Chapter 4 – SNM: The Slow Growth of an Odd Guerrilla Force in the Hard-Edged Cold War Landscape

The opening measures

Sheikh Yusuf Ali Sheikh Madar was elected as the new chairman of the SNM in January 1982. By putting him at the head of the recently created organization, the SNM supporters chose an easy way forward. Sheikh Madar belonged to a prosperous and respected family of the Sa’ad Musa sub-clan of the Habr Awal Isaaq. His great-grandfather was a Sufi saint who was reputed to have founded the city of Hargeisa, and his uncle had led a delegation of Isaaq elders who attempted in March 1982 to open a dialogue with Siyad Barre in order to ease the persecution of the clan family by the regime. Together with a number of other Isaaq notables, he represented a moderate Islamist political trend and was accepted as such by the Ethiopians. In Mengistu’s Marxist view, the SNM embodied the conservative religious wing of the rebellion, whose vanguard ‘socialist’ wing was supposed to be Abdullahi Yusuf’s SSDF. Yusuf’s ‘socialism’ was even more paper-thin than Mengistu’s own, but in the highly ideologized political landscape of Eastern Africa in the early 1980s, this was good enough. At that time, in terms of political effectiveness, the SNM looked highly unconvincing in comparison with its Majerteen rival. The SSDF had many more men, most of them former Somali National Army soldiers, it had the support of both Mengistu’s solid army logistics and of Gaddafi’s well-publicized ‘universal opposition’ and, behind both, Soviet arms supplies. The SNM had none of that, and its ‘Islamic image’, back in the early 1980s, seemed quaint and faintly reactionary. In the ideologically charged outlook of the 1980s, the announcement of its birth from London had a slightly amusing, post-colonial whiff. In Cold War terms, SNM was the odd man out. And then, brutally, in an unexpected thunderclap, an SNM commando unit infiltrated deeply into Somaliland from its makeshift Ethiopian base[147] and attacked the big Somali Army prison in Mandera (2 January 1983). The operation went without a hitch and 744 prisoners were freed by the commando unit. Actually the attackers were not even really SNM; they were Mohamed Ali’s Afraad. But for the first time the name SNM was used in a military operation. Lixle’s speech to the prisoners was absolutely typical of the mindset of the young and somewhat naive SNM:

O prisoners, you are from everywhere.[148] Now we will release you. You have three options to choose from: (1) whoever wants to join the SNM, as we are fighting the regime, you can come and join the Jihad;[149] (2) whoever wants to go and join his family, we will help you get back home; (3) whoever wants to join the regime, you should know we pushed them back to Abdaal when we came; so go to them and we will not do anything to you until you reach them. But be careful: we might attack you later and then our bullets will hurt you. So choose one of these options’[150]

The effect of the speech was electric, and many among the Somali joined SNM (the foreign prisoners preferred the ‘going home’ option). It also had a huge impact outside the north, in media and propaganda terms. Another commando unit had come from Ethiopia, and on 5 February it fought a standing battle in Durosi, where 38 were killed. The National Security Service started to panic and in Hargeisa over 700 people were arrested on charges of complicity with the guerrillas. But even if there was broad public support for the action in the north, there was no existing underground SNM network and the accusations of complicity were imaginary. Indeed, the operation had been prepared and carried out in complete improvisation, something which had a later impact on the SNM’s modus operandi.[151]


On 9 February Siyad Barre himself flew in from Mogadishu, accompanied by two colonels, one Isaaq and one Gaddabursi, so as to give himself some veneer of local support. The President was assured by the authorities in Hargeisa that this was an isolated incident and he released the 700 detainees on the spot and re-established some semblance of government control over the situation. However, three weeks later he prohibited the use of and trade in qat.[152] The qat merchants, particularly in the north, are a power unto themselves and a great deal of cash passes through their hands. In Somaliland they were suspected of having guerrilla sympathies, and prohibiting the use of and trade in qat was seen by the government as a way of drying up an important source of finance for the nascent rebel movement. The reality was more complex: qat traders had diverse political sympathies and clanic belongings, and they were not particularly pro-SNM. However, they had only one source of income: the drug. Overnight, they were all ruined by the ban and immediately switched over to the guerrilla side. This had a major military impact. Till then SNM was so poor that it had only one truck and one Land Rover, both stolen from inside Somalia. Overnight the qat vehicles—qat merchants all had fast cars that could cross the desert from Ethiopia at top speed to bring the freshly picked leaves swiftly to their customers—were given to the guerrilla group. Many of these four-wheel drives (most were Toyota Land Cruisers), which had been seized on foreign territory, were later sent to Djibouti and reimported into Ethiopia by train. The SNM immediately got to work on them: they cut down the body, bolted machine guns, ZUG 23 mm automatic light cannons or recoilless rifles on the back[153] and added supplementary fuel tanks, turning these vehicles into improvised deadly weapons of desert fighting, locally known as ‘technicals’.

