The first phase of Somalia’s unification

The Somali ‘question’, or rather the Somali ‘dispute’, was at the heart of the Somali decolonization process.[44] Given the fact that almost none of the African borders were the product of native state-building processes[45] and that almost all had been engineered and discussed over the heads of their populations, the limited number of territorial quarrels among the newly decolonized states was remarkable. The Somali world was by far the biggest exception and the Somali Republic was the only state on the continent that refused to sign the OAU Charter when that pan-African organization was created in 1963 at the behest of Emperor Haile Selassie.[46]

In a way, the main challengers of the colonial status quo were, paradoxically, the British themselves. Due to the unpredictability of war, by 1945 the British armies had found themselves in de facto control of almost 98 per cent of the territories that made up the Somali world (except French Somaliland). At the same time, in spite of Winston Churchill’s glorious wartime performance, the Conservatives lost the July 1945 general election and the new Labor government under Clement Attlee gave the Foreign Office to Ernest Bevin. Bevin was extremely pragmatic,[47] and he thought that colonial problems were at the forefront of his responsibilities (he was the promoter of independence for Ceylon, Burma and the Indian Raj). Looking at the nature of the Somali world, he tried to leverage Britain’s military control into a process of national unification, which he proposed to the British parliament on 4 June 1946. His effort seemed supported when, on 15 December 1950, the new United Nations voted in favor of putting Somalia under UN trusteeship as a first step towards that end. But this was too hopeful a view, one which did not seriously take into account the variety of conflicting regional interests which would eventually lead to ‘the betrayal of the Somalis’.[48] The first breach in Bevin’s Somali unity plan came on 29 November 1954 when the British government led by Anthony Eden renegotiated the 1944 Agreement between the British Military Administration and Emperor Haile Selassie, replacing British military control with ‘full and exclusive sovereignty of Ethiopia over the Hawd and Reserved Area’.[49] In the short run, this placed Ethiopia not only in the position of an equal partner but also in that of an arbiter of the ‘Somali question’. When the question of the independence of Somalia was raised while trying to apply the 29 November Agreement, the Emperor declared with a poker face: ‘As to rumors of a Greater Somalia, we consider that all the Somali peoples are economically linked with all Ethiopia and, therefore we do not believe that such a state can be viable standing alone, separated from Ethiopia.’[50] This was a bold claim indeed: from being only one of the actors in the spatial division of the Somali world, the Ethiopian monarch claimed that its only possible independent existence—if one could say that—lay in being annexed by Ethiopia.

The pronouncement was bold but massively counterproductive, as Somali political consciousness was spurred by this daring statement into a brusque intensification of unitary demands. These had been championed so far by an organization sponsored by the British Military Administration in the south in 1943. This organization—the Somali Youth Club, soon renamed the Somali Youth League (SYL)—had initially been encouraged by the British, who saw it as an anti-Italian element. But it soon emancipated itself from its British sponsors and grew into a broad nationalist movement. It was multiclanic but its main membership was Darood and Hawiye and, in spite of its common nationalist or unitarian outlook, in the north it developed into a separate movement, the Somali National League (SNL), with a distinct Isaaq clanic base. Both SNL and SYL had the unity of the Somali world as the main political target, but in the meantime they could not cohabit the same political organization, which was typical of Somali culture and a portent of things to come.


The Country That Does Not Exist A History of SomalilandMany of the Greater Somalia ‘ideals’ were reactive—independence from colonialism, keeping Ethiopian imperialism at arm’s length—or transcendental: strive towards modernity, bask in the lyrical warmth of shared cultural values, and assert Somali uniqueness. But there was no reflection on administrative or constitutional principles, no suggestion of how to deal with the clanic threat to the state, no clear views of the Cold War conundrum which split the region,[51] and, perhaps worst of all, no idea of how to breach the gap created over the years by contradictory forms of introduction to Western modernity, depending on the colony. In line with the idealized idea of a homogeneous unitary culture as a base for the future state, the SYL favored a strongly centralized form of administration. The notion that some form of decentralization or federalism might accommodate the future state better was often dismissed out of hand. This deepened the gap between the ‘great’ clan families—Hawiye, Darood, Majerteen and Isaaq, who were all camel nomads— and the ‘marginal’ Digil-Mirifle clan family[52] and its surrounding Bantu bondsmen, who were agriculturists. The Digil-Mirifle, uneasy with the Hawiye–Darood domination, had regrouped in a distinct party, the so-called Hizbia Dastur Mustaqil Somali (Somali Independent Constitutional Party, or HDMS). But the demographic weight, political prestige and organization of SYL gave it a wide electoral victory in 1959. This resulted in a groundswell that went beyond victory, as many HDMS MPs immediately abandoned their party to join the SYL ranks. The final tally gave an almost single-party coloration to the parliament. This led to the contradictions that would have normally existed between government and opposition being transposed within the government itself, making it rather difficult to operate as a single coherent unit.

