The Rebirth of Somaliland (8): The Epoch Of Military Dictatorship And The Repression Of The North By Dr. Hussein Mohamed Nur

Abdulrashid Ali Shermarke was elected as President of the Somali Republic on 15 October 1967. Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal became the Prime Minister. Two years later, on 15 October 1969, the president was assassinated by one of his guarding soldiers, a member of the national armed forces. On the 6th day of the assassination of the president (on 21 October 1969), Egal’s civilian government was toppled in a bloodless military coup led by General Mohamed Siyad Barre. Egal was arrested and languished in jail for the next twenty years.

The military junta took advantage of longstanding general grievances and disappointments with the country’s slow pace of social and economic development, highly disproportionate rampant corruptions, mismanagement, and bad leadership. It is alleged that the plan for the revolution was masterminded by the Soviet KGB, the main supporter of the Somali military. The proliferation of parties and unlimited freedom of the press were used as a pretext to overthrow the democratically elected civilian government.


At its very early start, the military regime declared solemn promises and pledges for the people such as returning the power to the democratic civilian rule soon after they putt the “house in order”. That never took place. The record of the two decades of Barre’s rule speaks for itself but is beyond the scope of this brief.

What acted as the main catalyst for speeding up the successful staging of the military revolution was the lack of public trust and withdrawal of confidence from the incumbent successive civilian governments and lack of clear efforts to realize the expectations of the public to nurture the infant democracy.

Unfortunately, at the expense of public sympathy and support, the military regime undermined those facts and started building political trenches and forts of oppression and repression. The first years of the revolution were spent on how to acquire full control and power. That was Siyad Barre’s real agenda. To implement that policy, special institutions and instruments were created for the control and subjugation of the society. To consolidate power, the military regime took the following measures: All existing institutions were dismantled and replaced with personalized and exclusively clan-based structures. Civilian rights and freedom were suspended.

Institutions like civil service, the independent judiciary, the police, and the national armed forces were made into instruments of terror and oppression. New security apparatuses were created for terrorizing the population and maintaining the grip on power through a dictatorship. The various apparatuses created or strengthened were:

a) National Security Courts (NSC): a chain of courts originally formed for trials of political dissidents and opponents of the regime manned by ill-trained personnel in law and legal procedures;

b) A Secret Police: This was euphemistically named as national security service (NSS) who used to snoop on the public, acting on eavesdropping of the public and government officials, visiting suspected people at ungodly hours to imprison them in their own special jails for torture such as the ‘Godka’ (the hole) in Central Mogadishu. The majority of the NSS members were trained by the KGB in the ex-Soviet Union and former East Germany STASI forces;

c) The establishment of a single party ‘Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP) as the only legal party in the country which later developed into an ultimate Stalinist weapon against the Somali people and demeaning of the societal values;

d) Orientation Centers: These were public centers that were set up in every neighborhood in every town and village of the country. The centers acted as part of social engineering measures by maneuvering peoples’ mindsets and brainwashing;

e) Victory Pioneers (Guulwadayaal). They were used as paramilitary armies patterned after the Soviet and other Eastern bloc countries’ Red Guard’ brigades. They were often recruited from the notorious street thugs and gangs.

In the Northern regions of the Republic, this group was commonly known as ‘The Green Flies’ referring to the color of their uniform and comparable to the notoriety and dirtiness of this insect. They were spread in every neighborhood of every single town and village of the country. They were created through to conduct mass mobilization and not to mention the eavesdropping of the family households in their neighborhoods.

Their main task was to patrol residential quarters, keep tabs on residents, and herd them into the corals of the orientation centers for brainwashing every Friday of the week or so often as needed such as for special events and occasions, i.e., ceremonial singing and cheerleader events for the party officials and leaders, for organizing and conducting mass demonstrations for government support and its leaders or even for welcoming visiting foreign dignitaries to the country.

The 1969 military rule was nothing more than a continuation of the northern suppression. The judicial system was rendered non-functional under Decree-Law No 54 abolishing the Habeas Corpus. Hence, annulling the judicial system and rendering it superfluous.

