Somalia Table of Contents
From 1969 until the mid-1970s, Siad Barre's authoritarian regime enjoyed a degree of popular support, largely because it acted with a decisiveness not displayed by the civilian governments of the 1960s. Even the 1971 coup attempt failed to affect the stability of the government. However, Somalia's defeat in the Ogaden War signaled the beginning of a decline in Siad Barre's popularity that culminated in his January 1991 fall from power.
Before the war, many Somalis had criticized Siad Barre for not trying to reincorporate the Ogaden into Somalia immediately after Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie's death in 1975. The government was unable to stifle this criticism largely because the Somali claim to the Ogaden had overwhelming national support. The regime's commitment of regular troops to the Ogaden proved highly popular, as did Siad Barre's expulsion of the Soviet advisers, who had been resented by most Somalis. However, Somalia's defeat in the Ogaden War refocused criticism on Siad Barre.
After the spring 1978 retreat toward Hargeysa, Siad Barre met with his generals to discuss the battlefield situation, and ordered the execution of six of them for activities against the state. This action failed to quell SNA discontent over Siad Barre's handling of the war with Ethiopia. On April 9, 1978, a group of military officers (mostly Majeerteen) attempted a coup d'état. Government security forces crushed the plot within hours and subsequently arrested seventy-four suspected conspirators. After a month-long series of trials, the authorities imprisoned thirty-six people associated with the coup and executed another seventeen.
After the war, it was evident that the ruling alliance among the Mareehaan, Ogaden, and Dulbahante clans had been broken. The Ogaden--the clan of Siad Barre's mother, which had the most direct stake in the war--broke with the regime over the president's wartime leadership. To prevent further challenges to his rule, Siad Barre placed members of his own clan in important positions in the government, the armed forces, the security services, and other state agencies.
Throughout the late 1970s, growing discontent with the regime's policies and personalities prompted the defection of numerous government officials and the establishment of several insurgent movements. Because unauthorized political activity was prohibited, these organizations were based abroad. The best known was the Somali Salvation Front (SSF), which operated from Ethiopia. The SSF had absorbed its predecessor, the Somali Democratic Action Front (SODAF), which had been formed in Rome in 1976. Former minister of justice Usmaan Nur Ali led the Majeerteen-based SODAF. Lieutenant Colonel Abdillaahi Yuusuf Ahmad, a survivor of the 1978 coup attempt, commanded the SSF. Other prominent SSF personalities included former minister of education Hasan Ali Mirreh and former ambassador Muse Islan Faarah. The SSF, which received assistance from Ethiopia and Libya, claimed to command a guerrilla force numbering in the thousands. Ethiopia placed a radio transmitter at the SSF's disposal from which Radio Kulmis (unity) beamed anti-Siad Barre invective to listeners in Somalia. Although it launched a low- intensity sabotage campaign in 1981, the SSF lacked the capabilities to sustain effective guerrilla operations against the SNA.
The SSF's weakness derived from its limited potential as a rallying point for opposition to the government. Although the SSF embraced no ideology or political philosophy other than hostility to Siad Barre, its nationalist appeal was undermined by its reliance on Ethiopian support. The SSF claimed to encompass a range of opposition forces, but its leading figures belonged with few exceptions to the Majeerteen clan.
In October 1981, the SSF merged with the radical-left Somali Workers Party (SWP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia (DFLS) to form the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). The SWP and DFLS, both based in Aden (then the capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen--South Yemen), had included some former SRSP Central Committee members who faulted Siad Barre for compromising Somalia's revolutionary goals. An eleven-man committee led the SSDF. Yuusuf Ahmad, a former SNA officer and head of the SDF acted as chairman; former SWP leader Idris Jaama Husseen served as vice chairman; Abdirahman Aidid Ahmad, former chairman of the SRSP Ideology Bureau and founding father of the DFLS, was secretary for information. The SSDF promised to intensify the military and political struggles against the Siad Barre regime, which was said to have destroyed Somali unity and surrendered to United States imperialism. Like the SSF, the SSDF suffered from weak organization, a close identification with its Ethiopian and Libyan benefactors, and its reputation as a Majeerteen party.
