Hargeisa: a city on the edge
Thursday, February 21, 2013
The Capital city of the self declared independent State of Somaliland has much to be proud of. It is home, by conservative estimates, to more than a million people and it is the national centre of commerce. By simply observing the growing corporate skyline, it is evident that this reputation will only grow. More than any other city in Somaliland, Hargeisa, is a place of great tribal diversity and the unrecognised nation’s political heart.
Since breaking off the unity forged after independence with the South in 1991, Somalilanders, as the nations citizens like to be called, were governed from Hargeisa. The capital of any nation is the focal point for politics, business, trade and individual ambition. Hargeisa is no different. Today like Bombay and London, Hargeisa is a city facing enormous problems that can only be resolved by visionary leadership, political will and national economic redistribution.
The major headaches
Globalisation has led to a larger concentration of people internationally living in cities than ever before. In 2007 the global urban population overtook the rural one and the speed of urbanisation, especially in developing nations, is phenomenal and unsustainable. Much of the reason why so many want to come and live in Hargeisa is because they feel it offers the best hopes for employment in the whole country. All NGOs, businesses and government departments are clustered in specific areas of the capital and as such it is easy to see why people, often with stable lives elsewhere will be attracted to the city. Like most other capital cities too, Hargeisa is seen as a cosmopolitan city of culture and fun. It is less conservative than other major Somaliland cities because of the diversity in its population which is made up of professionals, Diaspora returnees and locals from differing corners of Somalia and Somaliland. There is always something going on every night and a hotel room or restaurant for every budget. However, this warm invitation from a distant is just that.
Hargeisa has high levels of unemployment, crime and the cost of living is going up daily due to lack of government interventions and controls. It has extremely poor infrastructure, limited public services and most services that are provided are done so by Aid agencies and NGOs working in the city. In line with other growing third world cities, Hargeisa has a rapidly expanding population and is home to many refugees fleeing the violence in the South of Somalia, work seekers and settlers from neighbouring nations such as Ethiopia. There is no risk that Hargeisa might ever reach the size of some mega cities such as Karachi, but for its size and current challenges, it may as well be for most inhabitants who compete for meagre available resources such as land.
In many past songs and poems Hargeisa, like many of the beautiful cities of Somalia, was praised for its greenery and cleanliness. It was fertile land for absolutely anything from settlement to planting fruits. However, today with the increasing number of cars on the roads, pollution infects the air. Poor public health and limited sanitation facilities both private and public hamper the city’s residents. Even the basic supply of water in such a scorching country is not possible in most areas without the use of donkeys. Of course, the donkeys, like every other service in the city that is not owned and managed by NGOs is privately provided at a cost which is rising faster than income for those lucky enough to be economically active in any form. Ironically for the majority of its residents, Hargeisa, the city of bright lights and greater opportunities, offers a bleak future.
What’s your price?
Meaningful local leadership can be brought about by better governance and provision of public services facilitated by economic growth which then can be taxed fairly to redistribute and fund essential public services such as sewers and schools. This is how most of the developed world municipalities operate with some assistance from central government. However, in the absence of real funds from government, the only way for Hargeisa city to have the necessary public services is to attract investors. This creates employment, partnerships and a tax nest. All necessary for public service funding. However, what if most of the businesses, except a few, are either not registered or simply operate openly in the black market? This is what happens in most third world countries. Hargeisa has a bustling street market culture and the traders that sell in all corners of the city are the heart of the real economy. As much local taxes can possibly be raised from this group as the larger national corporations such as remittance and telecommunication companies. But how does the city prove their income? Or who do they pay taxes to and for what? Who gets a bite of the cherry first: The national or local government? This is a continuing policy mess that needs to be cleared up before convincing traders of the tax collectors integrity and good intentions to help them through the provision of public services if they are ever to come out of the economic darkness. This enormous economic black hole is not one created by greedy local traders but by confused governance, corruption and poor co-ordination and provision of essential and desperately needed public services.
Housing is in short supply globally. It also costs far too much. Land rights are disputed all over the world today and Somaliland is no different. Nowhere else in Somaliland is gentrifying more quickly than the capital Hargeisa. Simply put, Gentrification is a process whereby one set of people, usually wealthier, move into, renovate and restore housing in inner city areas where poorer people used to live. The American architect and journalist Duany, described gentrification as “the rising tide that lifts all boats” because of its ability to rebalance “a concentration of poverty by providing a tax base, rub off work ethic and political effectiveness of a middle class and in the process improve the quality of life for all a community’s residence.” How very hopeful and patronising. In Hargeisa before the current tsunami of gentrification which is largely led by the wealthy and the Diaspora who do not live in their overpriced summer houses, community spirit was strong and income inequalities limited. Now the sense of community has been destroyed by the erections of large villa gates and watchmen as well as larger shopping centres suddenly surfacing to cater for the new remittance rich class. The sense of them and us is now arguably strong where it did not exist before. As for spread of political clout, even if it were possible in a tribal nation, the wealthy have shown a tendency to just represent themselves and exclude others issues. Even more worryingly, undeveloped land banks are everywhere in Hargeisa (jaago) and developers are holding on to these until prices go up at which time they will sell it to the highest bidder. For a country which relies on foreign aid and the UN Habitat to build the few social homes to ever be built, it is difficult to see how a national social housing building programme can be initiated, funded and effectively implemented. However, in the absence of land law, proper planning regulations and the historic ownership of land through tribal heritage, it is impossible to see how the losers of gentrification can be contained when they return to their tribes to ask to get their land back simply because the price the developers paid for it has not allowed them to buy another elsewhere. Whereas in developed nations with the necessary laws and regulations, simple property matters can be resolved in independents courts, in madly gentrifying Hargeisa it may lead to bloodshed in the near future if things are not done about it.
