishes to farm. Most Somalilanders are completely useless as farmers so we could invite peasant Oromos who are skilled farmers to do the heavy work. Since we cannot afford fuel we should stick to the tested and tried bullock-power to till the harsh soil. Our Arab brothers will not give us cheap oil (and why should they?) but they could help us with water drilling equipment as the UAE Red Crescent has started doing.

Women’s institutes could retrain housewives in the ancient and noble art of making lahoh from Elmi Jama Sorghum. The government could for once show strategic vision and foresight and tackle the problem head on. It can do simple things like acquiring and training thousands of camels as means of transporting essentials across the country in case we completely run out of fuel which is a distinct possibility. The army should be given the task of buying, training and running the camel caravan system as it used to do before independence. If sickly English boys from the Home Counties who never saw a camel in their lives could train the animal not only as beasts of burden but instruments of war as they did with the Camel Corps we Somalis almost genetically half-camel should really be able to make some use of the ugly things.

We should also make more use of our sheep and goats. At the moment hundreds of thousands simply die of old age or disease without ever producing a single glass of milk or a pound of meat. This is an almost criminal waste of a vital natural resource. We should seek the help of the UN and other aid agencies to recruit vets from India and elsewhere so that we could market our meat products on international markets. Our Universities should stop the childlike competition of regional point scoring and work together to train specialist agronomists and vets who learn about millet and sorghum and camels and goats instead of pets, pulses and poultry farming which are of no relevance to local needs.

Meat processing should be actively encouraged although of course it needs fuel. Fishing and fish eating must be introduced into the cultural fabric of the Somaliland population. Again we should not hesitate of importing talent from abroad if necessary.

There are encouraging signs that Somalilanders are at last facing up to the task ahead. Ahmed Yusuf Yassin, the semi reclusive Vice President usually offers one cure-all solution for all problems: prayers. When the drought bites he calls for `Rain-making’ prayers. When they don’t work he calls for more of the same. Ideas of water harvesting and arid-land irrigation systems to fight water-shortages do not seem to carry much weight in his calculations. Yet he recently made an impassioned speech in the far western town of Gebilay, a traditionally sorghum producing area and asked the local population to rediscover their farming heritage. One major food-importing company stuffed their Berbera warehouses with grains of all kinds and said “We are not hoarding food..we are planning for impending shortages…and want to stabilise prices so the poorest don’t suffer..”.

One major Somaliland website which usually offers nothing but political news recently took to publishing agronomy lessons on sorghum farming. Somaliland entrepreneurs are scouring China and beyond in a bid to buy second-hand plant to process and can camel meat. They have a slight problem: no such Plant exists as no one actually processes camel meat anywhere in the world. The fact that Somaliland is not recognised does not help things either. But they are still trying.

In the long-term Somaliland’s population must be weaned off not only rice and spaghetti but of the fast-developing dependency culture in general. Dependency on the UN; aid agencies; remittances from diaspora.

But even here there seems to be long-overdue recognition. One government Minister recently observed that “remittances will dwindle over the next 20 years as the second generation Landers feel less obliged to send money back to their parents’ relatives”.

About time Minister. Now lets’ to face up to reality and see some action before the reality engulfs us all.

by Guled Ismail,