Galkayo: A peaceful island in Somalia

An armed Somali pirate along the coastline of Puntland, the breakaway Somali region in which Galkayo is partly located AFRICA REVIEW | AFP 

The runway was in the middle of nowhere. Considering the rickety plane that flew us here, it was with a tinge of happiness that we alighted. As far as the eye could see, there was no life; just bush stretching after bush till the end. The sun was at a scorching degree, and the humidity in the air was unbearable.

Welcome to Galkayo International Airport, the lifeline for a region that is barely connected to the rest of the world. This airport alone says a great deal about this city, and how it has been able to survive throughout Somalia’s 20-year civil war. It has been the centre of controversy between the city’s north-south divide, and has grown with time to become an emblem of civility and progress.

Galkayo is divided into two zones. The northern part is ruled by the autonomous government of Puntland, while the southern part is governed as an entity of the Galmudug state. Each state claims territorial sovereignty over the city and the Galmudug state has even gone as far as declaring the city as its capital. But one factor has remained crucial in the two governments’ relationship, and has created a truce that has held for many years: the Galkayo airport.

Surreal world

The airport here acts as a buffer zone and is seen by the residents as the common denominator that unites them all and makes both sides hold their respective fire. The taxes collected by the airport authority are divided equally between the two sides, establishing a fragile, yet impeccable system that has brought tranquillity to this city amidst Somalia’s chaos.

This is ultimate ‘nomad democracy’, where an airport consisting of a brick hall and a barely existing airstrip stand at the cross-section of what might otherwise have been a theatre of an all-out war.

Pass the airport security, collect your luggage, get a taxi and the world you meet barely has any connection to the Somalia we read about. The image you get when one talks of Galkayo is surreal. But what used to be a small dot in Somalia’s map is now growing into a major city that joins Somalia’s south to its north.

Hotels, guest houses, supermarkets, restaurants, and new office blocks for NGOs and the government compete in height with the newly-erected, tall minarets of the mosques. The city also boasts of social services like hospitals, schools, police stations and petrol stations. Even the former Somali army barracks in the city has been renovated and is kept in good condition.

Arabic and English calligraphic writings highlight the city’s walls, making it a training ground for artists and mural painters who decorate shops and office walls with colourful words and drawings.

Traffic is orderly in Galkayo. Matatus (minibus taxis) operate on alternative days in order to ease traffic in this small city, while at the same time establishing equity, so that all those involved in the business can profit from it. Thus, certain mini-buses with certain number plates work on allotted days according to the directions of the city’s government.

Thriving economy

Money seems to be abundant in this part of the world. At the airport, the cafeteria manager asked us whether we could count his money as he attended to other business within the premises. Bundled together were hundreds of thousands of Somali shillings, amounting to hundreds of dollars, which was inviting us to count for him without his supervision.

However, the dollar is the preferred currency. The money transfer system Sahal, also strictly deals in dollars. Even telecommunication companies like Golis sell their scratch cards in dollars.

All this has been facilitated by the relative security the city enjoys. What happens here does not often attract blaring headlines or frenzied reports on local radios. But that is not to say there are no security concerns. Police officers in the city are always alert, patrolling the city’s maze of streets with their AK-47s.

Recently, after the violent merger between al-Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam happened, police increased checkpoints within the city. Tension is evident between the indigenous Majeerteen clan and the Hawiye refugees from the south. Both sides eye each other suspiciously, and after every few blocks, you get to notice somebody holding a gun discreetly, but not brandishing or cocking it.

Nonetheless, a decentralised system of governance that trickles down to clan members and leaders upholds the fragile security that is in Galkayo. Ask anyone his name, and he will introduce himself first with a title followed by the name. The titles garaad (the wise one), beel daajiye (male clan leader), nabad doon (peacemaker), habar daajiye (female clan leader), and ugaas (head of clan) are very prolific. With the identity comes a whole lot of respect that is accorded to these leaders who intervene and solve community problems by infiltrating the familial and clan linkages.

Moreover, communal activities like sports are also one of the ways in which this nomadic democracy holds up. Our visit in December coincided with the time in which the national football tournament of Somalia was being held in Puntland’s capital, Garowe. The talk in the town revolved around the different teams and how they fared in the first few days of the tournament, creating a common bond. (Benadir region, whose capital is Mogadishu, won the tournament.)

Even the district names in Galkayo point to a different Somalia. Galkayo, with its 13 neighbourhoods, portrays in names what the rest of Somalia lost 20 years ago. Garsoor (Justice) and Israac (Unity) make up the city’s biggest localities, in addition to New Garsoor (New Justice) and the Village of Wadajir (Village of Unity).

Galkayo, the city that was the tipping point of exasperation with the Siad Barre regime, and where the problems of Somalia first erupted, tells a story of how it has come of age. Its people speak with a lot of vitality and energy; perhaps from confidence gained after building a stable democracy in the middle of a ravaging war that is now continuing in the rest of Somalia.

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