The disintegration of Somalia




The superpowers supplied the arms and inspired the conflict. Mark Huband traces the roots of a famine

The Guardian, 7 August 1992

Somalia’s disintegration from a tenuously united nation state into a war-torn patchwork of fiefdoms controlled by clan chiefs is Africa’s, and perhaps the world’s, most vivid example of the devastation bequeathed to developing countries by the end of the cold war and of superpower interest in the Third World.

Throughout Africa, dictators who clung to power by promoting the strategic importance of their impoverished states in the eyes of the Eastern and Western power blocs are now finding their former backers departing amid lukewarm calls for improvements in human rights, economic reforms and political liberalisation.

In Somalia these calls are too late. Aid agencies estimate that 1.5 million people are close to starvation. The entire country is reliant on food aid brought to ports and across isolated land borders. The Red Cross alone is feeding 700,000 people at camps throughout the country, camps where at least one fifth of the population dying every day.

The north and south of the country are equally devastated. Even in the southern well irrigated farming region along Shabelle River people are, in the words of one aid worker, “dying like flies” despite the fields overflowing with crops.

In a country which until a year ago was largely self-reliant in food, it is politics which lies at the heart of the starvation.

Throughout his repressive 23-year dictatorship, Somalia’s former president Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown by invading rebel forces in January 1991, exploited the country’s geographical position as a way of attracting aid from first the former Soviet Union, and later the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Within three years of his seizure of power in 1969, Somalia was faced with the most severe drought in its history. At their height, famine relief camps housed over 250,000 people.

Barre, who had embarked, on an ideological path of scientific socialism”, exploited his links with the USSR to ease the plight of famine victims by using Soviet airplanes to carry out an airlift of 140,000 people who relocated to less affected areas. These measures resulted in a relatively low estimated death toll of 18,000. At least 20,000 have so far died during the current catastrophe, at a time when there is no serious drought.

Superpower interest in Somalia blended in well with the conflicts that Somalia’s clans had fought with their neighbours since well before the cold war.

Simultaneously, the use of Soviet military personnel and aircraft during the 1972 famine heralded a massive increase in the army’s reliance on the USSR, led to the Soviet development of the northern port of Berbera, the provision of enormous supplies of Soviet weapons and the arrival of 6,000 Soviet military advisers.

Chief among the regional conflicts was Somalia’s claim to parts of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, ceded to Ethiopia by Britain in 1954, where many Somali Ogadenis continue to live. Heightened nationalism, following Somalia’s independence from Britain and Italy in 1960 brought the Ogaden issue to the fore. In 1974 Lt Col Mengistu Haile Mariarn seized power in power in Ethiopia. Soviet influence in that country increased after Mengistu announced his intention to introduce strict Marxist ideology and expelled the United States. This increased pressure in Somalia to grab territory in the Ogaden.

Barre secured promises of financial assistance with which to buy arms from Saudi Arabia on condition that he re-establish closer ties with the West. In 1977 he expelled the Soviet military advisers in the hope of securing Western aid for the war.

But these promises were not made quickly enough for him to secure a victory in the Ogaden, though he continued to support the Ogaden secessionist movement, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), until peace talks in 1988.

Somalia’s entry into the Western bloc was fully assured once its territorial claims to parts of northern Kenya had been rescinded. Despite the Soviet presence in Ethiopia, the US was reluctant to support Somalia over the Ogaden because it was afraid of upsetting Kenya. The Kenya secessionist movement, the Northern Frontier District Liberation Front (NFDLF) had its offices in Mogadishu until the beginning of the current civil war in Somalia.

Rapprochement between Kenya and Somalia allowed the US to incorporate Somalia within its Persian Gulf strategy, developed in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In August 1980, a defence pact was signed which gave US troops access to the air and naval facilities at the Soviet-built port of Berbera. US financial aid poured in, including, by April 1987, money for weapons purchases. Military ties were strengthened, as they were with Italy and Egypt. The latter was the main US ally in the region, alongside Saudi Arabia.

But, disappointed with the scale of US military assistance, Barre re-established ties with the USSR in 1988. He also sought arms from Libya and from September 1988 was receiving substantial arms supplies from Tripoli. The latest Libyan consignment – 40 tonnes of weapons – arrived after Barre’s fall and quickly found its way into the hands of the clan chiefs who have been fighting each other since his overthrow.

Barre’s rapprochement with the superpowers was as much a denial of the realities of internal Somali politics as it was an act, at least by the superpowers, of atrocious opportunism. It is only now that that the fallout from superpower interest in Somalia is being felt, long after the European and American embassies have been evacuated and the US troops gone.

It is seen most clearly in the nature of the power hunger among the clans who have dismembered the country, and in their determination to pursue the rivalries and territorial claims which Barre gave the impression of having resolved as a way of securing Western aid and military hardware.

Fighters in the coalition Somali Liberation Army (SLA) which is currently fighting incursions from northern Kenya led by Barre’s son-in-law, General Sayeed Hersi morgan, have renamed southern parts of the country Jubaland, the name it had under British rule.

Under the British, the area stretched as far as Kenya’s Tana river, raising fears among Kenyans that elements within the SLA will revive the territorial dispute over northern Kenya which was resolved by Barre in order to gain access to Western arms.

Numerous among the SLA and Ogadenis who settled in the Juba (sic) area. The deputy to the SLA leader, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, is the chairman of the Ogadeni-dominated Somali Patriotic Movement, Lt Col Omar Jess. The ascendancy of the Ogadenis during the past year of civil war has done little to diminish fears of renewed claims to the Ogaden, particularly during the current disappearance of Ethiopia as a unified state as a result of internal divisions within the forces which overthrew Mengistu last year.

Somalia’s total disintegration into clan-held territories is largely a result of Barre’s exploitation and encouragement of clan rivalry throughout the eighties, a tactic he could pursue due to his access to foreign aid and weapons by paying off his allies and killing his enemies. His, manipulation of the clans, and the centring of power around himself and his Marehan clan, created the false unity reliant on dictatorship by which he, like other African leaders, stored up future instability.

A measure of how catastrophic the political situation facing Somalia now is lies in the nature of the political impasse which has led to the breakdown of all national institutions.

While there has been traditional distrust between the Hawiye clan of Gen Aideed and Barre’s Darod, the enmity which has been at the heart of the past year’s fighting is new. The division of Mogadishu and the enmity between the self-styled president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed’s Abgal, a sub-clan of the Hawiye, and Gen Aideed’s Habargidir, another sub-clan of the Hawiye, is unprecedented in the history of the Hawiye, the biggest clan in the country.

Now the weapons bought by Barre – the T-54 and T-55 Russian tanks and Korean and Romanian rockets and AK-47 rifles – ostensibly to fight the cold war and retain unity by supressing dissent and keeping himself in power, are being turned on Somalis themselves.

What Somalis are now left with is the inter-clan fighting encouraged by Barre and a fear of what the deadlock will mean for the future of the country. To battle out their disputes, they are armed with some of the most sophisticated weapons in Africa.

Simultaneously, the superpowers who readily supplied the hardware for the destruction from which they themselves were unlikely to suffer, have gone.

The question which few outside Somalia seem now to be asking is what can be done for a cold war sideshow once the main players have left the stage?


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