Chapter 7 – THE LOCAL WAR IN THE NORTH GOES GLOBAL, 1989–1991
Since the Somali defeat of 1978, the international community had become accustomed to seeing the conflict in former Somaliland turn mildly chronic and morph into a feature of the Horn of Africa landscape: ‘Those Somali! … Hard to govern! … What a problem!’ In the commonly accepted international view of the ‘problem’, the greatest danger the Somali represented for the international order was their quixotic desire to break down the existing borders and march forward to the unity of a ‘Greater Somalia’. Thus the northern war was seen as a mild annoyance, fought ‘for tribal reasons’. Besides, the outside view of the conflict was almost completely seen within a Cold War framework. This meant that the SNM was perceived as both ‘tribal’ and ‘communist-aligned’. As a consequence, the failed invasion in 1982 of Balambale–Goldogob appeared like the last hurrah of the ‘communist allies’—even though SNM had taken no part in the offensive—perhaps even as the last hurrah of such adventures anywhere. The reason for this was that the Cold War was progressively winding down all over the world, peaceful coexistence was slowly spreading and, apart from exotic outposts of the Revolution, such as Nepal or Colombia, Marxism-Leninism was progressively becoming outdated. Ethiopia, now no longer having any relevance, was being progressively evacuated by the Russians.
But considering SNM and the war in the north as an extension of what was happening in neighboring Ethiopia was plainly wrong. And so was the ‘folkloric’ view that attributed the Isaaq rebellion to some genetic incapacity of the Somali character to develop an intimate form of law and order. It was both much less and much more than that. What the explosion of May 1988 had brought brutally into view was the relativity of the concept of culture. Yes, there was a ‘Somali culture’; and it shared an enormous number of common traits across a vast expanse of territory spread over four countries. But it was not a solid homogeneous bloc. Did that cause a problem? Yes, indeed, it did. The Somali world is not the juxtaposition of deeply different cultural units agreeing to harmonize, like Switzerland. Nor is it a de facto multicultural commonwealth of people agreeing to disagree, as in many African tribal countries or even in India, because it is in their well-calculated interest to do so. On the contrary, it is a largely homogeneous cultural entity extraordinarily selective about the means used to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. You don’t rule over the Somali, even in the mild way a European democracy can rule over its own people between elections. Instead you run along a constantly modified track which needs the agreement not only of the engine driver but of most of the passengers, who all have their own views about where the train should be going. Does this mean constant anarchy? Definitely not if you can patiently give, take, repair, threaten, seduce, adjust, modify if needed, and rush to enforce if there is consensus. Governing the Somali is an art and a constant headache. They themselves know it so well that Xeer, the clanic law, is the ultimate standard of practical legal decisions, not the Islamic Shari’ah, even though everybody is Muslim. The general attitude is that Shari’ah is the embodiment of Islamic perfection, so perfect in fact that dragging it down into the murky affairs of this world is not quite proper. Xeer can do that, Xeer is tough and age-old, and can be used without becoming dirty. If you can reconcile Xeer and the spirit of governance, then you have reached a starting point.
This explains two things. Firstly, the south never had a chance in trying to run (govern) the north. The south had been thoroughly administered according to the Old Italian colonial system. It was initially rough and it became even rougher after 1922 when the Fascists tried to remodel the colony in terms of their simplified political philosophy. That meant force and especially the frontal destruction of the Migiurtina, the north-eastern Majerteen territory which had been the most resolute clanic or geographical area in standing up to the forceful Italian onslaught. In a milder spirit but following a basically similar approach, the post-war AFIS administration had carried on with an attitude of rigidity tempered by corruption. In this still Italianate atmosphere the UN-sponsored organization tried to rigorously apply Romanic law to the rubber-like universe of clan relationships—and it failed. It also tried to advance post-colonial Italian interests and it failed to do that as well. Corruption, both Somali and foreign, plugged the gap between abstract legal ideals and practical combinazione.
Secondly, pan-Somalism was a dream of perfection, a family reconciliation, an ethnic epiphany. It did not belong to this world, particularly when its practical implementation was subcontracted to the African incarnation of a Mafia capo di tutti i capi. 1978 had been a reality check for the pan-Somali worldview. But the worst was not the military defeat, but the dream’s ideological collapse. It happened when the liberated Ogadeni ‘brothers’ suddenly turned into invaders, with the Darood leaders becoming thugs and the Isaaq Xeer dignity being dragged into the mud after it had been praised as a component of the pan-Somali struggle. Thus the May 1988 invasion (backed by the Ethiopian Christian enemy) was the battering ram that finally brought down the whole imagined pan-Somali dream. The Darood—and those non-Darood that believed in ‘national unity’—raped, killed relentlessly and destroyed the material life of their ‘brothers’. Culture had not succeeded in trumping politics—and, even less, economics. In the wake of the brutal attacks and civilian massacres of May–July 1988, another social and political order needed to be rebuilt over the ruins of the collapsed dream. In the north the direction could not be forward anymore, given the abyss into which pan-Somalism had sunk. The only pattern left was that of the stern and ungainly shape of old Somaliland, the territorial arrangement that had been produced by a foreign hand—something that very few ‘Somalilanders’, even within the SNM, had ever contemplated before.