But as this developed in the south, the northern British Somaliland Protectorate rushed headlong into the unification program that had been proffered as a popular goal by the SNL. On 6 April 1960 the Legislative Council, with the unanimous support of all its elected members, passed a resolution calling for immediate independence and union with Somalia; the motion requested that the date of independence and unification ‘must be July 1st 1960, the date when Somalia will attain its full freedom’. The Protectorate administration, which had hoped to gain time for further developments and preparation, was left to make the necessary precipitate arrangements. British Somaliland became independent on 26 June 1960 and on 1 July Somalia followed suit, the two territories uniting forthwith as a single Republic. This four-day passage into total independence is today the basis for Somaliland’s claim to full sovereign status, arguing that what one government freely decided can later be freely undone by another government. In addition, the Atto di Unione drafted in Mogadishu was never confirmed in Hargeisa, and the Somalia and Somaliland Unity Law was never voted by the southern parliament.[53]

During his 1998 trip to France, I took the opportunity to ask Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, then President of ‘independent’ Somaliland who had been head of the unity delegation to Mogadishu on 1 July 1960, how he felt when he signed the merger document: ‘Happy and enthusiastic. That was the stupidest thing I had ever done in my life, but I was sure at that moment that it was the best and most progressive thing that I should do. I had years later to regret it. Now could we please talk about something else?’ This is interesting because three years after this conversation, Somaliland nationalist leader Abdirahman Awale would venture exactly the opposite opinion about Egal: ‘When he says he is for independence, it is for local consumption only. He tells the people here one thing but in his speeches elsewhere he has clearly declared that Somalia will unite one day … He says one thing to the public and a different thing to the international community.’[54] What did Egal really think? Perhaps none of the above. Contradictions are the perfect expression of a Somali statesman’s thought. The merger between the British and Italian colonies had been mostly an ideological and emotional thing, while the practicalities had been seen as secondary, a very Somali way of looking at politics. Unfortunately, reality is made of sterner stuff.

The Country That Does Not Exist A History of SomalilandTwo into one hardly go; five into one don’t go at all

Right from the beginning, the merging of the two separate colonies created major problems. First, there were large structural discrepancies that had never been addressed: from 1950 onwards, AFIS had planned a course towards independence within ten years, as recommended by the UN resolution. But not so in the north where the British, whose government seemed to support a union of all Somali territories, were at the same time quite negligent in preparing their own Protectorate for any kind of independence, unitary or separate. AFIS accelerated the training of civil servants in the south while very little was done in the north. Given the fact that the demographic balance was extremely uneven (the north had barely a quarter of the total Somali population),[55] this difference in training levels gave a massive advantage to southerners.

In parliament, nobody paid attention to the fact that since we had had different administrations and that those of the Italian part were pledged ten years before we got independence, their people were trained and they had diplomas in political science; in contrast, our people were not even prepared to learn the protocols, the public service and even basic governance … Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal was almost the only one who had a full university education, he had enrolled as a student in 1943, been sent to England and taken a diploma in business administration. Most MPs were just people, 50 or 60 years old, running little businesses such as shops or garages, with no literacy; there were also three seamen who had seen some of the world but they could not read and write well, even if they identified themselves as civilized.[56]

But when SYL leader Abdirizak Haji Hussein became Prime Minister in 1963, ‘he transferred many officials from the north to Mogadishu. Hence many senior officials, especially the accountants and auditors, were from the north.’[57] But these appointments were technical rather than political and, in addition, the cadres who were transferred southwards were not replaced, leaving gaps in the administration of the north. Politically the southern dominance was overwhelming.

Everything had been carried out in haste and even the basic legalities had been neglected. The Somaliland legislature passed a roughly drafted text of union with the south on 27 June 1960, the day following northern independence. Strangely enough, the representative from Mogadishu who was present that day in Hargeisa abstained and did not sign the document.[58] And then on 1 July, the very day of independence of the south, the local authorities in Mogadishu brought forward an Atto di Unione (Act of Unification), written in Italian, which was the equivalent of the 27 June Hargeisa declaration. But neither was this one signed by the representatives of the other side. So, even though nobody had refused any unification document, nobody had signed one either (or either of the two prepared), leaving the merging of the two colonies as a de facto move, without international or constitutional basis. But united they were, somehow. And within a year, the dysfunctionalities were there in plain sight, for everyone to see.

On 20 June 1961 a draft constitution was submitted to a referendum. The results were 91 per cent in favor and only 9 per cent against. But these ‘significant’ results were deceptive. First of all, the south had perhaps three times the population of the former British colony; and then, on top of that disparity, only about 100,000 of the registered voters had cast their ballots in the north, and even among that limited number, there was a 63 per cent rejection rate. The overall result showed one firm contradiction: the north, whose SNL had been even more sanguine than the southern SYL in promoting unification, had rejected it within a year of its proclamation. Within six months, on 10 December 1961, a group of northern officers attempted to carry out a coup, with the hope of seceding from the newborn unitary state. The coup was led by an Isaaq major, Hassan Kayd. But among the coup leaders were one Gaddabursi (from the Dir clan family) and four Dhulbahante, who are Darood. This showed that even if its main body of support was clanic, the attempted coup was broadly regional.[59]

The coup—and the trial which followed it—was more farcical than tragic. In March 1963, Mr. Justice Hazelwood, a British former colonial judge whose court sat in Mogadishu, dismissed the case arguing that there had been no proper act of unification and that therefore the southern authorities had no jurisdiction to enter a charge of high treason against northern officers who were not technically part of the ‘national’ army. Surprisingly, the ‘national’ government in Mogadishu accepted the legal argument and freed the detainees forthwith.

