Obituary: Mohamed Said Barre
Tuesday 03 January 1995
On the evening of 26 January 1991 Mohamed Siad Barre was forced by opponents of his regime to flee Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, for his clan homelands. He did not give up his ambition of recapturing the city for many months, but, confronted by a vengeful Somali militia, and alarmed by disagreements between his own family and supporters, Siad eventually fled to Kenya. It was the end of his 22-year rule in Somalia, which had started as Socialist experimentation and degenerated into dictatorship.
For a time after his flight, Siad was accommodated in some style at the expense of the Kenyan government, but popular indignation and a press campaign led the Kenyan president, General Daniel arap Moi, to refer the problem to the President of Nigeria, Maj-Gen Ibrahim Babangida, then also chairman of the Organisation of African Unity. Siad's entire party was evacuated by plane to Lagos, although some were refused refugee status and returned.
Although treated well by the Nigerian authorities, the fallen dictator was paid scant respect by the average Nigerian, and his home was robbed more than once. Unable to the end to accept responsibility for the famine and anarchy which has accompanied thesuccession struggle in Somalia, Siad died a frustrated and embittered man.
Siad was born in Shiilaabo, in the Ogaden area of Abyssinian Somaliland, now the Ethopian province of Haraghe, in about 1910. Siad's exact age has long been kept a state secret. His mother was Ogadeen and his father, who died when Siad was very young, was from the Marehan clan with which Siad more closely identified himself. As is still the custom, he was given a nickname by his fellow herdboys, ``Afweyne'' or ``Mighty Mouth'', which stuck with him for the rest of his life, despite subsequent efforts by sycophantic presidential aides to create alternatives, such as ``Father of Wisdom''.
Siad travelled to Lugh and Mogadishu in nearby Somalia Italiana for what formal schooling he had and then, in order to join the Corpo Zaptie, Polizia Africana Italiana, he adopted the Marehan town of Garbahaarey, within Somalia proper, as his supposed birthplace.
After British Commonwealth forces entering from Kenya overran the Italian colony early in 1941, Siad went on a course run by the King's African Rifles at Kabetti, in Kenya, and thereafter was employed in the special branch of the British Colonial Police,which took control of the Corpo Zaptie. This experience was his introduction to political intrigue, at which he proved adept. He rose to the highest rank then possible for an indigenous Somali.
The Allied powers could not agree on the disposal of Italy's former colonies and the issue had to be referred to the United Nations. Eventually, in 1949, Italy was granted United Nations Trusteeship over Somalia, to prepare for independence after 10 years. The Carabinieri returned and Siad was awarded a two-year scholarship to the Carabinieri Police College in Italy, and thereafter he attended courses in politics and administration in Mogadishu. He was the first Somali to be commissioned as a full polic e officer and was embarrassed to be Commander of Police in the Benadir province in 1958 when an active Egyptian diplomat, Kamal Ed Deen Saalah, was assassinated, when his security guard was mysteriously withdrawn.
In 1958, Somalia's own police force was formed, and by 1 July 1960, when Somalia became independent - uniting with the former British Somaliland Protectorate to form the Somali Republic - Siad had won accelerated promotion to the rank of Brigadier-General of Police. Siad opted for the Somali National Army on its formation in April 1960. He was one of its deputy commanders and was promoted to succeed the Commander-in-Chief when the latter died in 1965. Meantime successive fairly tolerant but complacent c ivilian regimes made the mistake of ignoring mounting public disquiet, especially over corruption levels. On 15 October 1969, President Abdurashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated. The crime may not have been politically inspired, but the national assembly dithered over his successor and in the early hours of 21 October, Siad led 20 army officers and five police officers in a bloodless coup d'etat.
Significant political figures were detained, the constitution suspended, the national assembly closed, political parties banned and the Supreme Court abolished. The country was renamed the Somali Democratic Republic and on 1 November the conspirators constituted themselves the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC).
