By Thomas Jing
“Me and my clan against my country; me and my brother against my clan; and me against my brother.” This Somali saying pretty much sums up the mindset responsible for the state of anarchy and disintegration that has beset Somalia in recent years. In May 1991, the northern part of the country declared its independence as Somaliland. This secession was followed in 1998 by another in the north east that led to the creation of Puntland.
A third the same year in the south west resulted in the declaration of the state of Jubaland and “a fourth self-proclaimed entity led by the Rahanweyn Resistance Army was set up in 1999, along the lines of Puntaland.” Somalia as a country had ceased to exist. From July 1992 to August 27, 2000, the United Nations declared Somalia to be a country “without a government.”
The complete disintegration of Somalia comes as a paradox, for contrary to the overwhelming majority of African countries, it had all the outward trappings to ensure its success as a nation. These were eloquently expressed in the words of Abdullaahi Iise, the country’s first prime minister: “The Somali form a single race, practice the same religion and speak a single language. They inhabit a vast territory which in its turn constitutes a well-defined geographic unit. All must know that the government of Somalia will strive its utmost, with the legal and peaceful means which are its democratic prerogatives to this end; the union of Somalia, until all Somalis a single Greater Somalia.”
The prime minister’s declaration was further corroborated by those of I.M. Lewis, one of the greatest authorities on Somali history. “The Somali-speaking people constitute one of the largest single ethnic blocks in Africa,” he stated.
Unfortunately, in the hands of the ruthless and unpatriotic politicians and soldiers who have blighted the political and social landscape of post-colonial Africa, this tremendous capital was completely squandered as Nurridin Farah, one of Somali’s most renowned writers, has pointed out. “This linguistic and cultural homogeneity could have been Somalia’s major strength in a continent plagued by intertribal divisions and conflicts,” he insists before adding that “But it became the source of its major weakness, as the search for Somali unity and essence dominated post-independent Somali political and cultural discourse.”
While the countless political and economic bungling that beset post-independence Somalia might have accounted for the present situation, some causes go far back into the country’s history. Foremost among them is the formation of the clan-family political structures that in A Modern History of Somalia, Lewis claims began to take shape in the Middle Ages “when extended families of persecuted Muslims elsewhere in Arabia fled en masse to the frontier in Somalia.”
This clan political structures, the arbitrary parceling of land and people and the expansionist ambitions of western and regional powers, and the incompetence and greed of national politicians and administrators all form part of the explosive cocktail that has contributed in the disintegration of Somalia.
The age of imperialism in Europe changed Somalia in that Britain, Italy and France all made territorial claims in that country. From the port of Aden in Yemen where they already had a foothold, the British aimed for Berbera on the Somalia side to ensure control of the Red Sea, “a crucial shipping lane to India.” The French, on their part, were interested in coal deposits further inland; while Italy, which was still recovering from the trauma of reunification, was prepared to grab any scrap of abandoned territory. Neighboring Ethiopia under Menelik II joined the fray in 1900 when it seized the Ogaden in western Somalia.
The Somalis put up a fierce resistance to the dismemberment of their territory. Under the leadership of religious scholar Sayyid Mohammed Hassan of the Darod tribe, it began in 1899 and targeted the Ethiopians as well as the British who controlled the ports and were wringing tax money from farmers. A brilliant orator and poet, Hassan developed a strong following of Islamic fundamentalist dervishes from the Dulbahante tribe, “these relentless and well organized warriors…” They led guerrilla warfare for more than twenty years until the British Royal Air Force carried out a bombing campaign against their strongholds in 1920. The Dulbahante, who viewed themselves as the protector of Greater Somalia, lost about half of their population in this struggle mainly because they refused to sign the Protectorate Treaty and submit to British colonial rule.
The French made little use of their Somali holdings while the Italians civilians migrated and invested in major agricultural undertakings in the south of the country. By contrast, the constant fighting in the north made the British who occupied this area to refrain from investing heavily.
When the various segments of the country were reunited in 1960, “ the north which had been under British control, lagged far behind the south in terms of economic development, and came to be dominated by the south.” This discrepancy in development would haunt the nation and contribute in no small way for the future civil war. Italy’s investments improved conditions for natives and set the stage for this power’s sole dominance of the entire Horn and parts of Northern Kenya.