These new military developments were not immediately turned into direct offensive operations against the Siyad Barre regime. The situation was much too complicated. The war against Ethiopia and the resulting defeat had wideranging effects on Somali society. The Ethiopian–SSDF attack of July 1982 had ended in failure.[154] But in the Cold War context, it was seen in Washington as a ‘communist’ attack. The Russians, who disapproved of it, tried to explain it away and persuade the US that it was unintended. But they did not want to expose their disagreements with the Mengistu regime to too deep a probing look from the Americans, and their reservations were seen in Washington as ambiguous and unconvincing. For Siyad Barre this was an opportunity. A previous visit to Washington by a Somali delegation in March 1982 had brought disappointing results; but a new one in August, after the Balambale– Goldogob battles, was much more fruitful, especially as it was backed up by the intervention of a Saudi delegation. The Americans went for a $60 million gift of military equipment[155] (APCs, TOW anti-tank missiles, M-16 rifles, 106 mm RCL light artillery) while the Saudis gave $150 million in cash and a year’s supply (360,000 tons) of fuel.

In fact, most of the new money and equipment was not used directly against the SNM (or even the SSDF) but in the clanic war between the Isaaq and the Ogadeni. This fighting was not explicitly linked with the SNM, even if there was a lot of overlap in terms of combatants. The Ogadeni were a mixture of refugees from the Ethiopian Ogaden province, former WSLF guerrillas, and rogue Somali National Army soldiers or deserters. Their Isaaq adversaries were mostly the powerful Habr Yunis militia (which had not fought against the Ogadeni but at their side four years before when they both battled the Ethiopian Army and the Cubans) and Lixle’s Afraad, who were themselves former WSLF. This mishmash was not immediately clear to US analysts, and so, when seen from Washington, the situation was easier to explain in terms of a communist versus anti-communist duality. The genuine SNM (then quite small) was lost in the confusion.

Meanwhile, back in Mogadishu, Siyad Barre, who had a much clearer grasp of the situation, had to parry both the military blows and their political consequences. For a certain segment of the SRSP,[156] things had gone too far and the defeat had deeply upset not only the regime but also the entire hold of the ‘Greater Somalia’ ideology on Somali minds and therefore the capacity of the regime to keep ruling in its present form. Siyad Barre had to go before it was too late, some kind of a nation-wide shir[157] had to be convened, and a new regime had to be set up. In June 1982, seven high-ranking SRSP leaders who shared these views were arrested. They belonged to a variety of clans (Hawiye, Isaaq) and their leader was General Omar Haji Mohamed, a Marehan (Siyad Barre’s clan), who was Minister of Defense. The men arrested really represented a cross-section of the highest ranks of the SRSP. Their ideological preferences were also quite eclectic, ranging from Mohamed Adan Sheikh, who was the most influential Marxist in the regime, to Omar Arteh Ghalib, who was openly pro-American. Somewhat unnoticed in the general fray was the Minister of Commerce, Ahmed Mohamed Mahmood ‘Sillanyo’ (the little lizard), who managed to run away and avoid arrest. He fled to London and later enjoyed a major career in the SNM, becoming President of independent Somaliland in 2010. ‘The Seven’, as they were soon called, all ended up in jail, while by early 1983 the Ogadeni–Isaaq fighting started to subside. The Ogadeni had asked the Dhulbahante for help against the Isaaq within the supposed framework of a broad Darood alliance, but it had not worked out.[158] Meanwhile, in June the Americans decided to cash in on their investment and arrived in Berbera to refurbish the old Soviet base and enlarge its runway so that it could accommodate B-52 nuclear bombers. The new installations were inaugurated in October 1984, providing a measure of relief for Siyad Barre, who had now become a (small) pawn in the Cold War great game. But in the parallel world of Somali reality, things remained difficult: the Isaaq refused to pay the mag the Ogadeni were demanding.[159] The Isaaq argued that the usual prices were not applicable because the Ogadeni had had the support of the Somali National Army (SNA), with its artillery and armor, which had represented an unfair advantage, therefore lowering the mag compensation that was due. In fact, the money was mostly to compensate for humiliation because, in spite of SNA help, the Ogadeni had higher losses than the Habr Yunis Isaaq and they wanted cash to soothe their hurt pride. This was another world, and even if it was geographically close to the US runway in Berbera, it belonged to a different reality.