But this did not stop the regime from trying to carry out its ‘Greater Somalia’ policy. With the approaching independence of Kenya, the Northern Frontier District (NFD), populated by Somali, was next in line for diplomatic action. On 27 July 1962, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, who was both a northerner (Isaaq) and the Minister of Defense of the mostly Hawiye–Majerteen southern regime, met Jomo Kenyatta in Mogadishu, telling him that ‘a desire for unity[60] must be matched by a willingness to sacrifice a measure of sovereignty … This Republic [Somalia as it then existed] has made a unique practical contribution to African unity by merging two independent African states into one.’[61] Kenyatta, who had observed the process of ‘unification’ between Hargeisa and Mogadishu over the previous two years, retorted that ‘it will not be enough merely to have an organization coordinating the operation of a few selected services. This would entail going further and lead to the creation of a new Federal State of Eastern Africa.’ This was something he had no intention of doing, as he declared in August 1962: ‘we regard NFD as part of Kenya … and any discussion with the Somalis in NFD is a domestic affair of Kenya.’[62] It could not be clearer.

The British government was caught in a quandary, having to satisfy both this Kenyan nationalist requirement and its own acceptance of the previous fusion between British Somaliland and Somalia Italiana. In October 1962, London reluctantly organized, through the Commonwealth, a referendum in the NFD. The results were clear, as roughly 80 per cent of the voters supported seceding from Kenya and joining the new Republic of Somalia. Fearing a Kenyan backlash at the time of independence, London left the referendum unfinished,[63] and, when popular demonstrations developed, it collaborated with the native Kenyan security forces in repressing them violently. Even before independence was proclaimed (December 1963), the whole NFD was prey to war—the so-called Shifta War—a conflict which would eventually last till 1967. The common struggle of Kenya, trying to keep the NFD from becoming part of Somalia, and of Ethiopia, to keep the Ogaden in the same way, brought the two countries closer together as soon as Kenya became independent.

But what about the Côte Française des Somalis, or French Somaliland? Its situation was different owing to two factors. One was the French reluctance to abandon what they considered to be an essential strategic position.[64] The other was the fact that the majority of the population was not Somali but Afar, and the Afar had no desire to belong to either Somalia or Ethiopia, even if both countries pretended to have claims on the French colony. In fact, even though the main Somali party, Ligue Populaire Africaine pour l’Indépendance (LPAI), officially advocated union with Somalia, this was far from being a widespread sentiment, even within the Issa, the majority Somali clan (a Dir clan family) among the Djibouti Somalis.[65] So though the LPAI kept an official pro-Somalia position, the aim was largely to put pressure on Paris and to get money from Mogadishu.[66] This was almost the absolute opposite of the NFD Somali choice. There were two reasons for this. First of all, the main problem in TFAI was not pan-Somalism but rather the Afar–Issa politics; and secondly, the clan relationships formed another dimension. The Issa were used to dealing with Gaddabursi and with Isaaq—for them the southern clans were probably more ‘foreign’ than even the Afar—while, in the case of the NFD, the main clans like the Ogadeni or the Ajuran belonged to the Darood or Hawiye families. The Greater Somalia mystique became diluted in geographical distance and, later, in the perceived experience of the 1960 Union. Reality was reasserting itself and it did not fit the mythical scenario.

Vanishing democracy, rising dictatorship

The experience of democracy in unified Somalia roughly covered the 1960s (July 1960 to October 1969). It was a period when a grand illusion replaced practical analysis, when a political dream permanently parasitized real politics, and when undercurrents of non-state governance, largely clanic, were allowed to develop, fester and eventually undercut the attempt at building a democratic regime in the wake of withdrawing colonialism. Up to the October 1969 coup, democratic functioning had been unsatisfactory but had existed. In clanic terms, politics were dominated by members of the Majerteen clan family and, among those, by Abdirizak Haji Hussein and Abdirashid Ali Shermarke. Both were Majerteen and alternated as Prime Minister and President throughout the 1960s. Abdirizak was the more moderate of the two on the question of Greater Somalia. Of course he supported the Dream— every politician had to—but he did so reasonably, moderately, and without a time frame requiring immediate action. But he also introduced the practice of systematic vote rigging, something which in the short run was useful since it favored reasonable candidates but which also undermined the democratic process itself, turning elections into a mockery. The army was the only coherent body which operated more or less as a nationwide unit, at least until the coup. Given the corruption and the nepotism of civilian politics and the increasing ineffectiveness of the support for the Dream, there was a certain restlessness and desire to intervene on the part of the army.

Part of the problem was the Somali approach to the Cold War. Since ‘the Dream’ was considered a strategic goal, it could only be realized in opposition to the West because both Kenya and Ethiopia were strong US allies while Djibouti was still in French colonial hands. In the Arab world, support for Somalia’s unification had come from Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq, countries that were at the time all pro-USSR.[67] On 15 October 1969, President Ali Shermarke was shot and killed by one of his own bodyguards. The motivation for the killing seemed mostly personal but there was a sub-plot which seemed to link the assassination with some elements of the armed forces. In any case, whether army men had abetted this killing or whether they thought it opened a window of opportunity, a group of officers led by General Siyad Barre took power a week later in a bloodless coup, created the so-called Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) and soon took it in a ‘socialist’ direction. This trend of ‘military socialism’, which had started regionally with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, was then dominant and led directly to Moscow.[68] But in the case of Somalia, the logic of alliances steering the Cold War had already brought Mogadishu to sign a military aid pact with the USSR in 1963. The root cause of this move was not any ideological sympathy for the ‘atheist’ Soviet regime but simply a strategic choice since both Kenya and Ethiopia were close allies of the United States, and being a friend of their enemy seemed like a wise choice. As a result, the new SRC orientation was not a radical change but simply an intensification of an already existing policy direction.