During WWII, the British reconquered Somalia and it came directly under their military administration; but the Italians, 9 out of 10 of whom were loyal to Mussolini, continue to enjoy great influence in the country.
After the war, British military grip on the country was slackened and democracy initiated. As a result many local political parties sprang up, the most important of which was the Somali Youth League (SYL) founded in 1945.
In June 26, 1960, British Somaliland became independent as Somaliland. Somaliland formed a union with Italian Somalia in July 1, 1960 to become the Somali Republic. The new country loved politics but despite its promising start, “there were significant underlying problems, most notably the north/south economic divide and the issue of Ogaden,” recognized in 1948 by representatives of the victorious Allied powers as Ethiopian territory. In addition, the north and south spoke different languages, with English for the north and Italian for the south; and both regions had different currencies as well as cultural priorities.
Differences between north and south started to take a violent turn in the early sixties when northern paramilitary groups revolted when placed under southern commanders. Such internal disputes found an outlet expressed in unanimous hostility towards Ethiopia and Kenya, both of which were seen as standing in the way of “Greater Somalia.”
Another issue that came up was the fierce anti-imperialist stance of the emerging Somali parties. This attitude led them to embrace the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and by mid 1960 Somalia had formal military relationship with Russia. China supplied a lot of non military industrial funding for various projects.
By the late sixties, the Somali democracy that got off to a quick start began to develop warts. In the 1967 election, due to an intricate web of clan loyalties, the winner was not properly recognized and in 1969 the SYL and its various satellite parties experienced a major upset when they saw their 120 of the 123 seats in the Assembly slashed down to 46. SYL members cried foul and were backed by the military since the party had always stood for the invasion of Ethiopia and Kenya. This political confusion set the stage for the coup that came on October, 15, 1969, with the assassination of president Shermarke while prime minister Igaal was out of the country.
General Mahammad Siad Barre who assumed leadership following the coup set up the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) that embarked on a wide range of administrative and educational reforms. His adherence to communism led to the development of a particular brand of Marxism. Known as scientific socialism, it stressed self-reliance and a form of socialism based on Marxist principles, and Islam.
Despite the regime’s determination to stamp out clan politics, Barre’s government was commonly nicknamed MOD. This acronym stood for Marehan (Siad’s clan), Ogaden (the clan of Siad Barre’s mother) and Dulbahante (the clan of Siad Barre’s son-in-law). These were the three clans whose members formed the government’s inner circle. In 1975, for instance, ten of the twenty members of the SRC were from the Daarood clan-family while the Digil and Rahanweyn were totally unrepresented.
By the eighties, Barre’s political star began to wane and he ordered the arrests of 17 prominent politicians. Among those arrested were Mahammad Aadan Shaykh, a prominent Mareehaan clan politician as well as Umar Haaji Masala, chief of staff of the military and also from the same clan. The jailing of these figures created an atmosphere fear and alienated some clans. Confronted with his declining popularity and armed and internal resistance, Siad embarked on a reign of terror the Majeerten, the Hawiye, and the Isaaq clans.
In April 1978, a group of disgruntled military officers led by Mahammad Shaykh Usmaan, attempted a coup that flopped. 17 ringleaders, including Usmaan, were summarily executed. In a bid to smash Majeerteen opposition to Barre’s rule, the Red Berets army unit destroyed a reservoir to deny water to Umar Mahamuud Majeerteen sub-clan and their herds and many of them died of thirst. Then came the turn of the Isaaq in the northern portion of the country.
On April 6, 1981 in London, about 500 Isaaq émigrés formed the Somali National Movement (SNM) dedicated to ridding the country of Siad Barre. The government bombarded their towns and more than 300,000 fled into Ethiopia. The Hawiye clan, located around Mogadishu, was the next to come under the wrath of the Red Berets and many civilians were massacred. By 1990, the end was near and by July of that year, following widespread opposition, a shaken president had conceited defeat.
With the collapse of the central administration, the various regions took advantage and declared their autonomy. Today, Somalia still remains a nation in quest of a state.