 The problem for Siyad Barre was how to keep these two worlds in some kind of a relationship. It was the Hawiye clan who tried to help.[160] They offered the President a mediation committee that would address the northern problem. On 30 January 1983 they presented their recommendations to the head of state:

  1. All restrictions on circulation in the north should be lifted.[161]
  2. All political prisoners should be freed.
  3. The old franco valuta financial system should be re-established.
  4. Government agents who, like General Mohamed Hashi Gani, had made a career of clanic persecution should be transferred out of the areas where they were operating.
  5. The President should travel to the north and stay there for a while.
  6. The WSLF should be disbanded and its troops should not be used in what was turning into a civil war with the Isaaq.
  7. A special clanic co-operating council should be created to practically address inter-clan problems instead of just ‘prohibiting’ clanism in an authoritarian way.

Siyad Barre rejected all these recommendations on 2 February 1983 (a week before his abortive visit to the north after the Mandera attack), using ‘his’ Hawiye supporters against their own clan family.[162] But then the dictator received some hope of success. In January 1983 Abdullahi Yusuf had organized an SSDF congress which turned out to be a farce. The 30 top SWP and SDLF members—the SSDF left wing—who had planned to challenge him at the congress were all arrested as they assembled. What was left of the gathering duly gave him a supportive vote but his already damaged organization fell further apart. The following month Siyad Barre offered them amnesty, and over 600 of the movement’s disgruntled cadres went back to Somalia. By late 1983, SSDF had been reduced to a powerless rump and the weak SNM remained as the only organized armed force opposing the Mogadishu dictatorship. If it wanted to inherit the mantle of the armed opposition, it had to renew itself and Sheikh Yusuf Ali Sheikh Madar was not the man to do it.

In November 1983 a new congress was assembled and it elected Colonel Abdiqadir Kosar Abdi as the new chairman. Most of the religiously oriented leadership was sidetracked at the same time. This is where the strong democratic assets of the organization—and, behind them, of the Isaaq clan family and of the ‘Anglo-Somali’ political culture of former colonial Somaliland— played an essential role. The SNM’s political culture was radically different from that of SSDF. There were no arrests, no murders, no violence, not even expulsions. Those who were voted out left of their own accord, and others took their place. The ‘military leadership’ settled in and set to work. It was partly successful militarily but inefficient politically, and this led to still another change of leadership—also peaceful—in 1984. The SNM leadership was far from capable but it always successfully managed to avoid the worst curse of quarrelling guerrilla movements—violence. Colonel Abdi Kosar did a good logistical and organizational job, a questionable military job and a poor political one. He was voted out in August 1984, leaving the door open for another administration, that of the wily Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’, Siyad Barre’s former economist, who had been biding his time in London. During those years—1983 and 1984—the SNM began to take shape in spite of its drastically limited means. It started to fight, with courage but rather inefficiently, trying to survive in a sharp Cold War environment where it fitted poorly. It was supported by a Marxist power but never turned ‘communist’; it dealt daily with an abominably authoritarian regime but without resorting to terrorism; and it fought a Western-supported dictatorship but without turning anti-Western. All in all, an impressive, even if often fumbling, trapeze act.

