THE TURMOIL IN SOMALIA: PART IB

Canberra, 3 November 2012
Post-Independence History 1960-1991
As with most post-colonial nations, the early days of independence in Somalia was also dominated by the leaders who had led and borne the brunt of the struggle for independence against the colonial powers. The first President of the newly established Somalia Republic was Aden Abdullah Osman Daar with Haji Bashir Ismail Yusuf as President of the Somali National Assembly and Abdirashid Ali Shermake as the Prime Minister. The 1961 Constitution provided for a multi-party democratic state with a European style parliamentary form of government. However, in the early period of independence, political parties were at best a flexible concept mostly consisting of individual one-person entities that after elections joined or ‘defected’ to the winning side, normally in return for personal gratification. While this situation was worrying, another divisive aspect that had the potential to create long-term challenges to the fledgling nation started to gain prominence. The system of government that was established was based on the model of the pre-independence Italian Somaliland in the south. This resulted in the concentration of power around Mogadishu, the capital of Italian Somaliland and a southern dominated central government. Southern Somalis occupied the bulk of government positions because the British Somaliland in the north had a relatively low level of understanding of self-governance as opposed to the south stemming from a lack of tutelage in the matter during colonial rule. There was obvious disgruntlement in the north that was never fully addressed or contained. 
The driving political ideology in the early years of independence was a sort of pan-Somali nationalism that aimed at uniting the Somali populated regions of French Somaliland (subsequently to become an independent nation as Djibouti), Kenya and Ethiopia into a ‘Greater Somalia’. Ideologies that dream of greater glory cannot sustain the development of a newly independent nation with a small economy. In 1967 Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal became the Prime Minister, being appointed by Shermake who went on to become the President. Egal felt it was pragmatic to improve relations with the neighbours and initiated the first step by renouncing Somalia’s claims to territories outside its geographic boundaries irrespective of the majority Somali population resident there. However, the overtures towards Ethiopia, considered traditional enemies by the bulk of Somalis, infuriated the general public and particularly the Army that had a historic tradition of fighting the Ethiopians to defend against their attacks since the 16th century. Some commentators attribute this discontent within the Army as one of the major factors that led to the subsequent military coup. On 15 October 1969, President Ali Shermake was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards while on an official visit to the northern town of Las Anod. This was rapidly followed by a bloodless military coup d’état on 21 October (the day after the funeral of the slain President) with the Somali Army, led by its commander Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, seizing power. The coup brought to an abrupt and premature end to the process of establishing a multi-party constitutional democracy in Somalia. This state of affairs has been repeated in any number of nations that became independent in the post-colonial period. The reasons seem to be varied, but almost always there is the underlying factor of the perception of the people that the elected leaders have not delivered on what the general population had come to believe as the future once independence was obtained from colonial rule—a future of great prosperity, peace and the establishment of an egalitarian society. The fact that such developments will always take considerable period of time, even in stable conditions, is normally lost in the impatience generated by the euphoria of independence.             
The Barre Regime
There were two more officers alongside Barre, Lieutenant Colonel Salaad Gabeyre Kediye and the Chief of Police Jama Korshel, who led the coup and subsequently formed the 20-member Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC). The SRC renamed the country The Somali Democratic Republic, dissolved the Parliament and the Supreme Court, suspended the constitution and invested all executive and legislative power in itself. Shortly thereafter Barre became the head of SRC, sidelining the other two leaders of the coup. The SRC modelled the country in similar lines to the Soviet Union with which it developed a close relationship and dependency, both economic and ideological, so much so that some analysts have named the Barre years the ‘Communist Rule’. To his credit, Barre initiated large-scale public works and grass roots developmental programs while also commencing a literacy campaign in both urban and rural areas. On the flip side of the coin, he also introduced a number of ‘socialistic’ initiatives like compulsory national security service and centralised control over information dissemination. He also censored political freedom and began an extensive program of nationalisation of land and industry. Barre used the military to seize and redistribute rich farmlands and also to terrorise and force the people to support his regime. This is a trend that is visible over the years, (even today in Zimbabwe) in most newly independent African nations—the cycle of independence, a short flirtation with democracy, military coup that is initially benign, the ‘nationalisation’ of rich and productive farms and industries, their redistribution to the people as a measure to win support and then the slow degeneration and collapse of the economy because of cronyism, corruption and greed.
