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Why Are You Seceding… Brother?
I recently posted on two Somali websites a piece titled “Recognition of Somaliland is good for Somalia”. In it I argued that recognition of Somaliland will not harm Somalia at all and may indeed have a positive impact for all concerned.
I also mentioned that most Somalis are inexplicably hostile to Somaliland and its people. As if to prove me right, almost every reaction on every Somalia website ranged between the merely mocking of the childish variety “You will never be recognized naah nanah nah nah!” to the viciously hateful of the “Death to all Somalilanders” type.
But amongst all the hostility there were one or two people who asked why is Somaliland seceding? brother? That question is particularly poignant when raised by young diaspora-born or brought up Somalis who were not part of the oppression of Somaliland during the 30 years of union with Somalia and did not participate in the ultimate destruction of united Somalia itself.
Below I will try to relate the facts that led to Somaliland seceding in 1991. I will try to be as objective as I can with the historical facts but I am willing to be corrected if anyone knows more than I do about the events that shaped this blighted land and Race over the last 50 years.
Somaliland became independent from colonial Britain on June 26 th 1960. Four days later it joined with Somalia after the latter gained it’s independence from Italy which was ruling it on behalf of the UN for ten years. It is worthwhile to remember that before July 1 st 1960, Somaliland and Somalia were never united as a nation-state or joined under any tribal or clan arrangements.
Somalilanders and Somalis were both swept along in the heady euphoria of nationalism sweeping throughout Africa at the time. But this was not part of the elite Africans’ utopia of Pan-Africanism, it was an essentially nationalistic local affair. Somalis were not interested in African unity they were interested in getting the Somali bits out of the rest of Africa and out of anybody else’s dominion and bringing them under one roof.. The union of this two was going to be the start of a `Greater Somalia’ encompassing all the regions in East Africa inhabited by Somali-speaking peoples: The Ogaden in Ethiopia, French Djibouti and Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. Whether one sees this as a noble cause of unity or distasteful nationalist chauvinism is a matter of opinion but at the time this was the wind of change blowing through the area and beyond. Both Somaliland and Somalia bought into it with typically unquestioning enthusiasm and warmth. And it was in that atmosphere of heady Somaliness that Somalilanders decided to join their brothers in former Italian Somalia.
When the Somaliland government led by its Prime Minster Ibrahim Egal came to Mogadishu one would have expected they will be part of a power sharing arrangement in the new united Somalia. Instead the Somalia government took the following posts of the first independent united Somali State: President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House, Foreign, Interior, Finance. In fact initially they did not give one single post to the Somalilanders! That was a World first as far as voluntary unions of nations go, and to my knowledge, it remains unique in all Unions of all new nations and territories anywhere in the world.
When shell-shocked Somalilanders raised eyebrows and then kicked a little fuss the Somalia politicians offered the Defense portfolio which, interestingly, they considered lowly, to Mr. Egal. He made it such an important ministry that within two years they removed him and gave it to one of their own. They offered Egal Education which he turned down.
Somalilanders soon felt this was not a union but a takeover. They patiently waited for the referendum of 1961 which was supposed to ratify the Union and they promptly voted against it by a large majority. But since the referendum was across the new united Somalia, the more populous Somalia ( Somalia population was 3 million and Somaliland’s just over 1 Million) overwhelmingly voted to keep Somaliland in the Union fold.
But Somalia’s corrupt politicians cheated anyway, just to make sure. In one infamous incident they resorted to a scale of ballot rigging that would have made Kim Il Sung and Saddam Hussein blush in unison. They claimed that nearly ten thousand people voted in the village of Wanlaweyn between Afgoi and Baidoa when in fact the hamlet had about 200 souls, and half of those being camels were, in theory at least, not eligible to vote!
Few days later the Shabelle River flooded killing most of Wanlaweyn’s camel and human populations. Some Somalilanders took this to be divine retribution and one anonymous Hargeysa wit asked God to deal with the Somalia politicians instead of picking on the poor hamlet.
“Oh the God who let the river wipe away Wanlaweyn?could you take away the government Ministers next week please?”.
The Wanlaweyn tag stuck as a symbol of what Somalilanders considered Southern corruption and treachery ever since. To this day Landers* call all Southern Somalis Wallaweyn although without any malice.
AN ATTEMPTED COUP
After the referendum fiasco in 1961, a group of Somaliland military officers led by Col. Hassan Keyd attempted a coup in Hargeysa but were betrayed by a co-conspirator known as Capt. Inda Dillo(”The Eyes of the Prostitute”). Somalilanders point out this officer, although Somaliland-born, was of Southern parentage adding to Landers’ general mistrust of all things Southern.
