A broader theoretical overview

When one tries to conceptualize what the ‘Somaliland’ phenomenon represents—the recycling of a former colonial space as the framework of a new nationalist movement—one must realize that this was in complete contradiction to what had so far been the heart of the movement towards decolonization. Returning to a colonial boundary (which meant adapting to a colonial boundary) was diametrically opposed to the pan-Somali ideology, built entirely on the idea that cultural identity equaled citizenship (which meant trying to destroy the colonial boundaries). For most African countries struggling towards anti-colonial nationhood, the equation was radically different. Their problem was how to build a nation to support an abstract state sitting on top of the tribal diversity they had inherited. Borders for them were secondary. The problem of the Somali was the exact opposite: the nation was a given but it was split into five separate state entities. And in between, like a succession of bridges to nowhere, lay the broken lines of the clans. Borders (which ones?) were at the heart of the Somali conundrum.[106] Pan-Somalism was—and remains today, in so far as it still exists—an act of faith. Pan-Somalism was the hope, dream or delusion that the myth of the state would be powerful enough to cut through the swathe of the clans. Therefore all clans and all territories had to be brought together, as leaving any outside the sanctity of the Holy Fatherland would irreparably damage the very existence of the whole.

Clanic rivalries, often mistakenly compared to tribal differences, are the complete opposite. Clans are all similar, which is why they cannot live together under one state. This derives from the fact that Somali culture, being radically democratic, will use the clans to challenge, refuse and disobey the state because no full-fledged, free-born Somali will ever willingly agree to bend the knee to another man’s authority. Since clans are designed to help and support any and all of their members in a hostile environment—whether the hostility is from nature or from other people is irrelevant—the clan means brotherhood and entails solidarity against any risk or danger. The clan will support its members against the state if the state does not support the clan. This is why building a state on an architecture of clans is akin to trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The clan is not an enemy of the state; it is its competitor. All the attributes of the state are already present in the clan: security, support, authority, identity, economic help, and territory. The clan is a small state, with the added advantages of kinship, warmth and humanity. The state, with its abstraction and cold-bloodedness, is a poor second to the cozy niche of the clan.

This was all good and well back in the days when the clanic arrangements of Somali society were functional, given the prevailing technological level (low), information level (low), natural dangers (high) and foreign entanglements (low). Colonization, with its well-armed armies of (mostly) white barbarians suddenly bursting upon the Somali world as an irresistible horde, put an end to that period. This was not akin to keeping the Ottomans at bay, skirmishing with the Arabs or hoping to conquer the lands of the Abyssinians, who were all peripheral. This was survival. The Europeans were absolutely destructive. They played by radically different rules, their resolve for war was equal to that of the Somali themselves and they had vastly superior weapons to achieve victory. Their culture was attractive and therefore corrosive. The only way to stem the flow was to build what made the Europeans powerful: a state. Never mind that it was something the Somali were culturally very poorly equipped to achieve. Therefore, in a burst of hopeful pride, the Somali resolved to build the biggest state they could possibly imagine, the state of all the Somali, hoping that size and trans-clanic relations would trump the kinship obstacle. But they were wrong. The clanic sand was so present, so penetrating, so intimate, that it gripped the state machinery even before it was created.


This was not for want of trying. As we saw in the first chapter, the Somali Youth League was the finely shaped theoretical tool to cut through the clanic complexities. Its problem was that it was too theoretical. There was only one part of the Somali space where the seeds of a possible transformation already existed: Somaliland. Was it because it had been administered in a more progressive and more efficient manner than the other parts of the colonized Somali nation? Not in the least. In the only in-depth analysis of colonial Somaliland,[107] a colonial administrator is quoted as saying in a report of 1920: ‘transforming activities [what we would call today “development”] are not necessary because the Administration is only popular with the natives insofar as it is confined to settling disputes and preserving order.’ The Somali particularly resented education and in May 1939 they rioted against school attendance. ‘Indirect rule was a non-starter because there simply were no native authorities to associate with the task.’[108] The picture of pre-war British Somaliland that comes out of these pages is paradoxical but coherent in Somali terms, and it corresponds to a clear-cut assessment made at the time by another man who knew the Somali well. In the 1993 reprint of his book,[109] Gerald Hanley quotes the remark an old Somali made to him in 1941, after he had been ‘liberated’ from the Italians: ‘I want to be well-governed and to be left alone.’ This was the gist, the hard core of the Somali concept of good governance. Millman sums it up in another quote, this time from a British administrator: ‘The Empire is in the business of enforcing her.’ What is ‘her’?[110] Xeer is the system of (unwritten) legal obligations and punishments observed by each clan. This ‘traditional law’, far from being ‘primitive’ or ‘embryonic’, is, on the contrary, extraordinarily precise and detailed in respect of those elements that pertain to traditional Somali life. Its adaptation to all aspects of Somali life is such that it has always trumped Shari’ah law, even after the Somali became Muslims. And Xeer was conceived without any reference to an overall state which would be a law-giver and law-enforcer. Xeer went with the clan, it did not go with any (theoretical) state.[111]