‘Nothing is the same anymore’
In the short term, as the SNM offensive fell apart, a series of complex and uncoordinated battles developed on secondary fronts. In late August SNM forces occupied the harbors of Hiis, Meid and Bulhar, while residual (but intense) fighting lingered around Borama. The SNA started to crack apart, not so much under SNM pressure, but rather because of internal fissiparousness aggravated by the recent fighting. Omar Jess and Morgan were at daggers drawn in the north, Jess having managed to obtain the support of Gabiyow who, as Defense Minister, still retained a claim to a broad army establishment. But this claim was increasingly theoretical since the minister was not even in charge of the 26th Division troops, who were the core operational force in ‘Somaliland’. In spite of being of cabinet rank, he had been put under the operational orders of General Ahmed Warsaw, who was a Marehan (i.e. the President’s clan), while Gabiyow himself was Ogadeni. This clanic reordering of the army’s command structure began to spread like a crack in a windshield as 1988 came to a close. In Mogadishu, Khadidja, the President’s first wife, had put together a kind of ‘Darood inner caucus’ whose members were supposed to cut across the SNA ranking order and superimpose another—clanic—order over the formal military hierarchy. Suleiman ‘Dafle’ was a key member who had been drawn in to circumvent General Samantar— who remained in theory the Chief of Staff—and to keep the Dhulbahante on the regime’s side. Another role of the ‘caucus’ was to sideline Gabiyow and to cut down to size all of the Ogadeni sub-clanic groups. The minister took a quick trip down from Berbera to complain to the President, telling him that if the north was still in the government’s hands, it was due to those Ogadeni who would instinctively side against the Isaaq.
But the situation was also collapsing in Awdal where the Issa and the Gaddabursi were now fighting to steer their sub-region into different directions. Both were anti-SNM, as befitted two minority clans standing in the way of a larger clan family; but being anti-SNM was not, in itself, a coherent political choice. Discreetly egged on by Ismail Omar Guelleh, President Hassan Gouled’s nephew and head of the Djibouti secret service, the Issa had created the United Somali Front (USF, in fact a clanic movement), which engaged in preparations for an eventual secession of this westernmost part of Somaliland. But this line of action came into direct conflict with that of their Gaddabursi neighbors, who were the local proxies of the Mogadishu regime. Nobody wanted the SNM, but the two clans had different views of the future and pursued their options militarily.
On 19 September, President Hassan Gouled flew to Mogadishu in the company of his nephew Ismail Omar Guelleh (secret service) and Moumin Farah Badon (foreign affairs), to meet with Siyad Barre. The three Djiboutians asked that the Somalian head of state intervene and separate the fighting clans, something he hardly could do and did not seem to want to attempt. The final communiqué spoke about ‘further cooperation in ensuring peace and stability in the Horn of Africa’—definitely a highly optimistic goal given the circumstances.
‘Peace and stability’ were eluding the regime, whose economic collapse was pushing it to extremes. In mid-September 1988 the Kenyan paramilitary force GSU had to battle it out with Somali government-sponsored elephant poachers. Killing elephants for their tusks had become a steady income stream for Mogadishu since hunting was officially outlawed in 1978. The elephant population in the Tsavo border area fell from 35,000 in 1973 to 5,363 in 1987, most of the killing being the work of Somalis. In February 1989, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put an embargo on Somali ivory since it estimated that, over the previous three years, Mogadishu had exported or stocked more than 25,000 tusks, while the total Somali elephant population only amounted to about 4,500 heads. But the government was barely surviving, with total imports worth $510 million against exports worth $88.1 million. Inflation had reached 42 per cent. The IMF had suspended all aid and private donation programs had also been stopped, with the exception of Italy ($16 million) and Saudi Arabia ($5 million). Germany, Japan, the US and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development had all put a halt to their programs and during 1987 total foreign aid plummeted to $67 million. In December, Siyad Barre flew to Tripoli where Gaddafi, the usual lender of last resort for desperate authoritarian regimes, agreed to make some more arms deliveries.
In January 1989, the first international effects of the massive fighting and massacres of May 1988 began to be felt. At this point, it is perhaps necessary to remind the contemporary reader that in those pre-Internet days communications and news took a lot more time, not in being researched or issued—print media journalists did a magnificent job—but rather in being distributed and therefore ‘digested’, i.e. becoming capable of impacting on public opinion and therefore policy decisions. The present immediacy of every newsworthy fragment of reality was still in the future and large events, particularly if they came from the margins of the ‘developed’ world, took a few months to ferment and achieve significant effects. Thus the small, unremarked war in Somalia of the early 1980s only began to shake and shock the public in late 1988 and early 1989. The connection between the ‘exotic’ local situation and its broader Cold War context started to emerge slowly, even though local perceptions changed rather quickly. The main transformation was the growing clanic and regional segmentation of the SNA, which remained ‘national’ in name only.
