“The 1990 Base Access Renegotiation” is chapter 12 of the “Arms for the Horn,” a book about Great Power Competition or how the Cold War played out in the Horn of Africa, particularly from an American Foreign Policy perspective.


U.S. Security Policy In Ethiopia And Somalia


Jeffrey A. Lefebvre

Pitt Series in Policy and Institutional Studies

University of Pittsburgh Press

CHAPTER 12 - The 1990 Base Access Renegotiation


The United States and Somalia, 1977-1990

CHAPTER 12: The 1990 Base Access Renegotiation

In the aftermath of the U.S. emergency arms airlift to Somalia in the summer of 1982, Mogadishu became the beneficiary of one of the largest U.S. security assistance programs ever put together for a sub-Sahara African state. Washington’s initial two-year (FY 1980-FY 1981) $45 million SAP commitment was dwarfed by the aid amounts promised to Somalia throughout the mid-1980s. During the next five-year period (FY 1982-F Y 1986), U.S. security assistance to Somalia totaled over $266 million, including $114 million in grant military assistance, $4.3 million for an IMET program that trained more than 230 Somali military students, $128 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF), and $20 million in FMS financing credits. The United States also guaranteed more than $172 million worth of FMS cash sales. Although Washington had placed restrictions on the transfer of “offensive” weaponry to Somalia, a condition it had never imposed on Ethiopia. Nonetheless, over seven years the U.S. committed almost $500 million worth of military resources to Mogadishu—more than $100 million above what the mass protests in cities around the U.S. against an executive order that would block millions of people from entering the United States had supplied to Addis Ababa during the course of their twenty-five-year arms partnership.


While Jimmy Carter had started the United States down the road to arming Somalia, Ronald Reagan accelerated the process with no apologies. The Reagan administration freely used arms transfers to support friendly Third World governments. Moreover, in the era of the Reagan Doctrine, covert and overt aid to anti-communist insurgent movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua was used to contain and roll back the spread of Soviet influence. Although Ethiopia was not officially a selected target of the Reagan Doctrine, a militant policy of containment was being applied in the Horn of Africa by arming Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya. Through 1986 these three countries accounted for well over half of U.S. security assistance provided to sub-Sahara Africa. Together they received an overall average of $500 million in security assistance annually.

But as a result of the fiscal crisis confronting Washington, Congress began reducing the administration’s foreign affairs budget. For FY 1987 approximately 25 percent of the $22.6 billion request was cut, resulting in more than $3 billion in SAP reductions. Except for several key countries (specifically, Egypt and Israel, whose funds were earmarked by Congress), this action resulted in cuts of 50-60 percent in most foreign aid programs. In the case of Somalia, the $67 million security assistance program proposed by the executive branch for FY 1987 was cut to $25 million. The more realistic $46.25 million budget request for FY 1988 was trimmed to $31.5 million. In early 1988 the administration had submitted a $41.1 million FY 1989 SAP proposal, and a request to allow an additional $15 million in FMS cash arms transfers. Following congressional budget hearings that spring, Somalia was expected to receive an estimated $26.65 million in SAP funds, including only $2.5 million in MAP assistance, and guarantees to purchase $10 million worth of military equipment through FMS cash sales.

CHAPTER 12 - The 1990 Base Access RenegotiationHowever, by the fall of 1988 human rights considerations were weighing heavily in Washington’s security calculation in the Horn. Near the end of May, the Somali National Movement (SNM) had launched a new offensive in the north of Somalia. The military response ordered by Siyad Barre was brutal: as many as 10,000 people were killed over the next two months, most of them civilians. As a result of government repression in the north, as well as in the south, an estimated 110,000 refugees, mostly members of the Isaaq clan, fled into Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia. Somali government forces were reported to have committed massacres, summary executions, and indiscriminate killings, and bombardment of the local population.

In mid-July, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa heard testimony on the human rights situation in Somalia and what the executive branch was doing to dissociate the United States from the “war against civilians.” Certain U.S. actions suggested that the United States was siding with the Somali government in this internal conflict. On June 29 a ship carrying U.S. rifles and grenade launchers, part of an arms consignment under the MAP agreement, had arrived at Berbera. Berbera itself had come under attack by SNM forces and was being used by Somali aircraft to bomb Hargeisa and Burao. In a controversial action that had the effect of boosting the Somali government’s military capability in the northern war zone (although the administration defended it as the normal procedure under MAP), an American military team repaired the Somali Army’s communication site at Hargeisa, which was damaged in the fighting. U.S. policy appeared to reinforce Siyad Barre’s harsh response and belief that his government was the “only alternative to chaos.” Human rights organizations charged that the United States should exercise whatever leverage it had to rein in Somalia’s army and security forces, and urged that Mogadishu be pressured to allow international relief agencies to treat civilians and to permit international human rights organizations and foreign journalists to report on the situation. According to Human Rights Watch, “There should be no further military assistance to the Somali government.”

By the end of September 1988, the SNM attempt to seize the north and overthrow Siyad Barre had failed. While sporadic fighting continued around Hargeisa and near Berbera, the SNM and the Isaaq clan were “badly shaken by the ferocity of the government response” and forced to revert to a policy of limited and largely ineffectual guerrilla warfare. However, the battle continued in Washington, as thirty-five members of Congress called for a suspension of all U.S. aid to Somalia pending a thorough investigation and a move by Mogadishu toward reconciliation with the north. Congress withheld the $2. 5 million in MAP and $9 million of a $21 million reprogramming request in ESF funds obligated for FY 1989, along with $7 million from some $15 million in unused ESF from FY 1988.

CHAPTER 12 - The 1990 Base Access Renegotiation
Rebels of Somali National Movement (SNM) sit on their beds -30 November 1989 in Zeila northern Somalia

Despite the continuing problems in Somalia and heightened consciousness on Capitol Hill of the human rights record of the Barre regime, in spring 1989 the executive branch submitted to Congress a security assistance package for FY 1990 giving Mogadishu $20 million in ESF, $1.2 million for the IMETP, and $15 million in FMS financing credits, as well as guaranteeing $10 million in FMS cash sales. The newly elected Bush administration was also pressing Congress to release the entire package of suspended aid, which, added to the FY 1990 SAP request, would total $55 million. Conversely, Congress pressured the executive branch to suspend indefinitely ESF support as well as MAP aid. In the spring of 1989, the Bush administration released some aid, although it agreed that other assistance should be held up until further steps were taken regarding human rights and national reconciliation. Mogadishu would eventually receive the frozen FY 1988 and FY 1989 ESF funds, which allowed Mogadishu to repay $15 million of the amount owed to the IMF. In sum, for FY 1988 and FY 1989, Somalia received a total of $48. 25 million in ESF, $1.9 million for the IMETP, and $5.5 million in MAP. But opponents of U.S. aid to Somalia were now calling on the administration to invoke section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act prohibiting military aid and ESF to governments consistently engaged in gross violations of human rights.

