Somalia: Atrocities Under the Siad Barre Regime

From 1969 to 1990, president and military dictator Siad Barre oversaw a campaign ofwidespread atrocities that decimated Somali civil society.  To quash separatist movements in the 1980s, the Somali Armed Forces targeted civilians in the northwest, culminating in the bloody 1988 siege of the regional capital Hargeisa, which claimed 5,000 civilian lives. [1]  When Barre’s regime finally collapsed in 1991, Somalia was plunged into a chaotic internal conflict from which it has never recovered. Today, Somalia 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 effort to gain justice for the victims of the Barre regime and to end impunity for those responsible for this dark chapter of Somalia’s history.

 Context: Understanding Clan Violence

In 1991, Somalia was described by the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.”[2]  In 2009, Foreign Policy Magazine called it “the most dangerous place  in the world.”[3]  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.  In 1992, the New York Times wrote: “Instead of fighting with traditional spears and shields, the clans have more recently conducted their feuds with mortars and machine guns.” One UN official even opined: “We could end up with Africa the way it was before the colonialists came, divided up into tribal enclaves.” [4]  But the history of political violence in Somalia is not given to such oversimplification.

The root causes of the Somali crisis are more modern in origin. They can be traced to at least three 20th century phenomena: colonialism, Cold War international relations, and the Barre dictatorship.  The interaction of these modern forces in the post-colonial state ushered in the clan conflict of the 1980s and the chaos of the 1990s-2000s.  Thus, to understand the present crisis we should look to what preceded it.

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 who partitioned ethnic Somali enclaves into parts of modern day Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. [5]  Parts of the north were administered as British Somaliland, while much of the South became Italian Somalia. When these two former colonies merged to form the independent United Republic of Somalia in 1960, the contrasting colonial, political and economic traditions became a source of divisive tension in the fledgling republic.[6]

» 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 bloodless coup. Barre formed the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) and declared an end to “tribalism, nepotism, corruption, and misrule.” The SRC aligned itself with the Soviet Union and denounced U.S. African policy as imperialist. [7]

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. Yet in practice, the regime ultimately did the opposite.   Barre 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 Dulbahante clans. [7] 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, including monitoring security “offenses,” 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

Conquering the ethnic Somali regions of Ethiopia had long been one of Barre’s policies. The moment seemed ripe with the fall of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Sellasie in 1974.  Three years later, the Somali National Army invaded and attempted to annex the Somali enclave in the Ogaden region.  This proved to be a fatal miscalculation.  The Soviet Union and Cuba backed the new Marxist government of Ethiopia and withdrew support from Barre.  Soviet aid—once the life-blood of the regime—was cut off.

A column of refugees soon flowed from the Ogaden war and from drought stricken regions in the Horn.  The regime systematically resettled Ogaden refugees in camps and settlements 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, 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. [4]

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. [6]

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 U.S. 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. In order to maintain military bases there, the U.S. government gave Barre’s regime $163.5 million in military technology, and four times as much in economic aid from 1980-1988.  With U.S. support, Barre’s army swelled to number some 120,000 troops. [6] [9] 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. The Isaaq-majority SNM prosecuted a low-intensity guerilla war against the government throughout this period.  Though the SNM also committed human rights violations, the overwhelming number of atrocities were committed by Somali government soldiers.[1]

By 1983, as many as 1.3 million refugees had arrived in Somalia. [8]  The military defeat against Ethiopia and the refugee crisis strained the Somali economy, particularly in the northern areas dominated by the Isaaq clan, where Barre favored Ogaden refugees over the Isaaq in regional government posts.

By 1987, a segment of the Ogaden clan broke from the government to launch its own opposition group (the Somali Patriotic Movement, or SPM), and leaders of the Hawiye clan formed the Somali National Alliance (SNA).  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 bombing sorties flown by Somali pilots and by South African and ex-Rhodesian mercenaries destroyed an estimated 70% of the city. The attack struck residential neighborhoods the hardest and leveled most of the city; over 5,000 civilians were killed.  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. [1] [6] [10]

The Collapse of the Somali State: 1991-2012

In 1989, a group of Somali exiles from the Hawiye clan formed the United Somali Congress (USC) in Rome.  Fatefully, Barre responded by ordering the Red Berets to carry out a renewed wave of violence against the Hawiye and Isaaq populations.  USC militias eventually struck back, and, on January 27, 1991, drove Barre out of Mogadishu.  At the same time, the SNM seized power in the northwest and declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland.  Barre fled the country and, four years later, died a natural death in exile. [7]

Meanwhile, Mogadishu was plunged into chaos as rival militia leaders battled for control of the city.  The conflagration spread across Somalia, sparking a dire food crisis and eventually an ill-fated international humanitarian intervention.  More than twenty years later, Mogadishu remains a lawless zone with no effective government. In 2006, an Islamist insurgency threatened to topple the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).  In response, Ethiopia staged a large-scale military intervention. Although many have accused the Islamist insurgency, the TFG, and Ethiopia’s counterinsurgency of carrying out widespread human rights abuses against civilians, evidence of the full scale and scope of these violations has been slow to emerge.

By 2009, some 3.2 million Somalis are dependent on humanitarian assistance for their survival.[11]  At the same time, piracy along Somalia’s coasts had become a source of international tension, capturing the media’s attention and even obscuring the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

By 2011, the TFG was still confined to only a part of Mogadishu. Weak and worn out by political squabbles, it remained dependent on troops of the African Union (AU) mission (AMISOM) 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 known as Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group bent on imposing its extreme version of Islam on the entire country, if not the entire region. [13] [14] [15] 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. [15] [16] Adding to the crisis, Somalia was struck by famine in 2011 and early 2012.  At its height, the famine raised the number of people entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance in Somalia to 4 million. [17]

One oasis in Somalia’s devastated social landscape is the self-proclaimed republic of Somaliland.  Built on the ashes of Hargeisa and 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 and effective governance. While the Somaliland experiment in democracy remains fragile, it offers a glimmer of hope in a region that has not seen peace in three decades.


U dhaaf Halcelis

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