WHEN you land at the clean, tidy airport in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, you feel you could have arrived in any small African state.
The police are courteous and wear freshly-pressed uniforms, the Somaliland flag flutters gently in the hot morning breeze, and you move briskly through the airport security.
The taxi you take into town is paid for in Somaliland’s currency, the shilling.
But do not get carried away –– despite the outward trappings of statehood, this is a country that does not officially exist.
Somaliland unilaterally declared its independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991, after the fall of the country’s military strongman, Mohamed Siad Barre.
He fled the country exactly 20 years ago on Wednesday, after two decades in power.
I made my way to Freedom Square in central Hargeisa to see the monument, which reminds those here of the bitter battle they fought to break away from the rest of Somalia. Around 50 000 people died.
The actual fighter jet used by Barre’s forces to bomb the city is on a dais, underneath the figure of a woman holding the green, white and red of the Somaliland flag, looking skywards in hope.
There, I spoke to a local journalist, Albdelhakim Mohamed from the Jumhuriya newspaper.
“We want our independence here in Somaliland,” he told me.
“We have a country. We have a parliament, a free press, and businesses just like London and New York.”
At the base of the monument, a body lay wrapped in cardboard.
At first I was not sure if it was part of the display, then I realised it was just a homeless man who had spent the night at its foot.
Around the monument is also a market where goods of all kinds are readily available.
Traditional spices mingle with the ubiquitous plastic of Chinese imports, brightly coloured sandals, plastic buckets and hair decorations.
I walked through the market with Abdirashid Duale, the head of Dahabshiil, Africa’s largest money transfer company.
Tall, elegant and expensively clad –– his company makes a lot of money here –– he was reticent to commit to whether Somaliland should be recognised as independent; after all, his business interests extend all over Somalia.
When I ask him whether Somaliland’s unofficial status affects business, he admits it is a challenge.
But Dahabshiil, like other financial corporations in the 21st Century, can base its headquarters anywhere in the world these days. Duale spends most of his time in neighbouring Kenya.
From the people I chatted to informally in Hargeisa, I was left with the overwhelming impression that they would find it hard to re-integrate into the rest of Somalia.
Though with the Somaliland government so intent on independence it is hard to know if some were reluctant to speak their minds too freely.
According to the World Bank, the Somali diaspora as a whole sends about US$1bn to their relatives back home every year.
Here in Hargeisa, with no official help from the outside world and no recognition as a state, most official aid is closed to them. So the remittances are a vital source of income.
People use the many money exchange centres dotted around Hargeisa to retrieve the funds sent to them by wire transfer.
I went into one office with Duale.
Some people recognised him as the big boss, and I had no trouble being escorted into the back office where money was being counted.
Despite the scene, often money does not actually change hands –– many transactions are carried out over the internet.
Somaliland seems a world away from the chaos and violence of south and central Somalia, which includes the capital Mogadishu.
The country is divided. Puntland in the north is a semi-autonomous state and Somaliland is a functioning state in all but name.
But Somaliland is not immune from the militant brand of Islamism that afflicts other parts of Somalia.
In 2008, suicide car bombings left dozens dead in Hargeisa, as well as in Puntland.
The leader of the main Islamist group al-Shabab, Ahmed Cabdi Godane — who is himself from Somaliland — was blamed for the attacks.
“We are on our guard,” President Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo told me.
“We are doing our level best to encourage young people through education and work, and to engage them in useful activities instead of going to extremist groups like al-Shabab.”
Somaliland is seen as a transit route for militant groups going into Somalia proper, and the government here is keen to assist international efforts to tackle this.
Although Silanyo has been applauded for his efforts since taking office in July, this has not given him the international recognition he craves.
On a recent trip of Western capitals to press Somaliland’s case, he told me that it deserved to be seen as an independent country.
Historically, it was a different country from Somalia, which was divided by the French, Italian and British colonial powers, he explained.
Somaliland was British and was independent for five days in 1961, before it opted to join the rest of the country.
Those five days though are crucial in legal terms to the government and gives it a basis to claim it was once an independent state.
Ethnically, the people I encountered in Somaliland are no different from their brethren elsewhere, but their lives in the last 20 years have been relatively free from the violence and divisions that have plagued the rest of Somalia.
Now President Silanyo feels that with Southern Sudan likely to become independent, the people of Somaliland cannot be denied the chance of their own referendum to vote for secession.
The key question for the intentional community is whether it should be allowed to go it alone, or be forced to remain part of Somalia to help bring greater peace and prosperity to a country that has known only war for two decades? — BBCOnline.