Despite its shortcomings, the SSDF played a key role in fighting between Somalia and Ethiopia in the summer of 1982. After a SNA force infiltrated the Ogaden, joined with the WSLF and attacked an Ethiopian army unit outside Shilabo, about 150 kilometers northwest of Beledweyne, Ethiopia retaliated by launching an operation against Somalia. On June 30, 1982, Ethiopian army units, together with SSDF guerrillas, struck at several points along Ethiopia's southern border with Somalia. They crushed the SNA unit in Balumbale and then occupied that village. In August 1982, the Ethiopian/SSDF force took the village of Goldogob, about 50 kiloeters northwest of Galcaio. After the United States provided emergency military assistance to Somalia, the Ethiopian attacks ceased. However, the Ethiopian/SSDF units remained in Balumbale and Goldogob, which Addis Ababa maintained were part of Ethiopia that had been liberated by the Ethiopian army. The SSDF disputed the Ethiopian claim, causing a power struggle that eventually resulted in the destruction of the SSDF's leadership.
On October 12, 1985, Ethiopian authorities arrested Ahmad and six of his lieutenants after they repeatedly indicated that Balumbale and Goldogob were part of Somalia. The Ethiopian government justified the arrests by saying that Ahmad had refused to comply with a SSDF Central Committee decision relieving him as chairman. Mahammad Abshir, a party bureaucrat, then assumed command of the SSDF. Under his leadership, the SSDF became militarily moribund, primarily because of poor relations with Addis Ababa. In August 1986, the Ethiopian army attacked SSDF units, then launched a war against the movement, and finally jailed its remaining leaders. For the next several years, the SSDF existed more in name than in fact. In late 1990, however, after Ethiopia released former SSDF leader Ahmad, the movement reemerged as a fighting force in Somalia, albeit to a far lesser degree than in the early 1980s.
In April 1981, a group of Isaaq emigrés living in London formed the Somali National Movement (SNM), which subsequently became the strongest of Somalia's various insurgent movements. According to its spokesmen, the rebels wanted to overthrow Siad Barre's dictatorship. Additionally, the SNM advocated a mixed economy and a neutral foreign policy, rejecting alignment with the Soviet Union or the United States and calling for the dismantling of all foreign military bases in the region. In the late 1980s, the SNM adopted a pro-Western foreign policy and favored United States involvement in a post-Siad Barre Somalia. Other SNM objectives included establishment of a representative democracy that would guarantee human rights and freedom of speech. Eventually, the SNM moved its headquarters from London to Addis Ababa to obtain Ethiopian military assistance, which initially was limited to old Soviet small arms.
In October 1981, the SNM rebels elected Ahmad Mahammad Culaid and Ahmad Ismaaiil Abdi as chairman and secretary general, respectively, of the movement. Culaid had participated in northern Somali politics until 1975, when he went into exile in Djibouti and then in Saudi Arabia. Abdi had been politically active in the city of Burao in the 1950s, and, from 1965 to 1967, had served as the Somali government's minister of planning. After the authorities jailed him in 1971 for antigovernment activities, Abdi left Somalia and lived in East Africa and Saudi Arabia. The rebels also elected an eight-man executive committee to oversee the SNM's military and political activities.
On January 2, 1982, the SNM launched its first military operation against the Somali government. Operating from Ethiopian bases, commando units attacked Mandera Prison near Berbera and freed a group of northern dissidents. According to the SNM, the assault liberated more than 700 political prisoners; subsequent independent estimates indicated that only about a dozen government opponents escaped. At the same time, other commando units raided the Cadaadle armory near Berbera and escaped with an undetermined amount of arms and ammunition.
Mogadishu responded to the SNM attacks by declaring a state of emergency, imposing a curfew, closing gasoline stations to civilian vehicles, banning movement in or out of northern Somalia, and launching a search for the Mandera prisoners (most of whom were never found). On January 8, 1982, the Somali government also closed its border with Djibouti to prevent the rebels from fleeing Somalia. These actions failed to stop SNM military activities.
