Why Somalia Is Starving

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Andy Pollack

THE ORIGINS OF mass starvation in Somalia must be sorted out into two categories: the immediate repercussions of the Siad Barre regime (1969-90), and the longer term policies on the continent as a whole of the superpowers, of which Barre was a client throughout his reign —first of Moscow, then of Washington.

The fighting which drove farmers and livestock tenders off their land came in the wake of Barre’s fall. This fighting was almost guaranteed by Barre’s policies, which crushed all opposition, fueled clan rivalries and militarized society. Barre had also destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure in the civil war leading to his fall, bombing cities into rubble.

After the government’s collapse the rich were able to protect their investments. Farmers—less able to et firearms or hire guards—were, according to Rakiya Omaar, “ripe for plunder.” Merchants tightened their grip on the food market that their profits were maintained by keeping prices high.” Plantation owners hired armed guards, and villagers starved next to huge banana plantations. Those trying to gather grass from between banana trees had their hands tied and bullets put through their palms.

Two groups were most affected by the ensuing fighting over food: members of the Somali Rahanweyn clan and Bantu farmers. These two groups, along with refugees from Ethiopia’s Ogaden province (inhabited by a majority of Somalis), were fed last—if at all. These groups gained least under Barre’s rule; the Bantus, descendants of former slaves, have historically been disadvantaged compared to the pastoral clans and were dispossessed by colonialists to create banana and sugarcane plantations.(1)

The nature of the post-Barre civil war, and the resulting famine, were a direct outgrowth of the policies of repression and favoritism practiced by Barre. Barre’s repression—coupled with the nature of Somali’s class structure (two-thirds are nomadic pastoralists and most of the rest farmers)—hindered the development of progressive opposition groups akin to revolutionary groups elsewhere in the region which confronted dictatorships with a progressive social program (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front or the National Liberation Front in South Yemen. It must be noted, though, that the class structures in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen, while relatively more advanced than Somalia, are still so backward that objective factors alone don’t explain the lack of a comparable revolutionary opposition in Somalia.)

In any case the lack of progressive opposition led to a vacuum filled by the “warlords,” who sought to recreate Barreism without Barre. Their main base of support seems to be wealthy merchants trading in livestock and some members of Barre’s own officialdom.

Thus, according to Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, the post-Barre civil war “is … fueled by money. In a poor and aid-dependent country such as Somalia, control over the symbols of ‘legitimate’ or ‘sovereign’ government is more than a matter of status; it is a license to print money.” The government prints bank notes, controls exchange rate, receives foreign aid, can run up debts on the national account—”all of which can bring great personal fortunes to those in office.”

The rapid descent into chaos was abetted by the withdrawal of the United Nations upon Barre’s fall—even though the killing of civilians had already begun. No U.N. forces came in 1991, and no effort was made to get involved in November of that year at the height of the fighting in Mogadishu. The United Nations insisted that a ceasefire be respected before it would provide humanitarian aid. But, noted Omaar, “war … is fueled by hunger, and carefully planned deliveries of humanitarian assistance regardless of a cease-fire” would have made a political agreement easier.

By Spring 1992 the United Nations began to reconsider its abstention from the country’s affairs, and the Security Council passed a resolution on March 17 calling for peacekeeping forces. But the U.S. State Department claimed Congress would resist aid for yet another country at a time when the United Nations was already involved in Cambodia, El Salvador, Yugoslavia and Western Sahara. At Washington’s insistence, the final version of the resolution limited the U.N. role to humanitarian aid.

It must be noted that this handwringing about the costs of peacekeeping ill-befits the country which contributes proportionately the least to the United Nations yet dictates most of its policies. Stinginess, however, was only a symptom of the strategic disinterest in Somalia that had set in with the end of the Cold War “After spending millions of dollars to keep Siad Barre afloat,” said 0mw at the time, “and giving him the military hardware to sustain the conflicts that have ravaged Somalia, the U.S. is now withholding the money that might bring a respite for the Somali people.”