Following the freeze in U.S. aid in fall 1988, Siyad Barre apparently flinched. He created a national reconciliation commission, publicly committed his government to the rehabilitation of the north, released several hundred political prisoners, and invited in the human rights organization Amnesty International. Critics saw this as a ploy to keep Western aid flowing to Somalia. Reports surfaced that Barre’s National Security Service continued to detain Isaaqs and that the Somali Air Force occasionally bombed Hargeisa, a provincial capital in the north. However, by the spring of 1989, there was only small-scale and scattered fighting in the north. By beating back the SN M challenge, Siyad could relax his repressive tactics and steer the international focus, especially that of Mogadishu’s aid donors, away from the human rights situation in Somalia.

But in mid-July 1989, riots broke out in Mogadishu after the arrest of Moslem religious leaders alleged to have incited the July 9 assassination of the Roman Catholic bishop of Mogadishu. The violence left several hundred people dead. Government forces used armored personnel carriers and jeeps with heavy machine guns to clear the streets. In the wake of the rioting, forty-six civilians were taken to a beach and executed. The U.S. Congress now forced the Bush administration to suspend all aid to Somalia, except for a token IMET program. Consequently, the $2.5 million in FY 1989 MAP funds would be canceled and everything except for a small IMET program (estimated at $796,000) was gutted from the FY 1990 SAP budget.

This legislative-initiated action against Somalia occurred a year before the U.S.-Somalia base-access agreement was to expire. The 1980 accord called for five-year review periods and stipulated that at the end of ten years (in Somalia’s case August 1990), if the agreement had not been renegotiated it would continue in force with the provision that either party could terminate the agreement after a year’s notice. It had been expected that sometime in late 1989 or 1990 U.S. and Somali officials would negotiate a new arrangement. Congress had been reminded of this in the spring of 1989. However, budget constraints and human rights questions arising from the political situation in Somalia tied the administration’s hands. In the spring of 1990, the Bush administration presented to Congress the FY 1991 SAP proposal, in which only a $900,000 IMET program was requested for Somalia, justified on the grounds that U.S. military and technical training would “continue to expose Somali officers to U.S. values of respect for human rights.”

The ten-year anniversary of the arms-for-access agreement passed with neither side raising any objections, meaning the base agreement would remain in force through at least August 1991. Washington maintained access to Berbera at virtually no cost, as Siyad Barre concentrated on saving his own neck. In material terms, it was a one-sided arrangement favoring the United States. On the other hand, as long as Siyad Barre could survive in power without U.S. aid, American influence was quite limited.


Washington’s limited ability to force a change in Siyad Barre’s domestic policies stemmed in part from Somalia’s altered security environment. The primary threat to Siyad Barre’s government was now internal. Barre’s security agenda had shifted from preserving Somalia’s territorial integrity from Ethiopian encroachments and the liberation of the Ogaden to ensuring his own political survival. With the United States no longer willing or able to support his regime, Barre had little reason not to crush this political challenge with every means at his disposal. The fate of the shah of Iran, who in the end was pressured by the Americans not to turn the Iranian military loose on his civilian opponents, was not lost on Siyad Barre.

The transformation of Mogadishu’s security agenda began with a meeting between Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam and Siyad Barre in Djibouti on January 18-19, 1986. The two leaders agreed to establish a joint consultative commission to normalize Ethiopian-Somali relations. However, owing to Mengistu’s demand for $1 billion in war compensation and Somalia’s public renunciation of its claims on the Ogaden, the proxy war continued into 1988. Addis Ababa supported the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) and the Somali National Movement (SNM). Mogadishu financed and provided a safe haven for the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF).

However, both governments were coming under increasing military pressure. Throughout 1987 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) scored significant military successes against Ethiopian forces and consolidated their gains in Ethiopia’s northeast corner. At the end of 1986, the Ethiopian-backed SNM launched a new military campaign in the north of Somalia that resulted in fighting between Ethiopian and Somali forces in February 1987. One consequence of this clash was to disrupt talks between Ethiopia’s and Somalia’s foreign ministers as part of the joint consultative commission.

By this time both governments were physically exhausted by their conflict and failed attempts to suppress internal insurgencies. In the spring of 1987, Mengistu retracted his two preconditions, asking only that Somalia act in a more conciliatory manner. In the spirit of détente, Addis Ababa tacitly allowed Somali forces to attack SNM bases located inside Ethiopia, while Siyad Barre disbanded the Mogadishu-controlled WSLF. Finally, on April 3, 1988, a peace treaty was signed calling for the mutual withdrawal of forces from the Ethiopian-Somali border area, a reopening of diplomatic relations, and the cessation of support for each other’s dissidents. It was also believed that by a “secret clause” Siyad Barre agreed to accept the existing border and, in essence, to renounce Somali claims on the Ogaden.

The Ethiopian-Somali peace agreement of 1988 was the action of two governments exhausted by international and internal wars. While they chose to resolve their external conflict, both governments refused to compromise with internal opponents. Somalia, of course, could always resume the Ogaden struggle. But the stakes were too high for internal compromise, given the possible consequences of a political settlement with domestic opponents. For Ethiopia, it might mean the disintegration of the state and possibly Mengistu’s ouster. Peace in Somalia could probably come only if Siyad Barre were removed from power, and even then interclan rivalries threatened to divide the country.

Mengistu, in particular, felt extremely vulnerable. In mid-March 1988, the EPLF had scored a major victory against the Ethiopian Army at Afabet. The Eritrean resistance was now fielding 18,000 soldiers organized into twelve regular brigades, backed up by 20,000 militias. Moreover, after two years of poor relations, the EPLF and the TPLF had recently agreed to coordinate their activities. The TPLF had 25,000 regular soldiers and regional militias under its command. By reaching an agreement with Somalia, Mengistu could release some of his forces from the south and east and send them north. Mengistu was also under another kind of pressure to react: Moscow was growing impatient with Ethiopia’s failure to resolve the war in Eritrea militarily or politically, and the Soviet ambassador had informed Addis Ababa in April 1988 that when the current five-year Soviet-Ethiopian arms agreement expired in 1991, large-scale military shipments would cease. This message was repeated during Mengistu’s July visit to the Soviet Union. If Mengistu wished to preserve the unity of the Ethiopian state, he needed to win the war in Eritrea quickly.

