Dual citizenship in 30 minutes

Almost anyone can wander downtown and get themselves a bona fide identity document, no questions asked, writes Sean Connolly.

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.

Money-sellers selling stacks of 100 notes, which are worth about US$2 © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

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I was asked to fill in my personal details on a scrap piece of paper clearly torn out of a weekly planner several years out of date.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.

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