Barre set the stage for catastrophe; but this stage was itself constructed in a century of Western domination of the country and the continent as a whole. This domination changed Africa from a continent self-sufficient in food to one prone to famine at the slightest disruption of climate or political stability. Somalia in particular has become the country in sub-Saharan Africa most dependent on food imports—yet it was self-sufficient until the early 1970s.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has always used food aid to restructure local economies toward export of cash crops, so that Western farmers can sell their produce in the Third World, whether on the open market or to relief agencies. The ideological buttress of this underdevelopment of Third World food production is the notion of famine as somehow eternal and natural.

“We’ve been taught,” says the Village Voice’s James Ridgeway, that “the world has a shortage of food, when in fact it has a vast abundance. There’s enough wheat, rice and other grains produced to provide every human being with 3600 calories a day—enough food to make everyone fat As the Institute for Food and Development Policy long has pointed out, ‘Virtually every “hungry” country produces enough food for all its people. Redistribution of a tiny fraction … would wipe out hunger. In Indonesia, with the second-greatest number of undernourished peopl&n the world, redistributing a mere 2% of the available food would make a healthy life possible for everyone.”

Ridgeway notes that Ethiopia exported coffee and the Sudan cotton during the 1980s famines. Profits from these exports went to buy guns, to repay foreign debts (some of which came from gun purchases), and to luxury goods for elites.

The consequences of this socially produced famine for Africa in the last few decades has been of holocaust proportions: “famine has depleted Africa of more of its population than in any period since the slave trade.” Food production is down by 15% from 1981, and one out of five Africans are dependent on food aid.(2)

Sudan is following in Somalia’s footsteps as the site of mass death; here too the hand of the West in disrupting food production can be seen. In the mid-1970s, for instance, transnational corporations encouraged Sudan to undertake “the largest sugar scheme in the world”; 40% of the loans for which came from the United States’ favorite Gulf dictatorships, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Skewing of production toward this sugar-exporting scheme, plus losses from mismanagement of the project by foreign advisers and technocrats, said food experts at the time, meant that Sudan would be subsidizing its own food exports to much richer Arab neighbors. By the end of the 1970s Sudan began to rethink such schemes and considered switching from cash crops for export to production of wheat for consumption; but in 1979 the IMF forced it top such plans as a condition for a new loan.

For those inspired by the crisis in Somalia to investigate further the role of Western institutions, consider some figures on how those bodies profit from Third World misery:

• Western corporations profit directly from the efforts of international “development” bodies: 75% of U.S. Agency for International Development assistance is spent in the United States, and every dollar that U.S. taxpayers pay into the World Bank generates $10 in contracts for U.S. companies.(3) And there’s the benefits to munitions manufacturers of U.S. military aid to Third World governments.

• The World Bank itself is quite profitable, clearing $1.2 billion in 1991. Its return on assets were 0.96% that year compared to only 0.84% for the strongest New York bank, J.P Morgan (whose former head, Lewis Preston, now heads the World Bank). Asks Doug Henwood: “What could that $1.2 billion buy for the world’s poor?

$2.5 billion—just twice the World Bank’s profit—could prevent the ‘great majority’ of childhood deaths from malnutrition, in UNICEF’s words.”

Ironically Somalia—like all Third World countries —has some factors in favor of a healthy economic development, were that development not thwarted by the West It has a stable population, a low growth rate, ethnic homogeneity, strategic geographic location. Contrary to the Western image of the country as a barren desert, Somalia has more than enough natural resources to feed its people—the problem is how, by whom, and for what they are used. The United Nations Development Program estimates that of 8 million hectares available for cultivation, only 380,000 are in regular use.(4)

Colonial Somalia

To fully understand the way Barre set the stage for the country’s disaster, we must take a brief look at the way colonialism set the stage for Barre.