At the international level the constant toing and froing of both the regime’s leaders and their foreign backers became frantic. In January 1989, Second Vice-President Hussein Kulmiye Afrah was in Paris and Brussels; in February, Italian President Francesco Cossiga came to Mogadishu, while General Abu
Bakr Yunis, Libyan Chief of Staff, visited four days later; and Siyad Barre himself flew to Abu Dhabi shortly after. And this was only the foam on the surface of the soup, while the pot kept boiling underneath, mostly at the clanic level. Gabiyow had been dismissed in January, while the Ogadeni refugees were massively re-armed. When the SNM attacked the refugee camps, the UNHCR decided to regroup the core of the refugees still inside Somalia in camps around Borama where the pro-Siyad Barre Gaddabursi militia provided a back-up protective force. In London, the diaspora organization Ogaden Action Group launched demonstrations in March to protest against the forced recruitment of refugees to the ‘national’ army.
Then, on 15 March the Ogadeni refugees who had been incorporated into the Somali Army and who were garrisoned in Kismayo, mutinied, killed the town’s military governor, looted the armoury and took to the bush. During April, the Ogadeni insurrection spread to Buale, Lugh and Bardheere, resulting in the creation of a new anti-government movement, the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM). On 20 May, the Ogadeni Colonel Omar Jess, who was defending Hargeisa against the SNM, deserted, switched sides and joined the newborn SPM. For the SNM, things were going almost too fast.
In the early years, there were combatants trained in camps in eastern Ethiopia, and after the completion of their training they were assigned to different fronts, regardless of which sub-clan they belonged to … But after the big 1988 fighting in Hargeisa and Burao, the fronts (Aags) broke into sub-clans and SNM became less centralized; each group was fighting in the front which corresponded to his sub-clan. They became less dependent on the SNM central command and started to undertake independent operations. The reason was that all the people from the major cities of the north were either in refugee camps in Ethiopia or displaced in rural areas. And it was at that time that very large numbers of young people started to join SNM. They could only do so at their local sub-clan level because, after the signing of the 1988 peace agreement between Mengistu and Siyad Barre, the Ethiopian government had stopped its support for the fighting movement. So, with this decline of the central command, it was the clan elders of each region who mobilized their own sub-clan in providing food, arms and logistics to the young people who had just joined the war. Before the 1988 explosion, the funds donated by SNM supporters living abroad were centralized and kept in an account in Addis Ababa. But after the city fighting, each elder communicated with the members of his sub-clan abroad and the funds were directly sent to each front (Aag) and they all became more and more decentralized.
Paradoxically, victory and defeat were less important than process, and both processes went into the same direction: away from formal organization and back to the clan, sub-clan and even sub-sub-clan. The SNA ‘army’ was disintegrating into its component parts while at the same time the SNM was ballooning into a ‘mass organization’. But the reality was that the SNA was less and less of a ‘national’ army while the SNM was less and less of a (proto-) ‘national’ revolutionary movement. The clanic organization had antedated both, and it outlived both.
Another effect of the 1988 fighting was the foundation of the Guurti [Assembly]. There had been an embryo Guurti before, but the first formal Guurti was held in Adarosh in that same year 1988. The struggle had become more loose and a new mobilization had to be developed along these lines … Fifty-two elders met in Adarosh and Ibrahim Sheikh Yusuf Sheikh Madar was chosen as chairman of the new assembly … Then the Guurti became part and parcel of SNM when it was added to its structure. We were mandated for fundraising and for the mobilization of the communities. We had good relations with the officers of the SNM even though we were not mandated to take part in the politics and management of the movement; we had no role in the decision-making process. But when there were assemblies or meetings, we were invited as an observer group … The livestock was the backbone of the economy and the Guurti played a leading role in collecting and distributing livestock resources … Our best opportunity was that we met in a period when the struggle was at its peak and the war was all over the cities of the country … Therefore those who were asked to pay funds for the struggle, and many others who were paying without having been asked, were so numerous we could not count them all … Later we extended the Council from 52 to 82, so that the clans from the east and the west of Somaliland could be part and parcel of the Council and of the country as a whole.
‘Part and parcel of the country as a whole’: these words were uttered in earnest but they were spoken 27 years after the fact and they probably better represented the sentiment of the speaker at the time of the interview than at the time of the events described. This was because within SNM, before the March 1987 fifth congress, the main emphasis was not on any ‘Somaliland national unity’ but rather on an effort to unite as many different clan representatives as possible. The well-known Hawiye lawyer Ali Mohamed Ossoble ‘Wardigley’ had been chosen as vice-president, while seven other members of the Hawiye clan family had been elected as members of the Central Committee. There were also one Dir (Gaddabursi), two Darood (one Majerteen and one Dhulbahante) and one Rahanweyn. In the mid-1980s the emphasis was on fighting the Siyad Barre regime, and any help in that common cause seemed positive. A branch of SNM called SNM South or SNM Southern Front was organized and it fought in Hiiran and Mudug provinces. But Wardigley complained that Sillanyo was keener on northern military operations and that this preference smacked of rampant secessionism. The Hawiye front progressively dried up and the 1988 fighting only strengthened the feeling of the southerners that there were in fact two SNMs, the real one, which was an armed expression of the Isaaq clan family, and another, which only amounted to a propaganda booster. To escape being held hostage in an organization he felt was heading in the wrong direction in January 1989 Wardigley created in Rome the United Somali Congress (USC), in theory a multi-clanic organization even if it was in fact largely dominated by the Hawiye.