Ironically, the Ethiopian-Somali rapprochement exacerbated Somalia’s internal problems. The May 1988 SNM offensive was apparently a desperate gamble to gain a stronghold inside Somalia before the insurgents were kicked out of Ethiopia. They had nowhere else to go except Somalia. Whereas in the past Siyad had depicted the SNM and SSDF as Ethiopian puppets guilty of treason, following the SNM attack Barre sought to portray the insurgents as northern secessionists who were betraying the pan-Somali heritage. Of course, Siyad had opened himself to charges of betrayal by signing the peace agreement with Ethiopia.

The international stage was now secondary to the local Somali context for Siyad Barre’s political maneuverings. While acquiring arms from external sources remained a concern, the peace treaty allowed Siyad to focus on isolating his domestic opposition and consolidating his support along clan lines. Foreign opinion mattered little in this struggle for power. Because Ethiopia and Libya had ended their support for the SNM, and none of the other clan-based movements that emerged in l989—the Hawiye-based United Somali Congress (USC) and the Ogaden-based Somali Patriot Movement (SPM)—had foreign backers, Siyad thought he could outgun his internal opponents.

Thus, as long as the peace agreement with Ethiopia held, the U.S. security connection was of little value to Siyad Barre. No doubt the peace was fragile. Both sides accused the other of violating the agreement. Ethiopia had reportedly held discussions in 1989 with the United Somali Congress about providing support and allowing base sites to be established in Ethiopia. But Barre apparently felt secure enough to pursue his internal security agenda without fear of external attack, and without U.S. support. In fact, continued dependence on U.S. security assistance might do more harm than good to Siad’s domestic agenda, given the U.S. attempts to restrain his actions.


Through the end of 1987, the Reagan administration viewed the Third World as an arena in which to confront the Soviet Union and play out the East-West struggle. This attitude was founded on a belief that since the 1950s the Soviets had expanded their influence and established military footholds in the Third World by promoting instability and exploiting internal conflicts. Quite simply, Moscow and Washington held vastly different interpretations of the rules of the road for U.S.-Soviet competition in the Third World. Three of the lessons the Reagan administration drew from Soviet expansion in the 1970s were that (1) countering the spread of Soviet power required the United States to “resist provocative Soviet action on the ground—with sufficient resources and, if necessary, by force”; (2) negotiation with the Soviet Union on regional issues would work only if Moscow knew that a use of force would not yield easy gains; and (3) Third World nationalism could be used to contain the Soviet Union and to reverse its gains.

While the Reagan administration welcomed some of Mikhail Gorbachev’s fresh ideas after his ascent to power in March 1985, especially his desire to use Soviet influence to resolve outstanding regional disputes, Soviet foreign policy in the Third World appeared fundamentally unchanged. Moscow continued to support friendly regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and North Korea. In March 1986, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chester Crocker declared, “Soviet/Libyan/Cuban adventurism operates in Africa just as it does in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and the Middle East.” It followed from this logic that the United States should rid the African continent of “outside subversive influence and aggression” and in preventing “its use as a base for anti-Western propaganda and activities.” Thus, the Reagan administration would not hesitate “to provide military assistance to our friends when threatened by external aggression,” as proved by the U.S. response to Libyan incursions against Chad, and would justify the FY 1987 Security Assistance Program for sub-Sahara Africa on the grounds that the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Libya posed a danger to the continent.

In Somalia, U.S. security assistance was deemed “vital” for the government’s ability to “control its borders and manage its own destiny,” especially while Mogadishu remained engaged in a residual border conflict with Ethiopia. Although the FY 1987 SAP budget was presented to Congress shortly after the 1986 meeting between Mengistu and Siyad in Djibouti, SSDF forces still occupied two Somali villages, and the Ethiopian-backed SNM periodically engaged in border harassment against Somalia. Nonetheless, the administration claimed credit for facilitating negotiations between the antagonists. Chester Crocker argued that “the careful balance of our assistance to Somalia over the past several years” which gave Mogadishu a defensive capability, coupled with Washington’s refusal to support Somalia’s actions against Ethiopian territory, created an atmosphere in which Mengistu and Siyad could meet to solve the Ethiopian-Somali dispute. The Reagan administration believed that arming Somalia had contributed to peace and security in the Horn of Africa, even if it had accelerated the arms buildup in the region. As rationalization, Michael Armacost, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, explained that the United States could not rely exclusively on nonmilitary means to contain Soviet military intervention in the Third World because of Moscow’s “excessive” reliance upon military power and force to pursue its objectives.

The confrontational philosophy and logic underlying the Reagan Doctrine and U.S. policy toward the Third World was reassessed following the December 1987 meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. At this meeting, the two leaders signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty, which eliminated a whole category of nuclear weapons in Europe. By the time George Bush became president in January 1989, the old premises underlying U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and superpower confrontation in the Third World had become outmoded. During Bush’s first year and a half in office, a series of developments occurred that would affect the U.S. assessment of threat in the Horn of Africa. More generally, Soviet military forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, and European conventional arms reduction talks resumed in Geneva the following month. At the end of the year, a breakthrough occurred in the talks regarding Namibia’s independence (which it ‘received in 1990) and the withdrawal of Cuban military forces from Angola. In the Horn itself, the Cuban military presence in Ethiopia had decreased significantly since 1985, and at the end of 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew half of its military advisers from Ethiopia. By mid-1989 the United States and the Soviet Union were in agreement that some formula had to be found that would guarantee Ethiopia’s territorial unity while respecting the rights of the Eritreans. Despite the superpowers’ desire to see an end to the Eritrean conflict, the Ethiopians and Eritreans considered their respective goals to be incompatible and felt no compulsion in the short term to bend to Soviet or American pressure.

On the other hand, Moscow had tired of Mengistu’s waste of Soviet resources in Eritrea. After the EPLF captured the port of Massawa in February 1990, the Soviet Union made no move to intervene or to relieve the besieged Ethiopian forces in Asmara. In June 1990, both Washington and Moscow pressured Mengistu to allow the delivery and dispersal of famine relief supplies to the civilian population in Eritrea through the port of Massawa, which was being bombed daily by the Ethiopian Air Force. That spring Moscow had told Mengistu once again that Soviet military aid would be cut the following year. The cold war in the Horn of Africa had apparently come to an end.

U.S. security assistance to Somalia as well as to Sudan and Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. In recent weeks, they have carried out a spate of attacks in Kenya had been important to the extent that the USSR’s effort in Ethiopia was effective. Through the mid-1980s Addis Ababa appeared to be very confident politically and militarily, backed to the hilt by the Soviet Union, and willing to take risks. But with the insurgencies in Eritrea and Tigre gaining ground and Moscow’s backing away from its carte blanche arms commitment, Ethiopia no longer seemed to pose a threat to anyone. Consequently, Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya all lost value as political-strategic counterweights to Ethiopia. As long as the Soviet Union remained absorbed in resolving its own internal political and economic problems, dealing with the disintegration of the East bloc, and pursuing a cooperative relationship with the United States, there was no reason for Washington to risk becoming mired in Somalia’s internal affairs by continuing security assistance to the Barre government.