Getting it together and starting to move on

(a)  Putting feet on the ground and getting weapons

The person who was leading the recruitment of the combatants was Colonel ‘Lixle’ … The establishment of our bases was based on clans: Xarshin for Sa’ad Musa, Lanqeyrta for Arap, Aware for Eidagalley, Gaashaamo for Habr Yunis, Baalidheeye for Habr Ja’alo … The first two training centers were in Baabuli and Aware … At the time, there was no army command of any shape or form, the mobilization was directly from the communities, there was no SNM command … When we came to Aware, we didn’t have a ‘base’; there were seven of us and we just stayed in a small room in the town … Then we convinced the Ethiopians to move to Ramaso, which is 40 km north-west of Aware. There we established a temporary base. We did not have transportation. Both our men and even the Ethiopians travelled on foot … So this was a problem when the Ethiopians gave us 200 AK-47s. Before that we had had few guns, less than one hundred, and we carried them by hand, with a little ammunition. But these other guns were given to a Dhulbahante commander to open a base in Qararo.

There was no central depot for SNM where we could put all the guns. So we organized 100 men from Ramaso and the area to assist us and move the weapons from Aware to Ramaso. We collected trustworthy men, mainly elderly men, from the villages and we all left Aware on foot. Each man carried two guns and the ammunition pouch. But we had no ammunition at all, all the pouches were empty. The guns were new. It took us three nights to go drop the guns and come back. There was only a small incident, seven of the men ran away with the guns, but we ambushed them in a place called Quus and we got the guns back but we did not shoot the men … At the time the recruitment was voluntary. We did not have any central message. We were helped by the environment and the situation of the country. There were young men who were tending cattle and they faced the oppression and the killings; there were also deserters of all kinds, from the SNA and from the SSDF. Then by word of mouth, our relatives also came. The Ethiopians gave us army food rations and the communities in the countryside provided us with meat …

Our major problem was with defectors. And the problem is that they took their guns with them to sell them or give them to the SNA to be readmitted. Discipline and training were limited. Some men stole animals from the local communities, and that angered people. The challenge was that we could not verify anyone apart from his clan. We had no strong intelligence. Being all Isaaq, there was no betrayal, no spying. There was high trust among clansmen. But the problem was that nobody would tell bad things about a clansman so we could not really verify the information new recruits were bringing. We did some minor interviews but this was not enough … Training was carried out by professionals, men who had been in the army. Some had made stories for the government, saying they were forming Western Somali Liberation Front units and they needed guns and registration. They got weapons from the government but it took time … Baabuli and Aware were the two main training bases while Ramaso became the main base for the ‘technicals’, which supplied vehicles to all the divisions, Eastern (Qeybta Bari), Central (Qeybta Dhexe) and Western (Qeybta Galbeed). We began to get modern weapons from Yemen (PDRY) at the time of Abdi Kosar, and also the people in the diaspora bought us Toyotas and trucks, shipped them to Djibouti; we picked them up in Jijiga, we took them to Ramaso and we turned them into more ‘technicals’.

(b)   The first operations

Our first operation was from Ramaso, and it was very small. We were informed that the Ogaden soldiers of WSLF passed through ‘the Cross’, which is 27 km north-east of Ramaso on the Qaaxo Road.[163] This was one of Siyad Barre’s strategies, he mobilized the fractions that were fragmenting off the WSLF and used them to jeopardize SNM mobilization in the border areas. We were very few and we had almost no weapons. To attack ‘the Cross’, we were only twelve. We slept on the road and we decided to attack in the morning. The Ogaden militia was in the village where they had slept; they had one truck and a small Land Rover. I had never fired a shot in my life but I knew maybe the day had come and I felt very courageous. We entered the town from four different directions, but we had one man who spoke good Amharic, so he climbed in a tree and started to shout in Amharic. The Ogadeni got scared as they thought this was the Ethiopian Army coming and they remained indoors, hiding. So we could walk where we wanted. We realized the truck belonged to the villagers, so we did not touch it. But we took the Land Rover and drove it out of town. There was no shooting. We had stickers we had brought with us which read: ‘Victory belongs to SNM. Death to Afweyne’[164] and we glued them everywhere. We left the village as the sun was rising. The Ethiopians were surprised to see us come back with a car. It was the first car our base got. We used it later to fetch water and transport goods and people between villages …

So this first operation was very limited, bloodless and purely propaganda. But other operations began to be improvised, without planning, entirely at the initiative of local commanders.