As we saw above, when the Ogadeni mutinied they had joined neither the SNM South nor the newborn USC but had created their own SPM. Parallel with the breaking up of the old Somali state, the delineaments of its successor structures were beginning to emerge. The impression was so strong that even in the Mogadishu regime, within the vertical dictatorship structure inherited from its Marxist-Leninist origins, the impression was now growing that decentralization of power had to be embraced rather than resisted. The name had, of course, to be different since that systemic outline had to be sold to donors, who might shy away from endorsing a Guurti-like structure. On 17 July 1989 the Central Committee of the SRSP rejected the proposal that multi-partyism should be introduced as a constitutive part of the regime. And then on 30 August 1989 that same Central Committee unanimously voted for a return to pre-October 1969 ‘democracy’.
But what had happened during those fateful six weeks? The clanic clashes between the Marehan core of the army and the Ogadeni insurgents had multiplied around Dhobley. Hundreds of young people were arrested after the Friday prayers when they protested against the detention of twelve popular sheikhs, and many had been shot in what later became known as the al-Jazeera massacre. The government admitted to 24 deaths and 59 people wounded but there were at least 400 victims. At the same time the ghost of SSDF came back to life in Hiiran, under the label of SNM Southern Front, when it attacked Belet Weyn. And to top it all, the Rahanweyn announced the creation of their own new rebel movement, the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), which started to attack the ‘national’ army in the Upper Juba valley. During the month of August, Meslah Mohamed Siyad, the President’s son, travelled to Moscow, Tripoli and Havana, desperately trying to muster some support, without finding help anywhere. And then in September, the first USC units swung into action on several fronts at the same time (Hiiran, Galguduud and Mudug). That last-mentioned uprising was momentous. Just as the Isaaq clan family is the ‘core population’ of the north, so the Hawiye are the core population of the center-south. Their decision to go into armed opposition was critical and the war suddenly took on a radically new aspect. It was not the disaffected margin of the ‘Grand Somalia’ project challenging the center, but the center itself challenging the project. It meant regime change and perhaps even more.
Trouble from the margins moves to the center
On 29 September 1989, a group of prominent US Congressmen with a continuing interest in African affairs wrote to Secretary of State James Baker, questioning the financial aid which would allow Mogadishu to repay its IMF arrears, a measure that would keep Somalia’s access to IMF financing open. Baker listened to the admonishment, particularly in view of the reports of human rights violations coming out of Somalia at the time, and in February 1990 the decision to supply financial aid was eventually cancelled.
Why was this financial episode so essential for the overall evolution of the conflict? The reason has to do with what has already been said about the absence during the long history of the Somali of anything approaching a ‘Somali state’. Somali culture is fissiparous, not because its component parts want to avoid each other but because they deeply refuse any submission to another clan, and consequently no acceptable mechanism has ever been devised to fit the various parts of the Somali puzzle into an identifiable unitary structure. The only things that can—in a way and for a while—unify Somali clans are a common outside enemy or economic interest. Now that European colonialism had gone, in the absence of any other bond, money was the last thing that remained as a toe-hold for some kind of ‘unity’. Is this peculiar to Somali culture? Yes, in a way. It has to do with the fierce social egalitarianism of the Somali. A Somali will bend to force if it is a matter of survival. He will also bend to economic interest if necessary, though he will never accept this as a normal and lasting proposition. Having lost the war with Ethiopia and squandered the political capital pertaining to Greater Somalia in the north, Siyad Barre had no force left to rule over a polity of hyper-democrats. Beyond his own clan and a handful of gaashaanbuur allies, there was nobody anymore. This was a very costly proposition to hang on to and in addition he had lost both the support of foreign patron states and any way to make money independently beyond smuggling a few poached elephant tusks. This left the struggle for international financial support essential, not only for his own regime to survive but also for any form of ‘national’ statist power to exist. Without money or an external enemy, and with a broken dream as a sole asset, the fate not only of the ‘Afweyne’ regime but of the whole state structure now looked grim.