Even before the advent of colonial power over Somalia in the nineteenth century, Somalia was tied into world economic patterns by virtue of its location. Ahmed Samatar notes that none of the countries in the Horn of Africa have ever lived in isolation; from at least the fifteenth century Somali ports played important roles in Arab economies. Commerce from Abyssinia (today Ethiopia) crossed Somalia on its way to Arabia and Asia, and more generally camel-owning Somali nomads “provided a link with the Muslim world through caravan trade.” In addition, Somalian livestock was traded with neighboring countries—although, as is still the case today, in a relationship of unequal exchange between the prices paid to Somalia’s pastoralists and those paid by them for imports.(5)

As a result of this strategic, if economically marginal, position between Africa and the Middle East, the Horn has been for centuries “a battleground for competing empires.” This was even more true with the coming of imperialism; the Red Sea shipping lanes swelled in importance with the coming of European maritime marine commerce and the navies assigned to protect it Thus British and French coaling stations for their navies were positioned at the mouth of the Red Sea, and Somalian livestock fed those working these imperialist outposts. Somali nomads sold goats to middlemen representing the British, who needed meat to supply their colony across the Red Sea in Aden. A thousand cattle and 80,000 sheep and goats travelled annually from Berbera to Aden at the turn of century.(6)

Meanwhile in the south, the Italians established an export-oriented agriculture through plantation and irrigation systems. Since the nomads and Bantu farmers had only contempt for wage work, they were forced into service. The Italians granted these plantations a monopoly on the Italian market for their bananas—which led in the long-run to the inefficiency of the plantations themselves and a lack of diversity in the economy. The same consequences flowed from the British interest in livestock alone. Yet except for bananas and livestock, the imperial powers had no interest in developing the domestic economy of the Horn.

Thus, notes Middle East Report, “while colonial capitalism transformed many other regions, it bypassed the Horn.” Fifty years after colonization, the Horn had almost no schools, roads, books, newspapers, mines or factories. Somalia did share with other underdeveloped countries, however, two other byproducts of colonialism. One was a flourishing layer of native salaried employees of the colonial state—a layer from which sprang Siad Barre.

The other was an anticolonialist movement. The first and most important leader of this movement was Sayyid Mahammad Cabdille Hassan, called by the British “the Mad Mullah.” Hassan led a revolt from the late 1890s to 1920, repeatedly ignoring boundaries laid down by the various colonial powers which had divided Somalia. Hassan earned the sobriquet “Mad Mullah” not for any psychological deficiency but for the obstinacy with which he resisted Western dominance for over twenty years—a resistance which the West still does not recognize as a mark of sanity.

His army of “dervishes” (a name chosen by Hassan himself) infuriated and stymied the British. The British Royal Air Force, according to Alexander Cockburn, “tried to assert its role as cut-price imperial policeman” by bombing the forces of Hassan in 1919. The results drove the British mad; while the official line was that the bombing had demoralized Hassan’s forces, the British ground commander assigned to mop up after the bombing found just the opposite: “they [Hassan’s troops] were cheerful, utterly defiant, and grossly slanderous about my parentage.”(7)

Hassan’s revolt was ultimately defeated, however, and it would be more than a half century before independence.

Siad Barre

The rule of Siad Barre began with a coup in 1969, nine years after Somalia achieved formal independence from Britain. According to I.M. Lewis, a prominent historian of Somalia, Barre “was one of the most senior locally-recruited Somali officials in the British military administration. He was a police inspector, as were a number of other Somalis who have since had important careers in Somalia.”(8) This was a common occurrence in post-independence Africa; Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo, at a forum in New York on Somalia, pointed out that not only Barre but other dictators of the neocolonial period—Arap Moi of Kenya, Amin of Uganda, and Bokassa of the Central African Empire among others—had been trained by colonial armies.(9)

Soon after the coup Barre turned toward the Soviet Union, professing his allegiance to “Soviet socialism.” The Soviets gained access to the port of Berbera, and in return sent a large contingent of Soviet military advisers to train the newly doubled Somali army. In addition the Soviets helped Barre build “what was reputed to be the largest air and tank force in black Africa.”(10) East Germans trained his police and security forces. On the other hand, Moscow provided massive humanitarian assistance during the drought of 1974-75.