Let me claim that I perhaps led the first SNM unit that shot the first bullet of the war. In 1982 Lanqeyrta was an SNM base and we raised a small local force of Arap clansmen. We knew there was an SNA tanker regularly going from Baligubadle to Gumburaha, supplying the faqhash[165] with fuel. So we decided to attack it and I organized the operation. We ambushed the vehicle, burned it and killed some SNA soldiers. I believe this was the first armed operation by SNM fighters …

Then there was the Birjeex operation (April 1983), a very strange and daring operation, carried out in unusual circumstances which seem right out of a Hollywood action movie; it had a large impact, even though it was carried out by a group of less than twenty men.

During the 1982–3 period when SNM installed itself in former Somaliland, the cadres of the movement started to implant secret cells in various parts of the region, some of them working out of the various government offices, where spies and special agents used their previous social contacts to assist their underground work. Such a development created ambiguous situations of shadow action, suspicion and at times betrayal. This is what triggered the so-called Birjeex operation, which was described by one of its main actors as follows:

I have to mention the Birjeex operation. I was a coordinator for the SNM in the north at the time, and this is what happened. We sent Abdullahi Askar and Abdisalam Turki from Burao to Hargeisa. When they got there, they stayed in a safe house run by Mohamed Haji Yusuf Imaan, near the Aw Adan workshop. Lixle wanted them to kill Ibrahim Koodbur because he believed the false information he had received that Koodbur was working with Hashi Gani and the SNA. I was the one in charge of giving the orders to Askar and Turki.

Then let me describe the situation we got in. Koodbur came to see us, and when we were all together, it got very serious indeed when I told Askar what he had to do. Turki’s reaction was to disbelieve the orders of Lixle and to defend Koodbur, saying he was a good man, not a traitor, and that we should get in touch with Lixle and get him to rescind the order. There was a lot of confusion and then we parted, and the next day Askar fell into a trap and was arrested by General Hashi Gani. Hashi Gani threw him in jail and tortured him to get information about the SNM organization in Hargeisa. This was on 11 April 1983 and the next day was Somali National Army day and General Hashi Gani decided to celebrate that occasion in the National Theatre and exhibit Abdullahi Askar bleeding and half-naked to the audience, presenting him as the defeated SNM. But we learned about it, and Major Ibrahim Koodbur put together an SNM rescue mission and attacked the officers’ mess of the Birjeex military camp where Askar was detained. There was a big gunfight, one of our team was killed and another one was injured, but the man who had been ordered to kill Koodbur was saved instead by his intended victim from the hands of Hashi Gani, and we managed to all run away and eventually to cross the border and go into Ethiopia. Thus both the Mandera prison break-out and, three months later, that Birjeex operation boosted the morale of the SNM combatants and of our supporters everywhere, and we started to believe in the possibility of victory since we had successfully attacked one of the strongest armies in Africa.

(c)    Hell on wheels

By the end of 1984 Adan Shine, who was the commander of the SNM forces, wrote a memo saying that we could not grow and undertake any serious action without vehicles. So far the SNM had been using camels, donkeys and pushcarts. We had only two Land Cruisers, which were used by the commanders. So we had a meeting and we decided to consult with some of our friends who had commercial trucks going to Djibouti. When the government had stopped the franco valuta system, the trucks which used to transport goods between north Somalia and Djibouti ran out of business. Maybe this could work. So we talked with a man called Omar Iman who had a truck in Djibouti and we asked him to organize a meeting with his colleagues in Hargeisa … After a week Omar came back from Hargeisa with disappointing news: the truck drivers were not interested. We were not surprised because the trucks were their only source of living, and to sacrifice them—and perhaps their lives—was a hard decision to make.

I had a cousin called Haybe Omar Jeeni who had his own truck. At times he used to fulfil some assignments for us. I told him we were at a point where the SNM struggle would be in jeopardy if we could not get some trucks because our operations could not grow. He told me he had one trip to go to Hargeisa and he will see what he can do. After a few days I saw six truck drivers in front of my office in Djibouti in the company of Haybe Omar Jeeni. Those were really brave men and they were one of our success stories as well as pillars of the SNM operations. One of the drivers, Ali Gaabi, I think he was called—I think he died later in the coastal area—told me: ‘My Isuzu truck is very old but I maintain it very well with spare parts and it is in good condition; in the 1977–8 war with Ethiopia, I fought side by side with your cousin Omar Jeeni near Dire Dawa and it was a lost cause, so if you think that today I can be of any use to the SNM, here are the keys.’ Within a few days we had 17 trucks and a few smaller vehicles. Among all those there was even a brand-new Mercedes-Benz truck!