But as usual, when unexpected major changes were in the making, the international community kept its business-as-usual attitude. On 20 July the European Union (then EEC) announced the opening of a $66 million fund to build a Gelib–Bardheere road. It was described as a step forward in the development of the country’s infrastructure. In the short term, though, what really preoccupied the Somali regime was its collapsing army. The last element of support came from Libya; in October the SNA received 32 T-55 tanks, 20 BM-21 truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, and an unknown number of D-30 122 mm artillery pieces. This equipment was sorely needed as the military situation was collapsing in slow motion. During November 1989 multiple clashes developed all over: Belet Weyn was attacked by loose groups of Ogadeni and Hawiye deserters, in Hiiran province the Hawiye sub-clans of Hawadle and Habr Gidir attacked each other over water and pasture, and the SNA did nothing to stop them. In Togdheer province Dhulbahante and Isaaq clashed along more or less SNM lines of conflict, and the same happened in Awdal between the newly created Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA, which was Gaddabursi) and western SNM regiments. The situation was so confused that not even the SNA general staff was able to keep precise track of what was happening. On 11 November the SNM and the newborn SPM, which were equally lost, issued a joint communiqué asking for the unification of the opposition.
Now that the Ogadeni refugees had become almost officially part of the war, the UNHCR was equally worried. After screening the refugees—it was the first time their exact numbers had been allowed to be counted—the UN agency offered them three possible options: going back home to Ethiopia with some cash and a one-year supply of staple food; becoming Somali citizens (less cash and only seven months of food); or remaining as refugees, an option that was strongly discouraged. The estimated cost for UNHCR was $50 million and, given the military situation, all programs in the northern provinces of the former Somaliland had been suspended in August 1989. The main problem for the UNHCR concerned those Ogadeni incorporated into the SNA, who were both refugees and combatants. Under pressure from the SNM, they tried to join the newly created Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia
(IFLO) and walk back into Ethiopia, where the war had taken enormous territory from the Derg regime and was approaching Addis Ababa. There was a similar problem for the Afar Liberation Front (ALF), which, without having reached the same degree of integration with the Somali Army, nevertheless benefited from its help in fighting the Derg. ALF leader Sultan Ali Mirah had first gone to Mogadishu and then rushed to Borama, where his men had seen a drastic change when the Hawiye Colonel Mohamed Hussein ‘Garrileh’ rebelled against Siyad Barre and took over the town. ALF fighters were caught there and Mogadishu’s word was not much use any longer in the town. ALF fighters, who were ideologically very distant from the IFLO boys, chose the same form of exit and walked back towards Jijiga, bowing out of a conflict which was not theirs anymore but had become purely Somali.
On 19 December the USC and the SNM issued a joint communiqué, demanding that Siyad Barre step down. The two organizations implicitly spoke as if they were some kind of future constituent assembly for a national unity government, but the USC was basically a Hawiye front (and the Hawiye clan family was far from being united) while the SNM had only seven non-Isaaq in a Central Committee of 47 members. A national critical mass was far from having been achieved. Then on 2 January 1990, a meeting of the Issa clan family took place in Djibouti. The tone was belligerent and clearly anti-Gaddabursi, even if both clan families feared that Mogadishu’s defeat would usher in a regional Isaaq dominance. The main question during that conference was the degree of Djibouti state support which the Issa group could claim and how the two armed militias—the Issa USF and the Gaddabursi SDA—would deal with each other. The debate took place as if the Somali government had already disappeared and as if Somalia ‘state territory’ was up for grabs by other non-Somalia Somali.
On 9 January Siyad Barre dissolved his cabinet and, after a few days of floundering about, he re-formed it with the same Mohamed Ali Samantar as Prime Minister, after having approached twelve different respectable political figures and been refused each time. A new cabinet was finally put together, mostly made up of young unknowns. Only seven of the old ministers accepted positions in the new government, whose military actions, in the absence of new funding and equipment, had become more and more sporadic. In late March the SNA had retaken Zeyla, Lughaya and Loyada in order to discourage the ambitious attempts of USF and SDA militias to claim pieces of the dying country. The SNA was helped in its operation by the ‘Horyal’ (Vanguard) Gaddabursi militia, which was so unsure of its status that in 1991, when the Derg was overthrown, it turned itself into an ‘Ethiopian’ political party. On 3 April the SNM retook the three towns to make a point: that the Mogadishu state was on the way out but minor clan militias were not going to be allowed to position themselves and detach micro-clanic areas from the collapsing structure. The SNM was Isaaq and the SNM represented the demographic majority.
In a desperate bid to regain some popularity Siyad Barre abrogated the law on qat in May 1990, a measure that came much too late and had no great social or economic impact. The qat-trading networks, like everything else, had adapted to the war and were now operating completely outside the state circuit. On 11 May, Susanna Agnelli, the Italian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, offered to mediate between the government and the rebels. It was very late for such an offer to be made but it was not inconsequential because, as the state and army progressively fell apart, there was a parallel effort at structuring the opposition. In addition, the idea developed that there might be one last chance at a ‘grand negotiation’ between the rebels and the government. In fact this was perhaps a bit of wishful thinking because the very person of Siyad Barre was a major obstacle. A ‘grand negotiation’, if such a thing were possible, could only have been about the terms of Siyad’s effacement and the groundwork for a transitional government. Siyad’s own obduracy prevented this possibility from turning into a reality.
