Hargeysa Experiences: A Conversation With Ambassador Iqbal Jhazbhay

Ambassador Iqbal Hargeysa Festival

There is a lot of good happening in the Horn of Africa that doesn’t get to be heard by the world, I said when two friends told me they would be attending the Hargeysa International Book Fair 2017 (HIBF 2017), which took place July 22 – July 27.

Last Saturday, I had a conversation with one of the attendees, South Africa diplomat, Ambassador Prof. Iqbal Jhazbhay. In the forty five minute phone conversation, one realises how important the lack of coverage for literary festivals in Eastern Africa is, always weighed down by an age old theory first floated by renowned scholar Taban Lo Liyong’ about the region being a literary desert.

Amb Iqbal starts by nostalgically mentioning the strong relationship between Somalis and South Africans, remembering how the Somalis supported the South African antiapartheid struggle. When tables turned following the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, it was natural for South Africa to return a favour. A delegation of Somalilanders (sic) went to South Africa in the year 2000 to reconnect, several years after the Somali nation had been invited by the then President, Nelson Mandela for an entrepreneurship exchange programme. So it wasn’t a coincidence when South Africa was invited as the guest nation in Hargeysa International Book Fair 2017.

Amb. Iqbal was first invited to Somaliland for HIBF 2010, when he launched his book Somaliland: An African Struggle for Nationhood and International Recognition. The book was inspired by the quest to help rebuild Somaliland after the region decided to go back and govern itself within the historical borders that were demarcated by the British, Amb. Iqbal says.

It was my first time at HIBF and I was to speak about my book at the book fair and launch it for the first time in Hargeysa. The book was already selling in South Africa, he says. In the subsequent years up to 2016, he couldn’t attend the fair because of his appointment as the South Africa ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea. But once he relinquished his position, he was back in Hargeiysa for HIBF 2016, and HIBF 2017 as an invited guest in his personal capacity.

A resilient nation

How is it that Southern Somalia is known for its collapse all over international media while Northern Somalia is able to govern itself? Amb. Iqbal quips in his diplomatic tone. The answers, he says, lie in the four R’s as he describes in his book:

Reconciliation – the first thing that the clans in the north did was to hold reconciliation meetings with an aim of bettering their lives.

Reconstruction – Hargeiysa was flattened, a city in ruins due to the prolonged conflict that followed the Siad Barre coup. The desire to build a progressive country, largely with the help of the Somaliland diaspora, has played a critical role in creating the new Hargeysa. When I came to Hargeysa in 2016, I was amazed at how the city now looked like, the new buildings, universities, restaurants. All this was happening with very little help from the international community, which just illustrates the resilient spirit of the Somali nation, he says. And that, he adds, is the same spirit that pushed Dr Jama Musse Jama and Ayan Mahamoud to start and keep the Hargeysa International Book Fair going for the last ten years. Today, the book festival is attended by more than 5000 people, boosted by the diaspora populations who visit home during the summer period.

Religion – there is a way that Somaliland has learnt to balance the local religious inclinations and that which was coming from abroad. That they have managed to keep at bay the radical religion of the Shabaab, which is terrorising the south, is something commendable.

Recognition – Somaliland simply went back to the old boundaries that were drawn by the British when the larger Somalia fell into conflict. Remember that Somaliland was a British protectorate, and it had joined the larger Somalia out of her own volition, Ambassador Iqbal says, so when things did not go well, they went back to their old boundaries and decided to rebuild. It explains a lot why they are peaceful.

At this point, I ask His Excellency the Ambassador if, according to him, with everything flourishing, what his take would be on Somaliland being recognised by the international community.

There is a lot that goes into recognition. Countries like the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands have financially supported a lot of initiatives there, NGOs are giving cash for marine development, staff training, etc. The AU even sent a fact finding mission which gave a positive report. But the agreement of the international community is that Somali people preserve the right to decide their own future.

Ambassador Iqbal is of the view that Somaliland should do more engagement especially with African nations, since structures on previous diplomatic missions are already in place.

Given that South Africa is a huge book festival nation, with fairs happening around the major cities all year round, the nation being the guest country at the HIBF 2017 was a big boon to Hargeysa. But the tradition of literature is not new to Somaliland.

Somaliland has a largely oral culture, where people would gather under trees and perform poetry and tell stories. The book culture there is a recent phenomenon, and the HIBF is helping a lot to bring books to the centre of this culture. We have a great poet, Hadrawi (Ibrahim Warsame, Mohamed) whose poetry is well known in Somaliland and the larger Somalia. The book fair has grown exponentially, it is now the biggest and most consistent book fair outside Kenya in the East African region, there are now more books being published within Somaliland, we have the Red Sea Cultural Foundation which is doing a lot of publishing. You look at the roundtable discussions of young Somalilanders with PhDs producing and discussing all this scholarly stuff. When you compare with South Africa, which is a huge book market, Somaliland is doing very well in its circumstances. Hargeysa had been neglected by Barre but now has a proliferation of learning institutions all over, you see several universities (he mentions some of the universities) and there are even Kenyan institutions that have been established there. Somaliland has done even better than Djibouti by publishing more newspapers in the Somali language. When you look around you see the massive attendance of more than 5000 people, and scholars from around the world bringing in more flavour.

What would he like the HIBF organisers to do for future fairs?

They should start discussions with some world renowned publishers and make arrangements for publishers from countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa to have stands at the book fair. This cooperation which will help spur the growth of literature in Africa should start. What they have already managed to do in the past ten years has inspired many, with Puntland having organised her own book fair twice, and Mogadishu is also picking up.

They should also encourage translations of all these classics into Somali language so that there is more to choose from in their literature, Amb Iqbal says.

More well-known key figures should be invited, and partnerships formed. Amb. Iqbal notes that Britain Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s tour of Somalia earlier in the year should be emulated by other key figures, especially African government officials, to help paint Somalia in better light.

With the entrepreneurship spirit and commitment of the Somali people to make it happen as seen all over the world, this is possible, he says. I have seen many young people who have left developed places such as London to come set up business in Hargeysa. Partnerships across Africa will help in both business and growth of literature. They have the spirit to do anything; they are even active in Juba today, they have started an airline, and the Red Sea Cultural Foundation is pioneering a publishing model.

Advice for those planning to attend HIBF 2018

Whatever your profession, it is good to liase with the organisers so that you can have workshops on the side of the main programme. They are always open to new views. One can also follow the proceedings on Facebook live.
There might be language limitations with a certain age group, but more and more young people and the diaspora which speaks English attend.

As a parting shot, Amb. Iqbal says we must find new ways to give impetus to whatever we do. Growing the culture of reading books should be a priority as books enable the emergence of top form scholars. We should use all forms of digital opportunities to disseminate this knowledge, whether through Facebook, twitter, blogs, websites, etc.


Ambassador Prof. Iqbal Jhazbhay served as South Africa Ambassador to Eritrea (2012-2016). He is currently Professor at the University of South Africa and Director, Board of the Institute for Global Dialogue.