Somaliland: Burao Journal: The Burao Conflict and the Lessons Learned Somaliland Cyberspace

From Maroodi Jeex: Somaliland Press Review
No.3, June/July 1997.

The Burao Conflict and the Lessons Learned


An Interview with Dayib M. Warsame


Dayib Mohammed Warsame, 49, served as a member of the Somaliland Parliament in 1994. Born and raised in Caynabo, Togdheer, he graduated from the famous Dayaxa Middle School for Boys in 1967. Other than a nine-month-long stint in USSR in the 1970s training in radar skills, he spent most of his life in Togdheer.

Q. What was the conflict in Burao about, who were the warring sides and what were their motives?

A. " For anyone who is unaware of the situation or prefers to think differently, a visit to Burao and other affected areas of the theater of conflict will convince them that a major civil war did take place there. Although the extent of the damage resulting from this war was much less than that the city had suffered during 1988 civil war, bombed-out buildings, looted stores, buried land-mines and other damages can be seen everywhere.

A small fighting that broke out between two clan groups in December 1994 may be considered as the beginning of the overt conflict. As the fighting spread to the entire city and into the countryside, other groups joined in the conflict in what appeared like all against each and each against all fighting. For some, simple looting was a sufficient reason; settling old scores and vendettas served to motivate others, while for others who had spent years in the bush fighting against the Afweyne dictatorship, the eruption of the hostilities represented new opportunities.

Regardless, as soon as what little law and order that existed before the fighting vanished, the anarchy that fell upon the whole region had exposed everyone to an ever-present danger of being blown apart by anyone, for no particular reason. Widespread fears and feelings of vulnerability soon led to endless shifting and regrouping of populations in their desperate pursuits to extricate themselves from the loci of the heaviest fighting. Most did not regain their sense of security until they were surrounded by the endless country scrub and acacia trees that were not suited to be killed over. Since it was during the dry season, Jilaal, the urban people found that they were the least suited to find sustenance on the scorched scrub land that resembled the Arabian deserts - the endless vistas of exposed rocks, leafless trees and empty water-holes".

Q. What was the role of the government, say, Somaliland government, in this conflict?

A. " Due the limited jurisdiction of Somaliland, the government's role was rather limited in the Burao theater of conflict. Since 1991, attempts at establishing self-government were generally unsuccessful, because of the lack of agreement as to its structure and organization. Since an indigenous form of governance never existed in the Somali culture, communities began to struggle with each other in order to replicate the shape of the government that controlled the use of coercive power and the economic resources under Afweyne.

Perhaps such governmental structure may have been somewhat easier to install if there was a clear majority group in the city, but there was none, whose claims to power could have been taken seriously by the others. Since each group held dominance in its neighborhoods, instead, vigilante-style local rule arrangements through committees sprung up to fill the governmental void. At the same time, they sought to maintain local resources and to foster group identity and aspirations.

Following the Borama election in 1993, a nominal administration was set up by then the Minister of Interior, Suleman M. Adan "Gaal", and was represented in Burao by appointed elders. In retrospect, it suffices to say that an unintended consequence was that this arrangement had hindered the progress the local communities were making in the absence of paternalistic over-rule. By late summer 1994, all those civic committees either disappeared, were absorbed into the administrator's wing, or had splintered into smaller competing groups that later will unite, reunite or subdivide, as dictated by their internal circumstances, but with a single context: sabotaging the administrator's influence. In short, the attempted top-down setup resembled a replicated Afweyne scheme, the same one the locals couldn't reproduce it on their own devices, albeit one that lacked the coercive power of a military and security system to blunt out the unbridled ambitions or to buy out the tongues of detractors.

The war broke out under the backdrop of this neglect and political confusion. I hope that I have made it clear that this conflict would have been less likely to have degenerated into an all-out war if the earlier attempts at self-rule by the local people had not been disturbed by the intervention of the Hargeisa government.

In its attempts to introduce a direct rule, the government undermined the social balancing mechanisms that came into being in the absence of outside intervention. For example, the frustrating groping for accommodation, the painstaking projecting of an image of honor to other belligerent clans, the onerous task of building up of unity within the ranks of each group and the resurrecting of Isaaq unity, even subliminally, were all replaced by a strong dash to grab the new gaggle of power. Failing so, being in opposition became everyone's preoccupation - an obsession that took hold of the public, where it was rare to find a lone person who supported anything. Sadly enough, it was consistent to the old adage: "If you don't stand for anything, you will fall for anything".

In short, the main role of the government was to end the fighting and failing that, to contain the inter-clan hostilities, lest the conflict would broaden, and worse yet, spread to Berbera again. Since the fighting had caused a large-scale exodus from Burao, the government's role became that much more pressing and important in either winning the war through the using of sheer force or reaching a peace settlement. Despite the government's control of superior arsenals and its support from many groups, neither goal was completely feasible."

Q. According to some accounts, the peace and reconciliation conference that took place in the town of Beer in late 1996, was as important as the subsequent Grand Conference held in Hargeisa. How important was it and what were the main issues discussed or agreed upon?