What of the reorganization of the opposition? It started in February 1990 at Baligubadle, a small town on the Ethiopian–Somali border where the fifth SNM congress had been convened. There was change in the air, even in the choice of delegates. The gathering revealed the typical weariness of ageing political establishments. Sillanyo had been chairman for six years and there was a desire for renewal, which, this being Somalia, was expressed in clanic terms. Sillanyo was from the Habr Ja’alo and another clan family, probably the Habr Yunis, were ambitious for the position. But there were also more fundamental issues. Deserters were multiplying and a problem had developed around the handling of them. The ‘first-generation’ SNM fighters felt a certain amount of hostility towards the newcomers, accusing them of being lukewarm rebels and opportunistic latecomers, and more discreetly resenting them for not being Isaaq. But true as these accusations might have been, many of these latecomers were also well-trained soldiers, some with useful specialized technical skills. Sillanyo tended to favor these newcomers and promoted some of them (as officers) above the heads of many less well-trained Isaaq veterans.
A third issue with great potential for future trouble was the attitude towards independence. Independence was the lingering problem the SNM had never wanted to discuss, largely because it was not important within the higher circles of the organization. But after the massive 1988 battles the SNM had morphed into ‘a political organization fighting a people’s war’. The views of the ‘higher circles’ became less relevant and these ‘higher circles’ had to take popular feelings more into account. During long conversations at Baligubadle with the SNM leadership in February 1990, repeatedly came back to the question of independence and I repeatedly got the same answer: we do not want secession. The motivations for this refusal were threefold. Firstly, we can’t leave Mogadishu because we are the biggest landowners in that city. They would confiscate the houses and lands if we seceded (an almost unanimous answer). Secondly, Somaliland by itself lacks sufficient natural resources to survive. In addition we would have problems being recognized internationally (a frequent but not a majority position). And thirdly, ‘I believe in the pan-Somali ideal’ (the answer of very few, including Sillanyo himself).
At the same time, practically every ordinary person I could manage to speak to (it was difficult because of language problems and my official translators disliked the question) gave me the opposite answer: ‘We don’t want these southerners ruling over us, they are killers and thieves. They use this panSomali propaganda but what they do is the opposite.’ A sub-theme often mentioned was: ‘They are communists. They want to take our cattle from us.’ And then the usual comment: ‘You are talking with the big people. They’ll tell you they don’t want separation and they will lie to you; but us, the small people, we don’t want anything more to do with these southern criminals, we want freedom, our own life. Don’t believe what you are told.’ Some translators were sympathetic to this line of argument and translated without problem. Those who were linked to the SNM establishment tried to skirt around the issue. But they often finished by translating fully, under pressure from people (especially women) who, without speaking English, knew enough to know what was going on. After translating honestly, the pro-establishment interpreter would usually comment: ‘They don’t know any better, they are simple people, uneducated. But this is not SNM policy.’
The Baligubadle conference did not lead to any major changes apart from doubling the numbers of the Central Committee members (in order to include representatives of those who had recently joined). On 5 June a new military organogram was issued, with Arap Dualeh as Chief of Staff and the unconventional Ibrahim ‘Dega Weyne’ as his number two and, of course, the replacement of Ahmed Mohamed ‘Sillanyo’ by Abdirahman Ali Ahmed ‘Tuur’ as secretary-general of SNM. But in terms of national choice Tuur was as much a Unitarian as Sillanyo was, if not more so, so this did not lead to any change in overall SNM strategy.
But something had changed at the Baligubadle conference; not SNM policy, but something more subtle, less visible or subject to structural analysis than a political program: unspoken independence had become a subject of discussion. Sillanyo favored unity as did Abdirahman ‘Tuur’, but they did not operate in the same environment as in the early 1980s. There was, of course, the clanic switch, with the Habr Ja’alo having to take more of a back seat and the Habr Yunis sitting in front. But pro- or anti-secession did not follow clanic lines; it was a personal option. Supporters of continued unity—who were just as anti-Siyad Barre as their counterparts—now had to argue to defend their position.
The main political event of that period came not from the armed rebellions but from a group of peaceful dissidents who issued on 15 May what quickly became known as ‘IL Manifesto’ since it had been issued in Rome. The group of 114 signatories were extremely distinguished, comprising the lawyer Ismail Jumaale Ossoble; former President Aden Abdulle Osman; former Director of Police, General Mohamed Abshir Musa; the well-known businessman Jirde Hussein Dualeh; and the pre-1969 parliamentary Speaker, Sheikh Muktar Mohamed Hussein. In fact the roster of names attached to the manifesto resembled a Somalian Who’s Who. The only one missing was Ali Mohamed Ossoble ‘Wardigley’, who had died of natural causes in Rome at the end of April, after working tirelessly in drafting and issuing the document. Siyad reacted with typical churlishness, first asking to meet all the signatories who lived in Mogadishu and then arresting them after reproaching them for ‘intruding in the gradual process put in place by the government for making room for political pluralism’.
