Money-sellers selling stacks of 100 notes, which are worth about US$2 © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
‘What about the stamps and signatures?’, I queried. ‘Ten dollar!’, beamed Mr Moneychanger.
Amongst the myriad moneychangers and innumerable bricks of 500 shilling notes that line the streets of Hargeisa, you’ll pick out semi-discreet flashes of a glossier shade of green. Not money, but passports – brand new, completely blank, and with Somali Democratic Republic proudly emblazoned on the front cover. These are Somali (not Somaliland) passports, the issuance of which has semi-officially fallen into private hands since 1991.
In practice, this means almost anyone can wander downtown and get themselves a bona fide identity document, no questions asked. And it goes without saying that, living in a country with passports for sale on the streets, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy one.
Armed with some cash and a photo, I made my way downtown and started asking around for a ‘Baasaboor’. As this is a true free-for-all private enterprise, prices vary wildly depending on who you ask. I soon settled on a US$60 model, in lovely institutional green. After I paid up, a stack of fresh blank passports was whisked out from a tattered black grocery bag, and I was handed my very own paint-by-numbers, do-it-yourself, fill-in-the-blanks passport!
‘What about the stamps and signatures?’, I queried. ‘Ten dollar!’, beamed Mr Moneychanger. Fair enough – it may be a disorganised free-for-all, but it still beats a trip to the DMV or post office!
After knocking US$2 off the stamp-and-signature fee, I was asked to fill in my personal details on a scrap piece of paper clearly torn out of a weekly planner several years out of date. Information in hand, my moneychanger-turned-citizenship officer disappeared around the corner, leaving myself and some bystanders in charge of his money piles.
In about as long as it takes to turn down a glass of tea (my sugar quota for the day already having been filled), our faithful public servant was back with a stamped, signed and even laminated passport. Whoever he went to clearly ran a tight ship. With that, I bade farewell to Mr Moneychanger and various other congenial chatters, and headed off down the street, a Somali citizen in less than 30 minutes. I’ve had a tougher time getting a Chicago Public Library card – I wasn’t even asked for any ID, the guy just filled in whatever information I gave him.
Of course, the issue of legitimate Somaliland (as opposed to Somalia) passports is more strictly regulated – much like getting a passport anywhere else. Ironically, however, this legitimate document is practically useless. Governments are unwilling to issue visas to citizens of a country whose existence they don’t recognise, which means that a Somaliland passport is accepted nowhere in the world other than Ethiopia.
Perversely, a Somali passport that was printed who knows where, bought on the black market, and filled in by a moneychanger with a rubber stamp of mysterious origin, is a relatively legitimate document. Indeed, it is this very document that most Somalilanders wishing to travel abroad are forced to use. Not that I imagine getting a visa anywhere with a Somali passport is a walk in the park. Little wonder, really, that any Somalilander who can afford it will shell out for an Ethiopian passport instead.