Origins of the conflict

A hasty union

A root cause of the crisis can be traced to the rapid union of the two Somali territories to form the `United’ Somali state in 1960. Soon after independence, the Somalilanders became disillusioned with the way the union was proceeding and indeed voted `No’ in the unification referendum.12 In the interest of preserving a `union’, Somaliland initially (while briefly independent) accepted conditions demanded by southern leaders. Mogadishu became the capital and the base of the newly created Somali parliament. Southern Somalis also held all major posts in the new government and a majority of seats in the parliament. In spite of the increasing discontent, southern officials adopted measures aimed at enforcing rapid integration, serving to further alienate their northern counterparts.


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The government’s development programs also failed to tackle the serious problems of underdevelopment and socioeconomic stratification in the north, problems inherited from the colonial administration. Despite the integration of the two administrative systems, latent corruption has been attributed to the residual Italian influence (the `Italian factor’) in the public sector. However, northerners were not the only group disillusioned with the union. The Rehanwein from the inter-riverine region, who had an equal number of seats with the two other major clan families of Hawiye and Darod in the south before unification, became marginalized .13

The military coup in 1969 and socialist policies

The constitution of 1960 guaranteed not only the unity of two Somali territories but also democracy and a forum that sanctioned multipartyism with guarantees to de jure freedom of expression. Significant political differences encouraged a proliferation of parties `to the point where Somalia had more parties per capita than any other democratic country except Israel’ .14 In the country’s last multiparty elections, held on March 1969, more than 60 parties contested. Little civil governance or service delivery existed. It was against this background that the successful coup, which brought Barre to power in 1969, took place.

Taking his place among Africa’s `Big Men’, Barre immediately suspended the country’s constitution and banned all forms of political and professional association. `Promising to cure all of the country’s ills’, he also decreed in the following year the adoption of Scientific Socialism, an ideology that was (he claimed) `fully compatible with Islam and the reality of the nomadic society’ .15 Under the slogan of `socialism unites, tribalism divides’, clan and kinship ties were officially banned and the new government promised to root out any reference, verbal or written, to clanship. In an effort to limit the tradition of blood money payments between groups, the regime introduced the death sentence for those convicted of homicide.

Sweeping political and legal changes were also introduced in the first few years of the coup. These included the establishment of a repressive security apparatus accountable to Barre himself. To consolidate power he established a formidable propaganda machine. `Countless posters, poems, songs of praise, and speeches proclaimed his sublime role as the “father” of a nation whose “mother” was the Revolution.’ 16 The leadership’s political propaganda machinery was particularly effective in misleading the outside world. Some observers took its spin seriously, confusing rhetoric with reality.

In the first few years, most sectors of the economy were brought under government ownership. A wave of nationalization (qarameyn) of all medium-size businesses, including banks, schools, insurance firms, imports, and wholesale trade started in the early 1970s. Many new state-owned agencies, maintaining absolute monopolies, were created as a foundation for a socialist economy. Private traders were prohibited by law from importing, storing, purchasing or distributing food items. It became increasingly clear that nomads and agropastoralists, including wealthy nomads and farmers who owned large herds, were to be treated as lumpenproletariat rather than capitalists. But in spite of erecting cooperatives for rural communities, the government found nomads largely uncooperative.

1974-75: `prolonged’ famine (Abaartii Dabadheer)

The socialist experiment and perhaps more crucially, the political hostility to an `opposition’ area turned the 1974±75 drought into a major famine in the north, resulting in over 20 000 deaths, forcing 10% to 15% of the entire pastoral population to register in relief camps.17 There was a serious shortage of food and the sudden collapse of entitlements throughout the northern regions. The nationalization process and the introduction of price controls seriously disrupted food markets in the northern regions. Even more damaging was the effective shutting down of the major historic Arabian-Somaliland-Ethiopian trade axis, with the closure of the Ethiopian border and tight controls at the Red Sea port of Berbera. This was further exacerbated by the failure of the food rationing system, introduced by the government to replace the free market system. Hundreds of government-owned shops selling food items at fixed prices were opened in major towns and villages. Residents were issued with identity cards to buy fixed amounts of food every week, but because of a shortage of supplies, only small numbers of people managed to buy sufficient food in these shops. In rural areas, unregistered pastoralists relied on food purchased on the black market at exorbitant prices.

The widespread crop failure and the subsequent food shortages in neighboring Ethiopia also contributed to the food crisis in the region. The toll of the drought was enormous, killing an estimated five million animals in Somalia/Somaliland and having far-reaching consequences on the rural economy in both Somaliland and the adjoining Haud area of Ethiopia. While the effects of the drought were received differently throughout Somalia, the rural population has never fully recovered from the disaster. Pursuing its objective of settling and converting pastoralists to farmers, the government carried out a resettlement experiment involving the transfer of over 100 000 nomads from relief camps in the north to three sites in the more arable lands of southern Somalia.18 Although pastoralists resisted the idea of suddenly changing their way of life and engaging in a farming livelihood in which they had no experience, they were forcibly coerced into accepting their new host environment.

Ogaden war and refugee problems

The Ogaden war has been interpreted by some as the single most important turning point for the regime.19 At the outset, the conflict caused a flood of mainly ethnic Somali refugees. By 1979 there were officially 1.3 million refugees in the country.20 More than half were settled in the north, where one in four of the population were refugees. The arrival of forced migrants intensified pressure on limited physical resources and services, further aggravating tensions between local inhabitants and refugees. Resentment intensified as the Issaqs were reduced to second-class citizens in their own territory.21 The government’ s policy of recruiting refugees into the army also spurred on tensions. More generally the failed war wholly eroded the credibility of the army and police, the asserted guardians of Pan-Somali nationalism.

Formation of opposition groups and government reaction

Somalia’s defeat in Ogaden led to an attempted coup in April 1978 by senior military officers from the Majerteen clan. Although the government crushed the rebellion, some senior officers who escaped after the coup formed the first opposition movement, called Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), with its headquarters in Ethiopia. With support from the Ethiopian army, these groups carried out guerrilla warfare across the border. The government’s reaction to both the coup attempt and the formation of SSDF was repression and vicious reprisals against the Majerteen clan in the northeast.

The second opposition movement, the Somali National Movement (SNM) was formed in 1981 by a group of businessmen, religious leaders, intellectuals and former army officers drawn from the Isaaq clan. Following its formation, the government intensified its repressive policies against the Isaaq. To create enmity between clans, senior military officers in the Somali army from Isaaq clans were deliberately posted in the Majerteen regions where the government was waging war against local people.

The Hawiye-dominated United Somali Congress (USC) was formed in Italy in 1987, by which time the formal service provision role of the state had virtually ceased to function.22 It was immediately divided into two rival factions based on different sub-clans. The armed faction had an alliance with the SNM, which provided arms to General Aideed who was to become the leader of the faction. The Ogadeni-led Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) was formed in 1989 following the arrest of General Gabyo, the then minister of defense and the highest-ranking Ogadeni in government. A few more opposition movements were formed during the civil war in the south, but a large number of factions with S-prefixed acronyms appeared after the intervention of UNOSOM.

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