What was more important (but was not noticed in the international climate of the time) was the role of clanism. The Majerteen elite which had ruled Somalia since the AFIS days was relatively moderate in its use of clan solidarities. But this was not the case with the new regime, where the personality of Siyad Barre himself started to impose a growing clanic weight. Siyad was half Marehan (on his father’s side, the culturally more important one) and half Ogaden, i.e. wholly Darood. In clanic terms, the Darood were the silent majority of post-colonial Somalia, and they had every intention of recovering what they considered to be their birthright. So Siyad Barre joined the military regimes all heading for Moscow, following a doubly legitimate diplomatic path by reinforcing the pan-Somali camp both inside and outside the newly amalgamated ‘country’. But how much of a country was it?

Somalia’s post-independence forced birth

We have already seen that the December 1961 Hassan Kayd military coup, while abortive, had been a significant sign of a deep malaise in the brotherly union of north and south. ‘All the institutions that were important and supported by foreign funders were moved away from the north. The SIBA Institute in Mogadishu was the copy of the one in Hargeisa, the CTC Institute was relocated, the Police Academy was a copy of the Madera Police Academy of the north, the Livestock Breeding Project in Afgooye was a replica of the same institution in Geed Debleh, the Agricultural Extension Project in the south was a copy of the Abuuriin one in the north. Many boarding schools in the north were closed and many of the good teachers were transferred to Mogadishu, leaving the bad ones for Hargeisa. The GCE examinations from London were suspended. And after the 1977 war [with Ethiopia], over forty schools were closed in the north so they could be taken over as barracks for the military. It was started in Wajaale, Dararweyne was next, Allaybaday was next, Bali Cabane was next, and then Baligubadle and Oodweyne and Dacarbudhug, and I can’t count the rest. There was constant fighting in the Ministry of Education. Many people agreed to stand up to stop this policy in the North but they failed. There were many high-level politicians, not only Isaaq but even Majerteen, Dhulbahante and Hawiye, famous people such as Omar Arteh, Ismail Ali Abokor, Omar Haji Masale or Ahmed Jaamjaam Gileh who held a conference and concluded that if Siyad Barre was allowed to continue this way, the country would end up in a civil war … But then, apart from Omar Arteh, who was very well known, and from Dr Mohamed Aden, who was from Marehan by clan but who was with them, all others were arrested, tried and condemned to death.’[69]

In spite of this increasingly gaping administrative chasm between north and south, the 63 per cent rejection of the union by those northern voters who did vote in the 1961 referendum had not been taken as a warning by the southern political elite (and this was years before Siyad Barre took over). The Dream reigned supreme, largely through ignorance.

Ordinary people in Somaliland were mostly nomadic pastoralists who were not familiar with the possible consequences of unification without conditions, and they used to think that if there was unification with other Somali there would be universal prosperity. They were not well informed by the opposition political parties … It was only NUF that was against unification without conditions and asked for negotiations and a previous agreement … But when the military junta took over the country, Mohamed Siyad Barre and his family and his clan were prioritized and we became even more dissatisfied with the system. But our lack of experience at that time was almost complete.[70]

The event that turned that dissatisfaction into open hostility was the 1974–5 Dabadheer drought.[71]

During that drought a lot of people lost their livestock and many people from Somaliland, especially those from the east,[72] became refugees in the south. The government did not set up refugee camps in the north but they set up temporary camps at places like Beer, Caynaba or Taleex, and the people were later transferred to places in the south, mostly around Marca. Then they were told to farm and were given land, but these people were pastoralists and did not have any idea about farming. So they started migrating to the Gulf countries, mainly to Saudi Arabia, in search of work.[73]

There were other disrupting consequences of the drought. Not everybody could go to the Gulf, and over 200,000 internally displaced people were sedentarised and resettled. The program, presented as an effort of trans-clanic nationalist social transformation, was not very efficient and in fact created further clanic problems. Another consequence of the drought was the establishment by the USSR of a program for the non-maritime Somalis to learn to fish. In spite of their long coastline, the Somali had remained landlubbers and, apart from members of the Warsangeli clan on the Red Sea, had only dabbled in sailing. Under Russian supervision, apprentice fishermen of various Majerteen sub-clans took to the Indian Ocean.[74] This was not really popular either. Since the drought situation improved only very slowly in the north, most of the emigrants stayed in the Arab countries and did not come back to Somalia, making the Dabadheer drought a kind of watershed.

