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ISSUE 45 November 30, 2002

Learing The Lessons: The Root Causes Of The Somali Conflict


Election Campaign in Full Swing

Media Coverage of Election Campaigning Debated

 US Suspects Somali Group, Al Qa’eda for Kenya Blast

 Agencies Appeal For US $78 Million to Help The Somaliland/Somali People

 Fears Attacks in Muslim Djibouti

UNICEF Calls Global Response To Children Orphaned By Aids Grossly Inadequate


 Bio-Data of UNICEF’s New Rep


Rayale to Visit Eastern Regions Soon

Dozens Die in Djibouti Boat Tragedy


Extracts From "The Withered Soul of a Nation", Part 3 


Bossasso’s Human Trafficking

Learing The Lessons: The Root Causes Of The Somali Conflict

O, My Tribe, Make Me a King or Just a Sultan: The Proliferation of Traditional Leadership in Somaliland


by Wais Kassim H. Dahir (LLB)

As a newly emerging and soon to be the world’s youngest independent state, Somaliland has a lot to experience in the years ahead. Given its location in one of the world’s scariest continents, and more particularly in east Africa where for the last few decades the people of this region severely endured intra state conflicts, civil wars, and years under the dominion of brutal dictators. Needless to say that those were mainly the underlying motives that led to the break away of Somaliland from the former Somalia.

However, despite the fact that Somaliland is yet to be recognized internationally as an independent state, it needs to prove to the international community, and more importantly to its own citizens, that it's strong enough to go through predictable predicaments. Only by heeding the rule of law, observing principles of democracy, and honoring the basic and fundamental human rights of every person without regard to race, religion, and opinion, will Somaliland procure the blessings it has been seeking since it declared itself to be an independent state.

Hence, it's essential that the current or future governments of this country should always look back at conflicts in this region, and particularly the barbaric clashes in Somalia, where people have been suffering for decades. Surely, that will help this infantile state to persist for generations. Therefore, the root causes of the Somali conflict must be kept in mind in order for Somaliland to learn the appropriate lessons: By the early 1990’s, politico-economic conflict and power struggles, which had beset Somalia since the late 1970’s finally, engulfed the country into a disastrous civil war. Consequently it led to the overthrow of the military regime of Siad Barre, disintegrated the central authority and caused the state of Somalia to cease as a political national entity.

Even though, currently, the intensity of the conflict has gradually subsided, the underlying reasons of the conflict have not disappeared altogether. As a matter of fact, it's true that one would call the Somali conflict as an "ideological Conflict" meaning a conflict which occurs between the state and insurgent movements, social in equality is the theme". It's also true that it is an identity-related conflict, because of the clan diversity among the Somali people, where every clan is struggling to get control of the state and dominate the other contesting clans.

Another episode of the Somali conflict includes a series of interventions, namely, colonial occupations and the cold-war’s geopolitical impact. Each of these phases played a critical role in adding fuel to the fires of the then ongoing conflict. At present, even though the two external interventions are past history, each one of them has left behind deleterious legacy, which still feeds conflict in Somalia.

Interestingly, many people including journalists, scholars, educators and ordinary people argue that the real cause of the Somali conflict is the segmentation of the Somali people into hostile clans who have been at war with each other throughout their history. This could actually be said to be one of the causes, but to conclude that it’s the only cause, is not convincing. The Somali conflict has also an external character, namely geopolitical and the impact of the cold war. The following sections will discuss the real causes of the Somali conflict, by concentrating on the clan system, the brutal years of dictatorship, and the legacy of the cold war.

The Clan System

The clan system played its major role in the catastrophic civil war. To this effect, since Somalia attained statehood, private pursuit and fierce competition over the resources of the country have been a marked feature among Somali elite behavior. "Every elite person with in the government believed he represented the interests of his particular kinship and lineage members." Each member of the governing elite thought that he was in the government, not as a national figure, but as a clan representative. And the income which the state obtained, mainly through foreign aid, was seen as similar to water and pasture which Somalis competed for in the pre-state era. The practical idea behind this is that each and every pastoral Somali, thus, representing his clan, has a right to appropriate a slice of this gift from Allah. This sort of behavior is incompatible with running a modern state. 

In essence, the still persisting power struggle among the so-called faction leaders who represent their fellow clans is based on the above-mentioned idea of controlling resources and opportunities of the state and obviously benefiting one’s kin. A Somali Scholar makes the following observation in this regard, "No Somali feels guilty in the unlawful appropriation of public wealth and the people do not see it as a robbery. On the contrary, any person holding public office is encouraged to get rich and also to help his kin-relations at the same time."

General Barre’s Reign of Terror

The man who led the coup d’etat, General Siad Barre was a "man of average intelligence and no formal schooling". Despite this less than promising record, the general seemed to have initially succeeded in convincing the public that he had a program of national construction and development. But it did not take long before he changed from a dictator into a tyrant.

