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Recent History

Somalia's modern history began in the late 19th century when various European powers began to trade and establish themselves in the area. In the colonial patrician of Africa, Somali peoples were divided: the French occupied what is now Djibouti, the British occupied what is now northern Somalia (British Somaliland), Italy took the east and south, and other territories where Somali-speakers lived became part of Kenya and Ethiopia.

After World War II, in Article 23 of the 1947 Peace Treaty, Italy renounced all rights and titles to Italian Somaliland. In accordance with treaty stipulations, on 15 September 1948, the Four Powers referred the question of the disposal of former Italian colonies to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. On 21 November 1949, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending that Italian Somaliland be placed under an international trusteeship system for 10 years, with Italy as the administering authority, followed by independence for the Italian Somaliland. In 1959, at the request of the Somali Government, the UN General Assembly advanced the date of independence from 2 December to 1 July 1960. The new Republic was born with a tripartite coalition government, with two principal northern political parties merging with the Italian Youth League (IYL), the ruling party in the former Italian areas in the south. The government was carefully balanced and representative of the major ethnic groups, but the country was soon divided by ethnic jealousies. Moreover, the different administrative languages and legal and tax systems in the former British protectorates made unification difficult. However, popular commitment to irredentism, extending Somalia's borders to include the Somalis of Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, obscured the internal divisions, though this led to an unsuccessful war with Ethiopia in 1963-64.

In 1969, the military seized power under Maj.-Gen. Muhammad Siad Barre. Under Siad, Somalia began building up its military. Since its rival Ethiopia was a close ally of the United States, Somalia turned to the Soviet Union for aid, and in 1975 permitted the USSR to build a major base at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. But as Ethiopia turned Marxist after the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, Somalia found Moscow increasing its aid to Addis Ababa. Somalia expelled its Soviet advisors, and in 1977, launched open attacks in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, claimed by Somalia.

With massive Soviet and Cuban aid, Ethiopia repulsed the Somali offensive. Somalia leaders claimed that U.S. promises of aid had not been kept. Meanwhile, Somalia continued to actively support the Western Somali Liberation Front inside the Ogaden, while insisting all its regular forces had withdrawn. After the Ogaden War of 1977-78, and its cutoff of aid from the USSR, Somalia turned to the west. It was admitted to the Arab League and Saudi Arabia and other conservative states began providing aid to counter Soviet influence in Ethiopia. Egypt and Iran also provided aid, with many weapons procured from Spain. Some U.S.-built anti-aircraft weapons were transferred, apparently by Saudi Arabia.

A coup attempt, allegedly backed by the USSR, was put down in 1978. Siad was by then firmly in power, despite some difficulties with his own army and severe economic problems caused by the Sahel drought, the war, and an enormous refugee problem as Somalis fled the Ogaden.

Politically, Somalia abandoned its revolutionary rhetoric and sided more and more with conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia; it declined to follow the lead of Arab League countries breaking with Egypt after the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace.

By 1980, as the Iranian crisis forced the United States to look for new bases in the Middle East, previous Somali overtures were renewed, and the United States reached an agreement on base facilities at the Berbera Naval base and airfield and at the port of Mogadishu. In return, the United States was to extend some $20 million in military credits and pay for upgrading the bases.

Internal difficulties in October 1980 led to the proclamation of a state of emergency and re-establishment of the Supreme Revolutionary Council.

Continued drought, and the huge refugee population, have made the Somali economy a disaster, but aid from Saudi Arabia off set some of the worst effects.

By 1981, a rebel group, the Somali Salvation Front (SOSAF) was operating against Siad with Ethiopian assistance and broadcasting anti-Siad propaganda from Radio Kulmis, based in Addis Ababa. SOSAF was based largely on the Mijerteyn tribal confederation of former British Somaliland, and a secondary aim, if not to supplant Siad, was the secession of the former British Territory, which resented the domination of leaders from the tribes of the former Italian zone. In late 1981, the Mijerteyn-dominated SOSAF joined with the Somali National Movement, backed by the Isaaq tribes, forming the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SOSDAF).

In early 1982, following SOSDAF successes along the border, the government reportedly executed a number of local officials, provoking mutinies by several military garrisons in the Northern Region. This reportedly was sparked by resentment of the Military Commander of the North, BG Mohammed Haji Gani, a member of Siad's southern Marehan tribal confederation. Extensive violence was reported in the key northern town of Hargeisa.

In March 1982, Siad reshuffled his cabinet, restoring power to First Vice President Colonel-General Mohammed Ali Samantar, who regained the Ministry of Defense after stepping aside the year before.

