Hargeisa is not Mogadishu. Most people don’t know much about Hargeisa, in northwestern Somalia. But for many travelers, its location alone is a red flag. For more than 25 years, news from the region has been a relentless stream of violence and despair, even after the country managed to cobble together a (laughable) central government in 2012 after 22 years of statelessness and civil war. Yet major southern Somali cities like Mogadishu, Kismayo, and even the de facto federal capital of Baidoa are all a little too rough around the edges for tourism. But the story of Hargeisa is different from the rest of Somalia. It’s the capital of a self-declared independent state (unrecognized) called Somaliland, formed when the historic colony of British Somaliland merged with Italian Somaliland in 1960. Somaliland started to pull away from Mogadishu in the 1980s, so when the Somali government collapsed in 1991, local ‘Lander’ leaders quickly moved to quell violence within their borders, declaring independence and forming a new government that has presided over a relatively peaceful two decades.
A Somaliland Member of Parliament relaxes at a restaurant in Hargeisa. Photo: Mark Hay
Bad things have happened in Hargeisa—just rarely, and not recently. Somaliland sometimes skirmishes over its eastern provinces, known as Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn, with neighboring semi-independent Puntland. In 2008, terrorists managed to bomb the presidential palace and an Ethiopian diplomatic outpost in Hargeisa. But Somaliland officials, desperate to prove their mettle to the international community and achieve global recognition as an independent state, have ensured that major cities maintain order (if not always law), succeeding well enough that Hargeisa, and cities such as Berbera, Borama, and Burco, have functional police forces and streets you can walk on unarmed–even at night–and safe enough to have some fun.
Getting around is easy. In the 1980s, Hargeisa, seeking self-determination, was bombed to bits by Somalia’s longstanding military dictator, Siad Barre. Its streets are still mostly dirt. And the rebuilding city is evolving so quickly that maps can’t keep up. With an estimated population of 1.2 million, over eight times the city’s population in the 1970s, you’d think it would be easy to get lost in this expansive, dust-choked urban labyrinth. But it’s not, thanks to the numerous and cheap taxis and buses that work their way around town. It’s not even all informal: taxis are marked and metered, and buses are regular. If you stand still for five minutes, some form of transit will roll by with someone in the driver’s seat or passenger area who understands just enough English to get you where you need to go.