Sorry, northerners, but London’s tube strike is national news

Lol, good luck. Image: Getty.

Okay, there’s something that’s bugging me today. By even mentioning it I’m sticking my head on the block very slightly, and I’m sure the social media response to this post is going to be a treat. But I’m going to say it anyway, because it’s really, really winding me up:

Yes, there is a very good reason the tube strike is national news today. And no, it isn’t comparable to a problem with the buses in Huddersfield.

The idea that the strike is just a little local difficulty is a superficially truth-y one. London, after all, is just one city, where the vast majority of the country do not, in fact, live. What’s more, as the political, business and cultural capital of our ludicrously over-centralised state, unnecessary attention paid to London is likely to annoy people in the way a sudden focus on, say, Bradford probably won’t.

What’s more, by any reasonable definition, the British media is too London-centric. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of the fact that most of us live here, and CityMetric is very definitely not immune to this problem. (I’m always keen to correct this where possible, so if you happen to be in charge of another British city and would like me to come up and see you, do get in touch.)

Nonetheless, it’s entirely reasonable that the tube strike should be leading today’s national news, for at least two reasons.

One is that London is not just another city. It isn’t simply that all the journalists and politicians live here (though, that no doubt helps, when it comes to garnering coverage). It’s that a whole lot of other people do.

Exactly how many is quite hard to say, because the city has been growing pretty fast, but it can’t be far off 9m by now – roughly one in seven of the national population. If you consider the entire metropolitan area, which includes the commuter belt – as good a proxy for the number of people affected, directly or indirectly, by the tube strike as we’re likely to get – it’s closer to 14m.

I sort of suspect that any other political issue that affected 1 in 5 of the British population would be leading the news today, too.

Population estimates for 30 June 2015.

It’s easy to forget quite how big London is: because it’s just a city there’s a tendency to assume it’s on a level with other British cities. But it isn’t: it’s at least three times bigger than any of its rivals, and at least 40 times bigger than Huddersfield. It’s probably slightly bigger than Scotland and Wales combined, too – on which measure, Sadiq Khan is a significantly more important politician than Nicola Sturgeon.

The other reason why the tube strike is a national matter is related to this, but exacerbated by our old friend, the north-south divide: London represents a disproportionately big share of the national GDP. Estimates vary, but tend to be somewhere between 17 and 22 percent.

In other words, every fifth pound that the British economy is meant to be generating today may never materialise because people couldn’t get onto the Piccadilly line this morning.

None of this means the media isn’t too London-centric: it definitely is. Nor does it mean that it’s ludicrous the economy is so dependent on one giant city: that’s definitely true, too.

But the reality is that it’s genuinely difficult to think of anything else that could be happening in Britain today that would be directly affecting so many people or businesses. With apologies to the “not everyone lives in London” brigade, that’s why it’s leading the news today.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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