Somalia’s dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre has said that his regime believes that there is no need to initiate a dialogue with the opposition aimed to SNM which he describes as “men who have betrayed their country”.
In the 1980s Somalia saw the rise of opposition armed movements, the largest of which was the Somali National Movement (SNM), had both military and political wings. SNM was founded in London, England, on April 6, 1981. But the following year, the organization moved its headquarters from London to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia where 3 key military bases were established. From here, it would launch guerrilla raids into the northern regions – now Somaliland. Over the following years, the SNM made numerous military incursions into northwest Somalia. The 1985–86 was the most effective period of guerrilla warfare by the SNM against the Somalian regime whereby its operations extended southwards with support from Dir clansmen which would later call themselves the “Southern SNM”. Following unaccountable defections to the SNM, the government forces thinned and faced increased resistance from the SNM freedom fighters. Barre was left with no option but to sign an agreement with his arch-rival, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia merely to isolate the SNM which proved to be a major threat. The agreement had its impacts of varying degrees and consequences for Bare and for the SNM.
Below is an interview with Siyad Barre by London paper AL- TADAMUN, on May 30, 1987
AL- TADAMUN in Arabic 30 May 87 pp 8-11
[Interview with President Mohamed Siyad Barre by ‘Uthman Mirghani in Mogadishu]
Al-Tadamun: Mr. President, it has now been a year since the car crash in which you suffered injuries that forced you to remain in bed for some time. How do you feel now, and have you recovered completely from the effects of the accident?
President Barre: I believe I have, thank God, recovered from the effects of the accident or, at least, this is how I feel. I also feel strong and capable of discharging my duties, which normally are very numerous. For example, today I supervised meetings and discussed matters and domestic issues until 1630, yet I still feel fresh and energetic. But you may notice some effects of the accident, such as the trembling of my hand.
Al-Tadamun: Speculation and rumors about your health have increased since your accident, to the extent that some press reports claim you are unable to continue to shoulder the onerous tasks of the presidency. Despite this, you were elected president for another 7-year period last December. Do you see the extension of your term of office as tantamount to an answer to that speculation?
President Barre: It ought to be so. Since then I have been carrying out my normal activities, and anyone observing these could tell whether or not I am capable of carrying out my duties. Rumors about my health are still being circulated but they are of no significance. Those who spread such rumors are people opposed to the Somali regime who like to spread rumors. The Western media are taken in by these rumors either because they are unable to confirm their veracity or because they wish to disseminate sensational news. There is hardly any president who is not the target of rumors and speculation while he is in office. As long as I am in power such rumors will continue to surface from time to time, but in the final analysis, matters hinge on the nation’s internal situation and world opinion’s view of this situation.
Al-Tadamun: What are your priorities in the coming period following the extension of your term of office for a further 7 years?
President Barre: There is no basic change in my priorities. My basic priority is to continue the struggle for development in all fields. What is important to me is to achieve development in all economic, political, and social fields, study all development possibilities and potentials, define the countries that will cooperate with us in these fields, and then consider how we can achieve our programs. What is important is that we ourselves work to achieve our programs. If we can obtain foreign aid we will be grateful, but our concern in this matter should not concentrate on obtaining this aid but rather on what we ourselves can achieve. States and peoples are built by their own efforts, not just words. Certain people sometimes criticize us because of our policy, but we do not care, for history will prove that our policies and aims for work and development are correct.
Al-Tadamun: Last month you declared a state of emergency in order to deal with the drought that has hit Somalia. Is the situation really so bad?
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President Barre: The reports I receive indicate some rainfall in most areas, but this rain is still insufficient after such a long period of drought. The rainfall also has not ended the death of large numbers of cattle, particularly animals weakened by the drought. Furthermore, effects from the lack of rain and human needs resulting from it are continuing, especially in terms of providing food and medical supplies to those who have suffered from drought. They now must be provided food and medical supplies for at least the next 3 months. We are now taking a survey of the human and material losses, particularly our losses of livestock, as a result of the drought. The Somalis, especially in the central, eastern, and southern regions, depend on livestock for their livelihood. Therefore the hardship caused by the will continue for some time.