Barre knew almost nothing about Marxist ideology before announcing that Somalia was to be governed by “scientific socialism”; according to David Laitin and Said Samatar he “often embarrassed himself in public by his frequent and ill-informed declarations about socialism.” For example, when informed during a public meeting that Marx was Jewish, he reportedly turned to aides and asked why he hadn’t been told of this.(11)

More importantly, his repressive policies showed he had no intentions of involving the Somali people in socialist governance of the country. Doing so would have been difficult even for a genuinely revolutionary leadership, given the country’s social structure—although nearby South Yemen showed it was possible to make a start on such a project in even the most underdeveloped countries.(12)

Nonetheless, even Barre’s harshest critics attribute some important social advances to the early years of his regime. For the first time, for instance, the country was given a written language. Despite a five-fold increase in the size of the military, the state also constructed roads, factories to produce milk, textiles, tinned meat and fish, schools, theaters, a national airline. Important steps were taken in modernizing conditions for women.(13)

But above all Barre, again in common with many post-independence African leaders, turned his attention toward cultivating those two crucial legacies of the colonial period, the military and the government bureaucracy.

In 1977 Barre went to war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region, inhabited by a majority of Somalis, but given by the colonial powers to Ethiopia. In fact, of the five points of the star in the Somali flag representing the five geographic concentrations of Somalis, only two are currently within the country’s borders, those from the former northern (British) and southern (Italian) colonies. The other concentrations of Somalis are in former French Somaliland, now Djibouti, Ethiopia (the Ogaden region), and northern Kenya.

There was a brief attempt by Fidel Castro—a supporter of the Ethiopian Junta—at mediation of the dispute, including  discussion of regional integration. Ethiopia appealed to Somalia’s “socialist” principles and floated the idea of a federation of “socialist” states in the Horn. This mediation attempt quickly failed, and the two “socialist” regimes went back to war with each other.

This war, leading Ethiopia to turn for arms toward the Soviet Union, provided the opening for Washington. Beginning in 1977 the United States began providing arms to Barre. The U.S. military was granted access by Barre to the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden, and in return Washington gave Barre weapons.

Jimmy Carter, the self-proclaimed “human rights” president, initiated this relationship. “From the first months of his administration, Carter expressed a clear desire to woo the Somalis away from the Soviet Union.” In addition to direct arms sales and military assistance, Washington during the Carter years funneled at to Somalia through such supporters of “human rights” as the Shah of Iran and Saudi Arabia.(14)

These arms—along with those left over from the Soviets—are the ones which have been used by rival gangs to terrorize the populace. Half of the guns used to drive peasants off the land and disrupt agricultural production, to shell residential areas in Mogadishu, and to hijack relief convoys, are stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” (Barre also got arms from France, Libya, China and Korea, and guns since his fall have come from Kenya, China, Saudi Arabia.)

Arms provided included 4,800 rifles, 3,672 grenades, 482 TOW anti-tank missiles, twenty-four armored personnel carriers, eighteen 155-mm howitzers, 6,032 artillery shells, seventy-five 81-mm mortars, and 144 land mines. The rifles included American-made M-40A1 recoilless rifles and M-56 field guns, but also the AK-47s mentioned so often in the media as being used by the gangs and assumed by many readers to be of Soviet origin. A Pentagon report puts the total of “lethal assistance” provided by the United States to Barre from 1981 to 1989 at $35 million (this maybe an underestimate, and in any case is only a fraction of general, i.e. non-weapons, military aid).

In addition U.S. allies such as the Shah of Iran, Egypt and other pro-Western Arab nations gave Barre guns. When Barre fell in 1991, armories were looted and the arms split up among the rival factions contending for power.(15)

While Barre’s turn toward the West was a function of the Soviet’s turn toward Ethiopia, it dovetailed nicely with a new development in Washington’s strategy. Responding to revolutions in 1979 in Iran and Nicaragua, and threatened revolutions elsewhere, as well as to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, Jimmy Carter created a “Rapid Deployment Force” (RDF) to intervene quickly against Third World threats to U.S. hegemony.

Key to such a force was access to Third World ports and bases—such as the one at Berbera, ideally positioned for surveillance of and intervention in the Gulf and Red Sea. (Washington was also worried about instability in Kenya and Uganda.) In 1982 Washington began airlifting military equipment and advisers to that port Radar systems and a new quay were installed, as well as other facilities needed for the type of ships used by the RDE Joint military exercises between Somalia and the United States began.