In April, there were reports of an attempted plot against Siad Barre by several key figures who had been dropped in the March reshuffle, including Gen. Omar Haji Mohammed, who had served as Acting Defense Minister during the period of Samantar's absence and had built up a power base of his own. Since Haji Mohammed and the other figures involved were members of Siad's own Marehan clan, this plot marked the first open opposition to his rule from his own tribal clan. Siad had run his government largely through trusted relatives and the clan members, including his brother, the Foreign Minister, and his son-in-law, Adbulle Suleiman.

The mutinies and plots led to new U.S. doubts about the stability of Somalia, and the arms sales promised in 1980 were not delivered until the crisis of July 1982.

At the end of June 1982, Somalia began to report Ethiopian attacks across the border, and by early July, claimed that Ethiopian forces had invaded Somalia's Central (Mudugh) Region in several places. SOSDAF claimed that the invasions were carried out by its forces, and Ethiopia denied involvement. When it became clear that the invaders were receiving Ethiopian air cover and using armored vehicles, the United States and Italy began deliveries of military equipment. The U.S. deliveries, some rushed from Diego Garcia, included small arms, radars, and Vulcan air defense gun systems ordered earlier. The United States was particularly concerned because a SOSDAF success, even if limited to the secession of the Northern Region, would end U.S. rights to the base at Berbera.

The SOSDAF, after achieving some solidarity in 1983, including a brief merger with the smaller Somali National Movement (SNM) Ethiopia-based leader Col. Abdullaa Yusuf, had apparently driven many of its fighters to the government side. Conversely, there were reports of desertions to the rebel side. Most notable was the defection of Siad Barre's Ambassador to the UAE to the SNM. Meanwhile, the SNM leadership was also changed, and the SNM emerged as the more effective opposition group.

An extensive reshuffling of both the Cabinet and the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party was carried out by President Siad in June 1984. The return of former National Security Service chief Ahmed Suleiman Abdulle to head the new Ministry of Interior indicated his likely return to power over the internal security apparatus. Meanwhile, the government made overtures for a restoration of ties with the USSR, despite Soviet backing of Ethiopia.

Heavy fighting between rebels and government forces was reported in October 1984 in the northern regions. The major city of Hargeisa and port of Berbera were both reportedly cut off by SNM attacks. As internal problems grew, the pressure to solve the external ones grew too. In May 1986, Foreign Minister Adburahman Jama Barre met with Ethiopian government officials in the first stage of a peace process agreed to by the leaders of the respective nations.

The health of Siad had been deteriorating for years, and some reports indicated that he was suffering from liver cancer, but when he was involved in a traffic accident in May 1986, a competition began to see who would consolidate their power and possibly succeed him.

Siad's accident was severe enough that it was necessary to evacuate him to Saudi Arabia for treatment. The leadership vacuum that was created led to a scramble for control. Siad's family wanted to retain the position which it had gained and to counter moves by Ali Samantar, then Vice President and Defense Minister, to consolidate his power while Siad was being treated in Saudi Arabia. To prevent Samantar and his allies, primarily army units outside the capital, from taking control, Siad's family brought him back from Saudi Arabia only a month after the accident to prevent a takeover, even though Siad required the medical attention that could be best provided in Saudi Arabia.

Competition for power was not simply between Siad's family and Samantar, because Ahmed Suleiman Abdulle, the Interior Minister and Siad's son-in-law, was siding with Samantar. Abdulle's feud with the family focused on his conflicts with Siad's wife, Khadija, who was responsible for Abdulle being purged from his post in 1982. Abdulle approached Malash Mohammed, Siad's son, to see if he would plot to overthrow the government. Siad's return shortly after this was a sign of the family's insecurity.

The rivalry continued after Siad's return. In September, when the ruling Party was to renominate Siad to a new term as Chairman, Samantar arrived to give the President's speech only to find Siad there, who later presented part of his speech himself. In addition, Samantar had hoped to represent Somalia at the Non-Aligned Summit in New Dehli, but Siad's half-brother and Foreign Minister, Abdurahman Jama Barre, went instead.

Samantar's reputation included having only honest and efficient officials in the government. In addition, Samantar took the lead in discussions over the U.S./Somali defense relationship, placing him in a key position for support from both the United States and the military. The family's position was tied to its relationship with Siad and the predominance of the Marheran, although resentment existed within the tribe because of the perception that Siad had concentrated so much wealth with his own family and not throughout the tribe generally.

In January 1987, the power struggle took another turn with the announcement of the government's ruling body, the Politburo, concerning changes in the ruling party and the Cabinet. The insults were a victory for the family, but it was far from being a total victory. Samantar lost the Defense portfolio, kept the vice presidency, and was given the newly created, probably largely ceremonial, position of Prime Minister. No one was named to the vacant defense post. In addition, Mohammed Hashi Gani was chosen as one of the three newly named Deputy Defense Ministers, a further setback for Samantar as he was a close ally of the family. This was somewhat counterbalanced by two events: Abdulle was able to retain his Interior portfolio, and the family was unable to get Siad's half-brother, Foreign Minister Abdurahman Jama Barre, elevated to the Politburo of the SRSP.