Until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in early August 1990, regional threats to U.S. interests also appeared to have dissipated. The U.S. bombing run over Libya in April 1986 had apparently put Qaddafi back in his box. Whereas the Reagan administration had cited the Libyan and Ethiopian threat to regional security as a justification for SAP assistance to Somalia and Sudan throughout most of the 1980s, by the end of the decade, no mention was made of this threat. Instead, Libya was competing in a more overt and “legitimate” fashion by supplying arms and financial aid to the governments of Sudan and Somalia, rather than trying to topple them. Baghdad, too, had been busy throughout the 1980s developing ties with states in the Red Sea region, including Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, and Somalia. Saddam Hussein’s emergence as the new post-cold war enemy of the United States in the wake of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, however, did not produce any immediate or appreciable change in American threat assessments in the Red Sea or in the U.S. policy toward Somalia.

With the end of the cold war, the overall strategic value of African territory had depreciated considerably. Hence the game of playing the two superpowers off against one another was no longer a viable strategy. Africa’s greatest product was now refugees, an abundance of which could be found in the Horn. Despite the Persian Gulf crisis involving Iraq and Kuwait, nothing had happened in the area to suggest that U.S. interests were threatened in Somalia. In late August and early September 1990, the strategic threat posed by Iraq was not expected to last, necessitating a dramatic change in the United States’ relationship with Mogadishu, unlike the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Bush administration did not demand immediate resumption of military aid to Somalia, as there was no threat to U.S. interests to justify such a change in policy. Thus, ten years after the signing of the U.S.-Somali arms-for-base-access accord, Washington’s perception of threat had changed so dramatically that Somalia’s capacity to exploit and manipulate U.S. strategic Vulnerability was virtually nil.


By 1989, Mogadishu’s strategy of manipulating Washington’s sense of strategic vulnerability had lost much, if not all, of its impact. Thus any Somali threat of defection would be empty. The Soviets had nothing to give and would not jump in blindly. With Moscow reducing its involvement in Ethiopia, it would be unlikely to embrace Somalia. To maintain a favorable balance of power vis-a-vis his internal opponents, Siyad Barre was forced to turn to what many in Washington considered an unsavory assortment of friends to procure arms and assistance.

Even before the 1988 freeze and 1989 suspension of U.S. security assistance, Somalia’s military dependence upon the United States was marginal. Between 1982 and 1986, during the peak years of SAP funding for Somalia, U.S. arms transfers accounted for only 22 percent ($70 million) of the $315 million worth of arms imported by Mogadishu. Among the Western powers, Italy had been most forthcoming; the Italians had delivered 100 M-47 tanks in 1983, though they rebuffed a Somali inquiry about acquiring more modern and sophisticated Leopard tanks in 1987. While some U.S. military aid was in the pipeline in the fall of 1989, no arms or ammunition were delivered after the aid suspension took effect.

In October 1988 Libya emerged as the primary supplier of small arms to Somalia. After war erupted in the north of Somalia in May 1988, Siyad Barre made an urgent appeal to the United States and Great Britain for military supplies. Both nations refused. The United States did allow delivery in June of weapons in the MAP pipeline, but that was the last arms shipment to Somalia. In August, Siyad sent his son General Maslah Mohamed Siad, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to Moscow and Tripoli in search of aid. The Soviets also refused. On the other hand, Colonel Qaddafi, looking toward enhanced Libyan influence in Somalia by terminating aid to the SNM and SSDF in 1985—which also paved the way for restoring diplomatic relations between Tripoli and Mogadishu that same year—moved to fill this void.

In early October 1988, two planeloads of light arms arrived in Somalia from Libya. Reports also surfaced that a shipment of heavy weapons had been sent by the Libyans. In early 1989 there were rumors that Libya had supplied chemical weapons to Somalia. The State Department “categorically” denied this allegation. If it were true, Somali forces would probably kill themselves with them, as they did not have the training or technical expertise to use these weapons. But it was known that Somalia had received a shipment of napalm canisters, possibly from Libya. Qaddafi was no doubt motivated to deliver arms to Siyad Barre, as well as to provide oil at concessional rates, to expand Libyan influence in Africa, while Somalia had joined the ranks of international pariahs with nowhere else to go for aid.

Siyad Barre also entered into rather unsavory dealings with two other pariahs on the African scene—the government of South Africa and Rhodesian mercenaries. In mid-1985 reports began to circulate of Somali military relations with South Africa. During the fighting in the north in mid-1988, the Somali government hired ex-Rhodesian Air Force pilots flying British Hawker Hunter aircraft to carry out bombing missions over Hargeisa—an order refused by one Somali pilot who then defected. Some in Congress suspected that South Africa had facilitated this Rhodesian connection with Somalia. Again, the only thing Mogadishu had in common with South Africa and the Rhodesians was their pariah status in Africa. Siyad believed that any opportunity was worth seizing in order to survive.

Mogadishu’s decade-long policy of arms diversification allowed Siyad Barre to continue the suppression of the north despite the U.S. aid freeze. However, Washington’s punitive act did make life more difficult. If U.S. security assistance had been kept at the levels provided through the mid-1980s, the Somali Army perhaps would have been able to deal with the opposition more effectively and decisively. As it was, ammunition was sometimes scarce, and morale in some units of the Somali military was quite low. Siyad was paying a price for his repressive policies, though perhaps only a small one whose cumulative effect might not be felt for years.

Despite continuing diplomatic rebuffs by Washington, Siyad did not threaten U.S. access to Berbera. The connection was still too good to be jeopardized. Even if aid had not been frozen (and later suspended) because of the budget crisis, Washington had little to give Somalia on a bilateral basis. Nevertheless, a positive relationship with the United States gave Somalia access to international financial institutions. In May 1988 Somalia had been barred from borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of overdue payments on previous loans totaling about $37 million. The United States had released $15 million in ESF so Somalia could repay some of this debt and be eligible for future loans. However, in January 1989 the United States openly supported a move by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to withhold food aid from Somalia after six months of warning the government to cease using Somali refugees to fight against the SN M. Later that year, the United States supported a $70 million loan from the World Bank, which was part of $200 million of World Bank loans pending for Somalia. The African Development Bank was also planning to provide $25 million as part of an agricultural stabilization package. Human rights advocates claimed that multilateral development aid was playing a critical role in keeping Barre’s regime afloat and that Washington should use its influence to squeeze this source dry. It was suggested that Congress invoke section 701 of the International Financial Institution Act to prevent multilateral aid to systematic violators of human rights such as Siyad Barre’s regime.