Illegal settlements in Hargeisa have been a major headache for every political administration. They trap inhabitants in poverty, create criminality and contribute to the poor health of the city. There are some slums of hope like in India where there are public services and a thriving regulated economy. But Somaliland’s slums are ones of despair and containing a significant number of the population. They poorly house families, orphans and refugees and are hard to tackle politically as the local authority has nowhere else to accommodate these people. This enormous problem can be attributed to poor planning, land management and the process of gentrification. To tackle this Hargeisa needs revolutionary city leadership.
Follow the leader
The key challenges facing Hargeisa are similar in every major city in the World. In a recent lecture at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Urban Studies, Professor Robin Hambleton, an expert in City leadership, argued that the way to tackle the challenges facing major cities today is to find the leadership that can avoid the disaster scenario which is a divided, unequal city with residents living isolated lives in separate fortified enclaves. City leaders instead need, he went on, to focus on discovering ways in which to nurture, build and sustain a vibrant, multicultural city which generates economic prosperity and a good quality of life for all citizens.
Hargeisa is prosperous but not for the vast majority of people. Yet it still attracts them with the false lure of most capital cities across the world. The new mayor of Hargeisa, Yusuf Warsame Saeed, in a recent interview was confident about the future of his city despite understanding its challenges. This is a good start but what he needs to change on top of the negative public image of his Councillors and office, is the way the city is run. It needs to be transparent, functioning daily and not coming to a halt after lunch and working in the public interest. On a policy level the new Hargeisa city local government needs to lead the way in which things are done locally. They need to be the example for other local authorities. They can only achieve this if they take the initiative and start investigating rent controls, initiating community cohesion strategies and advocating for planning laws which force developers to build a certain percentage of social housing if they are to build in the city. Greater involvement of the public in policy making needs to be made a priority and the fact that other cities such as Borama and Berbera are in competition with the capital cannot be forgotten by carving out niche specialities for their cities. Borama is education and Berbera tourism. Both of these Hargeisa has but because of poor infrastructure, high prices and crippling rising pollution can easily be beaten by both as well as other cities in both Somaliland and Somalia.
Hargeisa Councillors have a thankless task and can be forgiven for feeling frustrated with their roles. It sometimes feels as though, because Hargeisa is home to the national government and the seat of all official political power in Somaliland, locals with connections are able to side step them and directly approach the government Ministers to deal with their issues personally. The obvious visibility of the national government has in the past put Councillors and the Mayor in the political shadow. However, this is dangerous for democracy, economic growth, security and stability. The national government should know its remit and focus on the national issues such as defence and the budget whilst leaving local issues, which often are tribal, to the local elected officials to resolve. Clarity of their powers, roles and support from the centre by refusing to deal with local issues will enhance the governance of the capital.
Somalis in general misunderstand leadership to mean One Man rule. Leadership is the ability to articulate and formulate a vision and use all the legal and necessary resources at ones disposal to achieve it. Yusuf Warsame Saeed needs to work with all stakeholders to co-ordinate and manage the city’s finances as well as extending out to public private partnerships to create employment and raise the capital to develop the needed public services like roads and bin collections. This coupled with transparent and more inclusive governance will win resources and respect for Hargeisa from both the public and private sector.
The population growth, even with good governance and strong partnerships remains an issue. The average size of a Somali family is large by most standards and land is in short supply in the capital. The best way to address this major concern is for central government, to invest in and promote Regional Economic Development. This means giving tax breaks to companies that invest outside of the capital and create employment in other major cities so as to alleviate the population pressure from the capital. The NGOs that have also congregated in Hargeisa ought to be dispersed and government functions and offices shipped out too. Why should a nation be concentrated in one city? This is bad economics, politics and even worse urban planning. However, the dream of Regional Economic Development is currently hampered by poor infrastructure and transport which are two of the key reasons why businesses, NGOs and people huddle together uncomfortably in the capital.
Hargeisa is a city with great potential. It is the capital of a nation seeking recognition from the international community and its economical and political heart. However, with so much hope invested in it by everyone, it could end up letting the nation down. It is too populated, increasingly divided, poorly and confusingly governed as well as expensive. This is not the recipe for city survival and success. Indeed it is the route to fragmentation and eventual self destruction. Urgent steps need to be taken to prevent this both from the Centre and by Local leadership.
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