The Mogadishu regime in slow-motion survival

By late 1984, the main problem for the Siyad Barre regime was not military, but financial. The SSDF, the main and most dangerous anti-regime guerrilla force, had collapsed upon itself due to the paranoid leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf, while the SNM, which was short of everything—weapons, money, diplomatic support—had been hemmed in by the joint action of the Somali National Army and the WSLF remnants. In spite of the (half-hearted) Ethiopian support,[175] and in spite of widespread sympathy among members of the Isaaq clan family, the SNM survived as a worrisome but tolerable regional nuisance. What really preoccupied Mogadishu was the economic situation, a factor aggravated by the 1984–5 drought. Total exports for 1984 had only reached $60 million while imports had peaked at $452 million, with military expenses massively contributing to the imbalance. The resumption of diplomatic relations with Gaddafi in April 1985 had not been followed by the hoped-for Libyan bonanza, and a reluctant US had provided aid as a purely humanitarian gesture: 70,000 tons of food worth $25.3 million. For Washington, Siyad Barre was still seen as a former Russian ally and the promised Military Aid Program (MAP) still remained as elusive as ever.

Shocking as it may sound, the main forex resource for the regime was the presence on its territory of large numbers of refugees who had fled the Ethiopian Ogaden province in 1978. The refugees were cold-bloodedly exploited as a natural resource. In early 1985 the government officially stated that there were 826,000 refugees and in March it asked the International Red Cross for an extra $7 million, corresponding to an extra 60,000 ‘new’ refugees who were supposed to have just arrived. But the government did not allow a head count on the ground and the Red Cross estimated that at least 320,000 of the refugees had gone back to Ethiopia. But UNHCR was not allowed to verify the government figures and its commissioners who tried to check the refugee numbers too closely were at times deported.[176] The estimated figures were 30 to 60 per cent lower than the official ones, depending on which campsite was counted.

 In August 1985, in what was considered by Siyad Barre to be a major success, the US Army agreed to take part in a joint ‘Bright Star’ military exercise with Somalia. This brought $73.5 million of civilian aid plus another $41.5 million of military aid.[177] But as total bankruptcy loomed, Somalia’s last recourse was Italy. Here, Siyad Barre’s most reliable supporter was the Socialist Party and its leader, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. The link between the Italian Socialists and Siyad Barre combined both la nostalgia delle colonie,[178] a very Italian regret for the loss of empire, and a vague, rose-coloured leftist outlook that raised the prospect for the very moderate Italian ‘Socialists’ of wrapping themselves in a symbolic Red Flag. One should remember that in 1970s Italy this was a useful electoral device. But more than anything, this close post-colonial relationship was a product of the so-called lottizzazione (repartition) policy.[179] During the 1980s foreign aid was seen by Italian political parties as a huge resource for pork barrel politics, whose benefits were parceled out between the main parties (except the Communists, who were not allowed a place at the trough). The Christian Democrats could benefit from the budget for Ethiopia, the Socialists from Somalia while the small Republicans had to accept the slimmer pickings from what was earmarked for Mozambique. Each party promoted aid to ‘its country’ in the hope of getting more power, more glory and more money. As early as 1981, Paolo Pillitteri, the socialist mayor of Milan and a member of the Italian Socialist Party’s Central Committee, had published a whole book of interviews with Siyad Barre, which presented a rather bizarre mixture of nationalist fervor, liberal worldview and personal buddy support: ‘Italy’s international presence has to be solidly grounded in the framework of principles which place our country squarely in the Peace Camp[180] and qualify it as a defender of people’s rights.’ The conclusion was abrupt: ‘In any case, we won’t abandon our friends.’[181] The tool that could help ‘our friends’ was the Fondo Aiuti Italiani (FAI, or Italian Aid Fund), which had been created in 1979; its actual ‘boss’, in the murky world of Italian international aid,[182] was the economist Francesco Forte, one of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi’s advisers. Fully 25 per cent of the global budget of FAI went to Somalia. It featured such opaque budgetary lines as ‘$2,436,000 to develop the telephone system’; payment to expatriate Italian university teachers who received $16,000 a month in Swiss bank accounts;[183] or a $250 million budget for the Garoe–Bosaso highway, which was jokingly referred to as ‘the highway with the gold-plated road signs’. A lot of this aid was not exactly humanitarian: Italy provided G-222 troop transports, Piaggio P-180 light patrol aircraft, Agusta-Bell 204 and 212 helicopters, SIAI-Marchetti ST-260 ground attack planes, and Fiat M-47 armoured vehicles.[184]


In February 1986 Siyad Barre was invited to Rome where he caused a scandal when he declared during his visit to parliament that he was so happy ‘to be here at the seat of power where your great patriot Benito Mussolini used to stand’. The Communist MPs were shocked and wanted to table a motion asking for a no-confidence vote against Craxi’s cabinet; they could only be stopped when the Socialists managed to convince them that the fall of the government would benefit the conservative Christian Democrats. Siyad Barre was puzzled by the anger he had provoked but he made up for it by inviting Giorgio Almirante, the secretary-general of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, for a visit to Mogadishu.[185] During the meetings Francesco Forte suggested cancelling the $153 million of Somali debt to Italy and offered additional aid to the tune of $200 million plus another $340 million if an agreement over the Ogaden borders could be reached with Ethiopia. As a result of this unusual visit, the commander-in-chief of the Italian Air Force and the second-in-command of the Italian Army both flew to Mogadishu for ‘technical consultations’. What the ‘technical consultations’ consisted of was never disclosed.