A. "In terms of settling the outstanding issues in the Togdheer areas, it was the most important conciliatory mission. All previous attempts to bring the disputants face to face had failed. The Beer conference had the effect of breaking the ice and the subsequent encounters were much more conciliatory and productive. The three main issues discussed and largely agreed upon were the disengagement of any opposing troops, safe return of properties to rightful owners and formulating policies to prevent future conflicts.

In my estimation, the critical issue that was not on the agenda was how to know each other better, and how to use such knowledge to understand the extent and the complexity of the human suffering that has left deep and permanent scars on the thousands of its victims. In the end - the quest for meaning to assuage one's conscience, the search for an explanation to satisfy one's craving for absolving the universal blame for neglect of public trust, and the drive for an insight to overcome the self-defeating, but true instincts that reminded us that a compromise reached today can never heal yesterday's scars - achieving such understanding of each other was more valuable than everything else that was said.

Speaking of symbolism, the recitation of poetry, wich is a mainstay at such gatherings, brings forth many symbols of how men in bygone days made similar wars and peace happen. Yet, the diplomacy of the era of mortars, assault guns and artillery, even when the "issues" and the context have not changed, is more complex and demanding than when the sole weapons were a spear and a dagger."

Q. What are the lessons that can be learned from this conflict?

A. "First, a home rule that is built the hard way on mutual participation and fair representation is the key to creating a secure environment for political negotiations and economic advancement. The failure of Somalia's top-down approaches to state structure and to political and economic patronage is a strong testimony to the futility of the continuation of the colonial state overlord-ship. Indeed, after reviewing of the political structures of the military dictatorship's reign, most knowledgeable observers have unanimously agreed that the root causes of Somalia's political crisis were the concentration of power at the center and the lack of legitimate avenues for political participation.

Second, universal access to educational opportunities must become a national priority. Most underlying causes of political disenchantment and economic despair are, indeed, lack of employment, poor skills and lack of training. Increased spending on education and social programs builds up the society in the long-run by giving the people the tools they need to improving their lots, fostering common values and beliefs and strengthening the state institutions. Clearly, combating the country's social and economic ills warrants a national crusade to fight illiteracy, reduce the hold of the clanistic ethos on the public life and to give incentives for the people to change.

Third, the peace processes and the economic and social rehabilitation efforts all will remain tenuous without instituting comprehensive disarmament and demobilization measures. Increased access to education will undoubtedly convince many of the futility of war-making and the reliance on the use of arms to resolve political problems and economic inequalities. But in the short-term, there ought to be a grassroots campaign conducted through education and incentives for the citizens and clans to transfer the ownership of heavy guns, mines and other war materiel to their own local authorities. Existing laws against the ownership and the use of certain classes of weapons should be enforced more vigorously and fairly.

Lastly, in order to achieve permanent peace in the land, there must be a genuine reform in government's role in the society, how the society shares the cost of its burden and how they share its goods and services. Since the government's power increases in direct proportion to the extent of its role in society, its power must be limited through a constitution that states the bounds of its authority. Only then, the citizens are guaranteed protection against the possibly arbitrary actions of the rulers."

Q. Every war produces its share of heroes and vanquished villians. What is the current status of Calan Cas and Mindiyo Cas factions?

A. "Briefly, the former SNM guerrillas who fell out with the former president, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali, came to be known as Calan Cas, while the Mindiyo Cas consisted of the remnants of, and the supporters of, the previous leadership, plus some who had defected from the current Egal government.

Without institutional opposition based on ideals and interests of the people, which in time, become clarified as issues and ideologies, the government in power is essentially a one-party government. Thus, stability becomes endangered, because there is no underlying consensus on basic issues that acts to restrain group conflicts.

With their strong pastoral roots, Somalis have a fleeting attachment to factional distinctions that attempt to force them to abandon their traditional political thinking, which is based on the well-tried and tested ways of lineage segmentation, or haybsasho, in the favor of empty slogans and meaningless acronyms.

Therefore, I expect those factions, or any others that will follow on their footsteps, will quickly recede into the soon-to-be-forgotten past. Even the venerable SNM, perhaps the only organization that existed the longest and was the most popular, could not escape this pastoral fate: a grass is only as good as it is green; therefore, the necessity to move on to the next pasture-land over the horizon is preordained, and it is as real as the difference between life and death."

Q. Somalia has been without a central government since the ouster of their dictator in 1991. The OAU and the Arab League have both made it clear in their periodic announcements that they would not extend recognition to Somaliland until Somalia recognizes it first. What you think of the situation in Somalia?

A. "Somalia's state collapse and the prevailing conditions in both Somalia and Somaliland have permanently shattered the contemporary myth of Somalis being a homogenous society - as members of an encompassing national genealogy that traced descent, as if in magic, to a single Arabian saint, the mythical Samaale. Clearly, the greatest disservice the colonial rulers and their social scientists ever rendered to the Somalis was their "discovery" of a nation in the Horn of Africa that all spoke Somali, worshipped under the faith of Islam, possessed similar physical features and subsisted by raising camels, cattle, sheep and goats.

