Country Listing

Somalia Table of Contents




Center for internally displaced persons, Mogadishu, 1991
Courtesy Hiram A. Ruiz


Refugee women in camp near Luuq, western Somalia, 1991
Courtesy Hiram A. Ruiz

The constitution of 1961 in force until the October 1969 revolution protected the civil rights outlined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. These included the presumption of innocence before the courts, the right of habeas corpus, the freedoms of political association, public expression, and personal liberty and movement, and the right to form labor unions and to strike. The state owned all land (outright ownership of land conflicts with Somali traditions), but developed property and improved land could be expropriated only on the basis of equitable compensation. With few exceptions, the Somali government respected these rights.

In October 1970, the Siad Barre government abolished the right of habeas corpus; however, the courts continued to recognize the presumption of innocence and to provide free legal assistance to indigent defendants in serious cases. The regime also extended equal rights to women in several areas, including inheritance. In the late 1970s, however, the government began restricting civil rights, to counter the spread of dissident elements. This policy was criticized by the United States and several other Western nations.

In 1979, anxious to obtain United States military and economic assistance, Siad Barre promulgated a new liberal constitution. Approved by a national referendum held on August 29, 1979, this constitution stipulated the restoration of many of the civil rights that had been extinguished by the military government. The new constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and publication and the right to participate in an assembly, demonstration, or organization. The constitution also supported the inviolability of the home and the privacy of correspondence. However, these safeguards were subject to important qualifications--in the cases of freedom of expression and association by the condition that exercise of these rights "shall not contravene the constitution, the laws of the land, general morality, and public order." Furthermore, under the constitution the government was permitted to control the press, subject foreign publications to censorship, and circumscribe freedom of assembly.

The constitution stipulated that anyone deprived of personal liberty should forthwith be informed of the offense of which he was accused, and anyone detained on security grounds must be brought before a competent judicial authority without delay. Despite these provisions, the Amnesty International Report, 1980 estimated that the government had jailed at least 100 people on political grounds without charge or trial, among them former prime minister Mahammad Ibrahim Igaal. After the 1978 coup attempt, the Mogadishu National Security Court tried seventy-four men and subsequently ordered the execution of seventeen of them. The defendants had access to legal representation, and close relatives were permitted to attend the trials. However, in early 1980 the government secretly executed as many as several dozen military personnel for supporting the Somali Salvation Front (SSF) guerrilla movement.

Over the next few years, the proliferation of insurgent movements prompted Mogadishu to become increasingly oppressive. In 1982, for example, the government declared a state of emergency in northern Somalia and took steps to suppress local populations. Additionally, laws were adopted that placed civilians under the jurisdiction of military tribunals and military police. Several institutions comprised this new security apparatus, including the Mobile Military Court (MMC), the Regional Security Council (RSC), the HANGASH (Somali acronym for military police), the NSS, and the Victory Pioneers.

Established in 1982, the MMC was composed entirely of military officers. Two years later, after the SNM had launched an offensive in the mountainous region of Sheekh and nearby Burao, the MMC assumed jurisdiction over civilians. Operating from headquarters in Hargeysa, the MMC created a network of offices throughout northern Somalia. Initially, the MMC tried small numbers of suspected opponents of the regime such as businessmen and educated people. Eventually, however, the MMC tried every variety of politically active person or group. The court prosecutor, Colonel Yuusuf Muse, quickly earned a reputation for cruelty and his insistence on the death penalty. In 1984-85 and from late 1987 until mid-1988, Muse authorized mass executions of hundreds, if not thousands, of northerners.

The RSC, which was superior to all other branches of the security system, consisted of the regional governor, the regional military commander, a military officer, the regional police commander, and the following national officials: the NSS director, the head of the SRSP, the commander of the Victory Pioneers, and the director of the Police Custodial Corps. Although it could operate anywhere in the country, the RSC confined its activities to northern Somalia. The RSC usually met weekly, but it convened more frequently during emergencies. Any quorum of six could impose long prison sentences or the death penalty. From its inception, the RSC ordered mass arrests of SNM sympathizers and other suspected government opponents and confiscated their property. The RSC often relied on the NSS to conduct interrogations and prepare arrest warrants.

Mogadishu created the HANGASH in the aftermath of the 1978 coup attempt. Its purpose was to maintain surveillance over the military and the NSS. As the government's crackdown on political activity became more severe, however, the HANGASH acquired power over civilians. Eventually, the HANGASH, which operated without legal authority, became more feared than the NSS.

The NSS, Somalia's principal intelligence agency, possessed the power to detain people indefinitely if they were suspected of having committed national security offenses. Article 5 of Law No. 8 of January 26, 1970, abolished the right to habeas corpus in national security cases and permitted access to lawyers only after the NSS had completed its investigations and had prepared charges. Over the years, the NSS used the national security rationale to justify the arrest, execution, or imprisonment of hundreds, if not thousands, of real and imagined government opponents.