On 23 May 1986 President Siyad Barre was the victim of a serious car crash. He was immediately transported to Saudi Arabia in a coma,[186] where he was joined by a 60-strong ad hoc ‘Marehan Committee’, which met around his hospital bed. The crisis of the dictatorship was immediate and intense. Siyad Barre had been born in 1910 (even though he always publicly maintained his year of birth was 1916), which meant that he was then 76; and the whole precarious regime depended on his presence and leadership.

His wounds were serious and his death looked quite possible. So Mogadishu became prey to a slow-motion panic because the regime had no ‘government’ in the modern administrative sense of the word. To borrow words used to describe another neighboring country where the structures (or lack thereof ) were largely similar: ‘it was not a world of institutions; it was a world of relationships … personal interests trumped the authority of formal institutions in almost every instance’.[187] Power was in the hands of clanic and personal networks, in which tasks were distributed in a purely subjective way, with no institutional specialization and nothing approaching a constitution or a legal system for devolving power.[188]

With Siyad Barre incapacitated or possibly dying, power was up for grabs. His first wife, Khadidja, immediately moved to propel her eldest son, Meslah Mohamed Siyad, into the seat of power[189] by ensuring that Abdi Nasser Haqi Mohamed, brother-in-law of the President and the officer in command of the capital’s tank units, would support the young man. But her move by no means had unanimous support. The Marehan ‘moderates’ favored General Omar Haji Mohamed (who had been in detention since 1982) because he was both relatively open-minded and a fellow clansman, while the ‘loyalist’ Minister of Defense, Ali Samantar—the constitutional Acting President—was a Sab supported by Ahmed Suleiman Abdille ‘Dafle’, the Dhulbahante warlord of the north who was then keeping the SNM at bay and who wanted a patsy as President.[190] Meanwhile, Aden Abdullahi ‘Gabiyow’, the Deputy Minister of Defence and a Kenya-born Ogadeni, courted the support of the young officers who disliked the arrogant Meslah. Immediately after the accident, the upsurge of competing factions provided a preview of the way Somalia might be heading when the strong hand of dictatorship disappeared. But this was premature. On 23 June Siyad, weakened but recovering, was able to leave the hospital much earlier than most observers expected, thus putting all the thriving ambitions temporarily to rest. Then, on 24 December, he was ‘re-elected’ for another seven-year term, with 97 per cent of the vote.

Of course, the war had not stopped in the meantime, but it had lost its capacity to represent a single autonomous path towards regime change. The SSDF was almost a bygone memory, with its unemployed fighters sitting it out in Ethiopia. The SNM hung on by the skin of its teeth, doing a bit of hostage-taking—such as kidnapping ten volunteers from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Tog Wajaale camp on 23 January 1987[191]—and some targeted killings, such as when they shot Colonel Ahmed Adan, the notorious NSS torturer, in Hargeisa in early January. Any such SNM activity usually triggered demonstrations in the northern capital, and the two events just mentioned brought people out in the streets. As was also usual, the police and the army opened fire indiscriminately, killing 25 people and arresting 250.

Djibouti President Hassan Gouled was worried by these developments, which he felt could threaten his small country.[192] So French President Jacques Chirac sent his all-purpose African trouble-shooter, Fernand Wibaux, to Addis Ababa to investigate. Upon his return to Paris he advised that the situation was local and could easily be contained. This was a widely shared opinion, including in Moscow and Washington. The only foreigners who discreetly kept their attention focused on Somalia were the Italians. Their main effort was directed at trying to reconcile Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.

 Just like Fernand Wibaux, most foreign observers saw the low-intensity ‘disturbances’ of northern Somalia as the unresolved tail end of the 1977–8 Ogaden War. That they could be the visible sign of a much deeper problem was simply not part of the international picture. Actually, both Mengistu in Ethiopia and Siyad Barre in Somalia used whatever was left of ‘their guerrillas’ as pawns in the negotiations that were still taking place around the Ogaden problem. In March 1987 Mengistu had told the Somali that he would like to formalise the shadow talks between the two countries and invited his counterparts to Addis Ababa. Just to keep the pot boiling and to put some heat under the diplomatic talks, the Ethiopians encouraged the SNM to undertake some visible military activity. On 12 February a sizeable SNM force attacked Togdheer province around Balidhig; but Somalian security had been forewarned of the SNM attack and the force fell into an ambush, losing over 80 men and 11 tanks, which they had borrowed from the Ethiopians. The survivors crossed back over the border and went to lick their wounds in the relative security of Ethiopia.

On the opposite side, Siyad Barre resuscitated some phantom groups of WSLF and launched them on a series of symbolic attacks in the Ogaden.[193] When all this was over Abdirahman Jama Barre, a cousin of Siyad and his Foreign Minister, was sent to Addis to reopen the peace talks. All this was nothing new. These talks had taken place on and off for the previous two years, and since the Somali refused to provide clear and public maps of what they agreed belonged to Ethiopia and what they themselves would still claim, the meeting was another failure. For the SNM, none of this was serious and it kept on charting its own independent course.

