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July 19, 2011 / calebdresser

The Business of Staying Alive

Somaliland takes the safety of foreigners seriously, at least on the surface. Westerners travelling outside the capital are required by law to arrange for an armed bodyguard, and most of the local NGOs arrange for guards in Hargeisa as well. Police checkpoints along the roads outside the city allow officers to check every car that goes by, although needless to say security is somewhat relaxed. Foreigners are only allowed past checkpoints if they have an accompanying guard, and with the exception of a memorable incident in which my driver smuggled me through two checkpoints under a pile of baguettes, I’ve generally played by the rules.

In practice, the system is imperfect and seems to provide a deterrent rather than real protection. All of the guards carry suitably large weapons, but I’m sceptical about how effective they would be if anything were to happen. Most of them carry stockless AK-47s, which are tremendously difficult to shoot with any accuracy. I’ve also seen at least one SKS rifle with the stock chopped off just behind the trigger, which seems like a recipe for broken fingers. Worse still, none of the guards bother to carry extra clips for their rifles; paired with their unwieldy weapons, this seems to guarantee that their participation in a fire-fight would be brief and ineffectual at best. Many of them also chew khat while on duty. While Edna has managed to hire her guards from the handful that don’t chew, most of the others throughout the country are likely to be high out of their minds by mid-afternoon.

As far as I can tell, the main advantages of the system are that it provides jobs for ex-combatants and allows the government to say they were doing their best to protect foreigners if anything bad happens. I sincerely doubt that it does much to improve our safety. The nature of the threats here is too unpredictable. Most of the incidents in the past few years have been perpetrated by radical Islamists using firearms or explosives, and I somehow doubt that the presence of a stoned guy with one clip of ammo would do much to change the outcome.

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