In October 1982, the SNM tried to increase pressure against the Siad Barre regime by forming a joint military committee with the SSDF. Apart from issuing antigovernment statements, the two insurgent groups started broadcasting from the former Radio Kulmis station, now known as Radio Halgan (struggle). Despite this political cooperation, the SNM and SSDF failed to agree on a common strategy against Mogadishu. As a result, the alliance languished.
In February 1983, Siad Barre visited northern Somalia in a campaign to discredit the SNM. Among other things, he ordered the release of numerous civil servants and businessmen who had been arrested for antigovernment activities, lifted the state of emergency, and announced an amnesty for Somali exiles who wanted to return home. These tactics put the rebels on the political defensive for several months. In November 1983, the SNM Central Committee sought to regain the initiative by holding an emergency meeting to formulate a more aggressive strategy. One outcome was that the military wing--headed by Abdulqaadir Kosar Abdi, formerly of the SNA--assumed control of the Central Committee by ousting the civilian membership from all positions of power. However, in July 1984, at the Fourth SNM Congress, held in Ethiopia, the civilians regained control of the leadership. The delegates also elected Ahmad Mahammad Mahamuud "Silanyo" SNM chairman and reasserted their intention to revive the alliance with the SSDF.
After the Fourth SNM Congress adjourned, military activity in northern Somalia increased. SNM commandos attacked about a dozen government military posts in the vicinity of Hargeysa, Burao, and Berbera. According to the SNM, the SNA responded by shooting 300 people at a demonstration in Burao, sentencing seven youths to death for sedition, and arresting an unknown number of rebel sympathizers. In January 1985, the government executed twenty- eight people in retaliation for antigovernment activity.
Between June 1985 and February 1986, the SNM claimed to have carried out thirty operations against government forces in northern Somalia. In addition, the SNM reported that it had killed 476 government soldiers and wounded 263, and had captured eleven vehicles and had destroyed another twenty-two, while losing only 38 men and two vehicles. Although many independent observers said these figures were exaggerated, SNM operations during the 1985-86 campaign forced Siad Barre to mount an international effort to cut off foreign aid to the rebels. This initiative included reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Libya in exchange for Tripoli's promise to stop supporting the SNM.
Despite efforts to isolate the rebels, the SNM continued military operations in northern Somalia. Between July and September 1987, the SNM initiated approximately thirty attacks, including one on the northern capital, Hargeysa; none of these, however, weakened the government's control of northern Somalia. A more dramatic event occurred when a SNM unit kidnapped a Médecins Sans Frontières medical aid team of ten Frenchmen and one Djiboutian to draw the world's attention to Mogadishu's policy of impressing men from refugee camps into the SNA. After ten days, the SNM released the hostages unconditionally.
Siad Barre responded to these activities by instituting harsh security measures throughout northern Somalia. The government also evicted suspected pro-SNM nomad communities from the Somali- Ethiopian border region. These measures failed to contain the SNM. By February 1988, the rebels had captured three villages around Togochale, a refugee camp near the northwestern Somali- Ethiopian border.
Following the rebel successes of 1987-88, Somali-Ethiopian relations began to improve. On March 19, 1988, Siad Barre and Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam met in Djibouti to discuss ways of reducing tension between the two countries. Although little was accomplished, the two agreed to hold further talks. At the end of March 1988, the Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs, Berhanu Bayih, arrived in Mogadishu for discussions with a group of Somali officials, headed by General Ahmad Mahamuud Faarah. On April 4, 1988, the two presidents signed a joint communiqué in which they agreed to restore diplomatic relations, exchange prisoners of war, start a mutual withdrawal of troops from the border area, and end subversive activities and hostile propaganda against each other.
Faced with a cutoff of Ethiopian military assistance, the SNM had to prove its ability to operate as an independent organization. Therefore, in late May 1988 SNM units moved out of their Ethiopian base camps and launched a major offensive in northern Somalia. The rebels temporarily occupied the provincial capitals of Burao and Hargeysa. These early successes bolstered the SNM's popular support, as thousands of disaffected Isaaq clan members and SNA deserters joined the rebel ranks.