The relationship between military and nonmilitary imports changed dramatically in favor of the former Somalia’s arms imports, which never surpassed one-seventh the value of nonmilitary imports before 1972, ranged from 25% to 98.4% of their value after that year. Since independence in 1960, Somalia got weapons estimated at roughly $2 billion, 90% of these since the mid-1970s.

Military analyst Jeffrey Lefebvre, analyzing military sales in the Horn as a whole, adds that “the military buildup in these two countries [Somalia and Ethiopia] was dependent upon the compliance, and to a considerable extent the financial underwriting, of outside powers.”

Key to this buildup was the willingness of Washington and Moscow to finance arms purchases “on financial terms (grant aid, loans, barter arrangements) that other suppliers could not match. This latter attribute was especially important for the economically weak states in the Horn of Africa.” Thus, for instance, Washington provided $50 million in security assistance in 1985 and $75 million the following year—most of which was used to purchase U.S.-made arms.(16)

The consequences for Somalia’s economy of such military spending were dramatic. A confidential 1985 study by the World Bank showed that Somalia was spending only half as much (20%) on economic and social activities as were other low-income African countries. Defense spending made up 30-36% of the state budget in the early 1980s.

Another 45-50% went to “general public services,” that is to the salaries of the government bureaucracy who provided the other pole of Barre’s support. The existence of a disproportionate layer of officials created during colonialism was carried over into the post-colonial period; thus for instance by 1976, 72,000 out of a paid workforce of 167,000 worked for the government.

Laitin and Samatar point out that the policy of playing off superpowers derives not only from the desire for weapons but also from the need to provide salaries for this bureaucracy, leading in Somalia to the highest aid per capita in sub-Saharan Africa. But this aid, while covering arms purchases and civil servants’ salaries, left scant funds for the development projects aimed at diversifying the economy and providing a more secure life for the country’s pastoralists and farmers.

Some of the civil servants obviously were involved in development projects, and the desire of Western agencies to cut the bureaucracy represented an attack on these projects as well; nonetheless, much of this bureaucracy represented a parasitic attachment of the new ruling class onto the country’s meager revenues.(17)

Barre’s spending habits also led to a vicious cycle of indebtedness to Western donors. The balance of payments ranged from a negative $328 million in 1980 to a negative $350 million in 1984. In 1985 outstanding debt stood at $1.4 billion. Servicing this debt claimed 80% of export earnings, and service arrears went from $28 million in 1980 to over $120 million at the end of 1985.(18)

Military and economic assistance from the West came despite the pattern Barre had established from the start of his regime of repressing and massacring his own people. Torture, political imprisonment, political killings and discrimination against national minorities were the norm. It was a capital offense to be a member of an opposition group or unacceptable organization.

As his grasp on power weakened, human rights violations and massacres of civilians by his army increased dramatically—without any decrease in support from Washington. After the eruption of civil war in 1988, thousands of civilians were slaughtered, hundreds more imprisoned without being charged; the pastoral economy was destroyed by the deliberate destruction of water tanks, the poisoning of wells and the killing of livestock Extensive bombardment of the north (using South African pilots and U.S. logistical support) destroyed major cities and, within a few months, 450,000 Somalis fled their homes for the desert of Ethiopia. Another 600,000 were displaced within Somalia.”(19)

In January 1990, Africa Watch estimated that 50,000-60,000 civilians had been killed in the north between May 1988 and January 1990. “Even after the war began, shipments of U.S. military hardware continued to arrive in the country, including a June 1988 delivery of about $1.4 million worth of automatic rifles and ammunition.”

Yet up until the last moment the United States backed Barre. Human Rights Watch reported that days after the mid-July 1990 massacres of at least 500 civilians the State Department asked Congress, which was holding up Somalia’s aid, to grant $20 million to President Siad Barre. A State Department report later that year admitted the regime had killed thousands of unarmed civilians between June 1988 and March 1989, and documented a pattern of torture against civilians involving “severe beatings, stabbing, prolonged chokin, use of metal clips and electric shock on flesh and testicles and immersion in excrement.”

