From 1969 until 1990, president and military dictator Siad Barre oversaw a campaign of widespread atrocities that decimated Somali civil society. To quash separatist movements, the Somali Armed Forces targeted civilians in the northwest, culminating in the bloody 1988 siege of the regional capital Hargeisa, which claimed at least 5,000 civilian lives. When Barre’s regime finally collapsed in 1991, Somalia was plunged into a chaotic internal conflict from which it has never recovered. Today, it is universally cited as a ‘failed state.’
CJA’s cases against three former members of Siad Barre’s regime—former Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Mohamed Ali Samantar, notorious war criminal Colonel Yusuf Abdi Ali (aka Tukeh), and former Chief of Investigations of the infamous National Security Service Abdi Aden Magan—represent the first international efforts to gain justice for the victims of the Barre regime and to end impunity for those responsible for this dark chapter of the history of Somalia and Somaliland.
Context: Understanding Clan Violence
In 1991, Somalia was described by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.” In 2009, Foreign Policy Magazine called it “the most dangerous place in the world.” In the intervening 18 years, the violence in Somalia was portrayed in the Western media as a regression to a primordial, even timeless conflict based on eternal tribal hatreds. As one UN official opined for a New York Times piece: “We could end up with Africa the way it was before the colonialists came, divided up into tribal enclaves.” But the history of political violence is not given to such oversimplification. The roots of the Somali crises can be traced to at least three 20th century phenomena: Colonialism, Cold War international relations, and the dictatorship of Siad Barre.
The Legacy of Colonialism
Ethnic Somalis have lived for centuries throughout the Horn of Africa, practicing nomadic pastoralism in the north and agricultural pastoralism in the south. However, Somalia’s political borders were imposed by European colonial powers that partitioned ethnic Somali enclaves into parts of modern day Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. Parts of the north were administered as British Somaliland, while much of the south became Italian Somalia. When these two former colonies were merged to form the independent United Republic of Somalia in 1960, the contrasting traditions became a source of divisive tension.
» Read more on the colonial roots of the conflict in Somalia.
The Barre Dictatorship Begins: 1969-1975
Somalia’s 9-year experiment in post-colonial democracy ended in October 1969, when Major General Siad Barre seized power in a largely bloodless coup. Barre formed the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), which aligned itself with the Soviet Union and denounced the United States’s Africa policy as imperialist. At the same time, Barre set out to radically transform Somali society through “scientific socialism,” an ideology that fused Marxism with Quranic interpretation. Publicly, Barre claimed to stamp out the clan system. In practice, he elevated members of his family’s clans to the regime’s inner circle, a practice that earned his government the code-name M.O.D.—an acronym of the Mareehaan, Ogaden and Dhulbahante clans.
In the 1970s, Barre formed a new intelligence agency comprised of members of his clan called the National Security Service (NSS). Ostensibly responsible for intelligence and internal security, the NSS became known as the “Black SS”: a secret police force that used torture and arbitrary detention to suppress dissidents and curtail civil liberties.
Turning Point: The Ogaden War with Ethiopia: 1977-1978
In 1977, the Somali National Army invaded and attempted to annex the ethnic Somali enclave in the Somali region of Ethiopia, sometimes called the “Ogaden.” This proved to be a fatal miscalculation as the Soviet Union and Cuba backed the new Marxist government of Ethiopia. Soviet aid, once the life-blood of the Barre regime, was cut off. When refugees soon flowed from the Ogaden war and from drought-stricken regions in the Horn of Africa, the regime systematically resettled them in the northwest region and supplied them with weapons to help suppress the Isaaq and seize their economic assets.