Two simultaneous developments took place in the early to mid-1970s. First was in the arena of foreign policy. The regime started to place added importance on the traditional links of the country with the Arab world and in 1974, joined the Arab League. In the same year Somalia concluded a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union. The two developments are not complementary to each other and is a sort of enigma, although from the point of view of Somalia’s national interest it could be justified as a pragmatic move—the Soviet Union would provide the critical economic, military and ideological support while the Arab League would provide a level of legitimacy to the regime that was ruling an Islamic nation. Even though pragmatic, the two-pronged foreign policy initiative can at best be described as radical. Also in 1974, Barre became the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the current African Union (AU). This was perhaps the high point in the Barre regime’s rule over Somalia. Following this foreign policy initiatives, considered to be successful, the SRC was disbanded in 1976 and in its place the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP) was established. The SRSP proceeded to form a one-party government based on the twin tenets of socialism and Islamic law. Although the compatibility of these two divergent philosophies is questionable, the government attempted to reconcile the official ideology with the official religion—adapting Marxist theories to Muslim principles. The second development was the conflict with Ethiopia that came to be called the Ogaden War.
The Ogaden War
The Barre regime reinvigorated and tried to pursue an agenda that would culminate in the creation of a Greater Somalia that encompassed all Somali inhabited areas. As a prelude, on 13 July 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia to annex the Ogaden region, which was predominantly inhabited by people of Somali origin. There is a brief background to this: In September 1974, a Soviet-backed communist insurrection had overthrown the long-reigning king of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie but they were not able to establish control over the entire nation. The result was vicious internecine conflict with several ethnic movements mounting independence struggles in different regions. The ethnically-Somali Ogaden was at the forefront of this struggle with the West Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) taking up arms in 1975. They received direct military assistance from the Barre regime in Somalia who presumed that the WSLF would free Ogaden and then join the Greater Somalia dream readily. The invasion by the Somali Army, supported by the WSLF was initially very successful and by September around 90% of the region was under their control with the Somalis moving rapidly towards the main towns of Harer Jijiga and Dire Dawa. Although the Somali Army was defeated in their first assault of Jijiga, they managed to capture it by end-September.
There is a parallel story that needs to be told to understand the subsequent progression of events in this conflict. The Barre regime was directly reliant on the Soviet Union for their economic stability and military strength and was in the process of modelling Somalia on the Soviet mould. The insurrection that ‘liberated’ Ethiopia was also heavily supported by the Soviet Union and the new government owed complete allegiance to it. The Soviet Union effectively controlled the entire Horn of Africa at this time. However, with this open war between Somalia and Ethiopia, the Soviets were in an unenviable position of supporting both sides in a major and vicious regional war. They tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a ceasefire between their two African regional allies. Since the war continued unabated they were forced to side with one nation and effectively drop the other as a partner. The decision as to whom they should support was not difficult for the Soviet Union—they sided with Ethiopia that had so much more to offer, especially in terms of mineral wealth, as opposed to the dirt-poor Somalia with only sea ports to offer as a bargain. This decision turned the tide of the war. The Soviet Union supplied Ethiopia with around 15,000 Cuban troops and Soviet military advisors resulting in the defeat of Somalia. By March 1978 Somali troops were pushed out of the Ogaden and retreated to Somalia with only sporadic raids being carried out across the border.
