This week, a relatively unknown yet remarkable event will be taking place just a stone’s throw from the bustling and vertiginous Square Mile in the City of London, at Oxford House in Bethnal Green. The Somali Week Festival will run from 22 October to 30 October 2022. A cultural event packed with film screenings, children’s events, and discussions with eminent Somali writers, the festival is now running into its fourteenth year. Amongst the array of events planned, is the launch of a biography detailing the improbable life story of one man. Born just before the world was plunged into the devastation of the Second World War; to proud yet humble nomadic Camel herders roaming the myrrh-scented deserts of the northern Somali hinterlands. It is a story of resilience despite all the challenges. Following his journey as he becomes one of his nation’s most accomplished and cherished founding fathers. That man is a former Statesman, rebel leader and ex-President of Somaliland, Ahmed Mohamed “Silanyo”. It lays bare a tale that entwines one man’s story with that of his nation.
It weaves an arc from the early attempts at federal nation-building in the late 1960s and 1970s, as part of the Republic of Somalia, formed in 1960 of a union between the former Italian colony and the British protectorate, “Somaliland”. To the years in the Ethiopian bush leading one of the continent’s most effective opposition armed movements, the Somali National Movemet (SNM); and onwards to secession and the reclamation of Somaliland independence in 1991 following the results of a constitutional referendum.
Somaliland? I hear you say. I won’t blame many UK readers for not having heard of it. In the cacophony of the noise surrounding the numberless stories on the “failed State of Somalia” – the yet officially unrecognized reality of the Somaliland Republic, born out of the ashes and unrelenting aspirations of its people following destruction of the Somali Civil War in the wake of the Said Barre regime, often goes untold. It succeeded where few others have on the African continent. By building a peaceful, inclusive and democratic nation.
Once described an oasis of peace and stability in the otherwise turbulent region of the Horn of Africa, it is a nation that has finally come of age after successive peaceful elections and transfer of power over the last three decades. Under Silanyo’s tenure, Somaliland has witnessed unprecedented growth. The establishment of free education, including for vulnerable girls often left aside. The expansion and development of critical infrastructure, including roads and the national port supported by an unprecedented DP World enterprise of over $400 million, opening the internationally critical Berbera corridor. The same company that runs the London Gateway, the UK’s most integrated logistics hub. These efforts were further bolstered by additional innovative foreign direct investments, targeted development assistance, and partnerships with everyday civilians and local businessmen. Elsewhere, advancements were made in improving access to health and basic services for vulnerable populations.
Somalis arrived on the shores of the British Isles in successive waves. At first, as an intrepid merchant seaman during the nineteenth century, in search of adventure and a life beyond the confines of known. Later joining the Navy’s efforts during the Second World War, known for their unflinching stamina in the face of all obstacles. They found themselves in the large cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester, and Liverpool, amongst others. Over the decades since, the Somali community has become a mainstay of the UK landscape. Many of these folks originally hail from Somaliland. The abiding bonds between one of the oldest nations on earth, and its newest is undeniable. At a time of immense challenges at home and abroad, by laying out the story of one man against the backdrop of a hopeful and fledgling new nation, Somali Week will seek to explore the intersection between the past and the present, tradition, and modernity.
By Bashe Awil
About Bashe Awil Haji Omar
The author is a diplomat and former Head of Mssion of the republic of Somaliland to the United Arab Emirates