Uprising in the Northwest: 1978-1982
In 1978, military officers from the Majeerteen clan launched a coup attempt. The Red Berets—the Somali military special forces—responded by destroying water reservoirs in Majeerteen areas. As a result, an estimated 2,000 Majeerteen died of thirst. Paramilitaries also waged a campaign of sexual violence against Majeerteen women. But the rebellion spread. In 1979, a group of Isaaq expatriates formed the Somali National Movement (SNM), with the goal of overthrowing Barre. By 1982, the SNM were ready to launch an invasion of northern Somalia from their base in Ethiopia. Although the withdrawal of Soviet aid dealt a blow to Barre’s military strength, a new foreign partner soon stepped into the breach. With the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States had lost a key ally in the Middle East. The proximity of the Horn of Africa to Gulf oil shipping routes gave Somalia a new strategic importance with the U.S. government. From 1980-1988 the U.S. gave Barre’s regime $163.5 million in military technology, and four times as much in economic aid. This formidable war machine would be turned against its own civilians.
Widespread Atrocities: 1978-1991
Throughout the early 1980s, the Barre regime used increasingly repressive tactics to suppress dissidents from all clans, with particular brutality in the northwest. Though the Isaaq-majority SNM also committed human rights violations, the overwhelming number of atrocities was committed by Somali government soldiers. By 1987, with other opposition groups emerging, the regime had lost control of most of the country. After the Ethiopia-Somalia peace agreement in May 1988, the SNM, fearing the collapse of its long insurgency, attacked the major northern towns of Hargeisa and Burao. In what Human Rights Watch characterized as “savage counterinsurgency tactics,” the regime responded with the aerial bombing and strafing of northern towns and villages, including the pursuit and slaughter of civilians fleeing on foot. The assault focused on Hargeisa—the second-largest city in Somalia—where bombings destroyed an estimated 70% of the city and killed over 5,000 civilians. Nearly half a million Somalis fled to Ethiopia, where they remained for years in refugee camps. At least another half million internally displaced persons streamed to other regions within Somalia.
The Collapse of the Somali State: 1991-2012
In 1989, Somali exiles from the Hawiye clan formed the United Somali Congress (USC) in Rome. Barre responded by ordering the Red Berets to carry out a renewed wave of violence. USC militias struck back, and, on January 27, 1991, drove Barre out of Mogadishu. The SNM seized power in the northwest and declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland.
Meanwhile, Mogadishu was plunged into chaos as rival militia leaders battled for control of the city. More than twenty-five years later, Mogadishu remained a lawless zone with no effective government. In 2006, an Islamist insurgency threatened to topple the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Weak and worn out by political squabbles, the TFG remained dependent on troops of the African Union mission for its very existence. Regions to the north still refused to recognize its legitimacy, and much of southern and central Somalia was controlled by the Islamist insurgency Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group bent on imposing its extreme version of Islam on the entire country, if not region. By 2010, about 1.5 million people had been internally displaced within Somalia, and more than half a million Somali refugees had sought shelter in neighboring countries. Adding to the crisis, Somalia was struck by famine in 2011 and early 2012, which, at its height, raised the number of people entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance in Somalia to 4 million.
New Central Government and continued humanitarian crisis: 2012 to 2017
In 2012, Somalia ended the transitional government by establishing a new parliament and holding its first presidential election since 1967. On January 17, 2013, the United States formally recognized the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS). With the assistance of the African Union and the U.S., pro-government forces recaptured the last remaining city from Al-Shabab and made key advances in defeating the militant group. However, Al-Shabab attacks in public spaces and government outposts in the region continued, including the 2013 attack at the Westgate mall in Kenya and a double truck bombing in October 2017 that killed 350 people in Mogadishu.
During a meeting with a Somaliland delegation in Istanbul on 18 January, 2014, the new federal Government of Somalia acknowledged and condemned the atrocities the Siad Barre regime committed, particularly those committed against the Somaliland people.
One oasis in Somalia’s devastated social landscape is the self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland. Built on the ashes of the devastated northwest region, Somaliland—while still unrecognized by the international community—has undertaken a transitional justice effort to re-establish the rule of law. While the Somaliland experiment in democracy remains fragile, it offers a glimmer of hope in a region that has not seen peace in many decades.
» Learn more about the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland and efforts at transitional justice there.