Words by Yusuf Serunkuma | 17 Aug 2022

Visitors to Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared but internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland, will not miss the imposing monuments placed at strategic intervals on the road from the airport through the central business district to the presidential palace. Erected at key junctions and squares, they are unmissable. Zeinab Badawi, a Sudanese-British journalist with BBC, reported on their presence in 2011, in particular the Russian-made MiG fighter jet astride a monument in central Hargeisa. Badawi noted that the monument was a reminder “of the bitter battles the people here fought to break away from the rest of Somalia in 1991”. The monument has appeared on the cover of a number of books about Hargeisa, and often headlines websites on Somaliland. It is an articulate monument.

Students of public memorials have often busied themselves with the nature of history that monuments articulate. In addition to interest in authorship, they have also debated identities constructed, futures imagined and publics mobilised. Notions of authenticity and accuracy often form, albeit problematically, the undercurrents of these conversations. The monument thus becomes a site of contest and negotiation for different claims. Writing about monuments in Paris, art historian Sergiusz Michalski noted in 2008 that public monument “reflects the state’s ideological foundations”. As “sites of memory,” and as indicators of present and futures aspirations, monuments tell stories in the context of the historical-political atmosphere of the time. Like all other repositories of history, monuments legitimate and silence particular claims, depending on the political context of the moment.

In a situation of recovery after violence, a quest for independence from Somalia-Mogadishu and a search for a definitive identity for the people of Somaliland, what are the monuments in Hargeisa—the capital city, and centre of cultural, political and economic activity—saying?

The cityscape of Hargeisa includes five large monuments. The best known is Taalada Xoriyadda iyo Dal Jirka Dahsoon (Statue of Liberty, or Country Not Yet Discovered), which features the MiG. The others are Kaare, a replica of a fighter tanker in Togdheer Area; the dove or peace monument; Sanad Guuradii 23aad, a monument to unity that portrays a hand holding the map of Somaliland; and the Dhagaxtuurka (literally, throwing stones). The latter is a tomb for the student protestors who were gunned down on 20 February 1982 for protesting the government of President Mohamed Siyad Barre for arresting volunteers in the Hargeisa Group, who were helping provide public services in “politically deprived” Hargeisa. (A sixth monument placed on the road from the airport that depicted an archer was replaced by an advertising hoarding for SOMTEL, a telecommunication company.)

These monuments were introduced to Hargeisa in the late 1990s at the behest of the city’s mayor, Cawo Elmi Abdullah. During Cawo’s term, he introduced various placemaking initiatives. For the first time, Hargeisa received security and traffic lights, and fountains were built in several places across the city—the fountains have all since disappeared, and traffic lights are only now reappearing. Cawo’s reforms were very popular, to the extent that callers to phone-in shows on radio and television sent greetings to him before their kin and friends. Some commentators have suggested that Cawo’s popularity surpassed that of the president, Muhammad Egal (1993-2002), who reacted by jailing him for a month on trumped-up charges. Egal’s successor, President Kahin Riyale (2002-10), simply dismissed Cawo from office.

Cawo’s monuments endure and have gained increasing popularity over the years. Their popularity—especially their wide circulation and reproduction in other forms and media—signals their power to speak and mobilise audiences towards certain ideations. But what exactly do Cawo’s monuments say? How do they manage to mobilise such wide and diverse audiences? Although intended to complement each other, in this essay I will focus on one: the Statue of Liberty. This monument, the most visible landmark in Hargeisa, illuminates ideations present in the other monuments.

The aircraft is an actual Russian MiG fighter jet. In 1988, Barre contracted South African mercenaries to bomb Hargeisa; Somali nationals in the air force had refused to undertake the attack on their countrymen. After the bombing raid the mercenaries abandoned three fighter jets at the airport. In 1998, relishing the stability and safety that had returned to Somaliland at the end of clannist fighting in 1996, Cawo had one of the jets moved to Freedom Square where it was installed atop a pyramid-shaped plinth.

Within a short period, the monument became the most representative and adored symbol of Hargeisan history and aspiration. The monuments ably mobilised a local public—besides its appearance in formal media, the monument appears in wall drawings and graffiti in different parts of the city. The monument is located in the city’s main business centre. It is flanked by numerous shops and is a located near Hargeisa’s main downtown market. The site also doubles as a car park during the main work hours. It is a popular place for shaa iyo sheeko (tea and talk) following afternoon prayers.

The base holding up the MiG is decorated with two prominent painted images. The tableaux paintings and accompanying captions explain particular moments in the 1988 civil war, during which an estimated 10,000 people died in two months. Women figure prominently in both paintings as protagonists. One painting shows a man and woman in clothes painted with colours of the Somaliland flag. The woman bears a rifle, while the man behind her is terribly injured; both his arms and legs are bleeding from their stumps. The scene includes a number of mutilated bodies. There are soldiers shooting at fleeing civilians. Two planes, which are marked with the flag of Somalia, bomb the city. “Bombs rained on us,” reads a caption.

The other painting shows a woman with a child on her back. She bears the Somaliland national flag; adopted in 1996, it was originally the flag of the Somali National Movement (SNM), who fought against Barre. Behind the woman is an elderly man with only one amputated leg. At the bottom left of the painting is a man in civilian clothes attempting to take a gun away from a soldier wearing a red beret—Barre’s most notorious military unit was called the Hangash (Red Berets). In the background are images of a mosque, tanks and several dead bodies. At right, the scene is being rolled up, revealing an idyllic village scene below, a metaphor of regeneration.

The Russian jet atop of the monument underscores the absolute helplessness of the Hargeisa people being bombed in the painting. It reminds the people of Hargeisa of their painful relationship with Somalia, the cruelty that was meted out and carnage that occurred. Although composed of aesthetically dubious paintings, the memorial is an eloquent statement on the victimhood of Somalilanders, as well their resilience and survivalist spirit. The switch from helpless victimhood to resolute resistance suggests the country’s hard-fought liberation is not yet complete.

At the base of the monument, two dates are acknowledged: 26 June 1960, when Somaliland achieved independence from Great Britain, and 18 May 1991, when the country unilaterally declared independence from Somalia. Interestingly, with the exception of acknowledging these dates, the monument says nothing about Great Britain. Since the monument memorialises moments of oppression by earlier and later colonisers, the silence regarding Britain’s wrongs in Somaliland is deafening.

Instead, the monument mobilises residents and visitors to Hargeisa to see Somalia-Mogadishu as an enemy. This view of Somalia mediates business, culture and political interaction in Hargeisa, within and without. In 2015, Hargeisa’s most renowned band, Hidigaha Geeska (The Horn Stars), were arrested on their return to the country after performing in Mogadishu during the Eid Aduha celebrations: they were accused of waving the Somalia flag during celebrations. Earlier this year, journalist and activist AbdulMalik Coldon was arrested upon arrival at Hargeisa following a visit to Mogadishu where he had met President Mohamed Abdullah Farmaajo. It is claimed he vowed to return to Somaliland and preach unification with Somalia-Mogadishu. Perhaps, if Coldon and the musicians with Hidigaha Geeska had been more attentive to Hargeisa’s defining monument, to its implicit narrative, they would have avoided arrest. In the context of Somaliland’s present politico-cultural aspirations, residents of Hargeisa ought to be more attentive of the narrative of their monuments.

Yusuf Serunkuma is a doctoral candidate at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) at Makerere University, Kampala.