So what was good governance for a traditional Somali? It was a system that would respect Xeer, provide an impartial interpretation of the law and, in case of need, act as a referee that would make sure the Xeer customary legal decisions would be carried out. But at the same time it was a system which would not tell the Somali what he should or should not do outside the judicial areas of his life. This is exactly what the Protectorate authorities provided. Their courts blended Xeer clanic law with British common law (for the ‘modern’ aspects of life), with Xeer being prevalent and with an impartial (i.e. nonclanic) arbitration provided, both in court and later outside. The authority to carry out judicial decisions was given to the Illalo police units, made up of Somali soldiers commanded by British Camel Corps officers. They patrolled the arid territory and took care of wrongdoers. Apart from that, they had nothing to enforce since the Protectorate did nothing apart from supervising respect for native law. Was this system a kind of Western-enforced formalization of the ‘noble savage’ vision? Yes, in a way, but not just that. Here the Somali were neither ‘developed’ nor ‘oppressed’; in Hanley’s words, they were ‘well-governed and left alone’. Conditions were primitive, including for the British administrators. Salaries were close to bare survival, distractions were non-existent, utilities scarce, the administration skeletal,[112] and the economy Spartan.[113] But something essential was present: a constructed, practical-ideological framework which neither denied nor bowed to clanic legal and civil practice. ‘Development’ was absent but Somaliland was ‘well governed and left alone’. For Western observers, this was completely counterintuitive,[114] even if it was the first step in crossing the incredible obstacle course of the clanic field. Of course, the British administrators had no inkling of the fact that they were setting up the first foundations of a modern state that could be acceptable to the requirements of Somali culture. In their view it was ‘minimum Empire’, in the same way we talk about ‘minimum wages’. But it fitted Somali reality, something that more ambitious ‘development plans’ did not.

In particular it was the exact opposite of the Italian colonial perspective on the Somali world, which combined extraordinary political (and social) authoritarianism with exaggerated notions of economic development. In Somalia Italiana (as in the Côte Française des Somalis) the combination of high-handedness and Romanic law provided a very poor counterpart to the light political touch of the British administration and its common law accompaniment, which composed the first structure the Somali could tolerate in any transition to a trans-clanic state. This should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of British colonial policies. Neighboring South Sudan is a showcase of the results of catastrophic British neglect. But given the fact that there was never one British colonial policy but rather as many policies as there were colonial territories, some were better suited to their object than others. Moreover, the British treatment of the Somali was, through a mixture of chance and cultural coincidence, a menu the Somali could swallow. It was bad luck that in the hurry of trying to implement the pan-Somali dream, British Somaliland fell into the hands of possibly the worst-colonized segment of the Somali region, the Italian one.

But resuscitating ‘Somaliland’ in any shape or form was such an abomination for true dyed-in-the-wool pan-Somali nationalists that in their eyes it could only be the result of a plot. The alleged ‘plotters’ were never clearly defined but they tended to be darkly hinted at, their identity being, of course, ‘anti-Somali’ (and ‘anti-Islamic’ for the radical Muslim groups who were later to emerge at the political forefront). Given the support provided to the SNM by Ethiopia during the war, the enemy could be conveniently labelled as ‘Western’ since ‘Christian Ethiopia’ (a pleonastic formulation for many Somali) was the hereditary enemy and the natural military arm of ‘the West’ in the region. Never mind that at the time Ethiopia was a communist state and therefore not the ideal flag-bearer of ‘the West’. But for most of those who were to establish it, the self-asserting Somaliland ‘splinter’ did not amount to an ‘anti-Somalia’ decision, but was rather another positive vision of the same thing, i.e. another way to give shape and substance to their social hopes, not through submission to any colonial nostalgia but through self-assertion in a different form. ‘Somalia’, in the mind of its pan-Somali supporters, meant ‘freedom’, not only freedom from foreign domination but freedom as an absolute human right, in the sense the French had used liberté as one of the three guiding principles of their 1789 revolution. So it was freedom from any domination, including Somali domination. This is where the experience of the Isaaq Somali diverged widely from that of their southern brethren.

The point where things went wrong was when the new ‘Somali’ authorities, far from offering a path to freedom, turned into a path towards more oppression. The situation had been tolerable between 1960 and 1969, and then far from ideal but still tolerable between 1969 and 1978. The Siyad Barre regime had staked all its future on making the pan-Somali dream come true. But after 1978 and the defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian Army and its communist allies, that dream turned into a nightmare. And it was not any kind of nightmare, but a typically Somali kind of nightmare, a clanic nightmare. In other words, the pan-Somali ideology which had justified the October 1969 coup, and later the July 1977 war with Ethiopia, finally crashed on the rocks of reality and destroyed its own worshippers. However, the people who were scapegoated and made to pay the price for that defeat were not the members of a political party or the supporters of a certain ideology, but the members of a clan family, the Isaaq.

