HARGEISA, Somalia — It might surprise you to learn that Somalia — that post-apocalyptic shell of a nation where Islamist insurgents, clan warlords and now pirates hold sway over a helpless government — has some nice parts, too.
In Hargeisa, a visitor can walk the asphalt roads at dusk and freely breathe the sharp mountain air. The street markets are busy and boisterous, and hanging out there isn't likely to get you killed. Cell phone companies advertise mobile Internet service and the good hotels have wireless hot spots.
If this doesn't feel like Somalia, residents say that's because it's not. This is Somaliland, a northern former British protectorate that broke away from chaotic southern Somalia in 1991, established an admirably stable government and hoped never to look back.
No country has recognized Somaliland's independence, however. The argument has always been that to do so would further destabilize Somalia, even as Somalia seems to be destabilizing well enough on its own.
So for now, this quiet slice of land along the volatile Gulf of Aden is an undeniable, if very reluctant, piece of Somalia.
A territory of 5 million people, Somaliland is trying to be a good regional citizen, hosting tens of thousands of refugees from southern Somalia and, lately, trying and imprisoning pirates, which few governments anywhere have been eager to do.
At least 26 men are serving time in Somaliland prisons for piracy. Last month, a European warship stopped nine men who were attempting to hijack a Yemeni vessel but allowed them to flee in a lifeboat. The would-be pirates washed ashore in Somaliland, where police and the scrappy coast guard, which patrols a 600-mile coastline with two speedboats and a tiny fleet of motorized skiffs, chased them down.
"We are patient. We always feel like we are getting close" to recognition, said Abdillahi Mohamed Duale, the polished foreign minister, betraying just a trace of exasperation in his near-flawless English. "Time will put Somaliland where we belong."
Yes, the territory has a foreign minister, along with liaison offices — don't call them diplomatic missions — in a handful of countries including the United States. It has a president and a bicameral legislature, as well as feisty opposition parties. It issues its own currency — crisp bills printed in the United Kingdom — and its own passports and visas.
It can't make deals with other countries for development projects, though, and no international banks have opened here. The economy remains mostly pre-modern and farm-based.
So you can understand Duale's frustration: While Somalia is a country without a functioning government, Somaliland is a noncountry with a reasonably functioning government.
The president, Dahir Riyale Kahin, won the first free elections in 2003 and was rewarded last year with a visit by the then-ranking U.S. diplomat for Africa, then-Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer. This year, however, Riyale has sparred with opposition leaders over the timing of elections, which have been postponed twice and now are set for October.
Some foreign officials are worried that the young democracy is backsliding.
"They were a model for Somalia, in our minds, but now they're having significant problems," said a Western diplomat who closely follows Somalia and who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.
Experts regard the spat as temporary and expect foreign governments to keep funding Somaliland-based relief efforts and political reform projects, but Somaliland's limbo status appears more enduring. While the United Nations urges support for the transitional Somali government in the south, African countries are leery of encouraging their own secessionist movements and the United States is unwilling to go out on a limb for the obscure little territory.
"Governments don't want to be involved in the politics" of Somaliland's independence, said Patrick Duplat of Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But they have to be cognizant of the fact that it's the only operating government in this place."
From colonial times, Somaliland took a different path. In the 19th-century scrum over Africa, Britain acquired the territory mainly to supply its more important garrison in Aden, across the sea in Yemen.
Relatively few British expatriates settled here, leaving tribes and institutions intact, while southern Somalia became a full-fledged colony of Italy, complete with Italianate architecture and banana farms to supply the home country.
The British and Italian territories were joined at independence to form the Somali Republic, but in 1991, with the southern-based regime verging on collapse, a rebel government in Somaliland declared itself autonomous. After two years of fighting, a new government emerged that melded traditional clan structures with Western-style separation of powers, a hybrid system that some experts have called a prototype for the rest of Somalia.
Contrast that, Duale said, with the hundreds of millions of dollars the world has poured into Somalia's feeble transitional government, including $213 million pledged last month to bolster security forces and African Union peacekeepers.
"It's pure hypocrisy," Duale said. "You have here in Somaliland a nation-building process that didn't require massive expense by others. And yet we have everything the international community preaches: self-reliance, inclusiveness, stability."
The troubles down south have spilled over, with more than 75,000 displaced Somalis taking shelter in Somaliland. On Oct. 29, coordinated suicide bombings struck the presidential residence, a U.N. compound and an Ethiopian political office in Hargeisa, reportedly killing 30 people.
The attack was immediately blamed on Islamist militants who are battling for control of Somalia, a reminder that for all its advantages, Somaliland remains yoked to that troubled land to the south.
"Everybody was scared that we could be targeted so easily," said Mohammed Isak, a marketing manager for a mobile phone company. "You cannot enjoy peace while your neighbor is burning."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009