Abdulle's political fortunes continued to rise. In a January 1988 reshuffle, Samantar remained Prime Minister, Hussein Kulmie Afrah became First Deputy Prime Minister and Inspector and Chief of Operations for Economic Affairs; Abdulle, Second Deputy Prime and Inspector and Chief of Operations for Social and Security Affairs; and Ahmad Mahmud Farrah, Third Deputy Prime Minister and Inspector and Chief of Operations for Political Affairs.

Further negotiations with Ethiopia led to the signing of a treaty formally ending its confrontation over the Ogaden. Internally, Somalia's military situation continued to worsen. Although individual reports from the war zones continued to be unreliable, a picture built up of major Somali National Movement successes in the north. A major offensive in May 1988 was followed by a steady run of attacks on government forces. The towns of Hargeisa and Burao fell under SNM control, and the government began bombing them regularly.

Somali military policy was devastating much of the area and driving it into famine. In November, the British Minister for Overseas Development, Brian Patten, managed to visit the Hartisheik refugee camp in northeast Ethiopia, where 400,000 refugees had fled from the fighting. He said that their physical state was better than that of the Sudanese refugees he had seen earlier, but they were clearly too frightened to go back until there was political change in Somalia.

The Somali government claimed there are 840,000 Ethiopian refugees in Somalia, most of whom crossed the border in 1977, but outside observers say the number may be as low as 400,000. The UN High Commission for Refugees has been providing aid for 10 years. In mid-1988, the Somali government began using UN relief supplies to recruit and feed refugees in Somalia and using them to fight for the government against the SNM. After six months of protests, the UN estimated that 140,000 had been recruited. On December 22, 1988, the UN High Commissioner, Jean Pierre Hocke, sent a letter to the Somali government insisting that food be permitted to enter through Djibouti and distributed to the refugee camps under UN supervision. UN officials halted the old system of shipping food through Berbera in Somalia and handing it over to Somali authorities.

At the end of January 1989, Prime Minister Samantar visited Washington as part of a diplomatic effort to get support for the government's efforts in the war and its attempts to salvage the economy. During his visit, reports surfaced that Somalia had acquired stocks of nerve gas from Libya but was refraining from using it. Relations between Libya and Somalia improved markedly in late 1988 and early 1989.


The conflict between the SNM and government forces was still on-going in early 1990. Government forces had managed to recapture Hargeisa, but the area was still under continuous SNM attack.

On 20 April 1990, the SNM concluded the process of selecting its new leadership. Abd al-Rahrnan Ahmad Ali replaced Muihamed Rashid Haji Yasin as chairman of the SNM. Haji Yasin had held the post since September 1985.

In early May 1990, Somalia accused Djibouti of invading the village of Lawyacado near the northeaster border between the two countries. The Somali government said that the invaders were armed with heavy weapons, and that 36 villagers were killed in the attack. The Defense Minister of Djibouti described the reports as "pure lies."

As summer progressed, President Siad began to indicate that he would both be willing to talk to people claiming to be dissidents and to consider moves toward a multiparty system. Prime Minister Samatur had asked a technical team set up by the President to draft a series of constitutional amendments toward greater democratization of the political process by yearend. This plan was approved by the full Council of Ministers, but would not be submitted for popular approval. The security and stability of the country had been ensured.

In mid-July, 55 opponents of President Siad Barre who were arrested a month earlier for signing a manifesto condemning human rights abuses by the government were acquitted of sedition. The President also established a committee to hold direct or indirect peace talks with the opposition. He acknowledged that security in the country was poor.

Significantly, also in mid-July, the Council of Ministers endorsed the implementation of democratization of the country's political system with a new constitution to be put to a popular referendum on 31 October. Parliamentary and local government elections were set for 1 February 1991. Three weeks later, the Council unanimously approved a bill legalizing the multiparty system in the country.

On 3 September 1990, President Barre dismissed the entire government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Samantar, after accusing the government of being unable to resolve the country's political and economic problems. He named Mohammed Hanadle Madar from northern Somalia as Prime Minister. Madar's cabinet was approved by President Siad Barre the next day. Meanwhile, the SNM claimed the capture of the central regional capital of Dusa Maffeb.

In October the government agreed to temporarily implement a new constitution that would introduce a multiparty system. At the same time, Somalia's three guerilla groups, threatened with possible expulsion from Ethiopia, were reported to have begun to coordinate their fighting.