Soon after taking power, General Barre started playing on the people’s emotions by invoking Somali Nationalism and the returning of the missing Somali territories. Siad Barre pursued this irredentist expansion while neglecting domestic issues. Accordingly, regular Somali army units crossed the border into Ethiopia in 1977, thereby waging the war with Ethiopia. Though at first, Somali forces scored numerous successive victories in the battlefield, "capturing all of the Ogaden region and threatening the key towns of Harar and DireDawa, " but with the help of Cuban and Soviet support it did not take too long for Ethiopia to regain all the lost territory, and in 1978, Ethiopia re-took all of the territories.

After losing all the territories in the war, the General faced a huge failure in his dominant policy. There was a new era for Somalia. As both his national construction and development policy, which was based on greater Somalia slowly came to an end, his prospects for holding on to power, were for the first time, seriously in doubt. 

Subsequently, Somali politics seemed to have completely focused on internal conflict and repression. This started when in the aftermath of the war with Ethiopia, a body of disgruntled army officers, equally angry at Barre’s poor leadership during the war and subsequent defeat attempted to stage a coup d’etat against the regime late in 1978. The coup, however, failed and "together with their leader Colonel Mohamed sheikh Osman, "Ciro" and 17 ringleaders were summarily executed". This finally led to the emergence of the armed oppositions. Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) was at first formed, followed by the Somali National movement (SNM).

Consequently, a new chapter was opened in the history of Somalia, i.e. the clans to which those two opposition groups belonged, faced merciless atrocities from the Barre regime. To start with the SNM, they had their bases in Ethiopia. But after the agreement between Ethiopia and Somalia that "Stipulated their abandoning of support for insurgency from both sides", the SNM entered returning on the north.. As a result, Siad Barre responded as expected: "’He used everything he had’" and all that he can marshal including the service of mercenary pilots to level the cities of the north specially Hargeisa to the ground, killing thousands of people, mainly civilians with SNM once again fleeing to Ethiopia"

The hosts of the other opposition groups faced somewhat similar punishment from the dictator. Mr. Barre sent special units, the most feared "Duub cas" or red hats into their region after the establishment of the opposition, (SSDF). "In May to June, 1979, upwards of 2000 " Umar Mohamud", the Mijerteen sub-lineage that colonel Abdullahi Yusuf (Leader of SSDF) belongs to, perished from thirst and sun exposure in the waterless triangle between Galkaayo, Gorowe, and Jiriban, after they were shielded from the water reservoirs by the "Duub cass" or red hat military unit of the regime". 

For the above-mentioned reasons, it could be said that the single most important factor responsible for the Somali disaster was the nature of leadership. 

The cold war Legacy

The cold war has played a determinant role in perpetuating hostilities among the Somalis. During the cold war era, Somalia was a theatre of super-power rivalry for strategic advantage and the state was part of this cold war policy. "To this regard, the conflict among domestic forces, as well as, Somalia and neighboring states, such as Ethiopia, were constantly meddled with by external patron". 

Regrettably, it’s quite understandable that the so called super powers at that time, first and foremost served their own geopolitical interests and only after that, the domestic interests of their client states.

Somalia got its independence in 1960 while the cold war was at its peak. Thus, it was the priority of both the U.S.A and USSR to contain each other’s influence on Somalia. However, the then Somali leadership knew that America and its western allies were providing more substantial military aid to Ethiopia, and as a result, Siad Barre Allied with the Soviet Union; "This alliance finally engulfed in a special friendship agreement, which guaranteed steady aid programmes, mostly arms and military equipment. Meanwhile, its archenemy, Ethiopia, remained on the side of U.S.A led bloc. And from then on, an arms race between the two countries took place". 

Somalia then became a state controlled by a military regime. "And the military government in Somalia with the support of the Soviet Union built the fourth largest modern sophisticated army in Sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana". Thus, the militarization also militarized the body politic, and violent methods became the means for internal suppression and controlling the population. On top of that, the military regime in Somalia remained in power with the political, military and economic support of its cold war patrons, despite its naked human rights violations. The reason is very simple, namely, in terms of geopolitical significance, Somalia ranked high, and as long as this strategy served the interests of foreign powers, the domestic brutality of the ruling regime remained unquestioned. 

Worst of all, when the cold war ended, the departing superpowers left behind an enormous quantity of weaponry, which turned the entire land of Somalia into an armed camp and, as a result, when the international community intervened in Somalia each household had more arms than food, and this is what kept the civil war going.

All in all, having experienced the primary causal forces of one of the continent’s most terrible civil wars, it’s of the view of this writer that Somaliland will acquire the strength and courage to carry on and tackle any future dilemma.

If you have any comments the writer would very much love to hear from you; E-mail:

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