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The Day Siad Barre's Regime Collapsed

By  Dr. Mahamud M. Yahye




Former Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre

This month marks the 48th anniversary of the independence and unification of the Somali Republic, but nowadays there is nothing worth celebrating about after the total disintegration of our nation-state and the complete destruction of all its institutions.[1]  Besides, 17 and a half years have passed since the collapse of Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime, and the advent of much worse, self-appointed and semi-illiterate leaders in the form of tribal-minded, unscrupulous, greedy and ruthless warlords. I still vividly remember where I was and what I was doing on this latter fateful day (or 27/1/1991),  just as many members of my generation still remember where they were and what they were doing when former U.S. President, the late John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. These last two events were important to us either nationally or internationally.


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Like most ordinary Somalis, I was glad about the disappearance of Siad Barre’s repressive regime inasmuch as I was delighted when he came to power through a bloodless military coup d’état in 1969, thinking that he would usher in a much brighter future for our country, as compared to the preceding corrupt, ineffective and inefficient civilian administrations. How mistaken I was! In this connection, before the collapse of his hated, oppressive regime, Siad Barre was reported to have said: “When I leave Somalia, I will leave behind buildings but not people.” [2]How mistaken I wa




On that second historical day, i.e., 27th January, 1991, I wrote the following in a personal diary that I keep regularly:


            “Today, we heard the news that we have been waiting for almost a whole month, since the start of the civil war in Somalia: Siad Barre has finally been overthrown, and he had fled the capital just 15 minutes before the rebels and the masses stormed and took over the Presidential Palace, Villa Somalia. Reuters news agency reported on the screen available at the Finance Department of the bank where I work that, according to a member of the French charity organization “Medicins Sans Frontieres” [or Doctors Without Borders], Mr. S. Van Praet, “It’s true, he fled this morning.”


I was happy about the very humiliating manner in which Siad Barre had lost power after 21 years of absolute, despotic, erratic and corrupt rule. And I feel that God almighty has taken our revenge for us. But I’m apprehensive about the future. This is so, because the new guerrilla force that has assumed power in Mogadishu, i.e., the United Somali Congress (USC), is an unknown quantity, to say the least. There are also rumors to the effect that they want to constitute the domination of their own clan-family and to suppress and settle accounts with the rest of major Somali clans.

For sure, after all the destruction which has been caused to Somalia in the past 21 years politically, economically, socially and morally, some monumental efforts will be needed to achieve national reconciliation and to rebuild the country from scratch. But this task may not be so easy, because, first of all, ours is a terribly impoverished country with very little natural resources to speak of (our national economy depended largely on the export of livestock and bananas). Secondly, with the collapse of the communist system almost two years ago, there are no distinct competing blocks in the world to play off one against the other in terms of getting financial aid for Somalia. (Russia itself was forced this winter to beg food for her hungry and revolting populace from the Western, capitalist block!). Thirdly, most of the world’s attention is now focused on the current Gulf war [to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein regime’s occupation] and nobody cares about an internal strife in a “forgotten desert” in black Africa, as Newsweek magazine has succinctly put it in a recent article, because Somalia and its ports have no more strategic importance after the end of the cold war. Fourthly, the civil war in Somalia might not die down soon. As some experts on Somali affairs (e.g., Professor I. M. Lewis [of London School of Economics and famous anthropologist], Mr. Patrick Gilkes [former Head of BBC Somali Service] and Dr. Said Sheik Samatar [Professor of African History at Rutgers University in USA] have predicted, this civil strife might continue for quite some time. This is true because Siad Barre has so much accentuated the bitter rivalry between Somali clans, as part of his policy of divide and rule, and the animosity between these clans is so deep that the civil war may take years to come to an end. It is also believed that some foreign powers, who have always wanted to dismember and, thus, greatly weaken Somalia, are fanning the fire of this inter-clan fighting.


In other words, Somalia now faces an uncertain future. And it is with great apprehension, anxiety and foreboding that I receive every piece of news from home. As one Western diplomat, who is stationed in neighboring Djibouti, put it: “Somalia has regressed to what it was 100 years ago. The only difference is that today the Somali tribesmen are using AK rifles and tanks instead of swords and spears!” The only hope I see for national reconciliation is if the elder statesmen, clan chiefs, sheikhs/religious leaders, intellectuals, etc., play a more active role in ending this disastrous civil war.”