Lone wolf: The SNM small war in the mid-1980s

During the 1980s, the main problem of the SNM was not to win but to survive in the hope of better days. It was caught in a paradoxical situation: ensconced in the north, very far from the country’s power centres, devoid of any media attention, ignored by the international community, the Movement was totally self-reliant. Even its most dedicated fighters were aware of the situation: ‘We had to use guerrilla fighting because the military power of the SNM was so weak compared to that of the government, our fighting was like playing hide-and-seek.’[194] And then:

We had to keep some military activities going on. But these were only hit-and-run war tactics by young SNM men to disrupt the SNA on the border. We had to keep those going not to lose the momentum because there were so many young men who had finished their training at Baabili and they had been brought to the front areas such as Aware, Burco Duuray, Kaam Libaan. I think we had about 500 trained men. They were restless. It was an army made to fight inside the country but we hesitated to go in deeply.[195]

This slow-motion warfare took its toll in that many chose to desert after training rather than remain sitting aimlessly:

At times the loss of recruits could be up to 50 per cent on any given batch. I remember one time we collected 70 in an Ethiopian base and only 10 or 15 came out of the training. It was a great loss for us, especially if the men left us taking their gun and ammunition with them.[196]

For lack of any better opportunity, the Movement resorted to the targeted killing of opponents.

Given the situation, we used surveillance to track those military and police who were jailing, torturing or killing people. That’s why we killed Ahmed Adan or Abdi Aziz Ali Barre. They were against SNM and they tried to steal the people’s minds.[197] Also they tortured prisoners. For Ahmed Adan, the NSS boss, we studied him, found out everything about him, when he woke up, where he went, whom he met, and we decided only four should carry out the assassination. We shot him at 8 p.m. when he arrived at his office. We had sabotaged the lights, he could not see … The people supported us because of the pain and agony in which they lived.[198]

But this support was limited, province-wide, not national, even though the war aims of the Movement remained resolutely national, aiming at regime change, which made a kind of overall tactical reassessment necessary. In this situation three things were obvious: ideology was not a significant factor; popular anti-dictatorship was adamant and clan-based; and organization was often the key component.

The first point, ideology, was the original element that differentiated the SNM from its older SSDF rival. SSDF had not been an ideological guerrilla force either, but it had tried to pass for one. Abdullahi Yusuf was basically a Majerteen warlord who wanted to eliminate a Darood warlord but he managed to wrap this unappetizing goal into a more attractive ideological package. One should try to remember (age permitting) or imagine (if not having lived in those times) that ideology during the Cold War was a most necessary piece of equipment for membership in either the ‘progressive’ or the ‘freedom’ camp. To venture into the open ideological field without such a necessary flag (the flag was often more of a cover than a genuine item) was daring indeed, and regardless of his personal feelings Abdullahi Yusuf managed to fake it for the benefit of both Mengistu and Gaddafi, whose requirements were not the same. But for the deeply motivated SNM founders—and, later, cadres and followers—they could do without it because of the unspoken feelings of the northern mass of Isaaq, who were solidly behind them. This did not constitute an identifiable ‘ideology’, even if, in a way, it was one—one that was not universal or transferable, but needed no text or ritual; it was immediate and essential.

This is the reason why the Ethiopian perception of SNM as a ‘religious’ organization was wrong. ‘Religious’ would have meant ‘Islamist’, and this was not the case.

In fact, there were three ‘parties’ within SNM: the religious one, the military one and the political one. They succeeded each other in time, with Sheikh Yusuf Ali Sheikh Madar being the first chairman, Colonel Abdiqadir Kosar Abdi replacing him in 1983, and then Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’ becoming chairman in 1984. They disagreed about a lot of things. But, deep down, they all agreed on the meaning of the struggle: removing the Siyad Barre dictatorship and installing our own form of democracy. The SNM democratic system was similar to the traditional democracy which had always existed among clans. So there were always groups or sub-clans supporting or fighting the elected leadership. Groups like Calan Cas (Red Flag) or the nationalist anti-clan group opposed the leadership but they did not do damage to the struggle. Instead of addressing issues, it was personalities that were attacked. But the political deadlock was peacefully resolved when traditional elders intervened.[199]

This system was operationally efficient in the short term and provided a rough but successful measure of immediate democracy. During the ten years of the war, the SNM, contrary to many rebel groups in Africa (and elsewhere), never saw any violence taking place among its leadership. It sometimes came close to it, but blood was not shed and none of the five chairmen met a violent death. Abdiqadir Kosar Abdi was the only one who did not survive the conflict. His death took place in combat on 12 July 1987 in Mustahil when he fell into a military ambush as he was trying to expand the perimeter of SNM operations by travelling to the southern Ogaden where he was planning to meet some Hawiye elders.[200]

Here we should recall the remark of the native adjutant, already quoted, about his ideal political vision—‘I want to be well-governed … and to be left alone’—and the observation I made that in British Somaliland during the colonial years, the British almost achieved that prodigious policy paradox. For this is what probably lies behind the rebirth of the Somaliland colonial territory as a ‘state’ (albeit so far an unrecognized one) instead of sinking into the mess that the South is to this day. The South—the internationally recognized ‘Somalia’—is the territory of the former Somalia Italiana, where the Italians—or rather the Fascist Governor, Cesare Maria de Vecchi—totally divorced their colonial administration from any continuity with native institutions and radically destroyed the peacemaking mechanisms that the Somali had previously used. Like most nomadic cultures, the Somali were permanently at war—about grazing rights, about water holes and about stolen cattle. Thus they had also developed, as part of Xeer, a complex system of (temporary) peacemaking. War was as much a part of their world as drought and camels: it therefore had to be managed. In the north, partly out of convenience and laissez-faire and partly due to legal and political philosophies, the British kept the Somali peacemaking mechanisms because it was in their interest to do so. (‘Let us get the meat for Aden and let the natives govern themselves, as long as they remain peaceful.’) And peaceful they had remained, from the death of the ‘Mad Mullah’, Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, in 1920 till independence in 1960. Not so in Somalia Italiana, where the Italians kept fighting their Somali subjects well into the 1930s and regained a fractured polity when they came back in 1947.