In addition to the above-described structures, other special units which directly came under the presidency office were established: a) ‘Hangash’ (a military intelligence branch); b) ‘Dhabar-Jebinta’ (Military Counter-intelligence); c) ‘Koofiyad Cas’ (Red Berets); and d) ‘Hogaanka Baadhista Xisbiga’ (a special unit of investigators of the Socialist Party); e) The Socialist party (the only party in the country). Some of them even came under the president’s wives, especially Muraya Garad.

The Rebirth of Somaliland (8) The Epoch Of Military Dictatorship And The Repression Of The NorthUnder the banner of ‘Scientific socialism’ brand some progress, though limited, was made in some areas in the first few years of the revolution or ‘Kacaanka’. The major success was in the mass education and literacy campaigns and the single most visible achievement of the military regime was the writing of the script for the Somali language. The Somali language was written for the first time, public education was extended and a high adult literacy particularly the mother language was made.

In general, however, the military regime became famous for its repressive attitudes alienating the majority of the Somali population and more particularly the people of the North. On the other hand, however, the country was literally a police state and a big prison out of which people have no choice to leave for abroad without special permits.  The small successes were overshadowed by grave mistakes committed by the top echelon of the leadership who heralded the revolution at the helm of them was Said Barre.

In fact, the infant democratic system started faltering apart from the very beginning amidst pervasive corruption and divisive clan politics dominated by major southern clans (Darod and Hawiye) as discussed before in previous parts.

During the military revolution, the late 1970s was characterized as the beginning of Barre’s open ascent to full dictatorship. In the mid-1970s, a large number of top government officers of northern origin were subjected to wholesale sacks from government posts. In one year alone 1975 a wholesale sacking of top civil servants of northern origin took place. 75 officers of northern origin consisting of the best and distinguishing ambassadors, director generals of various ministries and directorates, managers and technocrats, etc. were summarily sacked and forced to resign. At the same time high ranking military officials, many of whom from the north were exiled from the country to Lavov and Siberia in the USSR.

At the outset of the revolution, Barre played the ultimate political card of pursuing the pre-independence vision of ‘Greater Somalia’. Barre pursued to brush the dust from that card to the point that he even used the Somali army to disguise the Western Somali Liberation Front fighters (with no military uniform or signs) that culminated in the 1977-78 war against Ethiopia.  Barre’s planned objective was to use the war as a smokescreen and as a proxy step towards the Greater Somalia notion and, hence, buy the emotional feeling of the public again to remain in the saddle of power.

Nevertheless, that became the watershed for the fall of the dictator and the demise of his regime from the political spectrum of Somalia. It also signaled the end of that dream of ‘Greater Somalia’ consisting of the five parts unification – the collapse of the Pan Somalia motto.

In reality, this move was a sign of the beginning of the collapse of the Somali state and, of course, the union of the two in particular. Somalia’s defeat in the 1977/78 war with Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia war caused a crisis of confidence, low morale of the armed forces and rise of dissent by various clans. Barre’s attempt to ride the crest of nationalism started falling from the top. That was met with a disastrous downward slide.

The socio-political record of Somalia deteriorated soon after the evaporation of the initial public euphoria and as the Socialist revolution’s rhetoric portrayed reality. The 1975 and 1981 period has been characterized as a period the military Government openly associated itself with the Eastern bloc socialist countries (USSR, German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Yugoslavia, and other East European socialist countries). The National Security Service personnel were being trained by the Russian KGB and the STASI secret services of East Germany which trained them ruthless and fond of abusing the civil and human rights of the citizen.

Some of the government’s bureaucratic officials and insiders in Barre’s ruling circle portrayed an erosion of human rights and a tragic slide into dictatorship. By the mid-1980s, the power fell into internal militarism and external supplication. Owing to the country’s drift towards socio-economic retrogression and political deterioration there was an increase of personalized rule of Siyad Barre.

In June 982 a group of seven members of the Somali Republic Socialist Party (SRSP) were arrested under the notorious Law No 54 that carried a mandatory death penalty. They were in ‘Labaatan Jirow’ high-security prison. The prison was under the direct control of the presidency office, i.e, directly under the president. The prisoners were there in prolonged solitary confinement in separate cells.