Why the Isaaq? In all cases of social discrimination in ethnically (and religiously) homogeneous societies, the victims are perceived as separate, strange or unduly prosperous. This was the case with the Isaaq, both because they had prospered in commerce—for example, as we saw earlier with the cancelling of the franco valuta financial system—and because they had been a military enemy in the past. In a society which is very historically conscious, it was shocking that during the war the image of Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, the ‘Mad Mullah’ who had fought the British in Somaliland during the early 1900s, was so angrily resented.[115] Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, who was seen in the south as the first Somali nationalist and whose statue graced a central ‘piazza’ in the national capital, was commonly called ‘a Darood murderer’ in the north and regarded as a forerunner of the present violence. The Isaaq, even though they had no visible differences with other clan families in Somalia, were subtly perceived as being ‘different’. And this perceived difference seemed enough for Siyad Barre to resuscitate the old prejudices of the 1910s, giving a typical clanic answer to a trans-clanic national contradiction. The Isaaq did not start rebelling for the sake of secession and they did not start either with an armed movement, Mohamed Ali and his Afraad being the exception rather than the rule. But the consequences were inescapable: if the problem was clanic, then so did the solution, turning the targeted identity into an existential shelter.

 A History of SomalilandThe militant committees

The committees that would eventually join together and create the first network of the Somali National Movement (SNM) rebellion were the end product of quite a long process, which had started before the war but which the war with Ethiopia and the 1978 defeat would eventually bring to a final conclusion. It all began in an ambiguous atmosphere in which a form of revolutionary nationalism was unexpectedly mixed with traditional clanic feelings and confused dreams of socialist transformation. The year was 1970, the place was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), then a communist state, and the man who made it all happen was the confused idealist and revolutionary soldier of fortune Mohamed Farah Dalmar aka Mohamed Ali.[116] He went to Aden with an Adari friend only known as Ramadan[117] and opened ‘an office’. It was an office of subversion but with imprecise subversive views. The new Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), which had just taken power in Mogadishu, was an unknown quantity for many, and in the complicated Cold War atmosphere of the 1970s its ultimate aims were not yet clear. Several actors, particularly among the ‘socialist’ movements that wanted to maintain a measure of independence from Moscow, felt that keeping options open was preferable. The SRC asked the Aden authorities for the closure of Mohamed Ali’s office but the PDRY refused, saying ‘it could not close it because it had been opened at the request of the Iraqi government, the people who were running the office had Syrian passports, and they were known to be Eritreans’. This was an odd answer. But in fact the whole construct was a kind of common Arab revolutionary venture in which two national branches of the Baath party seem to have collaborated in creating a common ‘Eritrean’ structure with the complicity of the PDRY. The result was a big bowl of political soup where several different spoons seemed to be plunged in a commonly funded mix.[118] Everyone for himself and Marx for all. But all members had their reasons for being there and their own causes. ‘When I discussed with Mohamed Ali,’ said Mohamed Dacar, ‘he told me that Somalia had just been taken over by a new Mohamed Abdulle Hassan,[119] and that our mission was to stop him before he became too strong.’ This was a typically ‘Isaaq nationalist’ argument[120] and had nothing to do with either Eritrea or revolutionary Marxism.

Mohamed Ali and his colleague started recruiting Somalis in Yemen, 36 of them. Then they requested the Yemeni government to provide them with expert trainers to train these recruits in the arts of guerrilla warfare, and the Yemeni government provided them with six trainers … After some time the Ambassador, who had good relations with Mohamed Ali, was replaced with Abdi Osman ‘al-Habashi’, who had been a leader of the failed coup of Hassan Kayd in December 1961.

True to his personality, Mohamed Ali and his 36 men crossed by boat from Aden to a point equidistant from Zeyla and Lughaya, on a quixotic ‘national liberation’ mission of uncertain ideological character. They had been betrayed by a double agent and Somali National Army soldiers were waiting. There was a short exchange of fire. Ramadan and four of the men in the commando were killed and the rest were arrested. Mohamed Ali would later be released in 1975 and would play a key role in preparing the invasion of Ethiopia. After his release from jail, he fought in the war and became one of the main leaders of the WSLF, as we saw in the previous chapter. But he remained under a pall of suspicion as several security officers had realized that he was not an Eritrean,[121] and suspected he could be organizing a secret Isaaq fighting force. His close ties with men such as Ambassador Abdi Osman in Aden and, later, Colonel Mohamed Hashi (‘Lixle’) kept him in an ambiguous position where his military talents were highly valued but his political loyalty was felt to be questionable. So the first ‘maximalist’ tendency, which had tried to jumpstart an armed insurrection, ended up in failure, more because of ideological haste and confusion than because of its accompanying lack of military preparation.

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, two unarmed proto-rebel groups had begun to develop, one in Jeddah and one in Riyadh, while a third one grew out of the intellectual diaspora in the UK. Many of those in Saudi Arabia were Isaaq civil servants—about sixty of them—who had all been thrown out of the civil service in 1970 in a ‘socialist’ purge. The man who brought all of them together was Engineer (later Colonel) Mohamed Hashi. Although he had the ability to act with sudden bold-faced courage—as he did to free Mohamed Ali from direct arrest by Siyad Barre personally—Lixle was not an adventurer, as his comrade was. Even if he accepted the need at times for action, he had no personal fascination with the means of violence. And he fully realized that the Somali had a tendency to neglect planning and to let things fall into place on their own.