A WELCOME COUP
One corrupt Southern-run regime followed an even more corrupt one till Siyad Barre, yet another southerner and his mainly southern military officers seized power in 1969. Some Landers saw an anti-Somaliland bias in the coup, perhaps unfairly on this occasion. The coup took place shortly after some Somalilanders worked their way up through the maze of the incomprehensible southern political alliances leading for the first time with Mr. Ibrahim Egal, sidelined in earlier Somalia governments, becoming the new country’s Prime Minister and one or two other prominent Northerners emerging through the ranks too. Egal was in power for less than a year when the coup took place and he was imprisoned in a Southern jail. He remained there for almost 12 years.
Nonetheless Siyad Barre’s revolution was widely welcomed in Somaliland because he promised to fight corruption and establish a just and meritocratic Somalia. Landers knew they will be the most likely beneficiaries if he delivered on his promises.
Somalilanders live in one of the driest and most unproductive patches of the Somali desert but they traditionally controlled huge chunks of the economy and were among the most successful businessmen in all of the Somali regions in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland. All these enterprising men and women needed was competent governance to let them trade and create wealth and Siyad Barre promised that. They rewarded him with wholehearted enthusiasm and loyalty.
The euphoria of the coup soon turned stale when Somalilanders realized Siyad Barre was no more interested in Somaliland than any of his Southern predecessors. He did not build a single new college, hospital, sea or airport in Somaliland. This is all the more incomprehensible because the Somaliland Port of Berbera alone generated 80% of Somalia’s Foreign exchanges (see World Bank figures 1982). Before the Union with Somalia, Hargeysa, Burao and Berbera all had airstrips with international flights while Mogadishu was the only city in the South with an International Airport. By 1975 Siyad Barre’s regime stopped all international flights to land in any Somaliland Airport. He later re-opened Berbera’s because the USSR wanted to build a Military base there.
By contrast Siyad’s military regime lavished money and resources on far less important ports in Somalia from Kismayo to Bosaso. Mogadishu which did not export or import anything of value at all, was given a huge spanking brand new white elephant port built with EEC money. It remains a white elephant to this day.
Only when Siyad Barre realized that he needed a fast road to link the South and North in case he required his army to move up North fast for oppression purposes did he ask China to build a road linking the two parts of the country. Maybe he was also planning for invading Ethiopia which he did as soon as the road was completed.
Meanwhile the rot of Somaliland’s infrastructure under Somalia rule was typified by Somaliland’s second city of Burao. On the day of the union with Somalia in 1960 it had electricity, running water, two squeaky clean hospitals and two Secondary Schools (colleges). There were even few telephone lines for the most privileged.
The streets and buildings were so well lit the place shimmered like a gigantic diamond in the endless expanses of the Somaliland plateau. At night one could see its warm glow from nearly 50 miles away.
By 1980 after 20 years of Union with Somalia the water, electricity and the telephones were gone. There were still two hospitals but they were dirty and haven’t had a lick of paint for twenty years. The two secondary schools were now one. Burao no longer shimmered at night it was shrouded in permanent darkness.
OPPRESSION BREEDS RESISTANCE
Across Somaliland there was one area of exponential growth: Police stations and torture centers. Take Burao again. It had two police stations manned by unarmed cops when we joined Somalia on June 26 th 1960. By 1980 it had at least twelve known police stations and torture chambers some manned by seasoned torturers with succinctly descriptive names like “Dhabr Jebinta” (”The Backbreakers”) and HANGASH , a unit so sinister no one even knows what their acronym stood for. Their activities were better known though: kidnap, rape, torture, murder and looting.
Somalilanders had had enough. They decided to mobilize peacefully, and typically they tried to do something about the neglected infrastructure first. A group of young men and women decided to clean up Hargeysa General Hospital and give it a new lick of paint. The Somalia government saw this as an extreme existential threat and arrested the whole group. They were beaten, tortured and raped in Hargeysa, Adadley and Mandera torture centers. Somaliland leaders and businessmen who tried to voice their objections peacefully were arrested or worse. By 1982 there were constant curfews, executions, mass looting and systematic rape. Somalilanders came to the conclusion peaceful opposition wasn’t working so they organized an armed struggle under the umbrella of Somali National Movement (SNM). This was no determined clan movement waging clan war for clan supremacy as its detractors will have you believe, but a reluctantly armed bunch of amateurs desperately trying to make their people survive.