Over the next few years, the SNM took control of almost all of northwestern Somalia and extended its area of operations about fifty kilometers east of Erigavo. However, the SNM did not gain control of the region's major cities (i.e., Berbera, Hargeysa, Burao, and Boorama), but succeeded only in laying siege to them.
With Ethiopian military assistance no longer a factor, the SNM's success depended on its ability to capture weapons from the SNA. The rebels seized numerous vehicles such as Toyota Land Cruisers from government forces and subsequently equipped them with light and medium weapons such as 12.7mm and 14.5mm machine guns, 106mm recoilless rifles, and BM-21 rocket launchers. The SNM possessed antitank weapons such as Soviet B-10 tubes and RPG- 7s. For air defense the rebels operated Soviet 30mm and 23mm guns, several dozen Soviet ZU23 2s, and Czech-made twin-mounted 30mm ZU30 2s. The SNM also maintained a small fleet of armed speed boats that operated from Maydh, fifty kilometers northwest of Erigavo, and Xiis, a little west of Maydh. Small arms included 120mm mortars and various assault rifles, such as AK-47s, M-16s, and G-3s. Despite these armaments, rebel operations, especially against the region's major cities, suffered because of an inadequate logistics system and a lack of artillery, mine- clearing equipment, ammunition, and communications gear.
To weaken Siad Barre's regime further, the SNM encouraged the formation of other clan-based insurgent movements and provided them with political and military support. In particular, the SNM maintained close relations with the United Somali Congress (USC), which was active in central Somalia, and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), which operated in southern Somalia. Both these groups sought to overthrow Siad Barre's regime and establish a democratic form of government.
The USC, a Hawiye organization founded in 1989, had suffered from factionalism based on subclan rivalries since its creation. General Mahammad Faarah Aidid commanded the Habar Gidir clan, and Ali Mahdi Mahammad headed the Abgaal clan. The SPM emerged in March 1989, after a group of Ogaden officers, led by Umar Jess, deserted the SNA and took up arms against Siad Barre. Like the USC, the SPM experienced a division among its ranks. The moderates, under Jess, favored an alliance with the SNM and USC and believed that Somalia should abandon its claims to the Ogaden. SPM hardliners wanted to recapture the Ogaden and favored a stronger military presence along the Somali-Ethiopian border.
On November 19, 1989, the SNM and SPM issued a joint communiqué announcing the adoption of a "unified stance on internal and external political policy." On September 12, 1990, the SNM concluded a similar agreement with the USC. Then, on November 24, 1990, the SNM announced that it had united with the SPM and the USC to pursue a common military strategy against the SNA. Actually, the SNM had concluded the unification agreement with Aidid, which widened the rift between the two USC factions.
By the beginning of 1991, all three of the major rebel organizations had made significant military progress. The SNM had all but taken control of northern Somalia by capturing the towns of Hargeysa, Berbera, Burao, and Erigavo. On January 26, 1991, the USC stormed the presidential palace in Mogadishu, thereby establishing its control over the capital. The SPM succeeded in overrunning several government outposts in southern Somalia.
The SNM-USC-SPM unification agreement failed to last after Siad Barre fled Mogadishu. On January 26, 1991, the USC formed an interim government, which the SNM refused to recognize. On May 18, 1991, the SNM declared the independence of the Republic of Somaliland. The USC interim government opposed this declaration, arguing instead for a unified Somalia. Apart from these political disagreements, fighting broke out between and within the USC and SPM. The SNM also sought to establish its control over northern Somalia by pacifying clans such as the Gadabursi and the Dulbahante. To make matters worse, guerrilla groups proliferated; by late 1991, numerous movements vied for political power, including the United Somali Front (Iise), Somali Democratic Alliance (Gadabursi), United Somali Party (Dulbahante), Somali Democratic Movement (Rahanwayn), and Somali National Front (Mareehaan). The collapse of the nation state system and the emergence of clan-based guerrilla movements and militias that became governing authorities persuaded most Western observers that national reconciliation would be a long and difficult process.
Somalia Table of Contents