Mohamed Hashi had gathered a number of Isaaq around himself in Jeddah and, unlike Mohamed Ali, he did not think that armed activity was the main priority for the political action which he felt was needed. He did not move in the same circles of soldiers of fortune which were Mohamed Ali’s natural milieu but rather among workers, technicians and small traders, the rank and file of the working Somali emigrants to the Arab countries. He had gone back several times to Somaliland since the end of the war and gained a sense of the terrible deterioration of political and economic conditions, which had damaged the social environment of the former British colony. He knew that the situation was heading for a violent upheaval and he wanted to prepare for it. When he went to London, he asked the diaspora there why it was not publishing any kind of newspaper or bulletin which could be used to disseminate information about home, provide a chronicle of violent events, and add a measure of propaganda encouraging the people to revolt. Although his correspondents agreed with him about the seriousness of the situation, they were taken aback since they had no organized group, no idea about how to publish any kind of broadsheet, and they totally lacked funds. Upon returning to Jeddah, he started to reorganize his contacts and steer them towards fundraising. Soon they had $20,000, which they channeled towards England where the intellectual community was in a better position to publish something. Lixle insisted that it was better to publish in England to avoid irritating the Saudi authorities, who were likely to be nervous about a political insurgent group operating out of their own territory, even if they had no sympathy for the Siyad Barre regime, which they perceived as too ‘leftist’. Saudi Arabia was a polity both viscerally conservative and built on a fragile tribal support network. It instinctively disliked any popular, democratic type of political action and so the money was forwarded to London.[122] This transfer of funds and the new tasks undertaken by the diaspora in England helped to bolster the importance of what had been so far a rather politically passive intellectual group. The work of the UK committee would, in the medium term, bridge the gap between the mostly reflective non-armed militants and those who, in the wake of Mohamed Ali, saw no other solution than armed insurrection.

SNM is (discreetly) born

By late 1980 the UK committee began to look like a possible beacon of unity for the various Isaaq ‘revolutionary committees’ that had developed in Saudi and, to a lesser degree, in the United Arab Emirates. SOSAF, which was then itself only a guerrilla force in the making, sent a delegation to London and proposed a merger. But beyond the fact that the two possible partners were at the time still quite unsure of where they were going, the clanic feelings— Majerteen versus Isaaq—were too much of an obstacle for the two fledgling groups to unite and the SOSAF offer was politely refused. But the Isaaq actors felt the moment was ripe.

We decided to form a transitional committee to give more people a chance to join. We did not stop because we did not want to lose the momentum. Then we decided to meet on 6 April 1981. There was no particular reason for that date but I remember it was on a weekend, a Saturday, which gave us a convenient time to meet in Connaught Hall. The event was well organized and had a good participation. I was chairing and there was a panel made up of Hassan Esse, Abdisalam Yassin, Hassan Adan Wadaadiid and Ismail Duqsi. I made the opening speech and stated the objectives of the movement.[123] The hall was full of people, more than we expected … Most of the money to stage the event had been sent by the Somali community in the Gulf through Mohamed Hashi and Abdisalam Yassin. The event started around 10 o’clock and lasted about three hours. There were no foreign guests at the event. It was only us and our community. The most important media for us at the time was the BBC because our target audience were not the people in London or in the Gulf, it was the masses back home.[124] The people who attended were quite happy and they congratulated us. But there was fear also: everybody knew we had very little material capacity and we were in London, very far from home. But it was the only hope we had …[125]

There had been a radical shift over the last three years; our support for the Somali government and for the idea of Somalihood had shifted to a radical opposition, and the only thing we wanted now was for that regime to collapse … We wanted to create a structure that would encompass all the Somali. We contacted most of the clans. We started with the Gaddabursi and at first we got some responses; but later the Gaddabursi leadership went to Djibouti and the government convinced them not to join the SNM because it was not in the interest of Djibouti. We also approached the Dhulbahante but got no response. We did the same with the Hawiye but received no support. The Majerteen— those that were not yet with SOSAF—did not respond. After this complete failure to gain support from the non-Isaaq clans, we asked ourselves: what shall we do? Our decision was to go on with the movement and to put the structure of the leadership on hold while we looked for other groups. We gave ourselves six months. After about five months without any sign from any other clan, we decided to finalize an independent structure to start working on relocating to Ethiopia. We assigned this task to Said Abdullahi Egal, who knew Amharic and had a contact with the Ethiopian Embassy in Sweden. At first the embassy did not give us a response. At the end of 1981 SSDF, which had organized in the meantime, contacted us. One of their envoys was an Isaaq, the brother-in-law of Mustafa Hajji Nuur. But they were not convincing. Then in February 1982 four commanders we knew, Mohamed Kahin, Adan Shine, Adan Saleeban and Ahmed Dhagah, crossed the border from Awdal into Ethiopia and used our name, telling the Ethiopian authorities that they were SNM. They asked the authorities to contact us, and the Ethiopian Embassy in London got in touch with us. Then several Somali businessmen living in Ethiopia got into the act and provided us with personal contacts and financial help. At that point we began to ask ourselves: what are we going to do if we liberate the country from the regime and we come to realize that the whole Greater Somalia agenda has completely failed? Then what can we do? Could we not go back to our own Somaliland? However, we decided to move [to Ethiopia] and not mention anything about secession.[126]