The report concluded that the regime was about to disintegrate, yet an official commenting on the report said the port of Berbera was “‘still important to our interests because of its strategic position as a staging post for sending troops to southwest Asia” (“Report for U.S. Says Somali Army Killed 5,000 Unarmed Civilians,” New York Times, September 8, 1989). And of course as always the State Department claimed it was having a “moderating” influence on Barre’s behavior.

Barre also showed his support for U.S. interests by siding with it against Iraq during the Gulf War—in return for which Saudia Arabia gave $70 million to his government, money now sitting in a Swiss bank account. Nor did the atrocities weaken the support of international lending and “development” agencies for the regime; a month after the massacres the World Bank granted Somalia a $70 million loan, and the African Development Bank gave the regime $25 million for “agricultural stabilization” (perhaps to replace the wells and livestock the regime itself had destroyed?).

Ten years after creation of the RDF, the U.S. military was no longer as dependent on one particular RDF prop, such as Somalia. This, combined with the end of the Cold War meant, according to Lefebvre, that by 1990 “Somalia was no longer regarded as a strategic piece of property. [The port of] Berbera had been abandoned by the Americans in December, and the storage tanks at the port had been emptied of fuel for use in the Persian Gulf War. Basically, Somalia was seen as ‘a total write-off’—it had been torn apart by years of civil war and insoluble interclan rivalries, was economically bankrupt, and had now lost all strategic value.”(20)

Although Somalis had granted “extraordinary access” to the United States, says Lefebvre, still the “prevailing feeling at the State Department” with Barre’s fall was that the United States “has no interest in Somalia, except of a humanitarian nature. Somalia could go down the tubes and it would not adversely affect the U.S. strategic posture in the region.” In addition, Berbera had suffered damage in the civil war; “why should the U.S. go in there and repair facilities that might be blown up again?” Furthermore, Kenya offered all the access needed for contingencies in East Africa.

The cynicism of U.S. strategy was laid out on the floor of Congress by Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum in July of 1992: “Throughout the long years of the Cold War, Somalia and the rest of the Horn were of strategic importance to the United States. If the Soviet Union still existed today, we would never have allowed Somalia to disintegrate in this way.”

The tactical abandonment of Somalia as a military outpost fits in with the relatively low role accorded Africa in U.S. strategic thinking. Says Lefebvre: “The FY [Fiscal Year—ed.] 1992 security assistance proposal presented to Congress in spring 1991 is quite revealing as to U.S. strategic interests in the post-cold war, post-Gulf war world order. Sub-Sahara Africa ranks at the bottom of the Security Assistance Program’s list of regional priorities.”

Bush asked for just under $62 million for the whole region, one-sixth of that asked for East Asian and Pacific countries, and one-sixth that of Latin America—”the other two regions perennially at the bottom of the roster.” On the other hand, $1 billion in development and economic aid was proposed for Africa, “which underscores a significant shift” in the type of U.S. support—perhaps reflecting a belated recognition that a decade of catastrophic economic collapse in Africa had led to continent-wide unrest.

Setting the Stage for Collapse

As he fled the country in January 1991, Barre bombed Mogadishu in Somoza style. He left behind not only a shattered infrastructure but more importantly an atomized, disempowered society which—outside of localized, traditional clan structures – was without alternative leadership or institutions.

Thus, according to Omaar, “during his two decades in power Siad Barre proceeded … to dismantle the institutions that allowed people to articulate their grievances and that provided a framework for the resolution of conflict’ The clan system was, she says, “the most enduring factor in the Somali social and political identity”—but not primarily, as media myths about clan rivalries would have it, as a source of conflict Rather clan structures played “a key role in moderating disputes and keeping the peace.”

Even before his fall, according to The Economist, Barre “gave out automatic weapons, which he hoped would be used by the clans he favored to keep down the others.” For instance, Barre settled refugees from the Ogaden war in the north. The Isaaks, the largest clan in that region, accused Barre of favoring the refugees at their expense, providing jobs, access to land, educational and business opportunities. The Isaaks also felt that the north had been starved of development resources.

In official propaganda Barre discouraged clan loyalties in general in favor of Somali patriotism—yet relied on his own clan for government appointments, and played other clans off against each other. Barre’s friends profited from the “franco valuta” [a mechanism for profiting from manipulating currencies used to import goods], illicit cattle exports, black market currency exchange, smuggling of gems, ivory and firearms, diverting foreign aid, and bribes for government contracts. Some economists estimated these activities accounted for half the country’s economic activity.