This past is often neglected by contemporary researchers and writers. It is paradoxical that, while pre-colonial African history has been restored to the place from which it was dislodged during the colonial period, it is now colonial history that is neglected. Both approaches are wrong, and the pertinence of colonial history in the region is obviously relevant if we look at situations like the Eritrean anti-colonial (i.e. anti-Ethiopian) struggle or the independence of South Sudan. Regionally, the very existence of the Djibouti Republic is a pure colonial construct. In many ways—politically, legally, philosophically—the SNM had a (partly) British history. Its place of birth in London was symbolic. This is probably one of the reasons why it remains today the object of strong hostility among non-Somaliland Somali: it is a half-caste political culture, part Somali and part British, which does not correspond to the nationalist epiphany envisioned by the Somali Youth League ideologues; it is ‘tainted’ by something foreign. Worst of all, it works. And it works because it is Somali in a way the mutilated South never had a chance to achieve. The Italians had tried for a ‘European’ colony, sterilized the Somali war–peace culture and failed; the British had tried for nothing but left the natives to their own devices while easing them into a marriage of convenience with the British common law system, as applied to the interactive zone of the two cultures—and it worked.

If there was some ‘ideological’ substratum to the SNM experience, it was this. And since its own initiators probably had only a very distant view of the question, it remained unspoken. The SNM leaders—religious, military or political—shared that same deep concept of what they wanted. It is amusing that often, in order to explain what they meant to a foreign observer, the best-educated ones would explicitly refer to I.M. Lewis’s seminal work, A Pastoral Democracy (1961). This book is in itself a perfect example of an Anglo-Somali piece of research. Lewis, who loved the Somali culture but who was at the same time a dyed-in-the-wool Briton, wrote a very British account of the foreign culture he loved. He gave an intellectual synthesis of both and the SNM, in a spontaneous and almost unconscious way, practically carried it out.[201] It could not be called an ideology—especially by foreigners who were then Marxists or anti-Marxists—but it was a way of thinking, a manner of approaching political reality.

So in that spirit, the ideology-less ideologues of SNM approached the fourth congress (held in Jijiga, Ethiopia) and, on 9 August 1984, elected Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’ to the chairmanship. Actually, his very election is an example of what we have just discussed. Sillanyo had been a member of Siyad Barre’s government before fleeing to the UK in July 1982. As it happened, the internal constitution of the SNM forbade any former member of Siyad Barre’s regime to hold any position in the Movement.[202] In many rebel fronts such a situation would have led either to the candidate being blocked or to him organizing some kind of internal coup or power grab. But before the Jijiga congress there was none of that. Instead there was a lengthy discussion of the merits and demerits of Sillanyo’s application. Of course there were back-room maneuvers and clanic negotiations, but the consensus was that the military period of Abdi Kosar had not been fruitful and that a more nuanced political approach was now necessary. So the discussion or negotiation period eventually led to a modification of the SNM’s internal constitution. Was this an application of the ‘pastoral democracy’ system or a distant projection of Whitehall? Probably both. But this clever way of dealing with the situation, even if it was good in itself, could not produce a miracle.

What is more, the military situation remained poor. There was a need for morale-boosting and for diplomatic impact, to show ‘that the SNM was not dead’. So a deliberate attack was planned in the Burco Duuray region. ‘In that battle we engaged the fighters who were the first ones to have completed their seven months of training at the Aware training school … Our contingent arrived at the position facing Labi Sagaala, deployed up to Ina Guuxaa, on the Ethiopian–Somali border, in the first week of October 1984. This was a strategic mistake because this position was an obvious access route to Somalia, and Siyad Barre’s forces had anticipated the attack to come from that direction.’ But to the strategic mistake, the freshly trained fighters added a crass lack of discipline:

‘In addition, our troops were short of fuel, they had actually run out of fuel 45 km west of Lanqeyrta and the tankers we had assigned to provide more fuel for our contingent had stopped at Dabiile village to be entertained at a wedding. The SNA had known for the last 78 hours about our coming, and when the engagement took place at Burco Duuray, we were defeated and we suffered many casualties. Our commander, the famous Colonel Lixle, was killed on 17 October. This was our worst disaster, ever.’[203] When SNM chairman Sillanyo learned the news, he said: ‘Now if Lixle is dead, we all have to be like Lixle.’ But it was easier said than done.

The SNM command had graduated more volunteers from the Aware school—about one thousand—and it decided to launch them, divided into three columns, on another ‘invasion’ of Somaliland’s territory a month after the Burco Duuray disaster. The operation, known as ‘the Mountain Wars’, was conceived of as a test to see if the lessons of the Burco Duuray defeat had been learned. Colonel Jama Ali Elmi, who was the overall commander of the operation, told his men before they departed from Camp Libaan: ‘You are going to be the probing spike; so do not assume that you are going to capture territory.’

There were three columns of about 300 men, the western one, which attacked first on 5 November 1984, was on foot led by Colonel Abdiqadir Askar; the central one under Ibrahim ‘Dhegaweyne’, assisted by Abdirizaak Gamba, Abdisalam Yassin and Hassan Dayax, which attacked four days later; and finally the eastern column under Mohamed Kahin, who was the Movement’s minister of defense and who moved forward on 20 November. Columns number two and three could use vehicles because they were on less mountainous terrain. All groups fared very differently: the western sector the worst as 347 combatants out of 383 were killed. The central and eastern groups benefited from the sacrifice of their comrades who had drawn all the fire of Siyad Barre’s troops. But organization was still poor:

All three forces were deployed in a disorganized manner. After the Burco Duuray disaster and the partly negative outcome of the Mountain Wars, a thorough SNM reorganization had to be undertaken. The logistics were bad and management was poor. Some officers just disappeared and we realized the training was insufficient. There was a lot of confusion and we had doubts about how to take the struggle forward. But young men kept coming and we recruited around 1,300 new combatants after the Mountain Wars episode, questionable as it might have been.[204]

The reason for this sustained recruitment even though the Movement showed little military success was simply the hell most ordinary citizens had to live through in northern Somalia (Somaliland).