The Somalilanders realized that the Dream of national unity, whether popular or not, had little weight in the eyes of their southern brethren. This was particularly painful since one of the points that had led many northerners to support the military-socialist coup was the fact that the officers reacted strongly against the foreign policy of the last Prime Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal. Egal, a smooth diplomat who had come to realize that panSomalism was very unpopular internationally, started to tone down irredentist Somali claims. But the Dream was still popular and his moderation looked like cowardice in the eyes of the population. So Siyad Barre’s first public speech after the coup strongly reaffirmed the pan-Somali ideals that had led to the hurried 1960 merger.[75] To see these ideals, still theoretically held, being so poorly practiced in reality undermined further the already strained north– south relations. But worse than the Dabadheer drought, the real, massive and final breaking point in the north–south marriage would be war, the war with Ethiopia, which, in the ideal pan-Somali scenario, should have been the next step in realizing the dream of Somali unity.

The impact of war with Ethiopia on Somalia

Why a war with Ethiopia rather than a war with other governments controlling parts of the Somali world? The reasons were a mix of diplomatic, political and clanic causes, with some practicalities thrown in. The first round of military efforts at uniting the Somali territories had been, as we saw earlier, a move against Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, resulting in the 1963–7 Shifta War. This was before the socialist-military coup of 1969 and before Egal tried to heal the relationship with Kenya. But the Shifta War was a kind of secondary theatre of operations. Kenya had no desire to push the quarrel further, whereas Ethiopian policies were designed to be aggressively integrationist. And this fitted in a very tight way with the clanic political landscape of Somalia. Siyad Barre himself came on his mother’s side from the Makahil subclan of the Ogadeni, one that was deeply embedded in southern Ogaden. In early 1976 the Ogadeni launched an irredentist armed movement in the Ethiopian province, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), led by Abdullahi Hassan Muhammad. This movement had a ‘sister’ organization, the Somali Abbo Liberation Front (SALF), led by the veteran Oromo rebel, Wako Gutu. Wako Gutu had been a nationalistic Oromo peasant leader ennobled by Emperor Haile Selassie but he later rebelled, was arrested and sentenced to a jail term. The beginnings of the Ethiopian Revolution set him free and he went back to his rebellion. For Siyad Barre to associate support for the genuinely Somali WSLF with the same backing for SALF, which was a wholly Ethiopian movement, was a deliberate bomb thrown in the Ethiopian backyard. It linked Somali nationalism with support for an ethnic group that dreamt of dismantling the Ethiopian Empire and actually destroying Ethiopia as a state. And this happened at a time when the revolution had deposed the Emperor and undermined from within Ethiopia the traditional legitimacy of the nation.[76] Together, WSLF and SALF were deadly projectiles aimed not only at bringing about the secession of Ethiopia’s Somali population (through the WSLF) but even at dismantling the Ethiopian core territory completely (by way of SALF)[77] and wiping the whole country off the map.

Why would Siyad Barre want to fire such deadly missiles at his Ethiopian neighbor? Basically, he had run out of governing devices in an increasingly difficult situation, and not because he had failed to try other means. As we saw, the one basic problem of governing the Somali was clanism, a form of social organization which is more efficient in competing with and sidetracking state authority than even the more commonplace tribalism of African societies.[78] In his simple military way, Siyad tried to ‘reform’ Somali society and assert the authority of the state over a society that not only had never had any state but had even actively resisted obeying one. He started by introducing the notion of individual responsibility in the legal code to try to marginalize clanic responsibility, which made the whole clan accountable for the offences committed by one of its members. The state de facto ‘nationalized’ grazing areas and water wells, guaranteeing free access to these assets to any ‘citizen’, no matter what his clan was. This was a courageous move but also a foolish one because, firstly, geographical ties to certain regions were strong among particular clans and could hardly be freely altered by representatives of the state; and, secondly, those very representatives of the state were themselves not free of clan attachments and therefore could not be considered neutral. In despair, the regime even organized communist-style ‘agitprop’ public events, with militants of the SRSP[79] marching along carrying fake coffins, supposedly burying ‘clanism’. The only segment of Somali society which refused to obey or even give lip service to the anti-clanic directives were the Muslim Brothers, who rejected the ‘atheist regime’, including its use of the Latin alphabet to write the Somali language.[80] In 1975 Siyad arrested ten of the most vociferous Ulama and shot them, causing a serious setback to the expansion of the Muslim Brothers’ network in Somalia.

For a military leader who had based his leadership on the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) and then proceeded to transform the SRC into a one-man dictatorship, the situation after five or six years in power was extremely problematic. The deeper meaning of the coup was considerably simplified by observers at the time, who could write:

No really stunning changes in the political stance of Somalia, either at home or in external policy, can be expected. Siyad Barre is very much an establishment man, an elder who has shown considerable ability in maintaining tranquility in the Army which always had suffered from the divisive influence of the rival clans … If he shows a similar ability to balance the clans in the new regime which is to rule Somalia, he will have done much to ensure his success … Siyad is certainly not a political self-seeker.[81]

Resurrecting such a quote is not intended to make the reader laugh. It is mentioned because it is typical of the common assessment of Siyad Barre’s coup at the time.[82] But it was inadequate even then. The anti-clanic policy never really took off, and it failed notoriously when the new master of Somalia felt forced to arrest and execute General Mohamed Aynanshe, Colonel Salaad Gabeyre and Colonel Abdulkadir Dheel, who were leaders of dissident clanic strands within the army. The ideological overhaul which was supposed to marginalize both clanism and Islam through the use of Marxism-Leninism had failed. The executions of the Ulama had riled Muslim consciousness. And the Soviet alliance had led to the development of a command economy with stagnant results. At this point Ethiopia suddenly came undone through revolution, offering an unexpected opportunity for a possible military ‘solution’ that was too tempting for the champion of a hyper-nationalist movement and army to resist. Pan-Somalism had been a key legitimizing factor for the coup in October 1969, and now this was its best opportunity since independence.