Meanwhile, since the US was busy launching the first Gulf War against Iraq, the Pentagon, which did not have any special policy for the Horn (except discreetly supporting anti-Ethiopian initiatives), set in motion the process that would renew its lease on the Berbera military base. The main problem for the democratic opposition was Italy, where Foreign Minister Giovanni De Michelis had declared that ‘there is nothing much wrong with Somalia, and if we cut aid there because of these human rights problems, we would have to cut it off in 42 of the 47 countries of black Africa where we have aid programs and where human rights are not respected either’. De Michelis said that he was ready to act ‘together with the Egyptians where President Mubarak has offered us a common approach’. Then, the following week, the general commanding the 21st Division was killed by new USC levies while fighting in Hiiran province. A month before, the former Somali Ambassador to India, General Mohamed Farah Aydid, had taken control of the military branch of the USC, based in Ethiopia, and received large donations from Mengistu. The Ethiopian regime feared a secession of Eritrea and wanted to preserve its access to the sea through Berbera. Aydid was quite open to the idea of Somalia becoming a second Djibouti for Ethiopian commerce. All options were on the table. By then borders were beginning to collapse menacingly all over the Horn of Africa.
Could war be ended through peace negotiations?
As the disintegration of the Somali state kept progressing, there was a continued denial that its very existence was now in doubt. We must remember the times. The Soviet Union still seemed indestructible and Yugoslavia was still at peace. In Africa neither Eritrea nor South Sudan had gained independence, and Gaddafi ruled a rich and aggressively united Libya. Twenty-five years ago, states joined and collaborated; they did not ‘exit’ a previously unified structure. But on 28 July 1990, there were 500,000 mourners at the burial of Ismail Jumaale Ossoble, after his death of a heart attack in Rome. Ossoble—like Wardigley—had been the living symbol of a reasonable ‘diplomatic’ solution to the expanding catastrophe that Somalia had become and the USC had been so far a ‘reasonable’ guerrilla force, open to negotiations. But now both Wardigley and Ossoble were dead, Mohamed Farah Aydid had taken solid control of the USC, and on 6 August the SNM and the SPM signed an agreement for common operations with the USC. In that communiqué, which explicitly rejected the Italo-Egyptian negotiation initiative, Aydid insisted that he wanted to overthrow Siyad Barre by force and leave him no chance to negotiate a compromise way out.
Siyad Barre, who did not always seem to realize how far things had gone, was still dealing in symbols. While there were pro-Iraq demonstrations in the streets of Mogadishu, the dictator asked Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait. The Somali population had, of course, only limited interest in what was happening in the Gulf, but pro- or anti-Saddam moves were destined for local consumption. Siyad still calculated his moves within the framework of the Cold War, without realizing that it was increasingly obsolete. The region was in the process of moving rapidly from global to local. Siyad was also trying to operate at that level when, on 3 September, he replaced Samantar with Mohamed Hawadle Madar, an Isaaq, as Prime
Minister, without realizing that, at this point, the man’s clanic origin was not in itself sufficient to be a symbol of political détente and opening. He also promised the organization a constitutional referendum for 31 December 1990 and invited Africa Watch and Amnesty International to visit the country. But officially, just for security’s sake, the dictator left Villa Somalia, his official government residency, on 15 September and moved to Aviazione, the headquarters of the air force, near the airport. In early October the planned December referendum was discreetly ‘postponed’. Whether because of oversight or denial, the Western powers still carried on in a strange parody of business-as-usual. The US Army was working hard on the Berbera military base, refurbishing it for use in the coming Gulf War, and Italian Foreign Affairs Minister De Michelis was still going ahead with his planned Italo-Egyptian conference arrangements.
On 2 October the USC, the SNM and the SPM announced that they would keep working on the unification of the opposition and that they would never negotiate separately. But even the opposition was losing ground to direct actions from the unorganized population. On 22 October there were violent demonstrations in Mogadishu against the increase in fuel prices from 500 to 900 shillings a liter. Gas stations were looted, and trucks attacked. The police shot indiscriminately into the crowds and the victims were not credibly counted. Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, the man who had been the first Prime Minister of the briefly independent British Somaliland, later an architect of north–south unification and, finally, the last Prime Minister of unified Somalia prior to the 1969 coup, chose that moment to step in and offer his views of the situation. In November 1990 he published an ‘Open Letter to the Nation and Its Friends’, which gave what was probably the clearest and most realistic view of where things had got to:
Somalia is now facing most difficult problems which would tax the very fiber of this nation’s genius, its wisdom and even its will to remain a nation … The pillars of organized society are beginning to crumble … We have months, perhaps only weeks, before we reach a point of no return … There has never been a more urgent need for compromise … The alternative is anarchy and descent into warring tribal fragments … The men who have brought down Siyad and his regime are the armed insurgents, not the politicians … There is no possibility that anyone could now grab power cheaply in the streets of Mogadishu … The men who have made millions under Siyad … should lie low and be grateful if they are forgiven and left alone … The SSDF, the SNM, the SPM and the USC have waged a long war and suffered numerous atrocities during their armed struggle … They simply would not allow eleventh-hour arrivals to snatch the trophy of their bitter struggle! The hard fact Siyad has to accept is that there are only two options open to him: he can be either a Habré or an Arshad. He should choose the example of the latter and go before it is too late.