Since Siyad Barre had stopped any form of broadcasting news to the north, anyone who listened to the BBC would be arrested if found out, in order to deter people from transmitting news to others … In the cities the curfew started at 3 p.m. Anybody caught in the street after 3 p.m. would be arrested and the women had their hair shaved, on top of the fine they had to pay. Some women were summarily raped … Some women’s long clothes were prohibited because the police feared they could be used to hide guns that could be used by SNM … If the army killed somebody they alleged to be SNM, they brought the dead body into town, even if the corpse was decomposing and smelly, and forced us to look. If you recognized a dead relative and cried, you would be arrested.[205]

There were no civil courts working, only military courts. So every day there were people killed without real judgment. Many were jailed in the morning and they were killed in the afternoon. We lived under so much pressure that we were ready to die just to escape it.[206]

The government repudiated our right to live, in every way. If you were a northerner and you wanted to build a house, you had to pay taxes that would be equal to the cost of the house, if you had a car it could be taken from you at any time, you could not express your opinion freely for fear of arrest. So the government’s repudiation of northerners’ rights resulted in their unity and revolution.[207]

It is this situation which explains the total adherence of the northern population to the SNM. As I wrote after spending some time with the guerrillas in 1990, ‘The SNM is not a guerrilla movement, it is the Isaaq population up in arms.’[208] This ensured maximum support but it did not make for either permanent fairness or efficiency. Sillanyo tried to plug the gaps but there were many.

In 1989 Sillanyo appointed me a member of his executive committee as finance secretary … The administration of the SNM was not effective because the subclans were administering the combatants directly by providing the logistics or other support. The most effective place for efficiency was the SNM General Assembly meeting where all came and the differences were resolved by open discussion.[209] The General Assembly’s functioning used to be very democratic and the election of a new chairman was always a free and fair process, contrary to other African liberation movements which were led by an authoritarian leader. The Central Committee selection was based on clan power-sharing and it was more chaotic. In 1989 the SNM leadership started to involve the traditional elders in what is known as Guurti (Assembly). Later the Guurti became formalised[210] and it became very useful to solve the conflicts, especially those between the political and military wings of the Movement …

When I was appointed as finance secretary, the SNM had no money in its account. But when my term ended in 1990 I had in our Ethiopian bank account 300,000 birrs ($150,000 at the official exchange rate, $43,000 at the black market rate), US$250,000 and 1.8 million Djibouti francs (about $56,000). The source of the dollars was the fishing ships seized off the Somali coast, which we fined for fishing illegally in territorial waters.[211] The Djibouti francs came from an agreement I negotiated with the Isaaq merchants in Djibouti to whom I gave the right to use the port of Zeyla, in Awdal province, to ship goods to various parts of (government-controlled) Somalia after they paid a 2.5 per cent tax on the value of the goods.[212]

Sillanyo managed to streamline some of the operations but he had serious problems with the integration of the Habr Yunis sub-clan of the Isaaq and with the ‘military party’, which considered him too soft and ‘too political’. Some of the army even went as far as organizing a ‘party’ within the SNM, which they called Calan Cas (Red Flag), probably to please Mengistu.

‘We aborted an assassination attempt on Sillanyo. We uncovered a mine buried by the Calan Cas on the road he was supposed to travel … After the failure of the assassination attempt, Dhegaweyne and Yusuf Ali Gaboobe fled in an armored vehicle but they crashed it in Harshin and got captured. Most of the western colonels who were with Calan Cas were also jailed. The story was that it was revenge for the killing of Ali Adan Shine.’[213]

At the fifth SNM congress (28 February to 10 March 1987) Sillanyo was re-elected as chairman, in spite of growing dissatisfaction in the ranks. Things were not much more hopeful on the government side, even if the feeling there was that there was still room for maneuver. But maneuvering in which direction? Growing splits were opening up within the regime, which became deeper and deeper, between sullen but growing popular discontent, a morose diplomatic landscape, the bothersome SNM insurrection in the north, and a gaping economic abyss.

A peace attempt turns the small war into a bigger one

The mid-1980s had been a long journey into the dark for Somalia. Here we had a notional ‘country’—in fact, a nation—whose cultural enthusiasm and political entrepreneurship had brought it from decolonization towards an abstract unification. This was exactly the opposite of what was taking place at the same time in neighboring Ethiopia, where the severed Eritrean former colony was fighting tooth and nail to resist reabsorption into its Abyssinian matrix. While Pakistan unity had been built on a commonality of religion, the various attempts at pan-Arabism all rested on a shared culture. Meanwhile, pan-Somalism had been perverted from a dream into a torture chamber, once the dynamics which fueled the invasion of the Ogaden had been turned backwards by the defeat of 1978 and began to pit the Somali not against their habash (hereditary enemy) but against each other.

By 1987 exhaustion had set in everywhere and some kind of regime change was on its way. But which one? Siyad Barre’s accident and near death in May 1986 had not pointed towards any kind of principled renewal but just a freefor-all, where the barons of the regime lined up for a power grab with the best starting positions distributed—in descending order—according to family, connections and clan. Culture, language, nation—all the trigger words which had fueled the anti-colonial unification movement forty years before—now sank into the mire of power, money and violence.