The army, having expanded massively, now felt ready to move. It had had only 2,000 men at the time of independence and 4,000 in 1968, a year before the coup. But by 1977 it had grown to 53,000 men, equipped by the Russians with 250 tanks (T-34, T-54 and T-55), over 300 armored vehicles (BTR-40, BTR-152), and 66 combat aircraft (Mig-15, Mig-17 and a few Mig-21).[83] In addition, the Somali guerrillas of WSLF could bring a force of about 80,000 men, often poorly equipped but extremely resolute. In normal times, the Ethiopian Army would have had sufficient men and equipment to face a Somali Army attack. But since February 1974, it had been unravelling, along with the rest of Ethiopian state institutions. Ethiopia had a 50,000-strong, well-trained army, a reasonable fleet of somewhat ageing US battle tanks, and good combat aircraft, in particular 28 new Northrop F-5 fighters to supplement its Korean War-vintage F-86 Sabre. But this army was deeply involved in leading a revolution and, by then, owing to the revolution, both countries had become Soviet allies without Moscow knowing what to do about this fight between two of its protégés. The confusion was complete.[84]

In March 1977, as the danger of war was nearing, Fidel Castro flew to Aden to meet both Siyad Barre and representatives of the Ethiopian Socialist Army Revolutionary Committee, or Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who, a month before, had assumed all power in Addis Ababa through an internal coup, eliminating his army rivals. Castro put forward a grand design of creating a regional socialist federation that would bring together Ethiopia, Somalia and South Yemen, a hasty improvisation in such a tight framework at a tense moment. Siyad threw the proposal out (and with it the prospect of continued Soviet support) and showed clearly that he intended to take over the Ogaden by military force. On 13 July the Somali forces crossed the Ethiopian border and attacked westwards, immediately scoring great successes against the dispirited Ethiopian troops. Within weeks the Somali Army and its WSLF auxiliaries had occupied three-quarters of the Ogaden and were besieging the main towns such as Harar and Jijiga. Taking advantage of the Somali attack, the Eritrean guerrillas went on the offensive and occupied most of the province while the conservative pro-monarchist guerrillas of EDU did the same thing in Tigray. The Derg feared imminent collapse and military defeat. But Mengistu took things strongly in hand and Brezhnev rose to the challenge, deploying a massive Soviet aerial logistical capacity to bring in heavy equipment, especially heavy artillery, and allied troops from Cuba and South Yemen. With these reinforcements the Ethiopians and their allies could counter-attack[85] and push the Somali forces out of the Ogaden. By 8 March 1978, their last units had withdrawn.

The nation is thrown backwards

The Ogaden War was a typical illustration of the Clausewitzian notion of war as extending politics by other means. But it failed. And that failure boomeranged, soon starting to challenge the peaceful 1960 union. Part of this was due to the methods Siyad Barre had used to try to grab territory. In order to be successful and use the moral and social support of the local population, he deployed more WSLF militias—80,000 of them—than regular troops (50,000). In addition he also used an unknown number of ‘irregulars’, either Ethiopian SALF Oromos or armed nomads operating outside the frame of any formal command. Many were recruited in the former British Protectorate or in the Hawd, and when defeat came, these men started to ask the regime to fulfil its promises. But this came later.

In the very short term, the main threat to the military regime was an attempt by the Majerteen to regain what they felt they had lost in October 1969, i.e. the upper hand in Somali politics. By the end of March 1978, Siyad Barre had arrested many officers and shot 90 of them. Over one million refugees had come over the border in the wake of the retreating Somali forces. The confusion was tremendous and humanitarian aid, quickly improvised, could hardly cope and keep people alive. On 9 April 1978, almost exactly a month after the defeat, a group of mostly Majerteen officers tried to overthrow the government in a coup and failed. Many were arrested, and 17 were tried and shot the following October. A major part of the problem was that many armed men were drifting along in the flow of refugees. These men could call upon the government to honor its previous promises. Siyad Barre belonged to the broader Darood clan family, as did the Ogadeni refugees. Many had longstanding grievances which the regime had exploited to acquire their loyalty. But now pay-off time had come, at a moment when the state was broke and Siyad Barre wanted somebody else to pay the bill.

So, many of the refugees and vanquished militiamen were steered northwards, away from the Darood lands. There these newcomers met with other clanically and politically disenchanted segments of the population, those ‘irregulars’ who had been drafted into the campaign. Some of the outstanding demographic and historical debts Siyad Barre had used to try to buy clanic support were quite old, as in the case of the Mahmood Garaad sub-clan of the Dhulbahante, which had lost a good part of its traditional territories during the wars against the ‘Mad Mullah’ between 1900 and 1920,[86] or some of the Ogadeni clans who had been pushed aside at the same time.[87] Together with the retreating WSLF forces, these irregulars had every intention of getting what they felt had been owed to them for over half a century. As for the refugees, they would settle for anything they could grab. Weapons were distributed freely to all those who supported the government and were ready to fight against any attempt at overthrowing it.[88] By late 1978, the estimate was that there were 220,000 men under arms while there had been only 168,000 at the height of the offensive in Ethiopia.[89] The 50,000 extra gunslingers were all highly irregular (even when they called themselves WSLF) and they all moved northwards, to the former Somaliland. They were armed, vanquished, frustrated, half starving, and they felt the government was behind them. It meant their intentions were definitely not friendly and the local civilian population began to pay the price.

