Independence and the Siyad Barre Regime: 1960-1991
The beginning of a top-down centralised Somali state came on 26 June 1960. The British engineered the unification of British Somaliland with the former Italian Somaliland (lost by Italy after World War II) but left its administration entirely up to the rulers of the new Somali Republic. From the outside, independence went smoothly. Mogadishu was made the capital and Somalia soon joined the United Nations.
However, vast disparities between each region’s development, including the education system, legal frameworks, telephone networks and linguistic differences, all contrived against unification. For the northerners, Mogadishu was one thousand kilometres away, creating huge practical and logistical problems.
To compound its political fragility, Somalia experienced a serious of catastrophic natural disasters. Five years after becoming an independent state, Somalis had been brought to the brink of famine three times and were no closer to establishing agriculture as an economic revenue source or a consistent food supply.
By 1967, unity between the two former protectorates finally gained clan-based traction, but the other failures of the government, including an economy petrified with nepotism, exploitation and corruption, caused a military coup in 1969. The only casualty was President Shermarke. General Mohammed Siyad Barrè had taken over.
The regime of General Siyad Barrè
General Siyad Barrè enjoyed the people's support in the early years of his regime. While he was determined to override clan divisions, he quickly consolidated his power base around his own clan lineage. To gain the peoples' support, Siyad harnessed the popular Pan-Somali Movement. To do this, he received significant financial and military support from the Soviet Union, creating one of East Africa’s best-equipped armed forces. He professed an allegiance to Soviet-style socialism, but his socialist economic projects proved disastrous. However, he did preside over the establishment of a written Somali language, a source of great national pride.
While Somalis respected his commitment to a strong Somali military, Siyad’s notorious intelligence agency, the National Security Services, implemented widespread harsh measures against the slightest regime criticism, including the use of detention, torment and torture. The Somalis came to live under constant fear over the consequences of dissent.
General Mohammed Siyad Barre
The beginning of the end: the Ogaden War and Somali rebellion
Well aware of the Somalis' desire for unity of their people and keen to show off his military force, in 1974, Siyad decided to invade Ethiopia to reclaim the contested Ogaden region. The move proved disastrous. The Soviets soon switched their support away from Somalia to Ethiopia. Siyad may have had a well-equipped military, but only a quarter of its equipment worked. Before long, the 215,000 strong army of Ethiopia had destroyed much of the Somali army’s fighting capability.
Siyad’s defeat at the hands of the Ethiopians proved a turning point in Somali support for his regime. His inability to demonstrate the effectiveness of his military on an international level caused serious dissent within the Barrè government and a number of clan-based rebel movements began to form. In response to a coup attempt involving senior (mostly marginalised Majeerteen) members of his military in 1978, Siyad decided to issue weapons to his supporters, triggering the beginning of the collapse of law and order.
Somalia’s defeat also created a massive influx of ethnic-Somali refugees, the antithesis of the Pan-Somali objective to reclaim traditional Somali lands. Their arrival coincided with a severe drought and the crisis prompted the Barrè Government to seek and receive large amounts of food assistance from the international community. With the domestic food supply compromised by drought and the torrential rains that succeeded it, Barrè made access to food (and denial of it) a mechanism for ensuring the loyalty of his supporters. Before long, international observers accused him of misappropriating food aid.
By 1988, he authorised clan-based militias to fight against those clans rebelling against his regime. The Isaaq lost tens of thousands of civilians at his hands. But the rebels kept coming. By 1989, the military regime had become politically and diplomatically isolated and war against it engulfed most of the country. The clan-based rebel forces began to gain control of key Somali towns, dubbing Siyad ‘Mayor of Mogadishu’ as that was the only district his loyal forces effectively controlled. By 1990, even his own Darod clansmen abandoned him and in January 1991, Siyad fled Somalia.