Among the members of the group were:  General Ismail Ali Abokor (original member of SRC, the third Vice President and the president of the National Assembly); Omer Arteh Ghalib (a former Foreign Minister); Colonel Osman Mohamed Jeelle (SRC member); General Omer Haji Mohamoud; Dr Mohamed Aden Sheikh (Minister of Information and National Guidance), Mohamed Yousuf Weyrah and Warsame Ali Farah. They received long-term prison sentences. Warsame Ali Farah died in prison on 20 July 1983.

In the 1980s thousands of people were subjected to imprisonment, torture, and executions. Even the rural households suspected of this were decimated. The story of a man who belonged to an internal SNM cell in Hargeisa and who later successfully escaped Hargeisa prison is a case in point among thousands of unpopularised cases. Sulub Jama Osman was a businessman, a restaurant, and a shop owner in Hargeisa.

In 1987 following a successful operation inside Hargeisa killing a high-ranking NSS officer, Ahmed Aden, and a colleague of his, Sulub and a friend of his were arrested at the home where they began to hide after suspicion emerged following the killing of the officer. In an interview, Sulub recalled vividly the cruel tortures he underwent during a period of about 3 months he was in Hargeisa central prison. Sulub expresses boldly the traumas of their ordeal and gave details of how they eventually managed to escape the prison.

Substantiated violations of judicial procedure and fundamental human rights were due mainly to the lack of an independent judiciary and compromise of internationally recognized standards for a fair trial and justice. Somalia violated international agreements to which it was a signatory.

Under this rigid unfair judiciary system, the six former members of the Parliament, the National Assembly such as Ismail Ali Abokor, former Deputy Speaker of the Parliament; Omar Arteh Galeb, former Foreign Minister and sixteen others who were detained who were held in detention without trial or charge since 1982 for over six years were taken as prisoners of conscience by human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others).

In 1988 the U.S National Academy of Sciences Committee on Human Rights and the Institute of Medicine Committee on Health sent a delegation to Mogadishu and wrote a damaging report “Scientists and Human Rights”. The report condemned the living conditions of individual scientists and academicians.

On 1 February 1988 the prisoners were charged in Mogadishu with two principal offenses: “organizing a subversive organization (SNM) and “organizing an armed band” (SNM). After numerous international appeals for clemency, Barre commuted the death sentence. Ismail Ali Abokor and Omar Arteh Galeb were given an unspecified prison term to be served under house arrest.

Engineer, Suleiman Nuh Ali, Abdi Ismail Younis (Abdi Duse), and Abdillahi Jama Galaal were sentenced to 24 years. They were denied medical examination in jail. Most of the prosecution witnesses were from the armed forces, the police, and the security forces who interrogated the defendants. On 2 February 1988, the trial of the remaining 6 parliamentarians was announced.

Nevertheless, the trial did not happen until 23 September 1988. The prisoners were on trial also included other long-term prisoners of conscience – Abdi Ismail Yonis (Abdi Duse); Farah Hersi Ahmed and Suleiman Nuh. This was only as a result of international pressure from human rights organizations at the forefront of which was Amnesty International.

Amnesty International raised the issue of the miscarriage of justice and a gross human rights violation in the four-day trial of 22 political prisoners that it adopted as prisoners of conscience.  Eight of those political prisoners were convicted of treason.

In Somalia, the preventative detention law of 1970 legalized indefinite detention without charge or trial. But because of interests of other countries with whom Siad Barre had personal interests, it was rather common to pardon clemency or reduce or commute sentences.

For example, in mid-1987 as a goodwill gesture for the Muslim festival of ‘Eid al-Adha’. But actually, that was also because of interest showed by Saudi Araba. Siyad Barre commuted death sentences passed by the National Security Court (NSC) on nine religious learned men and scholars ‘Ulamaa’ (Islamic religious scholars) accused of practicing their Islamic faith interpreted as anti-government acts. That preceded the execution of religious scholars who stood against Barre’s intervention into the Islamic Sharia law, especially the equality of men and women.

The military and security forces conducted curfew patrols which had become a law unto them creating a climate of unrestrained violence. Moreover, the existence of the SNM in the North provided a pretext for Barre’s deputies in the North to act as they do so want, i.e., to wage a war against peaceful citizens and to enable consolidate power by terrorizing anyone suspected to be not pro-government. Therefore, years of sustained pressure and state violence created a serious level of political unrest in the region. The atmosphere of lawlessness and lack of discipline among the security personnel and soldiers enabled them to harass civilians for purposes of extortion and ransom.