The Victory Pioneers were a uniformed militia that provided security at the neighborhood level. Pioneer units, which existed in every town and village, ensured loyalty to Siad Barre's regime by encouraging people to spy on each other in the work place, schools, mosques, and private homes.

After the SNM launched a major offensive in northern Somalia in late May 1988, deterioration of the government's human rights record accelerated. The SNA used artillery shelling and aerial bombardment in heavily populated urban centers to retake the towns of Hargeysa and Burao. As a result, thousands of refugees gathered on the outskirts of these cities. After breaking into smaller groups of 300 to 500, the refugees started a ten- to forty-day trek to Ethiopia; others fled to Djibouti and Kenya. Along the way, SNA units robbed many civilians and summarily executed anyone suspected of being an SNM member or sympathizer. SAF jet aircraft strafed many refugee columns, forcing refugees to walk at night to avoid further attacks. Africa Watch reported that government forces had killed as many as 50,000 unarmed civilians between June 1988 and January 1990; most victims belonged to the northern Isaaq clan.

By 1990 security conditions had become as bad in central and southern Somalia as they had been in the north. As a result, the government enacted harsh new measures against opposition elements. In Mogadishu, for example, SNA personnel and members of the various security agencies regularly raped, robbed, and killed noncombatant citizens. The emergence of bandit groups in the capital only exacerbated security problems in Mogadishu. On July 6, 1990, some of Siad Barre's bodyguards, the Red Berets (Duub Cas), started shooting at people who had been shouting antigovernment slogans at a soccer match. Other Red Berets, stationed outside the soccer stadium, shot into the crowd as it tried to escape the chaos inside (see Harrying of the Hawiye , ch. 1). Eventually, at least 65 civilians lost their lives and more than 300 sustained serious wounds. The authorities refused to allow families to recover the bodies of their relatives.

In the central area, which consists of Mudug, Hiiraan, and Galguduud regions, the government unleashed a reign of terror against those suspected of supporting or belonging to the United Somali Congress (USC), another insurgent group. According to Africa Watch, the SNA killed hundreds of civilians in retaliation for rebel attacks. Government troops also ambushed numerous cars, killing and injuring many of the passengers. After robbing vehicles, soldiers usually hanged some victims on trees and then forced local inhabitants to view the bodies of what the soldiers claimed were armed bandits. Similar violence occurred at several other central and southern towns and villages, including Beledweyne, Adaddo, Gaalcaio, Doolow, Hara Cadera, Hobyo, Las Adale, and Wisil.

Apart from atrocities committed by troops in the field, prison authorities mistreated political detainees and other prisoners, despite the fact that on January 24, 1990, the government had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to Africa Watch, detainees and prisoners were held in tiny, overcrowded cells and denied medical treatment and physical exercise. Many were tortured. During Siad Barre's final months in power, the Central Prison of Mogadishu, which was intended to hold about 600 people, often contained 1,600 or more prisoners. There was also a lack of food, water, medicine, bedding, and air. Guards extorted food and money, which had been supplied by prisoners' families.

In response to growing domestic and international pressure, the government introduced a provisional constitution, effective for one year from October 12, 1990. Supposedly, the constitution would have repealed a series of repressive security laws; permitted free, multiparty elections; guaranteed individual civil rights; and transferred considerable power from the president to the prime minister, cabinet, and parliament. However, the heavy fighting which engulfed Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia at the end of 1990 prevented the new constitution from having any impact. After Siad Barre fled Mogadishu in early 1991, Somalia's human rights record further deteriorated, largely because of fighting between and among various insurgent groups and clan militias, and the attacks by bandit groups on the civilian population.

*      *      *

Given the West's limited access to Somalia and the secrecy that surrounded security-related activities, there is no definitive study of the country's armed forces. Those interested in Somali national security affairs therefore must rely on a variety of periodical sources, including Africa Research Bulletin, Keesing's Contemporary Archives, Third World Reports, Africa Confidential, and African Defense Journal. Other useful publications include New African, Africa Events, Africa News, Focus on Africa, and Horn of Africa. Two International Institute for Strategic Studies annuals, The Military Balance and Strategic Survey, also are essential for anyone wishing to understand the evolution of Somalia's security forces. The same is true of three annuals: Africa Contemporary Record, Africa South of the Sahara, and World Armaments and Disarmament. The last is published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Useful historical works include Malcolm McNeill's In Pursuit of the `Mad Mullah': Service and Sport in the Somali Protectorate, Douglas J. Jardine's The Mad Mullah of Somaliland, and H.F.P. Battesby's Richard Corfield of Somaliland. Bruce D. Porter's The USSR in Third World Conflicts provides an excellent analysis of the 1977-78 Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia. Somalia: Nation in Search of a State, by David D. Laitin and Said S. Samatar, contains some useful information on the post-independence evolution of the Somali armed forces. Material on human rights practices in Somalia can be found in the annual Amnesty International Report and in a variety of Africa Watch reports, the most important of which is Somalia: A Government at War with Its Own People. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Country Listing

Somalia Table of Contents