While multilateral aid continued, the future of U.S.-Somalia bilateral aid relations was quite dim, even if Siyad were to clean up his act. In the spring of 1989, the Bush administration had requested $14.5 million for development assistance (DA) and PL 480 funds for FY 1990. A year later the administration proposed $8 million in DA and PL 480 funds for FY 1991. But by the summer of 1990, Somalia was in danger of falling victim to the Brooke amendment, which forbade giving aid to countries more than one year in arrears on loan repayments to the United States. Mogadishu needed to pay back $12 million in loans to be eligible for $5 million in U.S. aid. Obviously, Mogadishu had little incentive to evade the Brooke amendment. Thus, unless the U.S. government came forward with a major aid package, the financial component of the American connection was worthless.

Thus, by the end of 1989 Siyad Barre had few friends — except Libya — who would come forward with aid. Moscow was unable to help. Until Siyad Barre undertook domestic reforms, the United States had little to offer. While Mogadishu could acquire weapons from other countries, such as China, Libya, and Iraq, who were less concerned about the political and human rights situation in Somalia, Siyad Barre was doing little to enhance his image in Washington by keeping company with such governments. Besides, Libya and Iraq were not the Soviet Union. Even immediately after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, U.S. officials felt no compulsion to get into a bidding war over Somalia. Regarding the U.S.-Somalia base-access agreement, Mogadishu was in a weak bargaining position. It was better for the Somalis not to rock the boat.


When the U.S.-Somalia base-access agreement came up for renewal in August 1990, there was already a movement in Washington pressing for a reassessment of U.S. strategic interests in Southwest Asia should be analyzed in light of the changes in U.S. -Soviet relations. How important were these facilities now that the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Soviet threat to the Persian Gulf had dissipated? What was the strategic significance of Somalia? Given the U.S. budget crisis and the declining Soviet menace, Washington might take this opportunity to cut back on its foreign commitments and obligations. However, such a study kept being put off; no one in the executive branch really wanted to do it. One reason may have been the Pandora’s Box it would have opened if Congress got involved in the study.

It was no secret that influential congressional committees had little love for Siyad Barre—or Somalia for that matter—and might use the opportunity to terminate the base-access agreement with Mogadishu. In the House Subcommittee on Africa, there was a feeling that Somalia had never been strategically important. Acquiring access to Berbera had been a “symbolic post-Iran thing,” advanced to get access and keep the Russians out, but little more. There were other sites in the region—in Egypt, Oman, and Diego Garcia—from which to respond to major interventions. Moreover, as proved by the reaction in Riyadh to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saudi military facilities would be made available and even a U.S. ground presence in Saudi Arabia would be allowed if there was a direct threat to the Saudi Kingdom and Persian Gulf oil. The Iraq-Kuwait crisis also demonstrated that NATO forces and bases would support U.S. military operations in such an “out-of-area” contingency. Even in a minor contingency, Somalia was unnecessary, as U.S. aircraft carriers could be used to deal with the situation. In peacetime, not much had been going on at Berbera. Only a few planes, mostly UN emergency aircraft, used the airfield. Critics viewed the continuation of the U.S.-Somalia base deal as an example of bureaucratic momentum: the Pentagon’s inability to break with a precedent.

For the Pentagon, Somalia was a convenience, but one to which the United States should keep negotiated access if possible. While the facilities at Berbera were “not wonderful,” they were “good.” Berbera was also “the best in terms of proximity and access to the Bab al-Mandab.” There was a reasonable airfield at Berbera that could be used if the need arose. As for Berbera’s vulnerability, the facilities “would be vulnerable if the Somali military was not strong enough to repel insurgent attacks,” or could be threatened by Ethiopia if Addis Ababa turned its attention from its own civil war and violated the 1988 peace agreement.

In any event, Somalia gave the Central Command (CENTCOM), which was responsible for responding to contingency crises in Southwest Asia, flexibility. Since CENTCOM required access facilities to accomplish its mission, the United States needed a continued presence in Somalia. From the military perspective, access to Berbera was important, though in protecting U.S. interests there the Pentagon had to be careful not to run afoul of Congress or send the wrong message to Somalia. But as long as the United States did not contribute to Somalia’s political problems and Mogadishu left the aid issue alone, it was worth keeping U.S. military options open.

American military planning for Somalia had originally taken place in the context of U.S.-Soviet relations. Even then, little was done at Berbera. While Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait might have provoked renewed interest in the strategic importance of Somalia, working-level officials in the executive branch and congressional staffers were not impressed. By the time the ten-year renewal date arrived, Somalia was being perceived only in terms of political developments in the country, not in a broader regional strategic context.

The United States seemed to assume that if the political costs of association with Mogadishu got too high, it could cut loose without any perceptible loss. The fact that the United States did not seek to extend its access rights beyond the one-year notification period (in contrast to the three-year, approximately $800 million, a military base agreement negotiated with the Philippines in 1988), highlighted the ascendance of political considerations over a strategic rationale. But in holding the line on aid suspension and not seeking a long-term guarantee to Somali military facilities, the United States seemed to be writing off the strategic value of the entire Horn of Africa. Not only Somalia but also Sudan and Kenya found themselves at odds with Washington.

Sudan had been the lynchpin for U.S. policy in northeast Africa and the recipient of the largest U.S. SAP package for sub-Sahara Africa throughout most of the 1980s. By 1990, however, its relationship with the United States had degenerated to a state worse than that between Washington and Mogadishu. Measured in terms of SAP funding for Sudan, Khartoum’s decline as a U.S. regional ally began shortly after the fall of the Nimeiri government in April 1985. As a result of the renewed north-south civil war, human rights abuses associated with the war, Khartoum’s budding relationship with Libya, and concern about Islamic fundamentalist influence in the government-issues that, with the exception of Libya, had arisen during Nimeiri’s last year in power—U.S. security assistance dropped dramatically in the later 1980s. Sudan, which had been given more than $100 million in SAP funding annually from FY 1982 to FY 1985, received approximately $27 million in FY 1986, $6 million in FY 1987, $15 million in FY 1988, and $13 million in FY 1989. For FY 1990 and FY 1991, the United States was expected to provide a total of only $1.5 million in IMETP funds in order to expose the Sudanese officer corps “to U.S. values including human rights.”