Al-Tadamun: Last year you changed the method by which head of state is elected. The president used to be elected by People’s Assembly deputies, but now he is elected by a public referendum. Does this change in the election process mean you have launched a new policy depending on further democratic change?
President Barre: Frankly, I do not understand the meaning of “further democratic change,” although I have often heard this phrase. We believe that the method we followed previously was very democratic, but certain people probably do not understand or appreciate this because they believe there are better ways to achieve democracy. We believe we have followed a democratic method in our own way since the 1969 revolution. If what is meant by the question of democracy means following Western-style democracy, then this type is not suitable for us and would not be accepted by our people. Every country has its own way of administering its affairs. We believe that we have followed our own democratic way since the start. However, a better expression for this is probably “liberation,” for this enables every country to choose the method and course appropriate to it, rather than having a course dictated to it by certain foreign organizations and quarters. The alternative to this is to have our own system which is the best option but takes many years to achieve.
Al-Tadamun: In light of these changes, do you expect to initiate a dialogue with the opposition outside Somalia?
President Barre: We believe that there is no need to initiate such a dialogue with men who have betrayed their country. What dialogue could we attempt with such men, what concessions can we make to them, and what language can we use in speaking to them when they have abandoned their nationality and fought against their own people? I do not see any benefit in talking to them. If serious possibilities of dialogue existed, then we would welcome them. We have thus declared an indefinite pardon for this reason, so if there is anyone wishing to return to his country, we would say to him: “Welcome… Return to your country.” Those who return will not be put on trial, although the law provides for trying anyone who betrays his country. But by virtue of the powers vested in me, I have proclaimed a general pardon and opened the door to those who wish to return. In fact, some of those who were abroad have returned, and nothing bad has happened to them. The door is still wide open to anyone wishing to return to his country.
Al-Tadamun: A meeting was held between you and [Ethiopian] President Mengistu Haile Mariam in Djibouti in December 1986 in which it was agreed to end the existing disputes between Ethiopia and Somalia and to appoint a joint committee to discuss outstanding problems. This committee did in fact meet in Addis Ababa and later in Mogadishu in August 1986. What has been achieved in solving differences in Ethiopia, and why has the dialogue faltered?
President Barre: I do not see that anything fruitful has been achieved at those meetings. I think that the reason for this is misunderstanding and mutual mistrust. The Ethiopians asked to discuss the border question, but while we are not against discussing this subject in principle, we objected to it being raised during the first stage of negotiations. We told the Ethiopians it is inconceivable for them to ask for the borders’ demarcation and definition at a time when the two countries are in a state of war, their media are exchanging attacks, and tension prevails. We suggested it would be better to concentrate on trying to create a climate conducive to holding healthy, frank, and successful negotiations making it possible to end centuries of hostility, with negotiations on national borders then beginning at a later stage once doubts and apprehensions were removed. But the Ethiopians insisted on discussing the border question. How can this matter be discussed in the prevailing climate between the two countries? The Ethiopians harbor certain doubts about us; we also have doubts about their intentions after seeing them perpetrate acts contrary to agreements reached at the Djibouti meetings and incompatible with the desire both to create a climate conducive to successful negotiations and to overcome difficulties currently facing the talks. But, despite all these things, negotiations are continuing.
Al-Tadamun: Somalia has accused Ethiopia of concentrating its forces on the borders and of planning to launch an all-out invasion. Do you still believe that Ethiopia is preparing for an all-out attack on Somalia?
President Barre: I cannot answer this question either in the affirmative or the negative. The Ethiopians are free to do what they are doing inside their territory. Maybe certain quarters have led them to believe we intend to launch an attack against them, thus causing them to concentrate their forces on the border. We do not know what the Ethiopians think. It is true that they have concentrated their forces on our borders and that battles in which a number of people were injured took place there. It is also true that this was followed by Ethiopian troop movements on the border, but I cannot be certain that Ethiopia aims to launch an all-out attack on us. The whole issue may be based on misleading information received by both sides, but I cannot speak for them on their intentions.
Al-Tadamun: Sudanese Prime Minister Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi has been quoted as saying that he has put proposals to Ethiopia aimed at reaching a comprehensive peace agreement in the Horn of Africa, where these problems seem to be interconnected. Do you have a particular view on such an initiative, and have there been any consultations regarding it?