By now the door to Ethiopia—and therefore to armed action—was (half) open. This was so because, first of all, the Ethiopian authorities were only partly welcoming. Mengistu and his Libyan ally, Colonel Gaddafi, wanted to convince—or even blackmail—the nascent SNM into accepting a merger with the newborn SSDF.[127] As we will see, SSDF was a strange concoction in which all the peculiar godfathers of the new organization—Ethiopia, Libya and South Yemen—had a horse in the race. Behind them, Moscow was still hesitating about its final plans. In a way, all three communist-allied regimes (and their sponsor) were looking for a fourth partner in the alliance so as to beat their ‘friends’ to the draw in order to control the future of a country which, even after Siyad Barre’s ousting, would retain a key strategic position: with one huge coastline overlooking the Indian Ocean while the other stretched across the largest oil reserves in the Middle East. And the Ogaden War had shown how quickly the winds could change in global strategic terms. Washington, even though it had no appetite for the region, had had to be realistic and returned to the area in order to limit the collateral damage caused by the recent Soviet switch. On such a broad stage, the SNM was a folkloric addition to a complicated, exotic battle, with non-existent means, no friends and few business contacts. SSDF, on the other hand, was not really a big actor but its comparatively greater weight and its (theoretical) prospects were definitely more promising. When SNM meekly landed in Ethiopia in early 1982, the pressure on it to merge with SSDF was considerable and could have driven it into the deadly embrace of Abdullahi Yusuf. We will later return to the relations between the two groups when dealing with the early days of SNM operations; but the initial prudence of the Isaaq movement, seen at first as unrealistic and immature political posturing, ended up saving the day when the SSDF’s contradictions brought it to organizational shipwreck.

But beyond the problem of an eventual merger with SSDF, there was another obstacle: the complete confusion of the clanic military landscape in the northern part of the Somali region, both in the Hawd and in western Somaliland. The Ogaden War and its catastrophic ending had not only left a field of destruction but it had also exposed the social (and economic) relations between the clans to the manipulations of the Mogadishu regime, which was trying to retain some kind of control over the situation by pitting its possible allies against its visible enemies.

Somaliland’s clanic geopolitics

There were a number of structural contradictions that lay at the root of what would become ‘a neo-nationalist regional movement’, if the reader is considerate enough to tolerate such a jaw-breaker. The contradictions can be listed as follows:

  • The shapeless ‘movement’ that started to take shape in northern Somalia in the wake of the 1978 defeat was reactive rather than aggressive, i.e. it was a reaction against the growing persecution of the populations of the provinces of Sool, Sanaag, Togdheer, Woqooyi Galbeed and Awdal (all part of the former British Somaliland) by the political regime in Mogadishu.
  • This persecution was mostly directed at the central and central-eastern parts of the former colony, populated by Isaaq, leaving the western region (populated by the Dir clan family—Issa and Gaddabursi) relatively untouched. Similarly, the eastern part of Somaliland, populated by Warsangeli and Dhulbahante, both members of the very large Darood clan family, was not targeted by the anti-Isaaq measures.
  • There were several subsets in the geography of conflict. In the extreme west (Awdal) the Issa were not bothered but, incited by the Djibouti authorities, they started snapping at the heels of the southern regime, betting that its eventual collapse would allow the Djibouti Somali (who are also Issa) to unite with their cross-border cousins. In the east, the small Warsangeli clan tried to steer clear of the conflict and remain neutral. But the Dhulbahante, on the contrary, rallied to the support of the Siyad Barre regime and provided the shock troops in the war with the Isaaq when it finally came about.
  • The core Isaaq population was largely united in the face of the Darood assault;[128] but this did not mean that all Isaaq sub-clans operated hand in hand; quite the contrary. Even if the SNM did try to project this image, it was far from the truth and the extreme prudence which two SNM regiments showed when meeting and dealing with each other (regiments were organized on a sub-clan basis) demonstrated that trust was limited by clanic definition.[129]
  • But, overall, one should definitely not see the Somalilanders, regardless of clans, as a secessionist movement. On the contrary. The pan-Somali ideology was still dominant in the late 1970s when the first anti-Siyad Barre movements started to take shape. The majority of Somalilanders were anti-Siyad Barre and anti-government. But many were still in the grip of ‘the Dream’ and they had volunteered to fight Ethiopia in 1977 in the hope of freeing their fellow Ogadeni Somali from Ethiopian domination. As Isaaq, they tended to be anti-Darood but made distinctions among the Darood. They were mostly anti-Marehan (Siyad Barre’s clan) and anti-Dhulbahante, the feeling being that, as fellow northerners, the Dhulbahante should have sided with the rebellion. But far from being persecuted by the regime, the Dhulbahante were courted by it (they provided most of the cannon fodder to fight the Isaaq after the war heated up), so they had no interest in rebelling. As for the Ogadeni, Isaaq attitudes were very divided. At first it was a matter of ‘these are our brothers who suffer under Ethiopian domination’. But later, when they saw the Ogadeni refugees settle on their land and take advantage of government support to pillage the north, the feeling changed and the Ogadeni slowly turned into the Isaaq’s worst enemies.
  • But the main question remained—in the aftermath of the Ogaden War, what should we do? The simple idea that the 1960 partial unification was a sufficient path towards a better future was gone. As we have seen by looking at the mood of the Isaaq founders of SNM, secession was only a hazy possibility among a diverse range of possible solutions. Meanwhile, what should be done? This was the dilemma the SNM faced, practically, when it arrived in Ethiopia in early 1982.