Moreover, new U.S. military and economic assistance was barred to Sudan because of the Brooke amendment and because in June 1989 the military government of General Omer Hassan Ahmed al-Beshir overthrew the duly elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. With this action, Khartoum violated section 513 of the Foreign Assistance Act forbidding aid to military regimes that gain power by overthrowing a democratic government. Like the Barre government, the Beshir government did not seem so much interested in U.S. aid, given the restrictions that might be placed on the prosecution of the civil war against the southern insurgents—the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Front (SPLF)— and its ability to attract support from other sources, most notably Libya and Iraq. While some prepositioning of U.S. military equipment was allowed under Nimeiri, by the end of 1990 it had all been removed. As in the case of Somalia, the U.S. strategic interest in Sudan was driven by the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Libya, and Ethiopia in northeast Africa. Because this threat had diminished, so had the perceived value of Sudan.

American relations with Kenya began to go sour in the spring of 1990, at about the time that the U.S.-Kenya base-rights agreement was due to expire. Through FY 1990, declining U.S. security assistance to Mombasa had largely reflected budgetary constraints. As a result of decaying relations with Khartoum and Mogadishu at the end of the 1980s, Mombasa had emerged as the leading recipient of U.S. security assistance in sub-Sahara Africa. Kenya, seen as a model for economic management and political development in Africa, was a favorite aid recipient among liberals in Congress.

However, throughout the first half of 1990 Kenya’s economic and political performance deteriorated. President Daniel Moi’s government was becoming increasingly repressive. In July 1990 it had cracked down on proponents of multiparty democracy. By August 1990 there was deep unhappiness on Capitol Hill concerning Kenya. There was some question whether the remainder of the $16.175 million security assistance package proposed by the executive branch for FY 1991 would depend on Kenya’s progress in human rights and opening up the political system and whether $10 million in FMS concessional grant funds obligated for FY 1990 would be frozen.

A congressional threat to go after Kenya would not be taken so stoically by the Department of Defense. Kenya provided highly valued military facilities for U.S. naval fleet rotations in the Indian Ocean and offered the closest “civilized” liberty port in the area. While liberals in Congress would not favor cutting economic aid, some human rights crusaders might want to maintain pressure on Kenya. Conversely, the Defense Department did not feel this was the time to “rock the boat with the Kenyans.” But outside the Pentagon, access to Kenyan facilities was “not worth a hill of beans.” Even after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United States was getting to the Persian Gulf, conducting maritime intercept operations in the Red Sea, and implementing the blockade at the Bab al-Mandab without Kenya. Although the Kenyans had made some noise about renegotiating the base-access accord, by the end of the summer of 1990 no formal request had been made. As in the case of Somalia, the United States did not press for a review, and the agreement with Kenya continued on a one-year notification basis.

While U.S. relations with Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya had deteriorated, Ethiopia sought to improve ties with Washington. Following the election of George Bush, and after a midyear trip to Moscow during which the Soviets reiterated the decision to retrench their military presence in the Horn, Mengistu suggested that he hoped for better diplomatic relations with the United States, then being conducted at the sub-ambassadorial level. Prior dealings with the United States would be forgotten, like “something that happens between two countries, as it does between members of a family.” With the situation in Eritrea becoming more desperate, and after surviving a coup attempt in May 1989, Mengistu hoped to reach a quid pro quo with the Americans-upgraded diplomatic relations in return for U.S. and Western aid.

Although the Ethiopians agreed to participate in peace talks with the Eritreans, coordinated by former president Jimmy Carter, during the fall of 1989 and held discussions with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen in Addis Ababa in August 1989, and in Washington in March and May 1990, these maneuvers failed. Instead, Washington used the issue of upgrading diplomatic relations to pressure Mengistu to allow the distribution of food aid through the Eritrean-controlled port of Massawa. In reversing the quid pro quo equation, the Bush administration made the point that improving U.S.-Ethiopia diplomatic relations was less important to the United States than to Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, not Washington, would have to make the concessions.

Thus, Somalia was not alone in being rebuffed by the United States. Because of negative attitudes toward the Somalis in Washington, the United States was more willing to go after Somalia than Sudan or Kenya, or even Ethiopia. Nonetheless, the targeting of African states by Washington not only reflected the diminished value of territory in Africa and a growing consciousness of human rights and political issues but also would free up scarce resources to divert to what were viewed as “more worthy people [states]” such as Poland. Given the relative nature of regional priorities, the Africanist community was afraid that what little interest there was in Africa was declining even further. Thus, the United States’ unspoken threat in dealing with Somalia and other African countries was not simply one of defection, but of complete disengagement, if the financial and political costs of continued engagement became too high.


By the fall of 1989, political authority in Somalia had broken down. Government forces were engaged in almost daily fighting. Anarchy reigned in Mogadishu. Even the bedrock of Siyad Barre’s support, the MOD connection, was coming unraveled. Amid this internal disintegration, and what most observers saw as the gradual collapse of the Barre regime, neither the government nor the opposition directly threatened U.S. interests. Both seemed willing to allow the United States to stay on the sidelines and come in later once the domestic situation improved.

Despite the growing opposition, Siyad Barre held to his belief that only he could hold Somalia together. He had scored one success with the collapse of the SSDF. Ethiopia had started clamping down on the SSDF in late 1985, arresting its leaders and attacking SSDF camps to seize sophisticated weapons provided by Libya. Several hundred SSDF fighters took advantage of a presidential amnesty to lay down arms and return to Somalia. Although at the end of 1988 about 1,000 SSDF soldiers were still in Ethiopian camps and were reported to possess impressive stocks of Libyan-supplied arms and ammunition, the last reported SSDF military raids occurred in early 1987.

However, in the fall of 1988, there were signs that the MOD connection was breaking up. During the fighting against the SNM in 1988, several Dulbahante generals refused to serve in the north. Until December 1988, Siyad Barre had used the Ogaden clan—former commandos of the WSLF and refugees forcibly conscripted into the army—to fight the SNM. But in March 1989 a small-scale mutiny occurred among Ogadeni troops, protesting the demotion of the defense minister, an Ogadeni, who was then arrested in July. By the fall of 1989, a new Ogadeni-based anti-Siyad organization had been created—the Somali Patriot Movement (SPM). Some of the Ogaden defectors believed that Siyad had betrayed their cause by signing the 1988 peace agreement with Ethiopia, while some military leaders were displeased by the president’s telling them how to fight in the north the previous year. Thus, by the end of 1989 the Ogaden clan, once among the most loyal to Siad, had split up, with one faction backing the government and the other siding with the SPM.

In January 1989 another opposition movement dedicated to the termination of Siyad Barre’s rule, the United Somali Congress (USC), was founded in Rome by members of the Hawiye clan who had left the SNM. A number of Hawiye had joined the SNM in late 1988 after leaving the moribund SSDF. While some remained with the SNM, those who left were concerned about their minority status within the Isaaq-dominated movement. Despite this split in the opposition, USC leaders established a committee in March 1989 to negotiate a merger with the SNM. At the time, the USC appeared too weak to launch an effective guerrilla struggle on its own. But it had a strong base of support in central Somalia and maintained ties to the aboveground political opposition, such as the so-called Somali Manifesto Group.