This period was extremely ambiguous. The Isaaq, like most of the Somali population and in spite of their doubts about the unification, had joined wholeheartedly in the war effort.[90] But now, with the reflux of the army and the dumping of refugees in the former Somaliland, the ambiguity grew and a stiffening of anti-government reaction began to replace support for the nationalist dream. The security situation was extraordinarily contradictory and this contradiction was spectacularly embodied in what became known as the Afraad (the Fourth Battalion), popularly known as Watatir Mohamed Ali, Mohamed Ali’s soldiers. Mohamed Ali’s real name was Mohamed Farah Dalmar Yusuf. He had acquired his first military experience in the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization; later he had taken part in the Lebanese civil war, and when he eventually came back to Somalia with such a record of independent soldiering, he was a natural candidate for the recently created WSLF. He then became the military leader of the organization and was at the forefront of the 1977 invasion in the Ogaden. But as an Isaaq, he quickly realized that he was leading a military outfit which was on a collision course with his own clansmen. In 1979 he had been detached to head a special branch of the WSLF to which he gave the name Afraad and which Siyad Barre used to fight the new Somali Salvation Front (SOSAF) rebels. He stayed in the same area of the Ogaden where he had fought the Ethiopian Army and switched to fighting the Majerteen rebels of Abdullahi Yusuf instead, as well as fighting the Ogadeni at the same time, even though they were WSLF themselves. Watatir Mohamed Ali’s first loyalty was to their leader, and he was so popular that Afraad followed him blindly. So, in a way, he was the first armed fighter of the future Somaliland rebellion, even before the creation of the SNM rebel movement.

But there are limits to ambiguity and Mohamed Ali’s high-wire act backfired in 1979 when he was arrested in Mogadishu. He had much to explain about his complicated loyalties, but he did not have to because he was saved at the last moment from facing a military court when he was rescued by one of his superiors, who was also a veteran comrade in arms from the Ogaden, Mohamed Hashi Deria, better known as ‘Lixle’.[91] Lixle was a respected frontline commander and a war hero who enjoyed the full trust of his superiors. Given the total confusion in the months that followed the end of the war, he decided to brazen it out, put on his full uniform and spring his subordinate from jail. But when he got him out, he advised him to lie low. Mohamed Ali left Mogadishu and went farming in southern Somalia during most of 1979– 80. After his brush with the government, he was reinstated in the WSLF in early 1981. But by then the WSLF had turned into an ‘every tribe for itself’ formation, and the fight with the Ethiopians had become ‘a disguise or cover-up for getting weapons’.[92] ‘The name of the various units (Kowaad, Labaad, and Saddexaad) simply indicated their rankings in WSLF. Afraad just meant the Fourth Battalion. All the other units were engaged in robbing and killing the population. So the Fourth, led by Mohamed Ali and Cabdikareem Ali Buux, came out in order to protect the people, and while the other units remained on the Somali government side, the Fourth had to seek the help of the Ethiopian government. It thus became the initial nucleus of the SNM. Hostility between the clans was at its peak. There were many tribal units before SNM was formed, but Afraad went back to 1978.’[93] Now the high-wire act was in the hands of Lixle, and during these days when the future (and already active) rebels were still ‘government’, he was the one helping these units at the forefront of an armed movement in the making.

By 1979, was ‘Somaliland’ still part of Somalia or had it already started to drift away? The answer is ‘both’. The Ogaden War had been a moment of romantic exaltation which had, for a while, made people forget the prejudices and incompetence that had marked the days following the 1960 ‘unification’. Victory might have enabled the reluctant joiners to share in the heroic dream of the movement. But it was the opposite that happened, not so much the defeat but rather the way in which it took place. All the pre-war shortcomings were back, with a vengeance. The Ogadeni refugees were integrated into the civil service in the north-west, keeping a facade of national unity but also bypassing local candidates for scarce jobs. The economic competition got fiercer and more ethnically slanted:

There was a businessman who was a Marehan and a relative of President Siyad Barre. He had livestock to export and he did not want to wait, especially as his name was at the end of the list. So he asked a Marehan colonel to help him in Berbera harbor and his clansman told the harbor authorities that as a Marehan his livestock should be allowed to go first on the ship. And there was even worse. When people brought vehicles from Saudi Arabia or Dubai, influential Marehan military people would come to the port and ask for the keys. If they liked a car which was beautiful, like a Land Cruiser, they would ask for the keys from the port manager or the customs, and they would drive out of the port without paying and nobody would dare to stop them.[94]

Increasingly the post-war situation in the north began to look like a free-forall where members of the Darood clans, especially those labelled ‘MOD’— Marehan-Ogadeni-Dhulbahante—behaved as if Somaliland had become their private property. In addition, all forms of economic benefit were ended, withdrawn or taken over by others. A key element was the cancellation of the franco valuta system, which had allowed businessmen to procure foreign currency for exports that did not fall within a government monopoly.[95] This system was quite beneficial for the Isaaq, who made money by exporting livestock to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Unlike the banana exports from the south, which occurred within a government monopoly system—the Somalfruit parastatal company—livestock exports were wholly private and the north raked in a fair amount of foreign currency. But in October 1981 the franco valuta system was abolished, depriving the Isaaq of their main, if not only, source of foreign currency. The negative impact was considerable. At the same time, the looting of the economy reached extreme heights.