Armed actors during the post-Ogaden War period

The coup attempt

The paradox is that, while former Somaliland was socially and politically the most problematic part of Somalia, it was not there that the first anti-government rebellion started. It started in Mogadishu through the coup attempt led by two Majerteen army colonels, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Muhammad Sheikh Usman. Given this, Siyad Barre later had an easy time in presenting the coup as a ‘Majerteen coup’. Of course this was not a ridiculous interpretation, in the light of the Majerteen dominance of the pre-Siyad Barre democratic regime.[130] Moreover, given the fact that Siyad Barre’s coup had sidelined both the establishment figure of Haji Musa Boqor (scheduled to replace the dead President) and the only genuine opposition leader, Abdirizak Haji Hussein, who were Majeerteen, a revenge clanic coup was a possibility. But this is not the view of Daniel Compagnon, probably the best analyst of the Siyad Barre regime,[131] who points out that, of the 17 officers shot in July 1978, four at least were not Majerteen (there was one Isaaq and three Hawiye plus at least two more whose clanic identity was unclear). Compagnon attributes this ‘Majerteen coloration’ of the coup to four factors:

  • The Majerteen had been the clan family that dominated the politics of the pre-1969 era.
  • The Majerteen had the largest clan presence in the army.
  • Siyad Barre had marginalized the Majerteen in 1969 and as a result was wary of them.
  • Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed used his clanic connections to prepare the coup while capitalizing on the overall discontent of the armed forces after the defeat. In other words, he spearheaded what he felt was a broader popular tendency. But his calculation was wrong: the discontent was there but the army was not at its forefront.

The coup attempt was easily crushed, but Abdullahi Yusuf did not give up. He fled to Kenya and later Ethiopia, starting to put together an operational armed rebel movement. From its beginnings, it was a completely different movement from what had developed among the ‘Somalilanders’.

From the coup attempt to SSDF

When Abdullahi Yusuf fled abroad, he could connect with the first opposition movement which had been created back in 1977, the Somali Democratic Action Front (SODAF). Based in Rome, it was an organization of notables that represented the elites displaced by the October 1969 coup. It was not planning to resort to armed action and had no particular clan identification. Its activities were mostly just propaganda, but it was composed of people with a broad range of political contacts. Things began to change for them when they joined the escaped leaders of the failed coup, moved to Ethiopia and started to contemplate the possibility of armed action. In February 1979 the organization was renamed the Somali Salvation Front (SOSAF) and it started to make more threatening noises. But in spite of being based in Addis Ababa, it still tried to keep on the good side of the US State Department and the CIA by not criticizing the retrocession of the former Soviet base in Berbera to the Americans (August 1980), in spite of the loud Ethiopian opposition to the switch. In January 1981 SOSAF travelled to Washington and tried to capitalize on continued US resentment against Siyad Barre. But Jimmy Carter was about to leave the presidency, and this was not Ronald Reagan’s fight.

SOSAF had come too late and, without any opening on its right, it started to explore what it could pick up on its left. The enormous strategic vacillation that accompanied the Ogaden War had left a number of convinced communists disoriented when their country started to fight another ally of the Soviet Union. The Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP) had a (frustrated) left wing, which was divided into two groups. Exceptionally for Somali political groupings, they had no clanic differences. The first group was made up of (minority) members of the SRSP Central Committee and considered 21 October 1969 to have been a genuine revolution. But Siyad Barre had been too moderate and had made alliances with ‘reactionaries’. The solution was therefore to create a genuine Marxist-Leninist, Soviet-type communist party and take power. The main leader of that group was the Dhulbahante Abdirahman Aydid, who managed to slip out of Mogadishu in October 1980 and reach Addis Ababa where he created the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia (DFLS), with Mengistu’s full support. The second group was made up of what would be called at the time ‘leftists’ in the political vocabulary of Western countries, i.e. anti-Soviet communists.[132] They considered October 1969 to have been a mere military coup and did not think Siyad Barre had any ‘revolutionary’ credentials. The leaders of that sub-group moved not to Ethiopia (where they feared being too tightly controlled by Mengistu and his Russian allies) but to Aden where the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was both communist and more independent. In Aden, Said Jama Hussein, a Marxist Isaaq intellectual, created the Somali Workers’ Party (SWP) and made contact with the other dissidents. On 16 October 1981, after long and arduous negotiations, SOSAF, DFLS and the SWP signed a full-fledged merger agreement, taking the new name of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) and establishing their seat in Addis Ababa.