Throughout the 1980s, the country was virtually a grand prison. Only those counted as supporters of the regime can travel abroad. For example, civil servants like academicians; business people, etc. were affected since due to the nature of their works and activities. Those groups were more likely to travel abroad than the rest of the society. A selective ban was always in operation. That implicitly led to a rampant brain drain of the resourceful citizens who used any method to leave the country.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Somalia was exposed politically. The country was entangled with open human rights abuses and tragedies. The Somali government was famous for its persistent abuse of human rights, the gross miscarriage of justice, civil liberties, and tortures. The human and civil rights abuses of civilians started as early as the mid-1970s. The oppression of the citizens had been well documented and the reports of the internationally known organizations became available.

Activities of the systematic torture, gross human rights violation and infringement of political and civil liberties were revealed by international organizations such as Amnesty International, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, the Committee for Human Rights of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine – Committee on Health and Human Rights, the Canadian Centre for Investigation and Prevention of Torture, the Medical Foundation and many other independent organizations.

The reports were based on countless individuals as direct eyewitnesses and reports confirmed the factual circumstances and the real situation. Unfortunately today, decades later, the post-traumatic scars are still unmistakably evident by the survivors of the obliteration and genocide.

During the fighting in the North in the later 1980s, the reports on genocides peaked in grand proportions and at a crisis point. Despite all those, the US aid to the ailing regime was still pouring without conditions rather than addressing these issues. For that matter, the U.S aid policy towards Somalia attracted heavy criticism from all corners of the world including the US Congress and the international community as it (US aid) was the only means of sustaining the perpetration of the repressive regime and, hence, in keeping and letting Barre to survive and, therefore, continue abusing human rights and civil liberties ad infinitum in Somalia.

Before 1977 the US was an important ally with lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia while USSR was allied with Somalia. A sudden shift in the balance of alliances took place when Barre all of a sudden went to war with Mengistu of elected with 55 percent of the vote. At the time of our meeting, he’d already met leaders in neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia in 1977. That caused a major switch in alliances. The US made a sudden shift to Somalia as a major ally after the USSR began supporting Mengistu, the Ethiopian side.

The US then benefited from gaining access to the strategic port of Berbera in the North in having free access to the naval facilities in return for generous military and economic aid to Somalia. This shift of strategic positions between the two superpowers occurred as the Horn of Africa region was always a key cockpit and a major crossroad for the existing intense superpower rivalry. That shows how explicitly power competition and post-war imperialism take form utilizing the only tactic – helping and manipulating weak governments in the region economically and militarily such as Somalia.

The cruelty of the Somali army chiefs and commanders in the North was unimaginable. Civilians who were suspected as SNM sympathizers and supporters financially met cruelty from the army and officers themselves. For example, a case in point was a gruesome operation conducted by Colonel Yusuf Abdi Ali (Tuke) on a civilian man called Abdi Dheere in Gabiley. The man was tied and dozed with petrol.

Colonel Tuke himself took a turn to doze the man with petrol and held a long object pushing the man into a blazing fire pit. And every time the man would try to come out of the fire, he would be pushing him back to it using the same object. On other occasions, individuals would be tied to the back of a military truck at high speed until the flesh shreds into pieces, a typical fascist mode of killing during the Italian dictatorship under Mussolini. Tuke is now on trial for crimes against humanity.

On 14 July 1988, testimony before the US African Sub-committee by Aryeh Neier, chairman of the Human Rights Watch organization, highlighted the dismal long-term human rights record of President Barre. During the eruption of the conflict in the North, the situation became even more serious. Despite the worsening human rights situation, since Somalia’s defeat at the ‘Ogaden’ war in 1977, the US was involved by contributing military and financial support to the government of Somalia. As stated before, the US policy only consolidated and privileged the position of Barre’s regime which was engaged in a systematic pattern of gross violations.

Another troubling indictment of the human rights situation in Somalia came from the Lawyers Committee for Human rights testimony to the US Sub-Committee on African Affairs, Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the House of Representatives. The State Department’s 1986 country report vehemently confirmed abuses of virtually every category examined by the report, arbitrary arrests, detention, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of movement within the country presented by the Lawyers Committee.[1]

The truth of the matter was that a major part of the epoch was that the power was in the hands of the military, power has been concentrated in the hands of the president, family members, and close military advisors and cohorts. The country was virtually a ‘police state’. Indeed it was a great prison.