Next thing, the big challenge was how to transfer 17 vehicles to Ethiopia. We got help from Mohamed Ahmed Hersi, who worked with UNHCR in Djibouti. We contacted UNHCR Geneva and informed them that these trucks were owned by drivers who are Ethiopian Somali, born in Aware and Gaashaamo in the Ethiopian Somali region. The Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti helped us by confirming these facts to the Djibouti authorities. We got permission to go to Ethiopia but we could not get the Djibouti papers because the Djibouti government refused to give them, saying it would cause an international crisis because they would be accused of assisting a liberation movement in Ethiopia. So we drove the truck to Ali Sabieh, on Djibouti territory, trying to push through, but we were blocked at the Geestiir checkpoint, where all three borders—Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia—meet. We could not proceed and we had to go back to Djibouti town. So we recontacted UNHCR Geneva and gave them a letter from the Ethiopian Embassy in Djibouti and then we got the green light to send the trucks by train to Ethiopia. We did not risk sending them all at once but sent two trucks on every trip, hoping this would not be noticed by the Somalia intelligence agents spying on the Djibouti railway.

But they had found out about our plans. So a delegation came from Mogadishu, with several Isaaq high-ranking civil servants in it. They met the Djibouti government and talked of releasing the Uffo detainees from jail and also freeing the SNM prisoners and pardoning them if only Djibouti promised to stop these trucks from reaching Ethiopia. Some of the Issa Somali were in our favor, and they told the delegation they wanted to help us fight the oppression of the Mogadishu clans and they could not understand how Isaaq officials could be part of that delegation. The delegation was embarrassed and they tried to meet us personally one by one, but we refused. Eventually the 17 trucks all reached Ethiopia, but at the time Ethiopia was communist and they could not understand how there could be so many privately owned trucks on these trains, and this helped the SNM image and raised the morale of our fighters because nobody had managed to stop us, socialist or capitalist. Our drivers were really brave men and few are still alive today. After the war, no one helped them and those who had senior posts in the government never bothered to ask about them, even though their trucks were very crucial for the SNM operations and they had lifted the morale of the commanders and all fighters.

These men were indeed almost fearless. I remember travelling with drivers who had already had their vehicles blown up but who kept moving along randomly mined tracks, taking their chances as they moved. I remember especially one driver who travelled everywhere with his wife, who had lost her two legs in an earlier explosion. She insisted on travelling with her husband, saying that the next time they got blown up, at least it would be together. That made him laugh and he told me: ‘If the God he wants you to die, you die; if the God he wants you to live, you live.’ We did not die during that trip. I don’t know what happened to them later.

(d)   Trying to set up a health system

I flew to Mogadishu and from there to Dire Dawa. When I joined the SNM in Dire Dawa, I learned that my family had escaped from Hargeisa. Then I travelled to Lanqeyrta, which was the main base for SNM logistics. They were planning to set up three medical centers but there were not enough surgeons … We wanted mostly health centers with blood banks and surgical equipment for the casualties that could not wait for referral to hospitals like Dire Dawa. We visited various locations where we were hoping to set up facilities and we chose Baligubadle for its strategic position. We wanted to pay rent but we did not have enough money, so we asked the landlords to have understanding. Actually they even removed the tenants to give us houses! So I started the first surgical health facility there in Baligubadle. We had to collect refrigerators and electric generators in order to store blood. But we also had to look for desks, chairs, surgical tables and the like. But there was no place to buy these items and there was not even any place to buy wood to make all those items … So people suggested that we build our own furniture from the wooden storage boxes that we got for the ammunition, so we started to make everything from these boxes, but they were not made of good wood. They were not strong enough and I remember terrible problems such as when the table started to break in the middle of a surgical operation …

We tried to do the best surgery we could with this makeshift equipment, with Allah’s help. We mobilized all those who had any near-medical experience and even others such as carpenters and chemists … We built temporary shelters around the hospital houses and the community did its best to support us as the casualties started to arrive. Women were really the most helpful and they did a great job. The work was very difficult and it was hard to work with the wounded. The fighters were of two categories, trained soldiers and new recruits who had just left their camels behind and had come to volunteer. At times the situation was terrible, with people asking us where their legs had gone after we amputated them, while others were shouting and yelling at their officers whom they insulted because they considered them responsible for having put them in harm’s way. I would say it was a miracle that 95 per cent of the victims survived our surgeries, it was so difficult and the environment was so bad. With time, things improved slowly as we received trained staff.