Although, for the next few years at least, Siad took care to cultivate a consensus for successive changes, the path towards dictatorship was soon defined. Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre became head of state and chairman of the SRC, its politburo, the cabinet and the committees for defence, security and even judicial matters. During the ensuing 12 months, after which ``Scientific Socialism'' was pronounced (without public debate) the new national credo, potential rivals were detained and the Vice-Chair man of the SRC and two other influential leaders executed.
Statues to "national heroes" were raised and, throughout the land, indoctrination centres introduced slogans and mass-mobilisation campaigns, stressing an end to feuds and conflict over water and grazing. They promoted self-reliance and literacy, a new Roman script having been introduced - a considerable achievement.
The complex security paraphernalia and the paramilitary organisations so typical of all repressive states, whether of the right or the left (and Somalia was a confused mixture of both), were installed. The new National Security Service (NSS) began to runits own interrogation and detention centres and even courts. Prison conditions for a growing number of political and other prisoners were uniformly harsh and torture was rife.
As early as 1963, Somalia had entered into a military aid agreement with the Soviet Union. The extent, if any, to which there had been Soviet participation in the planning of Siad's 1969 coup is still disputed but in 1974 Siad signed a treaty of co-operation with the Soviet Union.
The banks, insurance companies, electrical power production, petroleum distribution, sugar estates and the refineries were all nationalised, but not the banana plantations, in which there were substantial foreign interests. Socialist policies of state control over production, exports and imports were implemented through mushrooming but uneconomic state agencies.
Possibly as a counter against Soviet influence, but also with an eye on petro-dollar aid, Siad led Somalia into the League of Arab states in 1974. In that same year he was elected Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity. To his Soviet friends, however, he was proving unorthodox, more pragmatist than socialist. His Somali peers in turn recognised an addiction to raw intelligence and a growing pattern of concentrating power unto himself.
Siad's models were Nasser and Kim Il Sung, cult personalities rather than ideologues. He also openly admired the Chinese and held Sekon Toure of Guinea and Nicolae Ceausescu in the highest esteem.
The Soviets pressed Siad for the formation of a civilian ``vanguard'' party to which their intergovernmental co-operation and aid could more easily relate. In 1975, Siad announced a succession of largely cosmetic changes leading to the establishment, thefollowing year, of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP). Former SRC members, disdaining demilitarisation, nevertheless became the politburo, and a carefully screened party congress adopted a prepared constitution. Siad was ``chosen'' to be General Secretary of the Party, as well as head of state, and chairman of both its politburo and central committee.
Meantime, the Somali military forces had increased rapidly in size, technical ability and political influence - to the consternation of neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, the French in Djibouti and the United States. Yet this was a time when serious drought was striking the entire Horn of Africa. Moreover the Ethiopian empire seemed to be crumbling.
For years, Somalia had clandestinely assisted Somali, Oromo, Eritrean and other nationalities and organisations opposed to the central governments in Ethiopia and Kenya. In June 1977, the Somali Cabinet and the Central Committee of the Party authorised the Somali military to intervene directly in support of the Western Somali Liberation Front. The Somali army entered the Ogaden on 23 July 1977 and overran it. After a vast airlift of men and materiel, a Russian-directed Ethio-Cuban army speedily dispatch ed the Somali army back home. Siad - who had abrogated all his agreements with the Soviet Union and actually broken relations with Cuba - shared with his Irish-American doctor but few others the vain hope that President Carter would come to his aid. The Somali officer corps were livid: the country stunned.
Parallels are few in history where a president and his regime survive such humiliation. A bungled attempted coup in 1978 was brutally suppressed and the machinery of government was soon totally distracted and inundated by unprecedented flows of refugees tragically, but probably wisely, fleeing the reimposition of Ethiopian rule over the Ogaden. Subsequent challenges to Siad's leadership, although they often evoked nationwide sympathy, were almost invariably organisationally clan-based.