Margarita Samad of the Somali Association for Relief and Development (SAFRAD) reported at a New York forum on Somalia that “Barre divided us into clans; he said we don’t have progressive and reactionary classes, but progressive and reactionary clans, declaring various clans as being one or the other. He even invented some clan names.”(21)

In May 1990 the government began to crumble, and a small group of businessmen and intellectuals formed the “Manifesto” group. Three days after Aidid of the United Somali Congress (USC) entered Mogadishu, the Manifesto group, without consulting leaders of the other opposition groups, formed a government, with Ali Mahdi, a wealthy hotelier, as interim president Aidid, the Somali Patriotic Movement and the Somali National Movement all rejected Mahdi’s claims. Fighting was halted temporarily in September as neutral clans came between the two USC factions with their armed vehicles and troops.

According to Omaar “in the course of 1991, the conflict between Aidid and Ali Mahdi became in part a battle between two subclans. The fighting surprised Somalis, since there are no appreciable religious, cultural, or other differences between the two subclans.” There is no history of fighting within the Hawiye clan, nor of traditional enmity between Aidid’s and Mahdi’s subclans. Again, the current rivalry comes from the pattern set by Barre, the manipulation of clan loyalty for a political power base. “This legacy of newly manufactured ethnic tension is one of the most damaging developments in contemporary Somalia, once Africa’s most homogeneous nation.”

More generally, says Omaar, “Siad’s repression also prevented the emergence of organized civil society….. Traditional structures were decapitated, and modern structures strangled at birth. The violence of clan- and commerce-based warlordism is the consequence of this.”

Barre trained hundreds of thousands of young men to use weapons, and those seeking to overthrow him patterned themselves on him. “Opposition movements have been largely unable to rise above his debased style of politics.”

A SAFRAD member in New York confirmed this Picture, saying of the rival gangs: “everybody wants to replicate Barre. There are ten, eleven groups, they were all on Barre’s staff?

Barre’s successors seek to replicate his privileges and ability to engage in favoritism and corrupt commercial dealings; MTV seek to use similar tools to ensure their power. “rewarding young men with firearms and a license to pillage? Thus the cabinet of Prime Minister Mahdi, one of the two leading aspirants to power, consists of eighty ministers, “each clinging to his fictitious position in the anticipation of having his hand in the honeypot if the government obtains recognition.”(22)

The Goals of the Invasion

Randall Robinson of TransAfrica has summarized the hypocrisy of the U.S. role in the period of Barre’s fall: the United States didn’t step in during Barre’s fall to democratize country, it just evacuated whites, whether American or Soviet.

The United Nations too turned tail and ran. When it became clear that it would have to get reinvolved, a special representative was appointed, Mohammed Sahnoun, who tried to work with local leaders and clan elders. Sahnoun engaged in slow efforts to build a framework for negotiations. “Massive progress was being made” in October, reported Rakiya Omaar on Sahnoun’s efforts. Clan elders were ensuring safe delivery and distribution of food, and warlord power was eroding But Sahnoun resigned in protest of a lack of suort by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali.(23)

Washington also frustrated U.N. efforts to get involved. In April 1992, the U.N.-approved a resolution calling for a 3,500 strong peacekeeping force; this move was blocked by Washington. The U.S. invasion in December was eventually carried out under a U.N. banner, yet the Times reported that the United Nations “has been forced to acknowledge its own bankruptcy again by saying that it cannot pay anything toward the cost of an operation carried out in its name and that participating countries must bear the cost of sending in their troops” (December 9, 1992). The Times doesn’t mention, of course, the role of Washington in bankrupting the United Nations by refusing to pay its debts.

It’s very likely that Washington will find a new Barre for the country, perhaps Aidid, perhaps Mandi. In the early stage of the invasion U.S. forces avoided a confrontation with Osman Mo, “the major financier and weapons supplier to General Aidid, leaving a weapons cache they discovered untouched” (Times, Dec. 15,1992); and military commander General Robert Johnston repeatedly denied that the military’s aim was to disarm the rival gangs. When U.S. troops began to come under fire, some weapons caches were seized; but it appears as of late January as talks among the warlords goon under U.S. auspices, that Barre’s potential successors are being allowed to keep most of their weapons.(24)

Is There a Way Out for Somalia?