 The new organization was massively asymmetric: SOSAF was a military outfit, made up not only of Majerteen soldiers but also of Majerteen of the Omar Mahmood clan and even mostly (80 per cent) of men from the Rer Mahad sub-clan, that of Abdullahi Yusuf himself. Those who were not Rer Mahad were Rer Khalaf, a sub-clan which lived in Ogaden territory, out of easy reach of the Somali Army. There was also a smattering of non-Majerteen and almost no civilians. SOSAF had between 3,000 and 4,000 men under arms, with top-notch Russian equipment provided by Libya.[133] This made the new SSDF a real army, with armor, artillery, modern communications, generous supplies of cash and fuel, and a close relationship with the regular Ethiopian Army.

But to this prosperity the left-wing newcomers, DFLS and SWP, contributed very little in practical terms. They had only a few hundred members, no money, no weapons and no military training. What they had were political ideas and the complete works of Lenin in twenty volumes produced by Progress Publishers in Moscow. But this was also useful for Abdullahi Yusuf, who was not known for ever having read Lenin but who needed Russian and Derg support, particularly heavy weapons, which he wanted to use against the Somali Army in conventional battles.[134] In 1981, secure in its Ethiopian bases, SSDF stood alone on the armed opposition stage, even when seen from an Isaaq perspective:

The reason we wanted to join SSDF was simply because everyone wanted to join the Somali struggle against a brutal regime. But we did not know what was going on inside SSDF. The Majerteen did not only treat the Isaaq badly, they did the same with the Hawiye or the Dhulbahante. The internal conflicts were very bad, even among the Majerteen themselves. We had not expected such treatment from them. But there was no alternative. The SNM was still in its infant stage and we believed we needed an established movement for the struggle. But when we realized what was happening within SSDF, we knew we had to move out. SSDF could not absorb anyone, they could not even absorb themselves. Abdullahi Yusuf was a notorious dictator and he could arrest anyone he wanted. So I think I only spent eight months with SSDF, and as soon as I could I moved out to SNM.[135]

In Somalia, the support given by the Majerteen—and particularly by the Omar Mahmood clan—to the rebels carried a very heavy price. In Mudug, in northern Galguduud, in the easternmost part of the Ethiopian Ogaden, commandos of the military security (Hangash) and the National Secret Service would shoot civilians at random, rape women, blow up wells, and steal camels. SSDF retaliated by carrying out night raids, attacking Somali Army military outposts, laying mines and shooting up road transport. But for Gaddafi, who put a lot of money and equipment into supporting SSDF; for Mengistu, who had to suffer reprisal air bombings when the Somali counter-attacked after the cross-border raids; and for Abdullahi Yusuf, who had to face the complaints of the clan elders, something had to be done. In late June 1982, 15,000 regular Ethiopian Army troops and about 2,000 SSDF guerrillas attacked Somalia across the Mudug border, aiming for Galkayo in the north-east and Belet Weyn in the center. The plan was to cut Somalia into two by driving troops all the way to the ocean, but the plan backfired. The main reason was that, in spite of exhaustion after defeat in 1978, the Somali Army had licked its wounds and regrouped. In addition, the open Ethiopian attack caused a massive upsurge of support for the regime and Siyad Barre regained, at least partly, some of the legitimacy he had lost four years before. Volunteers rushed to join the army and civil society closed ranks in support of the nation.[136] In addition, the Russians, who did not want the Cold War to heat up again at this late point, collaborated with the Americans to stop the crisis. Moscow sent a serious warning to Mengistu, and Washington decided to finally deliver the arms it had been promising Mogadishu for the last three years. The Ethiopian and SSDF forces never reached Galkayo or Belet Weyn, stopping at the villages of Balambale and Goldogob. Abdullahi Yusuf and his SSDF had a hard time explaining to the suffering Majerteen civilians that this was all, that the great offensive to overthrow Siyad Barre would come later.

Abdullahi Yusuf’s interest and worth in the eyes of Mengistu then shrank, and the latter cast SSDF into a new role, considering it no longer as a first-line ally but rather as a poorly led and poorly organized auxiliary force. He then began to see its future role as being restricted to harassing the Somali regime by carrying out a series of limited hit-and-run raids, without any larger strategic view. Gaddafi also began losing faith in the possible success of SSDF and scaled down his weapons deliveries. By early 1983 he stopped them altogether.