What was the challenge on the other side? The SNM was basically an anti-dictatorship movement that aimed also at clan defense and survival. This defined the essential limits of its operations. But as soon as the SNM actors—no matter how faithful or honest—veered away from these fundamentals, the core problems of Somali culture were reasserted: freedom pushed to the point of anarchy, and clanic patriotism verging on blind prejudice. The fifth congress had been a contest between Sillanyo and Ibrahim Meygaag Samatar, i.e. between Habr Ja’alo and Habr Awal. But the Balidhig disaster of February had a bad smell of clanic betrayal and the May kidnappings only confirmed the suspicions: SNM had been ambushed at Balidhig because it had been betrayed. The seven NSS agents captured in Burao in May denounced (under torture perhaps) around 70 Barre agents in Aware and another 50 at the rear in Dire Dawa. Sillanyo gave the green light for summary executions and 60 to 70 were rumored to have been executed.[214] So now the field battles had a ‘home extension’, and Colonel Adan Shine was shot in Jijiga in early June by two Ogadeni hired guns who confessed to being part of a recently formed hit squad.[215] But what was even worse than the personal executions was the growing ideological split between the majority SNM, which stuck to the overthrow of Siyad Barre and regime change, and a limited but growing nucleus, spearheaded by the Calan Cas group, now openly aiming for the secession of the north.

In any case, whatever the SNM could do to undermine the regime was probably less successful than what the regime was doing to undermine itself. Most foreign aid given by donors was ineffective because it was project-centered rather than targeted by means of budgets.[216] This was because all donors over the years had agreed to foot the bill for project costs, thereby multiplying the number of those ‘projects’: many wells in odd locations, high-cost roads, the expansion of Bosaso harbor, refurbishing the Jowhar agro-industrial complex, a new slaughterhouse and a new tannery in Mogadishu, the Bardheere dam project. The US, the UK and Germany were highly critical of this spreading of projects, which Somalia did not have the administrative means or the trained workforce to handle, but Italy, which largely benefited from the kickbacks of otherwise unworkable projects, supported this dispersion—which had a planned cost of $1,025 million, a huge figure at the time. Meanwhile, a large segment of the population was undernourished and exports represented only 25 per cent of imports. In mid-August there were three days of rioting in Mogadishu due to the rise in the price of gasoline and the effects this had on the price of food. The IMF basically agreed with the World Bank and was incensed by the insistence of the Somali Central Bank that the floating rate for the shilling be abolished. This is what finally happened when the Central Bank was handed over to Mahmood Mohamed Nur, who replaced the incumbent governor. This nomination was the outcome of a perverse case of reverse clanic favoritism: Siyad Barre had deliberately picked an Isaaq to do the job, knowing full well that the poor man would agree to do anything he would be asked.[217] On 18 September he decided to suspend the forex auction and to condone the unrealistic rate of 100 shillings to the US dollar. This lasted six months before the IMF obliged the government to abandon the overvalued rate.

The succession problem also kept being handled in a similarly clumsy way. Meslah had created his own faction—popularly called the tuttaley, from the word tutta, which is used in Italian to describe the camouflaged battledress he and his associates wore in all circumstances. His father had created a special military district for him—the 77th, which comprised Mogadishu and the neighboring territories. When the US troops withdrew from Somalia at the end of the Bright Star exercise, the equipment they left behind was given to Meslah, even though General Mohamed Hashi Gani, who bore the brunt of SNM military pressure, had been clamoring for the same weapons.[218] But Meslah behaved as if he was already President, even though he had none of the qualities required for the position. At the end of September 1987, trying his hand at ‘field diplomacy’, he went north following a spate of riots in Burao. About 90 people had been killed in skirmishes between pro-Sillanyo (Habr Ja’alo) and anti-Sillanyo (Habr Yunis) Isaaq sub-clans, a confrontation that fitted with the Togdheer ambush of the previous February and also with the political lines (‘regime change’ versus ‘secession’) within the SNM. Meslah had come to fish in troubled waters, hoping to use the sub-clan conflict for his own benefit, but his intervention was so heavy-handed that he only managed to get the two groups to (temporarily) reconcile on the basis of an anti-government position.

In Mogadishu, the pressure was growing and an ‘opposition party’ had developed to try to counterbalance Meslah and his tuttaley. In typical Somali fashion the new group was linked to a separate strand of the President’s family—the Rer Nur Dini of Dalayat Hajji, Siyad’s second wife—while the tuttaley were mostly Rer Koshin Dini, Khadidja’s lineage. In June 1987, as he was coming back from one of his usual forays abroad in search of money,[219] Siyad and Meslah swept into jail a number of Desturi[220] followers, including General Abdinassir Hajji Hashi, the commander of Mogadishu’s military garrison, who was not a militant ‘constitutionalist’ but just somebody who resented Meslah’s brutal and overbearing personality.

But the regime was in such dire straits that Siyad Barre sent his Vice-President Ali Samantar to Sana’a in Yemen in October 1987 to meet with Mengistu and try to pacify him in respect of the Ogaden, in the hope that an internationally recognized peace with Ethiopia would satisfy the donors and bring cash. There were two issues, the forced drafting of Ogadeni refugees into the Somali Army and, as always, the border issue and the refusal of Siyad Barre to renounce territorial claims against Ethiopia. The drafting issue was dealt with but the Somali government kept postponing the release of maps in which the Ogaden borders would have been clearly defined.[221] Nevertheless, these signs of diplomatic improvements were enough to get Siyad Barre invited to the Franco-African summit at Antibes on 10 December 1987. Here the French hinted at promises of international support to help the dictator with his delicate position vis-à-vis the World Bank and IMF. Upon returning to Somalia, Siyad carried out a broad cabinet reshuffle in which General Samantar was neutralized through the creation of no less than three ‘Second Vice-President’ positions,[222] while the Ministry of Defense was assigned to Cdr Aden Abdullahi Nur, a close associate of Meslah. At the same time, Siyad’s half-brother, the hapless Abdirahman Jama Barre, was transferred from Foreign Affairs to Finance, a position he had coveted for years and which he was fully incompetent to occupy. This would leave the actual control of the Finance Ministry in Siyad’s own hands.