In May 1990, as the government began to crumble, a group of businessmen and intellectuals, who became known as the Manifesto group, published an antigovernment declaration. In September, in an effort to precipitate Siad Barre's departure, the United Somali Congress (USC), the Somali Patriotic Movement/Front (SPM), and the SNM decided to coordinate their military tactics to overthrow Siad Barre and form a coalition government. There were no public statements about political programs, and it is unlikely that any were discussed. Siad Barre's repression had been generally directed at clans. In any case, the immediate task was to oust Siad Barre, after which his adversaries agreed to hold a national conference to hammer out common polices and create an equal distribution of power.

During the last three months of 1990, Mogadishu and the whole of southern Somalia became a war zone as the campaign to dislodge Siad Barre escalated. In December of 1990 and January 1991, as USC and SPM forces closed in on Mugadishu, Siad Barre instigated fighting inside the city. The fiercest clashes occurred on December 30, with fighting between members of the Darod clan (many of whom were armed by Siad Barre) and the Hawiye clan. Thousands of civilians lost their lives, particularly those belonging to the Hawiye, the largest clan in Mogadishu. At the same time, Siad Barre opened negotiations with some members of the Manifesto group.

On 19 January 1991, USC forces under the command of General Aidid, a former soldier who led a USC faction that was based in Ethiopia, entered the city, forcing Siad Barre to flee in a tank to his home area of Gedo, on the border with Kenya. Three days later, without consulting the leaders of the other armed opposition groups, prominent members of the Manifesto group formed a government, with Ali Mahdi, a wealthy hotelier, as interim president. This move set the stage for the strife that has since devastated Mogadishu. Aidid, the SPM, and the SNM immediately rejected Ah Mahdi's appointment and refused to recognize his authority.

Fighting again broke out in September, but was contained after neutral clans came between the two USC factions with their armed vehicles and troops. Disputes continued, with each side menacing the other militarily. On 13 November, Ali Mahdi moved his forces close to Aidid's headquarters. Full-scale fighting erupted on 17 November when Aidid responded with a military strike on Ali Mahdi's troops.

In the course of 1991, the conflict between Aidid and Ali Mahdi became, in part, a battle between two subclans. The fighting surprised Somalis, since there are no appreciable religious, cultural, or other, differences between the two subclans. There is no history of interclan fighting within the Hawiye clan, nor is there any traditional enmity between Aidid's Habr Gidir subclan and Ali Mahdi's Abgal subclan. The current rivalry between the two results from the way in which first Siad Barre and then the two USC leaders have sought to manipulate clan loyalty to secure a political power base. This legacy of newly manufactured ethnic tension is one of the most damaging political developments in contemporary Somalia, once Africa's most homogenous nation. As the conflict continues, subclan loyalty, even subclan survival, is increasingly at stake, with the fear that the future may bring murderous retaliation against the losers. The fight is also fueled by money. In a poor and aid-dependent country, such as Somalia, control over the symbols of legitimate" or sovereign" government is more than a matter of status, it is a license to print money. The government not only literally manufactures bank notes, but also controls the exchange rate, foreign aid, and can run up debts on the national account--which can bring great personal fortunes to those in office. Ali Mahdi and his ministerial colleagues have lost most of their businesses and depend on holding office for future income. Similarly, General Aidid and his financial backers are banking on their share of the spoils if they should win.


Mogadishu is not the only trouble spot in Somalia. With Siad Barre's defeat, the SNM became increasingly dissatisfied with its alliance with the USC and the SPM. The lack of consultation by the USC and the SPM, and the failure to hold the long-promised national conference after the government's collapse, galvanized prosecession sentiment among the northern region's Isaaq clan, which is the SNM's support base. Issaq discontent fed on many grievances, the ferocity of the 1988 war, and bitterness that none of the other main clans had condemned its savagery and had actually fought for the government and profited from the plunder of Hargeisa. There was also a deep-seated feeling that the north had been deliberately starved of development resources and that the introduction of Somali as the official language was partly, if not entirely, motivated by the determination to blunt the educational advantages enjoyed by the north as an English-speaking region.

Despite widespread support for secession among the rank and file, the SNM leadership was against it, since it was aware that winning international recognition would be difficult. Ali Mahdi's decision to take power strengthened the hand of the pro-secessionists who forced the decision on the leadership by arguing that a government dominated by southern groups would deny it a voice in a united Somalia. In May 1991, the Somali National Movement declared the independence of the Somaliland Republic (formerly British Somaliland). However, no country has officially recognized the Somaliland Republic.

The security situation in the north is rapidly deteriorating, compounded by dire economic problems and the many Issaqs who are fleeing the war in Mogadishu. A few humanitarian groups with limited resources work with indigenous organizations struggling to rehabilitate a region devastated by warfare and land mines. Hargeisa, to which most refugees from Mogadishu have returned, lies in ruins, with almost all its buildings destroyed. While there is no ideologically based opposition to the administration in Somaliland, its domination by the Isaaq-supported SNM has led to resistance from some members of non-Isaaq clans.

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