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Somaliland’s first all-girls basketball team shoot for recognition

WRAPPED in the tricolour flag of her homeland, 21-year-old captain Hafsa Omer bounces the basketball between her legs, dribbles lays it up off the backboard, and watches it clatter into the hoop.

Her dream is to one day play for her nation, but there is a catch – Somaliland is not a country.

The breakaway territory has struggled to gain international recognition from any foreign government, despite governing itself and enjoying comparative peace and stability since declaring independence in 1991.

Omer and her two sisters, who also play for Hargeisa Girls Basketball, the first all-girls team in the incipient country, are determined to put Somaliland on the map, by mobilising their more than 10,000 followers on social media.

“Somaliland is looking for their recognition and we believe that we could be part of bringing the recognition… by wearing the flags, by talking about our country, by promoting it through the short video TikToks or Instagram pictures,” she said.

Questions about Somaliland’s sovereignty came into sharp focus in January when local authorities said they would grant landlocked Ethiopia access to the Red Sea in return for recognition as an independent country, sparking a diplomatic row with Somalia’s federal government.

Somalia, which considers Somaliland part of its territory, rejected the deal allowing landlocked Ethiopia to lease 20km (12 miles) around the port of Berbera, with access to the Red Sea for 50 years for its navy and commercial tankers.

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Somaliland officials say they have a strong case to become Africa’s 55th nation.

The former British protectorate has its own coast guard – run by a female admiral – police force, passports, currency and a functioning democratic political system and government institutions.

Hafsa Omer, 21, captain of the Hargeisa Basketball Girls team takes a selfie photograph with her teammates during the Independence Day Eve celebrations in Hargeisa, Somaliland, May 17, 2024. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

That record stands in contrast to large portions of the rest of Somalia where government forces have been fighting a bloody counterinsurgency against al Qaeda-linked militants from al Shabaab.

Omer sees her devotion to Somaliland’s independence as an extension of her father and uncles’ armed struggle in the 1980s against the dictator Siad Barre.

“My dad talks about it every day, what he and his friends had been through, while he watched his cousins dying in front of him,” she said.

While the territory of around 3.5 million people remains some way from attaining diplomatic approval abroad, Omer has made significant gains in pushing women’s rights.

Since she founded Hargeisa Girls Basketball in 2018, other female teams have sprung up. They now play in an all-girls league, challenging conservative social attitudes and religious beliefs in Somaliland.

For her sister Fatima Omer, basketball serves both goals.

“We just want the world to see us,” she said.

By GIULIA PARAVICINI

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