My hope for a government better than that of Siad Barre, as indicated in the above-cited diary, was dashed, but my great apprehension and doubt in early 1991 about Somalia’s future was vindicated by what has happened in the past 18 years or so. The rest is history, as they say. In this regard, I have never thought that this civil war would last that long. In my considered opinion, the main cause of Somalia’s agony during this relatively long period was lack of good, able leadership or what the great African statesman, ex-President of South Africa, Mr. Nelson Mandela, called “a tragic failure of leadership” while referring to the current terrible situation in Zimbabwe. (This latter country seems to be passing through the same political trajectory where Somalia had been passing in the late 1980s). Another adverse factor was the revival of the old destructive Somali system of tribalism whereby those clans who think they are the most powerful try to marginalize all other clans and, thus, attempt to monopolize power and privilege for the benefit of their own tribesmen only or for the self-enrichment of their elite. This vicious tribal system is in the view of most experts on Somali affairs something incompatible with running a modern nation-state.[3]


In addition to the above, the international community seems to have abandoned Somalia long time ago because of the country’s lack of strategic importance, as I alluded to earlier. This latter view is seconded by Mr. Pierre Beaudet who has recently written the following in a French article: “D’autre part, la Somalie n’a ni gaz, ni pétrole, contrairement au Soudan plus à l’ouest et aux pays du Golfe juste en face, ce qui fait en sorte que les “intérêts stratégiques des pays occidentaux  ne sont pas directement en jeu. C’est ce contexte qui fait en sorte que la question somalienne, malgré lest efforts de certain pays européens et africains, n’apparaît pas sur l’agenda international.[4] In plain English : “On the other hand, Somalia has neither gas nor oil in contrast to Sudan, situated to the far west and the [Arab] Gulf countries just across Somalia – something that in a way does not put the “strategic interests” of the Western countries at risk. It is this context that somehow makes the Somali question not to appear on the international agenda, despite the efforts of certain European and African countries.” Remember how quickly the international community acted when a very serious political crisis had broken out in neighboring Kenya late last year after the rigged presidential election: US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, had to fly to Nairobi promptly and a reasonable power-sharing arrangement between the ruling party and the opposition was put in place with the personal, fruitful mediation of Mr. Kofi Anan, former UN Secretary General?    




In conclusion, I have never imagined in my worst nightmares that Somalia’s civil war would continue for almost 18 years without any sign for a lasting solution in sight. This is so despite the fact that 15 national reconciliation conferences have so far held for that purpose. A new complicating factor is the emergence of a self-appointed extremist faction known as Al-Shabab (the Youth in Arabic). In this connection, we must have all realized by now that religious extremism combined with tribal fanaticism is a very lethal and destabilizing weapon indeed. But I hope that the more rational elements within this radical group would realize that they cannot alone take over power by force and that, if they are real adherers of the noble and peaceful religion of Islam, they should positively contribute to the ending of Somalia’s tragedy. They could do this by accepting the cease-        fire planned under the recent Djibouti peace agreement which some of the moderate leaders of this group have put their signature on it. Otherwise, the agony of the hapless Somali people, who have suffered for so long and who have not known peace, stability, economic development and the rule of law for almost two decades, might be forced to remain living under such appalling conditions indefinitely. Therefore, their parent organization, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), should give peace a chance, if they wish sincerely to serve the suffering Somali people as they often claim.

Mahamud M. Yahye, PhD

e-mail: [email protected]

[1] Note:  I wish to dedicate this article to the memory of Mr. Daud Hassan Ali who has recently been assassinated in broad daylight in his native city of Beled Weyne, Hiran region of Somalia – together with two other teachers, one  British and the other Kenyan  – perhaps by the extremist Islamic group, Al-Shabab. (I was told that it was one of their radical radicals, the late Aden Hashi Ayrow, who gave the order for killing Daud). Daud Hassan was a British citizen of Somali origin and he could have stayed in peaceful Britain, after retirement, for the rest of his life. But he wanted to contribute positively to the education of Somalia’s young generation who has not seen peace, security and a functioning national government for almost the past two decades. And although some of his closest friends, like Prof. Said S. Samatar of Rutgers University, USA, had advised him – or rather pleaded with him – not to go to lawless Somalia, Daud turned down their pleas and established a good modern school for the Somali youth in the above-mentioned city. How courageous he was! But ultimately he paid the highest price – his life – for fulfilling his ambition/conviction. My condolences to his family and friends, particularly his wife, Margaret Ali. May Daud’s soul rest in eternal peace.


[2]  See Meredith, Martin. The State of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence. (Great Britain: The Free Press, 2006); chapter 26, titled “Black Hawk Down”, p.469.


[3]  See also my 2-part article, entitled: “Tribalism: The Cancer In Our Midst”, to be accessed by googling under the title of the article or the full name of the present author.


[4]  Pierre Beaudet. “Somalie: La Crise Dont On Ne Parle Pas” [Somalia : The Crisis That We Don’t Talk About]. To be accessed by searching through “markacadeey.com” website’s list of recent articles or by googling under the author’s name or the full title of the article.

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