President Siad Barre: Memories 50 Years later

 

On October 21, a day like today in 1969, a bloodless coup resulted in the installment of President Siad Barre.

From 1969 to 1978, the Barre Regime enjoyed relative popularity and financial support from both the Soviet Union and Western institutions.[ While projecting an image of Somalia as a constitutional state to international actors, Barre cultivated a patrimonial state that increasingly revolved around clan identity.

Clan-based paramilitaries were funded and armed by the government, a practice that exacerbated relations between communities that had previously lived adjacently and intermarried with little conflict.

Rather than completely excluding particular clans, Barre coopted key actors in certain sub-clans, causing divisions within the larger clans.

During this time, the regime passed legislation giving the state wide powers of detention and execution. A number of paramilitaries, militias, and security agencies were founded, including the National Security Service and the Victory Pioneers.

While there were several incidents of political violence, this caused relatively low numbers of civilian deaths; no single incident from 1945 to 1975 seems to have caused more than 100 civilian deaths.[vii]

 

The Barre regime became increasingly oppressive and violent in the late 1970s through the 1980s, although mass atrocities did not begin until later. In 1977 Somalia entered the Ethio-Somalia or Ogaden war with Ethiopia.

After a number of initial victories, the Soviet Union withdrew support from Somalia in favor of Ethiopia, and Somalia lost the war in 1978.

Discontent with the Siad Barre regime began to spread after the military loss against Ethiopia. Siad Barre had eighty-two high level military officers executed in Ethiopian territory for their opposition to the way the war was handled.

The military failure and execution of military officers prompted a 1978 coup attempt. Despite somewhat diverse clan participation amongst the coup leaders, Barre portrayed the coup as orchestrated by the Majeerteen clan. In a pattern similar to what would be used later against the Isaak clan in 1988, Barre responded by purging the government and military of Majeerteen, and committing reprisal killings against the Majeerteen civilian clan members that left roughly 2,000 dead.

Siad Barre rose from being an orphaned shepherd boy to rule Somalia for more than two decades, using a mixture of terror and guile. He left behind a country beset by clan rivalries and drought. War and famine combined in 1992 to kill 350,000 people in the nation of 8 million.

 

After leading a bloodless 1969 coup, Siad Barre survived defeat in a long desert war with Ethiopia and maneuvered the country through alliances with the Soviets and Americans. Meanwhile, his country suffered through a succession of droughts.

 

A tall, austere-looking man with a long face and hooded eyes often hidden behind dark glasses, Siad Barre kept power in a land of anarchic nomads by cunningly playing a myriad of squabbling clans off against one another.

 

Orphaned at 10, he scratched out a living as a shepherd before joining the colonial police force. He became chief inspector, the highest rank possible for a Somali under Italian administration.

 

Largely self-taught, he studied voraciously, gaining a secondary school equivalency and going on to a military course at an army college in Italy, a former colonial power.

 

When Somalia gained independence in 1960, Siad Barre was appointed the new nation’s army vice commander. Five years later, he became commander-in-chief.

 

After leading a coup Oct. 21, 1969, Siad Barre blended Marxist doctrine, Somali traditions and Islamic precepts into what he called “scientific socialism.”

During his years in power, Siad Barre steered the predominantly Moslem nation through shifting diplomatic associations with the Soviet Union and the United States, becoming Washington’s closest ally in the Horn of Africa during most of the 1980s and the recipient of more than $700 million in economic and military aid.

 

In recent years, however, in the wake of continuing allegations of human-rights violations and a lessening of the strategic importance of the region, the United States cut back sharply on such payments.

 

The fierce conflict has driven at least 35,000 refugees to seek safety in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, according to U.N. officials here.

 

The Soviet Union formed a close alliance with Siad Barre in 1974, but three years later abandoned him for Ethiopia after the two African nations went to war over territory in the Ogaden Desert, which forms part of their border.

 

The United States then threw its support to Somalia.

 

Both superpowers saw Ethiopia and Somalia as crucial to control of the narrow eastern access to the Red Sea, which both countries border. But interest waned in Siad Barre’s government with diminishing Cold War rivalries and because of his government’s brutal treatment of its opponents.

 

The Somali military killed 40,000 to 50,000 unarmed civilians between June, 1988, and January, 1990, according to the human rights group Africa Watch.