The Organization of African Unity has issued a call, backed by some U.S. Black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, for reparations to compensate for the centuries during which the West underdeveloped Africa. The heads of state who make up the OAIJ have done and will do nothing to make this demand a reality. But the masses of people on the continent could revive the hope of the anticolonial movements for a Pan-African, socially just cooperative development of the continent Key to such an outcome is the building of mass organizations and revolutionary groups with an internationalist orientation and a democratic social program.


  1. The U.S. FDA said in September 1992 that “relief workers fear that any rural people, particularly ethnic Bantu agriculturists, are dying before they can make it into the feeding centers in the towns.”
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  2. Ridgeway, Village Voice, December 15, 1992.
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  3. Doug Henwood, Left Business Observer.
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  4. Ridgeway, op. cit.
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  5. Ahmed I. Samatar, Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality, Institute for African Alternatives/Zed Books Ltd., 1988.
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  6. David D. Laitin and Said S. Samatar, “Somalia and the World Economy,” Review of African Political Economy, No. 30, Sep. 1984. See also Ridgeway, op. cit.
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  7. On Hassan see Said S. Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1982;, A. Samatar, op. cit.; Cockburn, The Nation, December 21, 1992. In a particularly prescient poem Hasan warned Somalia what they could expect from the rich Western invaders: “Oh, hear me, hear me, fellow Somalia… There never was a gain in treating with the whites; You soften up to the unbelieving white man and he is bound to deceive you, One day you will come to regret the dirhamas [money] he is pouring over you.”
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  8. I.M. Lewis, “Somalia: ‘Nationalism Turned Inside 0ut,’” MERIP Reports, June 1982
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  9. .

  10. African-Caribbean Resource Centez/WBAl Forum, New York, January 1992. The director of the Resource Center, Samori Marksman, has labelled this group of dictators the “lumpenmilitariat.”
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  11. Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, Arms for the Horn: U.S. Security Policy in Ethiopia and Somalia, 1953-1991, U. of Pittsburgh, 1991.
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  12. Laitin and Samatar, op. cit.
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  13. See Salah Jaber, Internalional Marxist Review ,Vol. 2 #2 Spring 1987, on the origins and later degeneration of this revolution.
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  14. See the first Somali novel, written by Faarax Cawl, Ignonance is the Enemy of Love (Zed Press, London, 1982). This beautiful work, foIlowing the love story of two members of Hassan’s Dervishes, is a marvelous piece of pedagogy, combining in a skillful way messages on the rights of women, the importance of education, and the historic tradition of anti-colonial struggle.
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  15. Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution, New Left Books, 1981.
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  16. New York Times, December 9, 1992.
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  17. Lefebvre, op. cit.
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  18. Laitin and Samatar, op. cit.
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  19. Ahmed I. Samatar, Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality, Institute for African Alternatives and Zed Press, 1988.
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  20. Holly Burkhalter, director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington Office, New York Times, August 13, 1989.
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  21. Nonetheless Bush, ever the one to maintain a finger in the pot in the interests of U.S. hegemony, proposed $300,0O to train sixteen Somali military students in I992.
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  22. Network of Black Organizers forum, January 1993. The same SAFRAD member confirmed what Omaar and Samatar said about the stability of much of the Somali countryside: “No one has died in my hometown, which is in a dry area of the northwest. People are running the town properly.”
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  23. Rakiya Omaar, Alex de Waal, executive and associate directors, respectively, of Africa Watch, “The Lessons of Famine,” Africa Report, November/December 1992. (Omaar was subsequently dismissed for her critical analysis of the U.S. intervention, and de Vaal resigned in protest.)
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  24. AIexander Cockburn, The Nation, December 21, 1992.
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  25. Johnston, by the way, is the architect of the Gulf War strategy of massacring retreating Iraqi soldiers.
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May-June 1993, ATC 44