By Fred Harter
One topic was on the lips of the gold merchants and black market currency traders in the bustling centre of Somaliland’s capital last week: Sir Mo Farah’s claim that he was trafficked to the United Kingdom as a boy using another child’s name.
The full BBC documentary in which Farah revealed that his true name is Hussein Abdi Kahin is unavailable in the east African territory, but sections have been clipped up with Somali subtitles and shared endlessly online.
“Whenever I open my Facebook, I see it,” said Nura Ismail, a stallholder in Hargeisa, brandishing her phone. “Everyone is talking about the documentary — it’s a very sad thing.”
A woman at a nearby stall chimed in, saying she is from the same clan as Farah. “I watched parts of the documentary last night,” she said. “He is a good person. He sends money to his family and does not ignore them despite what happened to him.”
The four-time Olympic winner is Somaliland’s most famous son and his BBC documentary has suddenly thrust the obscure, breakaway republic into the spotlight. It was a British protectorate until 1960, a legacy that lingers on in three-pin plugs, right-hand-drive cars and camel steaks served with HP sauce.
“The British are our uncles,” said Halimu Abdullahi, another trader.
Colonial rule was followed by a union with neighbouring Somalia that ended in 1991 after a bloody, decade-long independence struggle that flattened Hargeisa — earning it the nickname “the Dresden of Africa” — and left tens of thousands dead. Hargeisa’s main landmark is a monument topped by one of the Somalia air force planes that used to bomb the city. Young people hang out beneath it and take pictures.
Ayan Mahamoud, Somaliland’s former diplomatic representative to the UK, calls what happened a genocide. “Everything here was rubble 30 years ago,” she said, in a gleaming new hotel. “There were government jets taking off from the airport a few kilometres away for bombing raids.”
In the chaos, desperate parents sent thousands of children abroad using false papers to live with relatives.
“During the war everyone asked friends and relatives to take their children out of the country,” said Lul Hassan Matan, co-founder of the Somaliland Child Welfare Association. “There were a lot of good people who took the children of their relatives abroad, but there were also some bad people who exploited those children.” Farah said he was made to work as a servant by the woman who brought him to the UK.
For the past three decades Somaliland has enjoyed de facto independence from Somalia, which still asserts its sovereignty. In deference to that claim it is recognised by not one foreign power. Yet the territory has most of the trappings of a modern nation state, with its own military, border posts and currency, and it elects a national parliament. Most notably, it boasts a reputation as a bastion of stability in a conflict-ridden region.
The contrast with Somalia is stark. In the 1990s, that country descended into a period of warlordism, and large parts of it are overrun by militants loyal to al-Qaeda. Last year Mogadishu, its capital, was the scene of gun battles between rival factions as the president tried to ram a law through parliament that would have extended his term. He subsequently stepped aside and was toppled in elections in May.
“You could not trade like this in Mogadishu,” said Abdi Fatah, a street-side dealer in Hargeisa’s market, sitting in front of a sizeable stack of well-thumbed banknotes worth several thousand pounds. “Here no one will touch it, but there you would get robbed straight away.”
Not everything is perfect, though. In 2020, Somaliland cancelled a women’s football game that was deemed to violate Islamic culture. In April this year, 15 journalists were arrested for reporting on a prison riot. Such incidents prompted talk of an authoritarian turn.
Starved of the western grants and support that come with international recognition, Somaliland also remains extremely poor, with youth unemployment at 75 per cent.
In Farah’s home region of Gabiley, most people live in huts made from sticks and cloth, arranged in compounds ringed by thorn branches.
When I visited the rural home of Farah’s family last week, it lacked basic amenities. A woman who said she was Farah’s sister-in-law declined to be interviewed but said that the athlete provided support that had helped them to buy a tractor.
Somalilanders hope their independence will be recognised as trade links deepen. The UAE is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing Berbera, Somaliland’s deep-water port, and its strategic position on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden has seen it courted by the United States, which has touted a security partnership.
The territory has also gained an unlikely champion in Sir Gavin Williamson, the UK’s former education secretary, who in January led a parliamentary debate on the republic’s sovereignty. One grateful Somalilander whipped up a cappuccino with foam bearing Williamson’s likeness, and a national appreciation day was held in his honour. On a subsequent visit, he was mobbed by fans who hailed him as a “freedom fighter”.
In Hargeisa market, traders hope Farah’s documentary will further boost their country’s cause. “We are very proud of him,” said Mohamud Mohammed Hersi, who was selling honey. “His fame draws attention to Somaliland. Maybe that will help more people support us.”
The article was published in The Sunday Times