The Barre government did the only thing it could: it expelled all Soviets from Somalia, abrogated the friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, abandoned its Socialist ideology and turned for assistance to the West, primarily the United States who had been assiduously courting the Somali government. The US immediately reopened the Somali mission of its Agency for International Development and two years later concluded an agreement which gave US forces access to military facilities at the port of Berbera in north-western Somalia. This kind of activity was typical of the Cold War period when both the Super Powers kept their options of influencing the developing nations open at all times and leveraged the smallest opportunity to bring in a developing nation into their orbit. The Barre regime promulgated a new constitution in 1979 and held elections to a People’s Assembly, although the SRSP continued to rule. In October 1980 the SRSP was disbanded and the Supreme Revolutionary Council was re-established.
In the summer of 1982, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia along the central border, but timely assistance by way of rapid airlifts from the US helped the Somali forces defend the nation’s borders. The conflict was indecisive. During the height of the Cold War, between 1982 and 1988-89, the United States considered Somalia a partner in defence against the spread of Communism, with a number of Somali military officers being trained in US military schools.
The Beginning of the Civil War        
Although US largess was keeping the Barre government in power, there was a gradual collapse of the regime’s moral authority to rule. There was widespread disillusionment with life under military dictatorship amongst the people, exacerbated by the ruthless and often violent suppression of dissidence by the government using military and specially trained forces. By late 1980s, with the Cold War drawing to a close, the strategic importance of Somalia also diminished, which in turn started to dry up the economic and military aid that had been flowing into the nation for a number of years. This further weakened an already embattled regime which retaliated by becoming increasingly totalitarian and ruthless. The result was the evolution of a number of insurgent groups with varied objectives that ranged from regime change to creating independent states. The chronology of the formation of the major resistance movements is given below:
1979: Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) formed by a group of dissatisfied military officers; Ogadeni sub-group Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) led by Colonel Ahmed Omar Jess formed.
1981: Somali National Movement (SNM) composed primarily of the Isaaq clan with the stated goal of the overthrow of the Barre regime formed in Hargeisa.
1989: United Somali Congress (USC), a political movement, formed in Rome comprising mainly of the Hawiye clan; their military wing formed in Ethiopia under Mohammed Farah Aideed (former political prisoner incarcerated from 1969-1975 by the Barre regime); USC created alliances with SNM and SPM.
In 1988 the town of Hargeisa was bombed by the Somali National Air Force on orders from President Barre, killing at least 10,000 civilians, intensifying the rebels’ efforts to incrementally take physical control of the nation. Meanwhile corruption within the government, almost completely infested with Barre’s cronies, had become endemic and when combined with the cost of mounting the continuous counter-insurgency activities brought about an economic crisis. By 1989, armed opposition to the Barre government that had initially only captured the north had enveloped almost the entire country with the government’s writ restricted to the capital Mogadishu and surrounding areas. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the country as refugees to neighbouring Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and even further afield. The Somali army disintegrated with the soldiers going back to their hometowns and joining their clan or tribal militia. Since the Somali army was the largest in Africa in 1982, this movement of trained soldiers that beefed up the irregular militia created immediate and long-term challenges to maintaining law and order. By early 1990, Mogadishu the capital was surrounded by the rebel forces while almost simultaneously foreign aid to the government, including from the US, was turned off. By the end of 1990, the Somali state was in its death throes—Barre declared a state of emergency in December 1990; in January 1991, armed opposition factions drove Barre out of power (into exile in Nigeria where he subsequently died); the very limited semblance that Somalia had to retain the claim of a functioning state disappeared; Somalia descended into chaos and civil war.
The most notable element in this sad story of the unravelling of a nation in a span of a mere 30 years is that artificially created nations that encompass different tribes and clans into one geographic entity with synthetic borders will always be difficult to forge into a cohesive nation-state. When the people involved think of themselves as belonging to a particular clan first and as a Somali only as an after-thought, the process of creating a nation-state where none existed before becomes almost impossible. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa where the nomadic pastoral tradition that transcends geographic borders is still considered a viable way of life.
[To be continued…]
 
  
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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