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Somalia’s failure a lesson to agitating Arab World

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Former Somalia dictator Siyad Barre fled in the face of rebels in 1991

January 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the central government of Somalia, an event that evokes parallels for many Somalis watching developments in the increasingly agitated Arab world.

The country's late dictator, Maj Gen Mohamed Siyad Barre fled the capital Mogadishu as militias loyal to rebel group United Somali Congress (USC) were breaching the heavily fortified Villa Somalia, the state house.

The sudden departure of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunis, the capital of Tunisia thus rung a bell in the minds of many Somalis.

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Gen Barre and his escorts travelled overnight to reach Kismayu, Somalia's third largest town 500 km south of Mogadishu, in the early hours of January 27. He probably felt safe as he joined the tens of thousands of his co-clansmen who had fled Mogadishu as his forces battled the growing rebellion.

The jubilation and euphoria in Mogadishu signalled the end of the work done by two guerrilla groups in northern Somalia, namely the Somali National Movement (SNM) and Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), and two from the southern regions--the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) and the USC.

There was hope on the day that the leaders of the rebel groups would announce some kind of authority set up, to at least show the nation that they were united in safeguarding the interests of the people.

Real vandalism

When no word was received for 48 hours regarding the power vacuum, thugs and marauding gangs realised that the rebel leaders had no plan to put up a caretaker rule, even temporarily.

Villa Somalia became the looters Mecca, with the office of the former head of state ransacked in a couple of days. Real vandalism started when the jobless gang members realised that the rebels had only one purpose: to defeat Gen Barre, and nothing beyond that.

The gates of every ministry, agency and institution that belonged to the public were forced open. Sightings of armed groups carting away furniture, communication devices and automobiles became common place.

When the tougher types locally known as mooryaan left the compounds, scavengers would automatically strip away anything left. followed to remove the leftovers.

When Mr Ali Mahdi Mohamed, the leader of one of the three factions of USC was declared ‘president of Somalia’ by his supporters just two days after Siyad Barre’s departure, it immediately alienated the other factions of the same USC and also the other rebel groups like SPM, SNM and SSDF.


There was confusion over whom to blame for what was going on. It was clear that the former regime had a hand in the resulting mess after it had adamantly refused to listen to suggestions to transform the dictatorial rule into a pluralistic one and to enact institutional reforms.

Happy with the superiority of the ruling Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party (SSRP) and a massive machinery of spies and detectives, Gen Barre had felt untouchable.

But the man known as the ‘father of the nation’ for whom thousands of people had paraded at Mogadishu’s Tribunal Square found himself cornered in his last days in office.

His last public utterances through Raadiyo Muqdisho (the state-run Mogadishu Radio) included: “Put down the guns. Go back to your farms and grow crops.”

The man whose words had hitherto been embraced as regulations and national guidelines suddenly became a laughing stock. “What kind of farms are we to go to back to. We are heading to his chambers,” was what one militia leader said in front of an armed group, ready to move to Villa Somalia in January 1991.

Former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

Somalis may now be increasingly associated with radical militancy, piracy and all kinds of evil attributes, but the inhabitants in Somalia had been some of the more law abiding people in Africa. Few dispute that Mogadishu was one of the safest capitals on earth, especially in the 1960s, 1970s and most of the 1980s.

A couple of volunteer vigilantes could just walk around a neighbourhood, ensuring that people stay safe and sound. “Since every state mechanism was in place, what were simply needed were all stakeholders accepting the reality to re-frame the governing system,” said Hassan Qalli, a witness of Siyad Barre’s last days in office.

Embrace changes

Failure to carefully embrace the required changes generated sparks that initiated upheavals and uncontrollable reactions. Neither the government nor the rebel leaders in Somalia followed the universally understood managerial sequence, according to Hassan Hussein, a Mogadishu University economics graduate.

"What happened is a model of leaders’ failure to plan their activities according to the needs, organising them appropriately, implementing them adequately, controlling with proper measures and more importantly monitoring them to see if there were needs for changes," Hussein told the Africa Review.

Interestingly enough, the anniversary of the state collapse in Somalia two decades ago coincided with media clips of protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria in northern Africa as well as political squabbles between leaders in Ivory Coast in West Africa.

Up to now, the above countries are in a situation that can be repaired. But as Somalia demonstrated things can get out of hand.

Within a year of Siyad Barre’s fall, Somalis widely admitted dowlad xumi waxay dhaantaa dowlad la’aan (a bad government is better than no government).

Somalis who have witnessed their armed forces disbanded, military depots opened to vandals and thugs and hooligans getting hold of all kinds of weapons to form rag-tag militias can testify to the consequences of uncoordinated rebellion.

Somali political leaders who were forced to join their power bases to become clan-based warlords and Islamist fanatics mushroomed into the feared Al-Shabaab movement are blamed for the fiefdoms formed in the once united Somalia.

Puntland state, self-declared Republic of Somaliland, Galmudug Authority, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea moderate Islamists and other authorities in Somalia are not fully loyal to the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government.

Be careful

Tunisians should be careful that they do not lose their gains in the last half-century, especially given that their development has not come off oil wealth as in other Arab states.

The fact that Egyptians are following the footsteps of the Tunisians makes the self-burning of Mohammed Bouazizi at Sidi Bouzid town in December 2010 a symbol of a revolt against long-term dictators in Northern Africa.

And as the Arab world agitates, it is very interesting how globalisation and the information revolution is accelerating the self-mobilisation process of ordinary people, especially the youth.

The new forms of media has been showed up a double-edged sword. A network of social media has enhanced protests by youngsters in Egypt as commandeered by Internet-savvy activists who acknowledged January 25 as the 'Day of Rage'.

Twenty years ago, the Somalia rebellion was moved mainly by messages through word of mouth, telephone and fax lines that existed then. The few information outlets then generated messages that hyped up the energy to challenge and defeat the regime without exposing what was next.

If Somalia’s experience is anything to go by, only compromises and consensus can generate a stable change, not the irresponsible use of networks of social media and opposition leaders claiming transformations they cannot control. Mayhem is certain if the targets are only to remove Ben Ali and Mubarak from power and nothing beyond that.

It is a warning for Tunisians, Egyptians and other nations in Africa, leaders and followers alike, aspiring to better changes.  

Mogadishu, Somalia
E-mail: [email protected]


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