On the windswept plains of sand, rock and shingle that recede westwards from the Somaliland shore on the Gulf of Aden to Ethiopia’s stepped plateaus is a rocky outcrop of caves illumed by vivid frescos of striped cattle, long-necked giraffes, and slender human forms.
The rock paintings of Laas Geel are believed to be at least 3000 years old, a time when the Somali plains were probably lush grasslands. Today, desert wastes surround the cave-complex, but it isn’t hard to imagine caravans laden with myrrh and frankincense crisscrossing this historic land route from the port at Berbera to the Ethiopian city of Harar.
Two decades of civil war have etched the Horn of Africa into the atlas of peripheral places, yet the region has long served as a vital node for East African trade. Berbera is the African counterpart to the Yemeni seaport of Aden near the gateway to the Red Sea. In fact, Somalia’s current marginalisation is particularly acute considering its proximity to one of history’s most lucrative trade corridors: the route from England to India.
In 1825, the British government in Bombay learnt that the Mary Ann, a brig sailing from the colony of Mauritius, had been plundered and sunk near Berbera. The East India Company responded by blockading the Somali coast for six years to recover the cost of the ship and the merchandise from Somali merchant ships docking at Berbera harbour for the annual trade fair.
“This fair held at Burburra appears to continue from October or the beginning of November till March every year,” wrote Fredrick Forbes, an assistant surgeon at the East India Company, who sailed on the Berbera-bound Tigris from Bombay in 1833, “The articles brought from the interior …arrive…in large caravans from 3 to 5,000 camels and consist of slaves, gums of all kinds, coffee, ghee, ivory, ostrich feathers and sheep.” Among the many buyers, Forbes spotted boats from Mandvi and Surat in Gujarat trading rice and sugar.
By 1839, the British had formally occupied Aden; Somaliland was colonised and made a British protectorate in the 1880s. The Italians controlled the rest of Somalia. An abortive union in 1960 between English and Italian Somali territories was followed by decades of civil war. In 1991, Somaliland broke away from Somalia and declared itself an independent republic, but is yet to be recognised by any nation. During the colonial period, the Imperial government in Bombay, rather than London, administered Aden and Somaliland. Aden was controlled by the Royal Indian Navy and was supplied with meat from Somaliland’s plentiful herds of sheep, goats and cattle.
The primary objective was to safeguard the India route, more so after the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869. The British focused their attention on the port of Berbera and paid little attention to the inland, prompting Douglas Jardine, of the Somaliland Expeditionary Force to describe it as the “Cinderella of the Empire”
“The Indian Penal Code was implemented in the early period of Somaliland’s colonization,” said Aden Nuh Dule, Somaliland’s liaison officer in Ethiopia, “The rupee was used and there was an ‘Indian Line’ in Hargeisa, where all the Indians used to stay.”
Indian line, like much else in Hargeisa, was destroyed during the civil war in the late 1980s; but after two decades of peace, Somaliland’s businessmen are looking east once more. “We want Indians to come to Somaliland to invest,” said Abdulkader Hashi, a prominent businessman in Hargeisa, “We have a port. South Sudan has oil. India needs oil. The Indians should help us build a pipeline.”
Ramadan in summer is always brutal, but in Somaliland it also tends to be rather expensive. “I will run my refrigerator all day during Ramazaan [Ramadan] to keep food fresh for Iftar,” said Mohamed Ibrahim Musa, a manager at Salaam Bank, “Usually we just switch it on for a few hours at time.” At $1 a unit, Somaliland has among the highest electricity rates, and lowest consumption, in the world.
Almost all power is generated privately using diesel generators of varying vintages and most power providers are businesses like hotels, telecom companies or money transfer agencies that sell power surplus to their own operations.
The Aloog Electricity Company in the town of Borama began as a company providing fixed line telephone services in 2003. “We couldn’t find someone to supply 24 hour electricity for our exchange,” said Mohamed Igeh, Aloog’s Chief of Accounts and founding partner, “So we bought a generator and starting selling surplus electricity to our neighbours.”
In time, Mr. Igeh, and his partner Idris Haji Hamoud realised that the electricity business was far more lucrative than the telecommunication business. In 2005, Aloog began supplying 24-hour electricity to their immediate neighbourhood and has since expanded by buying out their competitors and consolidating the business. The company now has 2 MW installed capacity, has begun laying high-tension wires, and provides power to government buildings, cellphone operators and about 7000 households.
The Aloog power station consists of three separate generating units: two $80,000 diesel units generating 900 KVA that run in two shifts from 7 am to 4 pm and from 4 pm to 1 am. For the night shift, as demand drops sharply, Mr. Igeh switches on a Volvo boat engine and an Iveco truck engine that have been modified to spin a dynamo and churn out enough electricity to keep the lights on in Boromo.
“The generation costs are just too high,” Mr. Igeh said, pointing out that Somaliland’s unrecognised status makes it difficult for the government or traders to buy oil on international markets. Aloog is now planning to invest in wind power to lower costs and reach more consumers.
One evening, customers lined up outside Aloog’s complaints cell to dispute their monthly electricity charges. Fadumo Abdi usually paid about $10 a month to light up her house on the outskirts of town, but this month the bill was nearly $20. After a prolonged interrogation by Aloog’s staff, Ms. Abdi realised that her brother — a doctor with the U.N. — had gifted her children a laptop. “They run the laptop night and day,” she said, “That must be the reason.”
“People here aren’t used to using electricity,” Mr. Igeh said, “So we gave her a small discount this time.” Ms. Abdi returned home to reprimand her errant children.
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