Egal finished his three-page letter by asking for the establishment of a provisional government under the existing Prime Minister, for complete negotiations with the insurgent forces, and for a minimum of two years for a transitional government. In spite of these reasonable and informed proposals, the international community continued in its denial of the situation. The International Development Agency launched a plan for the rehabilitation of the national communications infrastructure (roads, ports, telecommunications) and started by setting aside a first tranche of $18.5 million for implementation, even though undertaking large-scale construction work in this situation was completely unreasonable. Meanwhile, Rome asked the EEC to give support to Siyad Barre’s theoretical plan for constitutional reform, something to which at least Paris and London objected. But the Italians did not give up: in what was a near-surrealistic move, Mario Raffaelli, a leading member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian parliament, met on 20 November with UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali and got his support to organize a ‘round table for national reconciliation’ to be held in Cairo on 12 December.
In Mogadishu, General Mohamed Said Hersi ‘Morgan’, nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Hargeisa’, had become Minister of Defense. The northern SNA, completely surrounded by SNM, was by now cut off from its national bases and only in contact with Mogadishu by radio, boat or plane. The USC was pushing its offensive all the way to Afgooye, 70 km from the capital, and Meslah had gone over the top, shooting dead a Marehan general who had refused to accompany him to Jowhar, where the SNA and USC were engaged in battle. While pro- and anti-conference rebels were discussing in Rome how to respond to the Italian–UN call, the United States recommended that their citizens in Somalia depart. A week later (20 December) the leaders of the Manifesto group who were still in Mogadishu were all (re-)arrested as they were about to fly to London in a bid to convince the SNM leadership to attend the last-chance Cairo conference. By then there was shooting on and around the airport and an Egyptian cargo plane, which had landed to deliver weapons, was blown to pieces by mortar fire. Abdel Rahman Duale, one of the few SNM leaders of Issa origin, had gone to Djibouti to meet Ismail Omar Guelleh and begin to coordinate more closely the collaboration of the United Somali Front (USF) with the Djiboutians.
On 28 December 1990, USC troops reached Mogadishu and fighting developed in the streets. The USC vanguard was mostly made up of Hawiye of the Abgaal sub-clan and was led by Colonel Mohamed Abdi, a long-time Siyad Barre loyalist who had recently changed sides, General Ahmed Mohamed Sheikh ‘Nero’ and his friend Colonel Hussein Dheere, who had created an independent Abgaal militia outside the USC. Mohamed Farah Aydid, who by then realized that power was going to be won through Mogadishu street fighting, gathered all the troops he could muster (7,000 men) both in Mudug and in Ethiopia, and made a dash for the capital where the final act would be played out.
The degree of clanic dissociation was extreme. At the end of December, Siyad Barre realized that even if every single Marehan fought for him, it would not be enough. So he gave weapons to the Galgalo sub-clan of the Hawiye–Habr Gidir, provoking a massive popular retaliation not only against the Marehan but practically against all Darood and the Hawiye as well. This triggered the entry into the conflict of the Hawiye Abgaal under Ali Mahdi, leading to an apocalypse of violence. On 15 January SPM elements led by Omar Jess occupied the Balidogle Air Base and then Afgooye. The South Yemen PDRY in Aden recognized the SNM and the USC as the new Somali government. In the following days USF elements negotiated separately with the SNA in the north to recover their weapons (they had been disarmed) so that they could cross the border into Djibouti and be ready to return in fighting formation at a moment’s notice, should the government’s army totally collapse in Somaliland.
On 21 January, Siyad Barre fired Hawadle Madar and replaced him with Omar Arteh Ghalib. Omar Arteh, whom he had arrested years before and later condemned to death before freeing him conditionally, accepted anyway. A traditional diplomat, who had many good contacts with the Rome faction of the USC and with the Manifesto group, he was hoping that, as the internationally best-known Isaaq, he could count on implicit SNM support. His view of the situation was, in the typical perception of a Western-oriented diplomat and statesman, what could be called statist. He, like all international diplomats, was a product of the Westphalian worldview which had given birth to the United Nations in 1945. In spite of his dislike for Siyad Barre and his dictatorship, any action he undertook would aim at some form of survival of the Somali state since he could not reasonably accept the dismantling that was taking place before his eyes.
But in the short term, in spite of a call for a ceasefire, his nomination had no direct effect. The SNM occupied Sheikh and Burao and launched attacks on Berbera, as the ‘Ethiopian refugees’ in the south moved in huge numbers back to the Ogaden. Many of the government’s ministers and high-ranking civil servants were fleeing to Kenya. The Siyad Barre regime was by then a government in name only, definitely without a monopoly of force and with only a shadow of legitimacy. But the street fighting was intensifying, and for the ageing dictator it was becoming a question of physical survival. On 25 January President Siyad Barre boarded a tank and fled southwards towards Garbahaarey, deep in the heart of Marehan territory, the core of his clanic homeland. There he would try to reassemble a partial pan-Darood alliance, something which could evoke some kind of a Somali political logic but not a Somalia national legitimacy.
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