Somalia: Siyad Barre’s Divided Legacy
By: Heikal I. Kenneded
45 Years after His Socialist Revolution
On this day, October 21, 2014 marks 45 years ago when Siyad Barre’s roaring revolution embarked Somalia on a socialist path and changed its fate forever. Though most Somalis are still divided about the question of his legacy, for his supporters there is so much to reminisce about the “good” old days of Siyad Barre’s military rule that transformed the entire country for the better, while for the critics these were the darkest two decades of Somalia’s tumultuous history due to the regime’s unparalleled human rights abuses and ultimately Somalia's disintegration from a tenuously united nation state into a war-torn. Despite the ardent arguments both camps on this debate make, we should all agree Siyad Barre’s long two decades at the helm of the country were a time of vaulting ambitions beset by social, economic and political injustices that determined the country’s fate for the next two decades. It’s equally undeniable that Siyad Barre was by any means a great nationalist who stood up to super powers in order to realize “Greater Somalia” and put the country well ahead of its counterparts, but in the same vein, he was an archetypal African tyrant of his times who spared no punches assailing his opponents and spent most of his political capital on clan politics in order to practice “divide and rule” policy to run the country.
I’m not a historian, but I am a bit of a history buff that closely follows Somalia’s remarkable trajectory, and thus quite often wondered about Siyad Barre’s lasting legacy as the country’s longest serving ruler and the impact his military regime had on the current civil unrest and instability that ensued after he was overthrown 23 years ago. Naturally, I have my biases writing this op-ed as a post-dictatorship student, who—for all of my analysis—has a unfavorable view of the president mainly because of his disturbing human rights records in the country and his aversion for the democratic ideals: "By the people, for the people and of the people." To most of his supporters, favorably hope that he should be judged on his social progressive accomplishments that transformed the country, while many of his critics argue that despite his “grand” visions for the country, he undermined citizens’ rights and practiced far reaching abuse of power.
In October 21, 1969, General Siad Barre led a successful and bloodless coup, following the assassination of President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. He immediately dissolved the existing parliament and the Supreme Court and suspended the country’s constitution and finally banned all political parties, and championed "scientific socialism," arguing there was no discrepancy with the principles of Islam, and aligned the country with the Soviet Union for support. Though Barre’s regime attempted to accomplish many worthy feats at the beginning of its rule, at the end he turned out to become among Africa’s top 10 worst dictators of all time. Siyad Barre’s early years in the presidency were marked with zealous-like socialist revolution that drew heavily from the philosophies of the Marxist ideologies promoting cooperative farming and social volunteerism to build schools, hospitals and roads. One of the earliest achievements the military junta led by Siyad Barre was adopting the new writing script for the Somali language, which served Somalia attaining official language status. That same year 1970, Siyad Barre also served as chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which gave him a great pride and recognition among newly independent African nations.
The first “revolutionary” years of Siyad Barre were also noted with the successful creation of cooperative factories and farms of mass production, including sugar cane, mills, and meat processing that elevated the country’s economy. However, these latter social triumphs were attained at the price of nationalizing major industries, including the banks, insurance companies, electrical power production, petroleum distribution, sugar estates and the refineries throughout the country. Not to mention, his time in power was renowned with the creation of a personality cult of the president and his Marxist revolutionary cohorts by lining the streets and all other public place humongous portraits of himself in the company of Marx and Lenin. This put on the back burner the Islamic religion and the Somali tradition, or any of the democratic ideals that the society envisioned early on since independence. This was also the era of emasculation by calling everyone Jaalle, despite of one’s gender, age, rank or title.
The Beginning of the End
In July 1977, the Ogaden war beckoned the looming conflict that the country inevitably headed, when Siyad Barre prematurely sought after the reunification of the “Greater Somalia” and ordered the national army to invade Ethiopia in order to annex the Somali-inhabited Ogaden territories. This ballsy invasion was initially successfully, until the Soviet Union with their 15,000 Cuban troops marched in to support the Ethiopian regime and eventually forced the Somali national army to pull out in humiliation. This misadventure was soon to be followed by a failed coup d’état that hardened Siyad Barre’s grip on power and the onset of unprecedented human rights abuse and terrorization committed by Siyad Barre’s notorious National Security Service (NSS), including arbitrary detention, torture and assassinations against those who were thought to be sabotaging the “Supreme Revolution.”
In the end, Siyad Barre became notorious for practicing the same “enemy” that he was initially bent on destroying “clanism,” by favoring his own small clan in most government appointments while mercilessly retaliating against citizens that belonged to other major clans. For example, in the final days of his rule that his health was deteriorating, he was said to be grooming his son, Maslah to transfer the reins of power, once he was out of the picture. This naked favoritism based on clanism finally brought the country to its knees and served the main precursor of the civil unrest that continues to this day. Ironically, due to the long lasting civil unrest in Somalia, over the years Siyad Barre’s image may seem to have improved, but the fact remains no matter how dire things became over the years, Siyad Barre alone is to be blamed for sawing the seeds of destructiveness, kleptomanias and clan division that continue to destroy the country, up to this day.
May 1988, clearly marked as the beginning of the end, when a fierce battle broke out in the North between the Government forces and the SNM rebel militia, who long resisted the regime’s repression and became bent on either ousting the authoritarian regime, or seceding from the rest of Somalia proper. Death and carnage ensued. Amnesty International reported that the Somali Army "purposely murdered at least 5,000 unarmed civilians over a 10-month period” in the early phases of the putting down the resistance. In fact, more than 10,000 people were reportedly murdered in the months that followed military led by two of Siyad Barre’s most ruthless generals Mohamed Hashi Gani along Muhammad Said Hersi Morgan who ordered the bombing of northern towns and the fleeing refugees en route to the Ethiopian border camps. Not to mention, the subsequent widespread torture and arbitrary arrests, and rampant executions of civilians alleged of “supporting” the rebels that took place in the North.
Professor I. M. Lewis, a renowned historian who specialized on Somalia at the London School of Economics, recalled Siyad Barre for, "destroying his country both economically and politically and for fragmenting Somalia's clans, a terrible legacy for the people who come after him." In fact, this clearly sums up the disconcerting legacy that Siyad Barre left for the very country that he fought so hard to unite – “Soomaaliweyn.”
Finally in 1990, when all came to a head, more than 100 of Somalia’s most prominent elders, including some of the most revered Somali leaders, scholars, religious, and elders in the civic society signed what’s known as the “Somali Manifesto” calling for his resignation and the appointment of a transitional government pending free elections. However, president Barre once again missed a great exit strategy of face-saving and to avoid the country from plunging into a full-blown civil war. In fact, he called the manifesto "destructive," and jailed 45 of those who had signed it, but agreed to multi-party parliamentary elections to be scheduled in February 1991, but later revoked them and the civil war took its course. In 1991, when finally the military dictatorship of Siyad Barre was overthrown in a coup, instead of everyone heaving a sigh of relief, Somalia became a byword for conflict, poverty and instability in which there’s no end in sight.
Heikal I. Kenneded