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Friday, January 20, 2012

Somaliland’s image problem: Macrobia or Maandeeq? – THE BIG DEBATE

EDITORIAL | Somalilandpress

In today’s modern world, governments and countries are beginning to employ branding and marketing techniques to sell their regions and countries to the rest of the world, in order to increase their international profile, attract foreign direct investments and make the places ideal destinations for tourism and trade. Somaliland has been seeking international recognition for the last two decades, it is now believed it has failed to distinct itself from the failed state of Somalia. Perhaps its time it reinvented itself and developed a strong brand name. The international community is clearly confused when it comes to Somaliland and Somalia. It’s time for dramatic image makeover if Somaliland wants to standout and over come the perception around the world that Somaliland is part of Somalia or Somaliland is Somalia.

In a completely unscientific survey I recently surveyed twenty people in London at random and asked them to name the first three things they thought of when they heard the name ‘Somaliland’. The results made rather predictable reading, but shed some light on the challenges faced by Somaliland in both its quest for re-recognition and to change preconceived ideas:

Piracy (13), Corruption (10), Drought/Famine (7), Camels (5), Civil War (5), Extremism/Terrorism (5), Black Hawk Down (3), Tribes (2), Deserts (1), and Female Genital Mutilation (1).

What is immediately clear from this survey is the fact that Somaliland has yet to forge a distinct identify separate from its troubled southern neighbour, furthermore it would appear that many of the negative connotations are seen as synonymous with the region. Reactionaries will instantly dismiss such findings as irrelevant and claim they speak volumes of Western ignorance or the corrosive effect of media stereotypes, but whilst indignation is understandable, it is important to be rational about factors which for good or ill shape international conduct and attitudes to Somaliland and its neighbours.

Whether we like it or not Somalia’s shadow looms large over Somaliland. A sizeable number of Somaliland’s Government at some time or other were happy to serve their apprenticeship and profit from the Mohamed Siad Barre regime. There are still individuals who are lukewarm in embracing Somaliland as a sovereign entity, and merely pay lip service to the notion of a free and democratic Somaliland. If Landers themselves have mixed ideas, is it any wonder that the world beyond becomes confused or indifferent. With elections looming Somaliland sees politicians peddling false promises and ‘buying’ votes, few have any vision, many seem obsessed with the quest for power, hardly any talk of service or responsibility. The old guard in various parties cling on to power and are reluctant to champion talent and youth. Old enmities soon suffice and clan loyalties are rigorously reinforced no matter how mediocre the candidate is. Whilst clan can bind people together, it also divides and creates a land of ‘Us and Them’, a country where people occupy posts not on merit but on who they know or are related to. Nepotism is rife, yet goes unmentioned by those eager to enjoy the fruits of high office. The vast majority of candidates hold passports of convenience that mean they have an escape route if all goes horribly wrong. Is it any wonder there is something of an identity crisis about Somaliland?

In an increasingly competitive world, nations compete to develop a clear brand identity preferably one that radiates positivity or at least wholesome values. London prides itself on being the most multi-ethnic place on the planet (a city where over 300 different languages are spoken), Ethiopia has recently begun marketing itself as ‘the water tower of Africa’, whilst neighbouring Uganda cherishes its reputation as ‘the Pearl of Africa’. Somaliland at present is seen by many as a “damaged brand”, one tainted by conflict, corruption and clan. To others the country fails to register at all. It is time for a concerted effort to rescue, revive and if necessary rebrand Somaliland for currently it is deeply misunderstood even at the very highest levels. Names are deeply personal and are charged with associations. One of the greatest summations of what a name means is given by the character Iago in William Shakespeare’s play Othello:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my Lord
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been a slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”
Othello Act 3, scene 3, 155–161