The civil war in Somalia, early 1980s

The narratives of SNM veterans, like those provided above, and my attempt here to chronicle the politics of Somalia in the 1980s occupy almost completely different worlds, sharing only a very limited overlap. The 1980s were the last days of the Cold War, a key moment when the ailing Soviet Empire, ruled by ailing gerontocrats, was being pushed into a corner. There were two African episodes in that worldwide drama: southern Africa, where the apartheid regime was struggling against its Marxist enemies in Angola; and Ethiopia, where the Derg regime, allied with Moscow, was reeling from the attacks of several guerrilla movements. In comparison with these international battlefields, the Somali civil war was a minor episode of little interest to anybody, almost a parochial conflict in what was seen as a former Cold War narrative. The fact that the Somali[166] pursued a completely national agenda in fighting the Siyad Barre regime, which had been kicked out of the ‘socialist camp’ without being given full membership of the ‘free world’, was beyond the understanding (and interest) of the rest of the world. Those dealing with Somalia in the so-called international community—which had yet to achieve the all-encompassing, politically correct, anesthetic quality it reached after 1991—were second-tier people: US generals with a narrowly military outlook or Italian bureaucrats still embodying what Angelo Del Boca has felicitously called ‘the nostalgia of Empire’.[167] Somalia was definitely not front-page news. In April 1983 the Saudi government slapped an embargo on cattle imports from Somalia, which represented 87 per cent of the country’s exports.[168] In a way this was business as usual in the cut-throat relations between Somalia and the Arab world. Somalia had joined the Arab League in 1974 and had always been treated as a second-rate member. But as soon as it was sidetracked by the Soviet Union in 1977, it became the humble recipient of obsolete military equipment from various Arab armies, which considered it an inexpensive way of keeping Ethiopia in check by proxy. During the 1977–8 war, Cairo and Damascus supplied large quantities of old Russian AK-47s and ‘Dashaka’ light machine guns to support the Somali offensive. But this did not stop with the end of the war. Light weapons kept flowing to Mogadishu and in 1983 the Somali Army had even received from Egypt 45 old T-54 Russian tanks given to Nasser twenty years earlier by Great Britain while Abu Dhabi presented ten British Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers to the Somali Air Force. These were soon put in use not against the Ethiopian enemy but rather against the SNM guerrillas in the north-west. The US included Somalia in their list of MAP (Military Aid Program) gifts but the generals were blocked in their generosity by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which insisted on a number of reforms of the Somali economy: devaluation of the shilling, scaling down or closing many parastatal entities, and cuts in military spending. USAID had earmarked $42 million for modernizing the harbor of Kismayo but the money, just like the MAP funds, was held up to try to put pressure on Siyad Barre to ‘de-Sovietise’ his economy. In October 1984, Washington went so far as sending a sizeable delegation to attend the 15th anniversary celebrations of the 1969 coup, dangling the pending military deliveries in front of the Somali regime as a way to pressure it to satisfy the IMF demands. Those demands that could be satisfied were—the shilling was devalued by 48 per cent and some parastatals were closed—but no reduction of military spending was even attempted, in fact quite the contrary.

By late October 1984, the SNM had managed to infiltrate up to 2,000 fighters into the large cities of the north-west—Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera— and small insurrectional movements had taken place in the towns. The street battles lasted until early November and the repression was brutal. Between 14 and 19 November batches of civilians accused of having helped the SNM commandos were publicly executed by firing squads, and the whole north fell under the pall of a massive military attempt to control the situation. In December ‘elections’ were held all over the country and Siyad Barre was ‘reelected’ with 99 per cent of the vote. Whatever fighting still took place was limited to the north-west. The SSDF, by then a dying organization, tried to revive military operations in the Balambale–Goldogob area which it occupied militarily in the south, but this soon ended without causing any serious problem for the Somali Army.[169]