As often happens among groups which are failing in what they attempt to do, the members of the rebel movement started to fight each other. The logical fault line dividing them—since most of them belonged to the same clan family—was their social inscription and their ideological orientations. Roughly speaking, it was the military leadership, with its narrow, traditional view of the role of the clan and with its conservative social views, pitted against revolutionary Marxist intellectuals. The former DFLS and SWP members were soon criticizing Abdullahi Yusuf, accusing him of exactly the same sins as Siyad Barre: of authoritarianism, clanic manipulation, ideological hypocrisy and theft of their collective funds. In the training camps and all the way to Balambale and Goldogob, partisans and enemies of the SSDF leader started to shoot each other. Abdullahi Yusuf had manipulated the last congress of the Front and stuffed its ruling hierarchy with his own Rer Mahad supporters, who now took their quarrels to the streets of Ethiopian cities[137] and even to their training camps. The Isaaq, in the meantime, had created their own rebel movement, the SNM.[138] Long a poor second to the powerful SSDF, the SNM were now only too glad that they had obstinately refused the bribes in money and equipment taht the Ethiopians and the Libyans had long offered them to merge with the Majerteen Front. When Abdullahi Yusuf ended up having two members of his own Central Committee murdered by his nephew (in October 1984), the movement practically collapsed and Mengistu had him arrested.[139] For the SNM, another road had begun to open.

The WSLF in the clanic melee

Which side was the WSLF on? The probable answer to this rhetorical question is ‘none’ or more precisely ‘its own’. The reason for the internal explosion was the arrival of the (very small) SNM forces. Not that they had been able to actually do anything: it was simply their presence which acted as a catalyst. In January 1981, the last elements of the Somali Regular Army still operating in the Ogaden had been brought home, leaving behind an abandoned WSLF and a worsening situation. The Ethiopian Army and its allied militias struck headlong at the Somali population of the Ogaden, in the midst of a particularly severe drought. Civilians began streaming eastwards to escape the violence of the repression and loose units of the WSLF floated on the surface of that sea of human misery. But for Siyad Barre what mattered was not the hordes of refugees, but the SNM. Not that its arrival caused enthusiasm among the populations it was coming to liberate. ‘There were frenzied discussions on where to locate the new SNM military bases because most people were afraid that the location of the bases would be a signal to attract Siyad Barre’s reactions against certain clans; therefore most of the people refused to host the SNM.’[140] Siyad called a large Darood clan family meeting to distribute the roles in the fighting: he gave orders for the Ogadeni WSLF militiamen to attack the Habr Yunis sub-clan of the Isaaq from the Ethiopian side while the regular army would catch them in a pincer movement from the Somalia side.[141] But WSLF was in a state of upheaval and its members felt betrayed by Mogadishu. In January 1981, the old executive of the movement had been kicked out of its leadership position and the secretary-general, Abdullahi Hassan Mohamed, was replaced by Mohamed Diriye from the Rer Abdullah lineage, one openly hostile to Siyad Barre’s family.[142] As a result, the President’s orders were followed tentatively, loosely and with little military efficacy. The SNM itself was not even attacked, but the Habr Yunis had their own militia and they fought against the Ogadeni, killing many.

Even if the SNM was identified as a future danger, at the time it did not amount to much. The men with guns were either the Habr Yunis clanic militia or the WSLF Fourth Battalion of Mohamed Ali. The SNM political leadership was in the hands of Ahmed Jimale, who had been elected chairman in the UK. But Jimale was not seen as a solid leader and many would have preferred Mohamed Hashi (‘Lixle’) as chair. Jimale was displaced as chairman by an internal coup but he refused to step down. So SNM came to Addis Ababa in a state of confusion and disarray and was not even taken seriously by the Ethiopians, who preferred to back the SSDF. The Movement’s first congress was not a very impressive affair:

We prepared for our first congress in Nazareth … We requested the Ethiopians to facilitate our movements. But we were restricted to the major cities and therefore we needed a pass to participate in the SNM meeting. After we got a pass, we left for Jijiga.[143] There were not many of us. We stayed at the Havana Hotel, which had only about 20 rooms. This was all what SNM needed, 20 rooms was big enough for us. At the time our only real force was the Mohamed Ali army, which was in Durya.[144]

But while SNM was painfully trying to organize itself in Ethiopia, the voluntary service movement had been gaining ground in Hargeisa[145] and had bypassed the government to carry out civilian work and charitable programs under the nickname Uffo.[146] As we saw in the previous chapter, a crackdown on Uffo supporters triggered widespread disturbances over the whole of former Somaliland and caused a movement of armed insurgents to Ethiopia where they usually joined Watatir Mohamed Ali, the Fourth Battalion of WSLF, which had much more visibility and organization than the struggling SNM. By then the Fourth Battalion was fighting both the Somali National Army and the other WSLF battalions. Somewhat later, the ‘Afraad’ would merge with the original elements of SNM. Thus began the long uphill battle for the creation of a real revolutionary army. But in early 1982, this was still a very distant prospect.


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