The Somali Manifesto Group posed perhaps the most unique challenge to Siad’s rule because it was an aboveground, nonviolent movement. It began in May 1990 when a group of 110 Somali elders published a scathing indictment of Siad’s rule entitled Somali Manifesto I. The ten-page document criticized the Barre government for corruption and maladministration, creating economic disaster, and human rights abuses. To address these problems, the elders called for a shir—a traditional conference of leading political, tribal, religious, and business leaders from all regions of the country—to be held on neutral ground (Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Italy) to agree on common principles for a new constitution and to form a caretaker government until free elections could be held. At first, Siyad tried to ignore it; then on June 11, the government arrested forty-six prominent citizens associated with the manifesto. They were brought to trial before a National Security Court in mid-July on charges that could have brought the death penalty. However, demonstrations in Mogadishu forced the government to dismiss its case after a four-hour trial and to free the prisoners. The Somali Manifesto Group then began acting as a quasi-political party.

In confronting opposition, Siyad Barre’s greatest strength continued to be the weakness of his fragmented opponents. Despite the clans’ dislike for Barre’s regime, clan rivalries were even more virulent. Although agreeing that Siyad must be removed from power, the opposition shared no consensus about Somalia’s political future. Siad, in true Machiavellian fashion, encouraged these rivalries by financing and supplying weapons to militias set up by the elders of various clans.

Many Somalis associated with major clans, such as the Dir and Daarood, saw the opposition groups as purely self-interested and thus did not lend their support. The Isaaqs were viewed as uninterested in the pan-Somali issue and ambitious to dominate the Somali political scene once again. In contrast, liberating the Ogaden seemed to be at the top of the agenda for the Ogaden-based SPM. The Hawiye, who had relatively little power in previous governments, were fearful of being excluded again and desired to protect their business interests. While clan chauvinism fueled the opposition to Siad’s rule, it also prolonged his stay in power.

However, to keep all this together and to ensure that his own clan did not move against him, on August 29, 1989, Siyad agreed to the creation of a multiparty system, with restrictions, and to hold elections in February 1991. Although the decision by the central committee of the ruling Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP) was made to look as if it were Siyad Barre’s idea, it was reportedly forced on him by members of the presidential clan, the Mareehan. The SRSP ruling committee had presented the proposal in June when Siyad rejected it. However, despite a “loyal bodyguard” of thousands of troops, continuing defections (by the Ogadeni, in particular) apparently convinced Barre that he needed to take some dramatic action. However, Siad’s idea of “multiparty” elections was to create three factions within the SRSP—an idea unacceptable to his opponents.

As of fall 1990, the United States had emerged with its reputation basically intact among all parties. Washington maintained regular diplomatic relations with the Somali government. An exiled leader of the SPM in San’a, Yemen, was a former ambassador to the United States, and likely to be favorably disposed toward Washington. While it was a “deep dark question” in the 1980s as to the SNM’s stand toward the West because of the SN M’s tactic of being all things to all people—communists for the East bloc, Islamic fundamentalists for the Iranians, and some Arab countries, and capitalists for the West—they seemed well disposed toward the United States, as did the USC. Discussions between the SNM and the United States had been ongoing since at least 1988.

The Somali Manifesto Group was of particular interest to the United States because it seemed to offer a peaceful path to resolving Somalia’s political difficulties. Moreover, the Manifesto Group was considered very pro-West and pro-United States, especially so as the result of the U.S. stance during their stay in jail. A statement drafted by the State Department calling for their release, arguing that their arrest contradicted a government statement that it would tolerate peaceful opposition, was published in Mogadishu, and then copied by the thousands and distributed with much red, white, and blue fanfare. Subsequently, the U.S. government maintained contacts with the Somali Manifesto Group in Somalia and the United States.

Hence, the Somali political debate was focused on internal issues, not Somalia’s foreign policy. In late summer 1990, the United States was not threatened with expulsion from Berbera by either the government or the opposition—a threat made by Somali insurgents back in 1982. The United States would be welcome in a post-Siyad Somalia as long as it kept its distance from the Barre government. Siyad Barre could perhaps take solace in that the Americans were not acting overtly against him. Thus, the political situation in Somalia was so precarious in 1990 that the question of U.S. access to Berbera was the least of anyone’s worries.


The aid debate in Washington weighed against Siyad Barre and Somalia. There was little doubt that Congress would deny funding to Somalia without major changes in its human rights record and progress toward national reconciliation. Even the U.S. executive branch agreed that the Somali government had not done enough in these areas. But in Congress, the question of aid for Somalia took on the appearance of a personal Vendetta against Siyad Barre.

At the forefront of the political battle in Washington against aid to Siyad Barre’s government was the House Subcommittee on Africa, chaired by Howard Wolpe, one of the most vocal critics of aid to the Somali government and a skeptic regarding Berbera’s strategic value. The Africa subcommittee was by no means monolithic. Dan Burton, a conservative congressman from Indiana, often criticized his committee for attacking friends, such as Somalia and Kenya, for human rights abuses and ignoring similar problems in Ethiopia and Mozambique—a contention Wolpe denied. During the subcommittee’s July 1988 hearing on the reported massacres and indiscriminate killings in the north of Somalia, Burton counseled that the United States should not “go off half-cocked and start blaming the Somali government.” However, Burton came across as someone unwilling to accept the end of the cold war. The majority sentiment of the Africa subcommittee was captured by Howard Wolpe during the FY 1990-91 hearings on foreign assistance for Africa in the spring of 1989: “I hope that we can begin to understand these issues in broader terms and take them out of the context of cold war rhetoric and east-west paradigms because I think that’s wholly irrelevant to ‘the issues were trying to address in the continent.”

Besides the generally anti-Somalia and anti-Siyad views of Congress, in dealing with the United States over the past decade the Somalis had not proved very adept at public relations. They had convinced very few American officials that U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa would be best served by a security link with Somalia. Most Somali crusaders in Washington had been motivated by short-term strategic reasons related to the cold war, not by any enduring sympathy for the Somalis. Now, this pressure point was gone.