Freedom of expression was a luxury not known and the rights of civilians were routinely deprived. To contain the people, a series of legislative acts were passed and denial of fundamental human rights was institutionalized. Earlier in 1979, the government introduced a new constitution that expressly provided that these laws override the political and civil rights guaranteed by the existing constitution. The most important of those was Law No. 54 of 10 of September 1970 that made the death penalty legal for a wide range of political offenses that relate to “national security.”

Offenses against national security were defined as behavior “which may be considered prejudicial to the maintenance of peace, order and good government.” This was interpreted broadly to mean whatever the authorities want it to mean, both for individuals and groups. The law did not distinguish between violent and non-violent criticism and opposition to the government and, therefore, did not adequately protect the right to hold, express, and disseminate opinions, the right of the association, or of political assembly. Even the possession of written material came under this let alone shows of dissent.

On 8 April 1987, under Article 12 of law No 54, nine religious teachers were condemned to death in secret trials in Mogadishu. Their only crime was the criticism of the failure of the government to respect freedom of worship. Due to a national outcry and pressures from Islamic governments, the death sentences were later commuted to long-term imprisonment. Based on this law, other religious individuals were also executed.

In the 1980s I, as a civil servant academician working at the university, had experienced first-hand injustices based on the clan politics of the government within my institution, the university. I witnessed that the politics of the university as a government academic institution was itself reflecting the nature of the government’s political interests.

The selection of the staff, academicians down to the appointment of janitors and cleaners, attendants and caretakers, was pretty much based on who you know and who is your big shot or whether you are a kith or kin or affiliated to the clan of the president. In other words, the university was heavily politicized creating favorites among the scholars (Omaar, 1991).

The Socialist party (the only party in the country) representatives, as well as student political activist posts, were trusted to members of the clan in power and its cohorts. The president of the country himself was the Chancellor and the majority of the Deans of faculties, party representatives, student activists, and representatives, etc. were all nominated on the basis of clan affiliations.

This was for purposes of consolidation of power and maintaining the country as a police state. The ears of the regime had to be wide open for the slightest eavesdropping among the students of universities, high schools and other institutions and the public at large.

By the early 1980s and after the formation of the SNM opposition public distrust was clearly visible in the North (Somaliland). Students in the schools in Hargeisa started making demonstrations openly and boycotted classes. In early 1982 stone-throwing by the students was popular and especially after the arrest of a group of  28 young professionals consisting of doctors, businessmen, teachers, and other civil servants, were scooped to arrest in Hargeisa and eventually sentenced to long-term imprisonments.

Two of them were immediately released and six others were acquitted by the court most of them on tribal lines. They were all acquitted as they belonged to non-targeted clans. What caused their imprisonment was interestingly ironic. They volunteered to improve the deteriorating conditions of the dilapidated hospital, the only one in Hargeisa, the second city in the country. They set up a self-help scheme group. There was then a long-standing conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was hosting two Somali opposition groups (SSDF and SNM). Somalis from the North were seen as by the government as destabilizers of the regime and were often regarded as having possible links with the SNM. The group was seen as politically motivated. The irony was that Barre showed himself off as a strong promoter of individual participation in self-help schemes efforts as part of his scientific socialism program. The imprisonment of active individuals was translated as subversion.

To be continued …..

[1] For details of the human rights situation see also the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the US State Department country reports 1986.

Previous parts

  1. The Rebirth of Somaliland (7): Operation Birjeex (SNM Rescue Unit)
  2. The Rebirth of Somaliland (6): The SNM Liberation Struggle And Tactical Operations
  3. The Rebirth Of Somaliland (5): The Formation Of The SNM And Liberation Struggle
  4. The Rebirth Of Somaliland (4): The 1961 Aborted Military Coup
  5. The Rebirth Of Somaliland (3) – Northern Mistrusts And Discontents: Origins And Emergence Of Early Signs
  6. The Rebirth Of Somaliland (2): The Process Of The Union And The Act Of Union
  7. The Rebirth Of Somaliland (1): History of Somaliland

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