When two of SNM activists hijacked a Somali Airline plane they had one demand: the stay of execution of Somaliland teenagers and their teachers who were due to go in front of firing squad the next day. Their crime? They held a peaceful, unarmed demonstration against a curfew and subsequent looting by the army in the Waterfalls district of Hargeysa.
ALL OUT OPPRESSION
The Somalia government felt the establishment of the SNM gave it a carte blanche to indulge in mass oppression in Somaliland. A State of Emergency was declared and the whole place came under the military rule of Siyad Barre’s cousin General Ganni. He was soon replaced by Siyad’s son-in-law General Saeed Xirsi Morgan because Mr. Ganni was not oppressive enough for the president’s liking.
Soon water wells were poisoned in every village, looting was made perfectly acceptable and rape became common place. Militias were formed from the Ogaden and Oromo refugees living in Somaliland since the 70s Ogaden war and tasked to do some of the work considered too dirty even for the regular army to carry out. I will leave to your imagination what these militias did.
Italy with its historic link to Somalia decided to come to Siyad Barre’s aid and kill off the SNM movement once and for all. It convinced the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1988 that it will be in the best interests of both Ethiopia and Somalia if both stopped harboring opposition movements in each other’s territory. The SNM used as Ethiopia as a haven to escape Somalia’s oppression at the time. No one in the EEC seems to have queried how can strengthening two dictators by silencing their oppositions will be good for the region and its peoples.
So in 1988 an embarrassed Mengistu Haile Miriam called the SNM leadership and told them to leave the safety of the Ethiopian hinterland. He knew what he was telling them: surrender to your enemy.
But of course surrender was no option. The SNM instead marched into Hargeysa and Burao on May 28 th 1988 in a desperate last ditch effort to free their people.
The government’s response was as predictable as it was brutal. It shot every Somalilander male on sight. In Hargeysa, patients were pulled out of their hospital beds, put against the walls and shot. In far off Mogadishu special units started scouring the town for prominent Somalilanders. In one incident 46 Somalilanders were lined up and shot on Jesira beach outside Mogadishu. The Somali Nation State then decided to erase Hargeysa from the map and did exactly that. They ordered the whole of the Somali Airforce to bomb the town to smithereens and when one Somali pilot refused and landed his Mig in neighboring Djibouti, they brought in Rhodesian mercenaries to do the task.
The British daily `The Guardian’ in headline titled “Somalis in a Genocide Bombing” said the following: “They just bombed and bombed till there was nothing left to bomb” it added that in the countryside too “They are conducting turkey shoots from the backs of Jeeps” Does this add up to an attempted genocide? I don’t know. I will leave that to those who know the legal definitions of what amounts to an attempted genocide.
SURVIVAL AND REBUILDING
Somaliland and its people survived the onslaught, just. The refugees returned to a country bombed back to year zero. There was hardly a building standing in the whole country. All the trained cadre and professional middle classes were decimated. There were no teachers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, plumbers or even mere farmers. Hargeysa region used to produce the best Sorghum (Elmi Jama) in united Somalia but no more. That is because they killed all the farmers or simply starved them to death by blocking their wells. The entrepreneurs who once made the North the most business-savvy region were either dead or went abroad. One commentator said to me at the time “Buildings can be repaired?. it is the human material that will take much longer to retrieve“.
Nevertheless Somaliland is rebuilding. Its towns now have some electricity, some running water and some of the hospitals are painted once in a while. It is nowhere as good as 1960 when Somaliland joined Somalia but its’ getting there! Landers are repairing the broken human material too. They are relearning peace and decency and compromise and democracy. They are relearning to speak freely as they once did and tolerate each other’s views. It is a hard slog after 30 years of suppression, trauma and sheer horror and it sometimes shows. They have an almost paranoid government that bans radio broadcasting and believes arresting political opponents is an acceptable practice in a democracy. But it doesn’t rob them or rape them or torture them. It does not line them up against walls and shoot them. And that is progress.
So the reasons of the secession include betrayal and sideling from power from day one of the union, oppression, taking away of people’s freedoms; complete and absolute neglect of Somaliland infrastructure and development; wholesale destruction and misappropriation of properties; venal corruption; denial of basic human rights and dignities and finally mass murder and attempted genocide of Somalilanders by the Somali Nation State.
But perhaps the most powerful argument for secession is the fact Somalilanders are now working really hard to attain the levels of development they had inherited from colonial Britain nearly 50 years ago. The Union, it can be reasonably said, had failed the people of Somaliland. That is why `we’ are seceding?. Brother.