Meet Abdulrahim Elmi, a Somaliland Dickens hero who personifies his new nation

Educated, successful young Somalis from the diaspora are flocking back to Somaliland to contribute. Now the only thing the country lacks is international recognition

Hargeisa, Somaliland

Is there a modern Charles Dickens in the house, seeking a contemporary equivalent of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield? Abdulrahim Elmi’s story would be a good place to start.

Dispatched to Britain from Somalia as an orphan and war refugee at the age of 10, he was supposed to be picked up at Heathrow by an uncle. The uncle never showed, so immigration packed him off to a Salvation Army hostel in Kings Cross. Two weeks later the Army informed him his bed was needed by another and put him on the street. Aged 10. In Kings Cross, the most notoriously rackety quarter in central London.

He begged, slept on the street, was taken in by a kindly Italian prostitute (that bed, too, was often required by others). Finally he moved on to Regent’s Park mosque, where an anxious relative from Liverpool – not the delinquent uncle – tracked him down and reclaimed him for the family.

What an introduction to the civilised world of peace and full stomachs and Christian compassion! He passed an angry youth in Liverpool, adopting in turn anarchist and black nationalist creeds (radical Islam never claimed him) but obtained a degree from Liverpool University and achieved that Dickens trick, coming from nowhere to reach a position of considerable prosperity. Today he owns a home in Milton Keynes but lives with his wife and two children in Perth, Australia, in a newly-built five-bedroom house. 

It was thanks to Abdulrahim that I learned the surprising news that a property boom is under way here. In Somaliland, mind, not Somalia. He has just sold for $45,000 a piece of land he bought five years ago for $6,000. A building boom is under way in tandem. The British never went higher than a couple of storeys during their brief tenure, but now Hargeisa’s chaotic and shabby centre is punctuated by a handful of new, cleanly-designed office blocks.

There is also a boom in higher education: while we talked, the lobby of the Mansoor Hotel filled with tall, lean Somalis crowned with crimson mortar boards, celebrating their graduation from a local university. Educated, successful young Somalis from the diaspora, people like Abdulrahim, are flocking back to work for aid organisations or contribute in other ways. He himself is working with local orphans like his childhood self, and dreams of building the city’s first swimming pool.

All this evidence of incipient prosperity is found in the most spectacularly failed state in the world, the world’s largest generator per capita of asylum-seekers, where the fragile calm of the capital Mogadishu was again shattered last weekend by 17 grenade attacks and a bomb that killed 15.

But Somaliland, the locals tell you, is totally different, and it’s true. A white man can walk the streets without armed guards or fear of summary decapitation. The last bomb blast here was in 2007. The former British protectorate in the north-west of the country declared UDI in 1991. Today it has its own flag, currency, army, parliament, president, judiciary; the most popular name for shops and cafes is 18 May, the date when Somaliland cut itself adrift from its increasingly wild and dysfunctional compatriot lands to the east and south.  

The only thing Somaliland lacks is international recognition. The component pieces of Yugoslavia are lining up to enter the EU, controversial little Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, South Sudan provided an African precedent – but no one is interested in granting Somaliland what it craves: outside endorsement of its internal peace and harmony and fledgling development.

Returning expats like Abdulrahim understand why it hasn’t happened. Unlike Yugoslavia and Sudan, which broke apart along religious lines, Somaliland’s only differentiation from the south is that it was under British, not Italian, colonial domination. In all respects of language, culture, ethnicity, tradition, Somalia is one nation.

But the south remains a desperate basket case, still terrifyingly fragile. Somaliland’s recognition by the outside world must not wait upon the success of state-building in the south, where too many players have plenty to gain by stoking the violence. Somaliland has plenty of problems, but in a world haunted by failed states and the violence and chaos they unleash, it is a little treasure.

One step forward, two steps back

Being a Somalilander must breed a certain phlegmatic stoicism: the good and bad news washes in and out like the tide. First the bad: the foreign remittances, on which Somaliland and the rest of the country totally depend, are up in the air now that Barclays has given notice it is closing the transfer operators’ accounts. And the prospectors of an Anglo-Turkish oil company exploring dozens of sites in Somaliland suddenly pulled out last week – no one knows why.

The good: the sixth edition of one of Africa’s more improbable events, the Hargeisa International Book Fair, was a rousing success last month: the audience for Hadraawi, Somalia’s most celebrated poet, was ecstatic, I was told, like at a Justin Bieber concert. And to coincide with that, the city’s airport – opened by the Duke of Gloucester in 1958, as a plaque in the arrivals hall records – completed its extended runway to become defiantly international and allowed the festival to welcome stars from near and far, including Britain’s Michela Wrong.

It’s only a pity that the new runway is still too short to receive Boeing 737s and the like: for the airport as for the country, the bright future is still on hold.