Moreover, unlike Ethiopia, the Somalis could not count on any influential pressure group assisting their cause. The Israelis had again become involved in the Horn of Africa after Mengistu restored diplomatic relations with Israel in November 1989. This move apparently assumed a quid pro-quo-Israeli military assistance in exchange for Ethiopia’s help in the emigration of some 15,000 Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) to Israel. Israel was also protecting its own strategic interest in denying the Red Sea coastline to the Eritreans and Arabs. In pursuit of that objective, Israel reportedly supplied cluster bombs and was preparing to provide Kfir fighter aircraft to Addis Ababa to use in the war against the Eritreans. After the Eritrean victory at Massawa in February 1990, the Israelis began pressuring the United States for talks at the foreign minister-level with the Ethiopians and to seize the opportunity to regain influence in Ethiopia now that the Soviet Union was cutting back its once sizable support for Mengistu. Although the Bush administration refused to replace the Soviets in Ethiopia or alter its insistence that Addis Ababa should negotiate an end to the war in Eritrea, Ethiopia still had politically powerful friends operating in Washington on its behalf. Somalia did not.

Mogadishu’s public relations problem, however, was not limited to a visceral dislike of Somalia and the absence of effective lobbying on Capitol Hill. Even if political conditions in Somalia changed, the executive branch would face an uphill battle in getting anything for the Somalis so long as Siyad Barre remained in power. Influential members of Congress personally disliked Barre. Not only was he not trusted, but also he was seen as guilty of human rights violations.

By the fall of 1989, the Somali government had virtually no support in Washington. Members of Congress were out to thwart military and economic aid to Barre’s government. Moreover, even if Siyad left the scene, it was doubtful that Congress would want to help Somalia. In contrast to providing aid for Israel or Eastern Europe, there was nothing to be gained politically by helping Somalia.

The State Department’s attitude was less personal; its mission was to conduct business with all kinds of governments. Although in September 1989 State Department officials still maintained that Berbera was “important to [U.S.] interests” as a staging point for Southwest Asia, the pressure was being exerted on Somalia in the wake of the July 1989 riots and violence in Mogadishu. Following the execution of forty-six Somalis allegedly involved in the rioting, the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu was instructed by the State Department to put Somalia on notice that the United States expected full protection of civil liberties and human rights. According to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, Somalia was left in no doubt that unless these abuses stopped its relationship with the United States would change. The Gersony Report, investigating Somalia’s human rights situation between May 1988 and March 1989 and released in September 1989, confirmed that several thousand Somali civilians had been killed by government forces during this period. It was highly critical of government abuses committed in the north to suppress the SNM insurgency and attempts to blame the Mosques for assassinating the Roman Catholic bishop of Mogadishu.

Although the Africa Bureau wanted to provide humanitarian and development aid to Somalia, it had never desired a military involvement in Somalia because of Mogadishu’s irredentist claims in the region. Because of U.S. budgetary problems and continuing violence and human rights abuses in Somalia, the State Department could do little anyway. It saw three possible scenarios for the resumption of aid to Somalia. First, a peaceful transition would occur, perhaps based on the Somali Manifesto, bringing democratic elections and Siyad Barre’s resignation, and a new request would be submitted to Congress. Second, the armed opposition would defeat the government and a coalition would take control—a situation requiring further assessment. Third, the war would drag on,  Siyad would either step down or die, and the president’s son or another member of the Mareehan would succeed, in which case the United States would likely remain on the sidelines.

The Defense Department was more willing to continue a working relationship with Somalia. There was no question that the Somali government, not the United States, was at fault for the suspension of U.S. aid, and only Somalia could reverse the situation. However, even this cloud had a silver lining: the IMET program, built up considerable goodwill between U.S. and Somali military officers. Knowledgeable insiders in Washington believed that no matter what happened, the present senior corps of Somali military officials would retain influence. It was important not to alienate them. Thus, the one program the executive branch continued to press for during this period (FY 1990-FY 1991) was the IMETP, which was justified on the grounds that it would “expose Somali officers to U.S. values of respect for human rights.” Besides, the IMET program was so small that Congress would probably leave it alone—an estimated $796,000 for FY 1990 and a proposed $900,000 program for FY 1991.

The debate in Washington was heavily skewed against Somalia. Even if it wanted to, the executive branch could not negotiate a new long-term base deal with Mogadishu, given the mood in Congress. On Capitol Hill, Siad’s government was viewed as politically and economically bankrupt. State Department and Pentagon officials also did not think much of Siad’s style of rule either. Only the Pentagon raised a rather weak voice to advocate minimal security assistance for Mogadishu: if the U.S. military did not have Somalia, where would it go? However, by August 1990 the strategic sacrifice of possibly losing Berbera was outweighed by the political and moral costs of maintaining a security assistance relationship with Somalia.


As the ten-year anniversary of the arms-for-base-access accord came and went, U.S. aid remained suspended. The civil war in Somalia raged on as Siyad Barre continued to hold power. The United States still retained access rights to Berbera. In material terms, it was a one-sided exchange favoring Washington.

Siyad Barre essentially had no leverage to force Washington to choose between supporting his government or losing strategic base-access rights in Somalia. Barre was in no position to make threats, given the internal situation in Somalia. Yet, given the fragmentation of the opposition and the willingness of others (such as Libya) to help him, Barre perhaps could do without U.S. support. However, Siyad could not afford to antagonize the United States; it was better for Washington to remain a neutral observer in Somalia’s civil war than to provide support to an opposition apparently willing to keep the strategic relationship with the Americans intact. If Mogadishu wished to avert further international isolation, it would have to accept this unprofitable exchange.

While the United States could not force Siyad to undertake internal reforms, it could resist Somali pressures or threats of blackmail concerning Berbera. The end of the cold war between East and West had a profound impact on how Washington viewed Africa. As a consequence of this diminished perception of threat, not only Somali military facilities but also other sites in northeast Africa lost much of their value. Despite worsening relations with Kenya and Sudan, Washington’s narrowed choice of options meant less in light of the new political-military relationship developing between the United States and the Soviet Union. Finally, the balance of opinion in the legislative branch and executive branch favored at best a wait-and-see approach, if not complete disengagement from Somalia. Marginal strategic benefits were far outweighed by the political costs.

In contrast to the U.S.-Ethiopia military relationship, which grew stronger until the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974, the U.S.-Somalia relationship made few advances under Siyad Barre. Somalia was still viewed with suspicion by U.S. policymakers. A “Somalia imperative” never developed at the Africa Bureau or Pentagon, beyond the debatable notion that Berbera possessed some strategic value. Without that rationale, it was difficult to justify aid to a government guilty of gross human rights violations. Even after Kagnew Station had been phased out and Addis Ababa was cited for human rights abuses, the attitude still prevailed that the United States should keep the lines of communication open to Ethiopia, even with Mengistu in charge. No such optimism colored the policy debate in Washington in 1989-1990 concerning aid to Somalia. Despite ten years of military relations, attitudes toward Somalia generally had changed very little, and in fact, had hardened against Siyad Barre.

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