Somaliland is stigmatised at present and suffers from constant reference or confusion with its’ southern neighbour. Some might advocate radical solutions. At the very least these should be considered. Whether they are for Somaliland, well only Landers can decide, but a little creative thinking can do wonders when trying to wrestle with who we are and what we are about. As traditionally pastoralist and semi-pastoralist people Somaliland can take inspiration from the camel, an animal that is widely misunderstood and yet to those that know them remarkable and in the eyes of many worthy of poetry. In an unforgiving sun-seared landscape such as Somaliland few creatures are as revered as the camel. So integral has been to the lives of the people of the region that the creature has been written and spoke of as one might of a wife, mother, sister or daughter. Whilst essentially a beast of burden and a means of transport down the ages during times of peace and war, the camel has been viewed as a blessing – a veritable gift from Allah the Munificent. The Qu’ran invokes the camel as an invitation to contemplate the wonders of the universe: Do they not look at the camels? How were they formed? (Sura 88, Aya 17) The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) gave a special status to the camel. He chose to deliver his valedictory sermon from the back of a camel. His favourite camel was called Al-Khaswa – She of the cut-ear-tips – the Mosque at Qoba’ covers the exact spot where it knelt when the Prophet (pbuh) first arrived in Medina after leaving Mecca.

The fact that Somalis have had to be a nomadic people for so long has imbued them with a spirit of independence and self sufficiency. In the incredibly rich legacy of Somali oral traditions the camel has become symbolic of the people’s tenacity and strength, but also their determination not to be subjugated by colonial powers. Much of Somaliland is an arid, near semi-desert environment, one in which only the very hardiest survive – is it any wonder then that pastoralists revere and eulogise the camel. It is said that there are some 46 words for camel in Somali.

What Somaliland and its complex culture might understand the world beyond misunderstands, and it for this reason that maybe the country should consider its options, even radical ones such as changing its name or relocating its capital city. Somalis are survivors and are not beyond adapting when circumstances have demanded it. Somaliland – the Land of the Fragrant Word might benefit from fresh ideas, ones that challenges and confront the status quo. To think French Somaliland in 1967 became the Territory of the Afars and the Issas and then in 1977 was renamed Djibouti. Other lands have endured countless changes; the Congo Free State in 1884 became the Belgian Congo in 1908, then the Republic of the Congo (1960), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1964), Zaire (1971) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1997).

South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation is seriously considering moving its capital from Juba to Ramciel, so anything is indeed possible. Tanzania functions perfectly amicably by having Dodoma as the location for its Parliament, so why should Somaliland not be permitted the luxury of exploring new avenues of thought. Maybe the capital could be moved from Hargeisa to Sheikh, which is situated between Berbera (strategic port), Hargeisa (commercial city) and Burao (industrial city). South Africa, Africa’s richest nation, manages to divide power and responsibility between Bloemfontein (judicial), Cape Town (legislative) and Pretoria (executive). A strong case could even be made for the country’s name to be changed and even a new flag chosen.

Some historians might even make the case for the country to draw on its heritage, how about the country being named Macrobia (Makroobiya – Somali). The Macrobians were an ancient people and kingdom positioned on the Somali peninsula during the 1st millennium BC. They are mentioned by Herodotus as being a nation of people that had mastered longevity with the average Macrobian living till the age of 120. They were said to be the “Tallest and Handsomest of all men”. The Persian Emperor Cambyses II upon conquering Ancient Egypt sent ambassadors to Macrobia bringing luxury gifts for the Macrobian king to entice his submission, but instead the Macrobian ruler replied with a challenge for the Persian ruler in the form of an unstrung bow, that if the Persians could manage to string, they would have the right to invade his country, but until then they should give thanks that the Macrobians never decided to invade their empire.

If Macrobia is not a choice for Somaliland perhaps it feels more comfortable with its historical and traditional name, Maandeeq. The Somaliland renowned poet Abdullahi Suldaan Tima Adde often referred Somaliland as “Maandeeq” which means “she-camel” in the Somali language. Like Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it is also said to be the name of his favourite camel. In 1960s Abdullahi Suldaan Tima Adde composed the poem called Maandeeq in which he portrayed the Somaliland State as a she-camel that ‘satisfies the mind through her milk’.

The less than charitable will dismiss Somaliland’s achievements and seek to denigrate the progress that has been made. Landers know that if they are to forge a purposeful and prosperous future they must draw upon their deep and sincere faith and love of poetry to create something that enables them to recapture that inner belief and that intrinsic spirit of independence that has ensured that they humble themselves before no one but Allah the Munificent.

Mark T Jones

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