At the same time, having reorganized his own camp in the simplified way he saw as a transition towards a controlled succession, Siyad decided to impress what he considered to be ‘the enemy’. To do so he brought back before the courts the accused members of the so-called Group of Seven, who had been detained without trial since June 1982 and who represented the only credible group of unarmed opponents. Among them were the former Vice-President Ismail Ali Abokor, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Omar Arteh Ghalib, three former MPs, the human rights lawyer Yusuf Osman Samantar ‘Berda’ad’, and the former Minister of Health Omar Haji Mohamed. These men were all very well known—Omar Arteh had even been a candidate for the UN Secretary-Generalship—and all could claim to form part of some democratic alternative to the dictatorship. Bringing them back to court under charges of treason caused a world-wide sensation. The trial lasted five weeks and was handled clumsily, in a way that exhibited gross rigging of the procedure. The accused (all Isaaq) were condemned to death but, after the resulting international outcry, were ‘pardoned’ and remained in either detention or house arrest. This absurd treatment of the matter resulted in the government looking both barbaric and further weakened. But these considerations of internal politics, important as they might have looked at the time, would soon be pushed into the background by radical military developments in the region.

The Eritrean war of national liberation had started in 1961 and gone through the ups and downs of military victories and defeats. But twenty years after it began, three factors radically affected the nature of the struggle:

  • The central government of Ethiopia had to accept the idea that the country was not a nation-state as both Emperor Haile Selassie and the military–communist dictatorship which had replaced him assumed. By 1987, given the number of ethnic insurrections—by the Somali, the Tigrayans, the Oromo, the Afar and several Nilotic African groups—it had become impossible to keep asserting that this Amhara-based empire was actually an ‘Ethiopian’ nation-state in which diversity was blended in harmony.
  • The Eritrean struggle, far from being an oddity or ‘foreign-inspired’, was now perceived as part of a ‘nationality problem’ which the ‘proletarian’ revolution had failed to address. The foreign support—both ‘Arab’ and ‘Communist’[223] received by the Eritrean insurgents—had been an addition to the problem but not its cause.
  • By the late 1980s, the Eritreans were not fighting alone any more. Prior to the early 1980s the other rebel groups had all been fighting Addis Ababa separately. But the Tigrayan insurrectional front (TPLF) had progressively developed a tactical and political alliance with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and it was this alliance which eventually brought down the military–communist junta in Addis Ababa in 1991.[224]

In late 1987 and early 1988 the allied Eritrean–Tigrayan forces were on the upswing and had reinforced their positions in northern Ethiopia. And then suddenly, on 19 March 1988, the Ethiopian front cracked in Af Abet. This victory, which at the time went largely unnoticed worldwide, was in fact an important milestone in African warfare and, more broadly, in the geopolitics of the late 20th century. Throughout the 1980s the Soviets, who were experiencing simultaneously the financial effects of ‘Star Wars’, the impact of the war in Afghanistan and the shocks to their economic base, were already engaged in a desperate withdrawal in which they tried to rescue what could be saved and jettison the rest. In what concerned the Ethiopian part of their alliance network, they had withdrawn most of their advisers, stopped paying their satellite forces (Cuban, South Yemeni) which used to bolster the Derg, and concentrated the mechanized equipment (tanks, artillery) of their main battle force in a strategic position where their army could make the best use of it. But the location—Af Abet—was a mistake because it was within reach of the EPLF. And on 19 March 1988, Af Abet fell into the hands of an EPLF offensive, with its strategic treasure trove completely intact: over 200 pieces of artillery, 320 tanks with their spares, and 80 mobile fuel tanks. The war would last another three years but it had already been lost that afternoon in Af Abet.[225] While this catastrophe was taking place, Mengistu, who was ignorant of it, was in Djibouti to discuss the Somali question with President Hassan Gouled and his nephew Ismail Omar Guelleh. He flew back to Addis on 22 March. But the collapse in the north continued. On 26 March the EPLF took Tessenei and Ali Gidir and the TPLF occupied Axum that same day. Then on 28 March the Eritreans took Agordat while the Tigrayans entered Adwa. On the 31st the TPLF completed its takeover of Tigray by occupying Adigrat. There were still 60,000 Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden, and by then the communist regime needed them in a hurry to plug the gap in the front and close the road leading down to Addis Ababa, which was now under threat. Mengistu immediately dispatched his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Berhanu Bayeh, to Mogadishu on 1 April to sound out Siyad Barre about the possibility of signing an immediate peace agreement between Ethiopia and Somalia. The Soviet Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anatoly Adamishyn, simultaneously rushed to Mogadishu and representatives of the two heads of state[226] met in Djibouti on 3 April and signed a peace agreement.