Siad came to rely more and more on his wider family, including his in-laws, and those of his clansmen who were military men rather than politicians or skilled bureaucrats. Their subsequent accelerated promotions wrecked army morale. As Siad's popularity further waned, these few followers urged even greater repression. The National Assembly was suspended. States of emergency and midnight arrests became the norm. Opposition organised itself militarily, even opting for the unthinkable - support from the leaders of the Ethiopian empire-state.
To Siad, the mnemonics of liberation fronts merely hid angry clan groupings. Once so identified, whole areas were devastated. Among the first to suffer were the Majeerteen. But it was confrontation with the Isaak, the largest clan in the north, which revealed the depths which Siad and his relative-generals were prepared to plumb. The word ``genocide'' came to be used by international human rights observers.
Then in May 1986 whilst Siad was being driven through blinding rain by the Mayor of Mogadishu, his car hit a bus and was promptly rammed from the back by a vehicle full of bodyguards. Local people rushed to help, but they were machine-gunned. Siad, in a coma, was saved by the hospital plane of the Saudi monarch, but another factor - a family squabble over succession possibilities - further complicated the political scene.
Siad decided that the time was ripe to make a deal with the Ethiopian leader, Col Mengistu. Neither could any longer spare troops to face down each other, when there was mounting civil conflict to which they could be transferred. Either side would cease to fuel the other's problems and restrain the ``dissidents'' on their territory. But before Mengistu could suppress the SNM (as he had the SSDF), the Somalis went home. Siad reacted without any restraint: Hargeisa, the nation's second city, and former capital of British Somaliland, and other cities of the north were strafed, rocketed and bombed. In 1988 and 1989 columns of refugees were not spared. The final countdown had begun.
On the domestic front, cynicism and disillusion reigned. Foreign aid, especially that meant for the overestimated but none the less enormous refugee population, came to be the national staple and humanitarian aid groups, and their protectors, a second government. For the West this was expensive and could not go on for ever. Official meetings with the ageing president, however, developed into tireless monologues and on occasion into degrading diatribes. A diabetic insomniac and a chain smoker, Siad frequ ently kept his weary ministers and officials up until dawn to no avail. Morale collapsed.
Meantime, greedy relatives and hangers-on occupied themselves by securing ever more uneconomic loans, foreign exchange advances and unfulfilled contracts. They poached and destroyed wild fauna on a prodigious scale, not only in Somalia but across her borders in Ethiopia and particularly Kenya. The trade in ivory was so vast and profitable that Siad's own family became deeply involved. Siad himself was not, however, much interested in amassing personal wealth, but he could be vindictive to anyone who opp osed any member of his wider family.
The majority of the people had never been much impressed by the pomp and circumstance of state occasions. Despite popular toleration of gymnastic displays and spurious cultural shows, the ever popular traditional poets had as often as not paid scant respect for ``Afweyne''. But the machine- gunning of herds of domestic animals and the poisoning of wells was totally alien. Thus Siad's secret policies of divide and rule broke down. At home he simply ran out of clans. The Ogadeen, the Hawiya and even the h eretofore quiet Rahanweyn deserted him. Abroad too - China, Libya, South Africa and (regrettably) Italy apart - he ran out of allies. Despite the natural timidity of the Department of State (its human rights desk quite excepted) the Congress was adamant: no human rights: no aid.
As 1990 drew to a close, angry rebels infiltrated the Somali capital to confront the heavily armed presidential guard (the red berets) drawn to a man from Siad's own Marehan clan.
Confronted by guerrilla groups and rebellious clans - the Majeerteen, Siad found that it was in fact the Somali peoples' God-fearing love of freedom and what has been aptly termed a culture of pastoral democracy, that brought him to the road's end. He dispatched most of his relatives to enjoy their often ill-gotten gains in their villas abroad, himself taking refuge in a bunker close by the capital's airport and the coral coastline of the Indian Ocean; the prelude to his last days in power.
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