Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa, has for years been plagued with problems of instability, piracy and extremism. But on January 18, after about two decades without formal relations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton officially
recognized the government of Somalia, for having turned itself around.
For Somalia, this is wonderful news, but what does this statement mean for Somaliland, an unrecognized state, located in the northern tip of Somalia, that declared its independence from Somalia in 1991? The country is a fledgling democracy which has its own constitution, held peaceful elections, opened schools and universities, established a central bank that prints its own currency and has its own security mechanism.
Karthik Pottipatti, 24, an Indian American graduate of Claremont Mckenna College in politics and winner of a German fellowship to study economics at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin, spent six months last year teaching at the University of Hargeisa — Somaliland’s flagship public University. Karthik is currently studying law at Harvard University. His experience living, working and traveling, with a military style canvas duffle bag, has shed light on a country which he describes as a peaceful forward thinking Islamic democracy.
I interviewed Karthik about his experience and the following is an excerpt of the interview:
So why did you decide to go to Somaliland?
I was interested and curious about Somaliland because it’s a functioning democracy without any interference or influence from the west. The country has built democratic institutions without having a modern history of democracy.
What did you teach at the University of Hargeisa and what was your experience like?
Under the foreign teacher’s program, I taught English and Economics to freshmen, sophomores and juniors. There are more than 1500 students enrolled in bachelor degree programs at the University of Hargeisa. The school runs a comprehensive program, including the important task of training the countries medical doctors.
But unfortunately the university does not compare when it comes to faculty or facilities or resources for students. This is not for lack of effort but more of a reality of living in an area where resources are very limited, and where international recognition limits how much assistance they can get from other universities and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.
You speak about Somaliland’s lack of recognition. How does that impact the students?
Since the country is unrecognized there are not many international scholarship programs available for these students. Personally this is a shame as Somaliland is a democracy just like ours and there are a few students I felt who could take advantage of an education in the U.S. or Europe.
For a country where the educational infrastructure is being built from the ground up, it is important for students to go to other countries and learn best practices and bring it back to Somaliland. The country needs professionals — from well-trained economists who can run the central bank, and design an Islamic banking system that is conducive to growth and investment, to medical professionals who can educate the next generation of doctors in the country.
Secondly, the lack of recognition serves as a disincentive for other organizations to make partnerships with universities within Somaliland. This has effected the University of Hargeisa as it is currently not internationally accredited.
Somaliland was completely destroyed when Said Barre’s forces bombed the country during the civil war. When the war ended in the early 90’s the country had to rebuild from scratch. The intellectual community that fled Somaliland prior to the war left a void that now needs to be filled.
Maybe the international community is weary of getting involved because of the security situation in Somaliland? What was your experience there like?
Somaliland is mainly a stable country, and all foreigners must live with security personnel. We had guards living with us in the house, but this did not deter me from going on runs in the morning with my colleagues.
I did not feel that we were in danger and this has a lot to do with the Somaliland government’s interest in keeping at bay terrorist groups like the Al Shabab, which was an active force in southern Somalia (the Shabab is a militant group that has ties to AL-Qaeda).
Somaliland has been vigilant in fighting the Shabab. And this is not just the police. Ordinary Somaliland citizens recognize that the Shabab is a dangerous and intolerant group. Because the country is clan based, outsiders are immediately spotted and the Somaliland police work with NGO’s to eliminate the threat.
What was your experience living in a Muslim country? Were you under pressure to convert to Islam?
I had to dress conservatively in business casual clothes. In a Muslim country there is less freedom in what you can do and in expressing yourself. They did encourage me to convert but I never felt pressured to convert as they don’t believe in forced conversions to Islam.
Somaliland is a testament to capitalism. You can find things here from the U.S., China and India. When we talk of Islam and democracy, many times we feel these are odds with each other. But here is a country that has generated a working democracy by itself.
Soon after Karthik left Somaliland, the foreign teachers program was closed. After hearing of Somalia’s recognition he said, “This is an opportunity for us to re-examine our policy towards Somaliland and hopefully recognize the sovereignty of an independent Muslim democracy in Africa”.
By, Ramaa Reddy Raghavan
Recent graduate, Columbia School of Journalism