Basically the agreement kept to the essentials: Somalia recognized the Ogaden as an integral part of Ethiopian territory, and both countries agreed on cancelling any help provided to the rebel movements of their rival: Mogadishu cut off support to the WSLF (or what was left of it), to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and to the SALF, which was not in much better shape than the WSLF. But Siyad Barre refused to repatriate the Ogaden refugees then on Somali territory. They were worth their weight, if not in gold, at least in food aid, and it was out of the question to see them heading home, peace or no peace. Addis Ababa reciprocated by stopping any aid to the nearly dead SSDF and promised to do the same for the very much alive SNM. As a first measure the Ethiopian police closed down the offices of the two Somali rebel movements in Addis Ababa as well as the studios of Radio Halgan,[227] which was a joint SSDF–SNM venture. Some Ethiopian liaison officers were dispatched to the SNM camps on the border and Mengistu received Sillanyo in private. On 6 April Muhamad Sheikh Ibrahim, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) leader in charge of information, then in Kuwait, rejected the Ethiopian–Somali peace treaty because ‘it accepted the Ethiopian occupation of the Ogaden’. In Addis, Mengistu had called an emergency meeting of the politburo of the Ethiopian Workers’ Party (EWP) and decreed ‘an absolute and total mobilization’. Troops were already evacuating the Ogaden by road and by plane, Asmara airport had been closed to civilian air traffic, and boats were ferrying more soldiers between Assab and Massawa. For the SNM, a decisive point had been reached.

In April 1988 Ethiopia and Siyad Barre signed an agreement in Djibouti, and this created the biggest defining moment in SNM history … Mengistu basically ordered the SNM and Sillanyo to follow the terms of the accord to the letter … Even though this was a dark moment for the SNM, it also had a good result in uniting the ranks for the first time … The Djibouti agreement was the biggest unifier at a time of large internal discord. Colonel Ahmed Mire, Colonel Hassan Yunis and myself, we escaped with a few others from Dire Dawa in the middle of the night in order to avoid having to obey the orders of the Ethiopian government. We arrived at dawn at Camp Abokor, which was the main centre and command post of the SNM on the border. There was a common popular decision to prepare for an overall offensive. All the SNM members had mobilized themselves without much prompting. Sillanyo was in big trouble at the time because Mengistu had ordered him to move the SNM forces from the border areas and demobilize them. He knew that this would not go down well with the SNM, particularly with the armed youths who had been joining us recently and who wanted to fight. So Sillanyo came to the front accompanied by Ethiopian military commanders. They brought fuel with them and orders to move our forces back to three bases inside Ethiopia: Aware, Harshin and Gaashaamo.

Sillanyo arrived and went to stay in the Ethiopian Army camp. He summoned the SNM commanders to give them orders, but nobody could be found because the day before his arrival we had moved the command post right up to the front lines, to avoid him. The SNM military command had already prepared a plan for the offensive. So instead of sending the colonels whom Sillanyo had requested, we sent him fuel tankers asking for fuel, supposedly to move the troops back. But when the fuel arrived, we used it to move our forces inside the border with Somalia instead of back to Ethiopia as we had been ordered. So Sillanyo decided to replace Colonel Ahmed Mire from the command due to his insubordination in defying orders to bring the troops back. Sillanyo was advised to replace Ahmed Mire with Colonel Jama Ali Elmi, which he did. However, Colonel Jama Ali had decided to follow the same line as Colonel Ahmed Mire. So once Sillanyo realized that there would be no change in the popular decision to invade, he asked at least for a postponement of the offensive for a few days in order to allow him to leave Ethiopia, as he feared that Mengistu would put him in jail.[228] … So the decision to liberate the north was made in reaction to the Djibouti agreement and it was not, as it was said later, for secession. This was not even part of the original SNM plan.[229]

The date set for the attack was 27 May and three separate forces were regrouped. The two main ones—3,000 and 1,500 men—were supposed to attack from the west and the other from the south. The main one was led by Colonel Ibrahim ‘Dhegaweyne’ (who had been released from jail where he had languished since trying to kill Sillanyo) and the southern one was led by Colonel Hussein Dheere. The third force (of 1,200 men) was supposed to attack Burao and was led by Colonel Ahmed Mire. Given problems of fuel delivery, the Hargeisa attack was postponed by one day and took place on Friday, 27 May 1988. ‘The three attacks were supposed to take place all at the same time, but of course the timing was not achieved. It was only the Burao attack which took place at the planned time.’

The SNM forces that took part in the attack were low on both fuel and ammunition, and the key to success, as Colonel Jama Ali told them when they launched the attack, was to get our resupplying from Siyad Barre’s forces. The Hargeisa attack was delayed for a variety of reasons. But the key attack was on Adadley weapons depot. The men who took Adadley then shared their supplies with the two other forces in Burao and Hargeisa. They captured about 30 armed vehicles, which were then split in two with the two other attacking groups. After we took Burao, our forces were overwhelmed with recruits, more than 30,000 men who came by spontaneous recruitment. Every able-bodied man took his gun or got one from a looted military store or captured one from an enemy soldier. Later this incoming crowd was popularly known as ‘the Friday recruits’ because 27 May was a Friday and they all took arms and came on that day. The trained SNM fighters were overwhelmed by the new recruits, and that later caused several problems … On the afternoon of 28 May we entered Hargeisa after another heavy battle at Werarta, to the south of Adadley. But on the evening of 30 May we got bombed for the first time by the South African mercenary pilots. We shot down one plane but we took serious losses.[230]

This was a radically new situation. The Djibouti ‘peace’ had led to a new war, which would be much more violent than all that had preceded it since 1981. In 1960 the population of British Somaliland had been independent for five days before it renounced its new-found freedom in the blur of an idealistic dream that would later turn into a nightmare. This new war was going to allow Somaliland to regain its independence, but only on a truncated basis. May 1988 was the first stage on a long road whose end has not yet been reached.


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