The Marehan or other Darood, they would come to the harbor and take whatever they wanted from any importer, without paying, just like that … If one of them wanted to organize a wedding, he would kidnap an Isaaq and then ask money for his release. It got to the point that there were even agents that engaged with the government in negotiations for release … In the rural areas, the camel herders were asked to pay money, particularly if they had a berked [dugout cistern for irrigation and watering cattle] … In Jijiga there was a market where you could buy goods that had been stolen by the army or the police.[96]

At first, civil society reactions were limited because, in the absence of any anti-colonial movement, there was no tradition of politicization.

There was only one small movement, Waxdada, an Islamic group that drew ideologically from the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. It was not very political, contrary to Ansar ad-Din. But Ansar ad-Din was more active in the rest of the country … Those that adhered to this ideology were mostly living around Burao.[97]

But what first challenged civil society’s neglect was the catastrophic situation of Hargeisa hospital. There had been no health investment in the hospital since independence, including during the Ogaden War, when it had to treat a high number of military casualties. After the end of the war, the emergency facilities set up by UNHCR to help refugees were of a much better quality than the ‘national’ hospital in the northern capital.[98]

Young intellectuals who had been educated abroad were shocked when they came back … The gynecological service was the worst, to the extent that the midwives had to fight off the cats to protect the newborn. One night it happened that a man had brought his pregnant wife to the service, but since there was no electricity and no generator, he was ordered to use the headlights of his car to light up the delivery room … Dr Adan Abokor was the hospital manager at the time, a recent graduate from Warsaw University, and he sent us an appeal to assist him with the hospital … Some of the traditional leaders and some businessmen started to collect money to cover the medical supplies, and we brought in the German emergency doctors, who started helping. They were very courageous. I remember a German sewerage engineer who went and worked with his bare hands in the sewage. It motivated many people … But it was not only the hospital, the need was everywhere … The schools had no teachers because salaries were low and most of the time they were not even paid. Maths, biology or physics were not taught because no qualified teachers had been recruited.[99]

Given the dilapidated condition of most government services—and this within a command economy where the state was in theory supposed to run everything—the embryonic volunteer movement that had coalesced around the needs of the hospital started to grow. ‘However, there was nothing organized and there was no intention of creating a big unrest or protest against the regime. Because the regime at that time was very powerful and no one dared to go against it.’[100]

This was the time when General Mohamed Hashi Gani became Governor of the north, replacing Salhan Mohamed Salhan, whom Siyad Barre suspected of being too friendly with the Isaaq population. The public atmosphere changed immediately. ‘Within two months of his nomination, Hashi Gani had created an emergency military court which tried, condemned and shot Colonel Abdullahi Said, the military commander of Togdheer region.’[101] People were charged, pushed around or demoted on the slightest pretext. Facing growing popular dissatisfaction, General Hashi Gani hardened his attitude by resorting to arbitrary repression. Meanwhile, the voluntary service movement had been gaining ground and had completely renovated the hospital, ‘even repainting the walls’. Drugs and basic equipment were bought with private funds and people volunteered to do unpaid work. The so-called Hargeisa Hospital Group acquired the nickname Uffo (the wind before the storm), which was quickly taken up in every mabraz of the city,[102] and it soon became a symbol both of self-help and of opposition to the government. In fact, Uffo remained an opinion, a state of mind and not a regular organization. It did not have a formal structure, a membership list or any form of dues. It did publish a newsletter, for a while which it stopped issuing in October 1981 when it realized that it angered the government without adding much to the task at hand.

But from the point of view of General Hashi Gani, things had already gone too far. Two months later the police started arresting Uffo sympathizers.[103] Arrests were made on the basis of family connections, friendships or word of mouth, and spread like wildfire since even having been seen in the company of a ‘suspect’ was enough for a person to be arrested. On 20 February 1982 all the ‘Uffo members’ were taken to court and later sentenced to long jail terms on 6 March. The Uffo trial triggered massive street protests, remembered as ‘the stone throwing’ (dhagax tur) when ordinary civilians started to throw stones at the police guarding the tribunal and the police replied by opening fire.[104] The government admitted to 14 people being killed but the real tally was about 30. The punishments meted out to civil society volunteers for having worked for the common good were so absurdly inappropriate that disturbances occurred over the whole of former Somaliland, leading to further casualties. The wave of arrests that accompanied the Uffo repression, and then the approaching trial, triggered the start of an emigration of armed insurgents to Ethiopia as early as December 1981.[105] Uffo and its dhagax tur conclusion were the warning winds from which the future tempest would come. And this was because, unknown to most of the people demonstrating, a group of men had met in far-away London and quietly begun to set up an organization that would give the furious crowds of the former British Protectorate a political voice and a military dimension.


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