 It was at this point that a new chapter of co-operation opened for the regime when apartheid South Africa entered the scene. In fact, contacts had been taking place discreetly for some time. The first (secret) delegation from Pretoria had come to Mogadishu in February 1984 and Chief of Staff Mohamed Samantar had discreetly travelled to South Africa in May. On the side of the apartheid regime, the main actor was ‘Pik’ Botha, the clever Minister of Foreign Affairs who was the first Afrikaner nationalist politician to realize that segregation politics had no durable future. Botha had been the pioneer of political contacts with black African regimes and, in a way, the Pretoria–Mogadishu confluence was an alliance between political outcasts.[170] Botha might have been a ‘liberal’ in the South African context of the time but he was no pacifist and he knew that the way to gain Siyad Barre’s support was military co-operation. So in January 1985 a full-fledged mission arrived in Somalia, bringing artillery—a number of the famed South African 122 mm cannon were delivered, and soon shipped to the north—anti-guerrilla trainers and, last but not least, cash to pay the pilots and mechanics recently recruited to fly and maintain the UAE-supplied Hawker Hunters. In an unexpected addition, South Africa delivered to Somalia a civilian aircraft, a middle-range Boeing 727. The plane actually belonged to Air Comoros and had been leased to South Africa. It kept flying under the Air Comoros livery and opened services to Rome, Athens and Tel Aviv.[171] This was a way for apartheid South Africa to circumvent the economic sanctions to which it was then subject and which banned its commercial aeroplanes from most foreign destinations.

The South African connection boosted the Siyad Barre regime and isolated the SNM even more. The northern Somali guerrilla force could count on no Arab sympathy, given its communist connection and, what was worse, its Ethiopian communist connection. It could not count on right-wing anticommunist connections either—even through the back door—now that the compromised ‘apartheid regime’ had swung behind Mogadishu. In the political atmosphere of the Cold War, political status tended to be clear-cut and brutal. Finland and Yugoslavia were about the only two examples of states which had rejected—for different reasons—the bipolar division of the world. But in February 1985 Siyad Barre nevertheless tried to circumvent that division, hoping to have his cake and eat it too when he wrote to Moscow, offering to normalize his relations with the USSR and describing his relations with the US as ‘limping’.[172] The main reason for the ‘limp’ was the fact that the Pentagon was still holding up the delivery of the $40 million of MAP that was meant for the fiscal year of 1986, even though the IMF had finally renounced its military limitation conditionality. Somalia had devalued the shilling by another 29 per cent in January 1985 and the IMF decided to let it go at that. But the Pentagon still did not want to release its MAP commitment without giving more than delaying explanations.

In that same January, in an all-round effort at marshalling more help, both economically and militarily, Siyad Barre sent Vice-President Hussein Kulmiye Afrah and Defense Minister Mohamed Samantar to Rome to meet Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, ‘demanding that Italy should take up its historical responsibilities in the defense of Somalia’.[173] Italy was already the main foreign donor to Somalia but its generosity was not sufficient. On 23 January 1985 all the main donors—Italy, the US, Germany, the European Economic Community, Saudi Arabia—met in Paris for an emergency meeting: Somalia was near bankruptcy and could not meet its immediate payments. $80 million was drummed up in a hurry but this was no long-term solution. Military expenses were exploding and the main source of foreign exchange—cattle exports—was in free fall, even after Saudi Arabia eased the ban on imports. Part of the cause was the massive drought of 1983 which killed thousands of cattle, and then the transport insecurity in the north. A turning point was reached in April 1985 when the US decided to supply $25.3 million of food aid (70,000 tons) and Libya decided to resume its relations with Siyad Barre. On 18 April Tripoli issued a communiqué explaining that the decision to switch policies was based on ‘the necessity to face the dangers posed to the Arab nation by Imperialism’. This ‘explanation’ simply meant that Gaddafi’s mood had changed and that he had decided, in his usual lackadaisical way, to become an enemy of his former friends and a friend of his former enemies.[174] In a panic, Abdullahi Yusuf rushed to Tripoli where he was cold-shouldered. The SNM, which had always refused Libya’s money and equipment offers, did not suffer any withdrawal pains. It just went on with its provincial home-grown guerrilla force, patiently hoping for better days.


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