President Barre: No contacts have so far been held with us on this initiative, but the idea itself is good, particularly since the Horn region has been a hot spot for a long time. An attempt to restore peace to the region as a whole would be a clever initiative; I hope this initiative meets with a response from Mengistu Mariam as well as from us.
Al-Tadamun: As part of the initiatives and calls for establishing peace in the Horn of Africa, the fifth Islamic summit held in Kuwait last January adopted a resolution demanding the total and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces from the Horn region. Do you believe there is a possibility of this happening?
President Barre: I do not know Ethiopia’s stand on this matter, but as far as we are concerned, I can say there are no foreign forces on our territory and there is no truth in claims that the United States has bases on our territory. There are no U.S. or other bases in Somalia. I hope that the spirit of peace will spread to include our Ethiopian friends, on whose territory it is said there are Cuban forces and forces from another state. I do not wish to discuss whether this is true or not, but this is what is being said about them.
Al-Tadamun: Do you believe that the new detente policy between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will have any effect on the Horn of Africa?
President Barre: Detente between the two superpowers is bound to affect the rest of the world. If the two leaders, Reagan and Gorbachev, have reached an agreement, then the results of it will affect the situation in a number of other parts of the world.
Al-Tadamun: Somalia joined the Arab League in 1974, 13 years ago. What have you offered the Arab League during this time and what has it offered you?
President Barre: We do not view the matter from the standpoint of profit and loss; we have not been seeking any gains. We are now participating with the other members in all matters concerning the league, and are doing everything to offer the league something that would serve its objectives. But I believe that the Arab League should be more effective in serving the Arab peoples and improving the Arab image internationally so as to protect Arab rights. For this reason, the Arab League needs more power and wisdom.
Al-Tadamun: How do you evaluate present Arab-Somali relations?
President Barre: (Smiling and correcting the question) You mean relations between Somalia and the other Arab countries? To use the term Arab-Somali relations is to exclude Somalia from the Arab homeland. Relations between Somalia and the other Arab countries are good but could be better.
Al-Tadamun: Could be better in what sense? Do you feel that Somalia could obtain more economic aid? What are the fields in which relations could improve?
President Barre: I wish I were not in a position where I needed to ask for aid. In any case, we have good relations with the other Arab states. When we receive aid from any of them we are grateful, but if we do not receive aid we will not be angry or make demands.
I believe it is in the interest of the Arab world to cooperate because no country can stand alone without cooperating with others, particularly with friendly and sisterly countries. But we do not measure our friendship with others on the basis of material interest.
Al-Tadamun: In the past, you were described as a committed socialist. Are you still a socialist or have you changed direction?
President Barre: Yes, I am still a socialist, although not in the traditional European sense but rather according to the concept of our developing country. This is with regard to the just distribution of wealth in a manner giving everyone, be he a worker, member of the intelligentsia, or professional, his share of it based on his work and the return on it. We would also ensure that there is no exploitation of others, by enforcing the law or by using force if necessary. I believe that I now midway between the socialist and capitalist concepts. We in the Third World have not quite understood the concepts of socialism and capitalism in their Western senses. Perhaps you will find us somewhere between the two concepts. We want individuals to work on their own initiative, but the state must also intervene in order to accomplish what the individual cannot achieve alone on his own initiative. In other words, the state must encourage personal initiative while major projects must remain in the hands of the state, although this does not mean preventing the private sector from operating. We in Somalia do not prevent the public sector from operating and this sector has continued to work side by side with the public.
Al-Tadamun: Our final question is inspired by a decision made by two African leaders. The question is: Can we expect you to follow the example of these two leaders,– namely, Senegalese President Senghor and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, retire or step down one day?
President Barre: I believe that this is necessary. The question is how and when. But it still remains necessary. I will give you an example: If a person climbs a high mountain and reaches the top, he will stay there for some time. But he is bound to begin the descent one day. This is my situation. I have been on the top administering my country’s affairs for a long time. Perhaps I do not have many years left before I begin the descent from a mountaintop, particularly since this is the law of nature and life itself.