Therefore, since that nation was, indeed, "in search of a state", they sought to create a country from scratch for those "poor nomads who spend their whole lives searching for rains that never come", as one contemporary scholar put it nicely, possibly after recieving a large research grant from a colonial power's educational center. Following their Eurocentric worldview, they believed that an amalgamation would take place where all tribal distinctions and the contrasting effects of the disparate colonial legacies will be erased.

To sum up here, having forgotten the calamities of the recent past, the same interventionists, their scholars and their "humanitarian" bankrollers are once again busy prolonging the suffering of the Somali nations, and sowing the seeds of future tragedies. In the case of Somaliland, an overwhelming majority now came to accept their independence as an accident of history, for the better or for the worse, and beyond negotiations - with or without recognition. I would say that Somaliland will likely be still here long after the OAU and the Arab League had folded their tents, and for no other reason, but the prevalence of such arrogant and neocolonialist wishful thinking!"

Q. Under the British colonial rule, the state was the formal representation of the government, which was made up of individuals and groups - together with the laws they passed and the procedures they established - that changed with time and with each administration, while the state remained the same. Are there any social and political sentiments towards that kind of thinking on state structure?

A. "As a traditional society, we, including the highest "educated" Somali people, have not reached a development stage to think and reason in such abstraction models as state or organized polity. The development of the healthy attitudes essential in free social thinking, such as doubt, skepticism, objectivity and neutrality, are in very early stage of development. As such, state and government for us are considered as one and the same, namely, the person of the president and the agnatically-related groups he originates from. Moreover, our norms, values, beliefs, and other elements of cultures are not in agreement."

Q. The continouos Ethiopian invasions of Southwestern Somalia have once again brought media attention to Islamic groups in Somalia. Are there any active Islamic groups in Somaliland and how are they affecting the politics there?

A. "The land is filled with Muslim Sheikhs, who enjoy various degrees of familiarity and influence in their own communities. The sight of a "Mullah's" village, as the British used to call them, is nothing new. With the important exceptions of the ancient towns of Zeilac and Berbera, all inland towns owe their existence to the innovation and foresight of outstanding Somali Muslim preachers, as all of them grew out on the sites of religious settlements.

As in the past, Sheikhs have established numerous schools, or machado; now, it is estimated that over three quarters of children and adults who receive formal instruction attend such schools. As such, the religious establishment, as essentially ecclesic, is thoroughly institutionalized and well integrated into the social and economic order of society, and in which participation is routine and apolitical.

There has been some speculations that a long-feared secularization trend as a result of the growing influence of western culture, was made more inevitable by the social upheavals of the last decade. If Somaliland is constant in one thing, however, it is that the Islamic faith still follows the traditional version - stress on the supernatural, spiritual and parochial in nature. This rigidity in the faith may help explain its enduring function as an integrating element of the society, as well as an active force in the extreme social conservatism in the society.

In contrast, it is likely that the supposed secularization may be more advanced in Somalia, where the expected reaction against the pervasive materialism and militancy of the society, which is the reviving of old religious traditions as a bulwark against social disintegration has been weak. Clearly, the apparent politicization of religion inevitably breeds materialistic and militant sentiments of their own, which further lead, as can be seen in Gedo and North Mogadishu, to the emergence of new cults as a sole aim of acquiring power on the mantle of religion."

Q. In February 1997, Mohamed I. Egal was returned to the office of the presidency as a result of a landslide victory. Except during the reign of the dictatorship, Egal has been a perennial candidate; as a matter of fact, a biography on his political chronicles will likely serve as a standard text for the history of modern Somaliland. Some have attributed this as a sign of lack of maturity in the body politic, assuming there is one; while others have suggested that his presence is a sign of nostalgia for the British order and grace. What you think accounts for his role as a fixture in Somaliland politics?

A. "At first sight, it may appear that a politician has power in proportion to his own capabilities, but this notion is incomplete. It is more correct to say that a politician's power is influenced both by social factors, as well as by personal attributes. In a traditional society that lacks television, a vibrant print media, and organized political parties, the social factors will likely play a dominant role as the nature of power acquires other attributes and needs to be viewed in a wider perspective.

Egal's ascendancy into the politics, clearly, coincided with the rise of the modern competitive politics in the waning days of the Somaliland Protectorate. Since the exiling of Faarax Omaar, a maverick dissident, in the 1920s to the Aden garrison, the British rulers, after having spent over twenty years in defeating the dervish rebellion, presided over a relatively docile protectorate until 1959, when the Somaliland Constituent Assembly was established, where he started his political career.

In the context of the nostalgia you talked about, the perception remains to this day that Egal's "pioneering" efforts were responsible for the orderly transfer of sovereignty to Somali hands. Of course, this perception may seem implausible, especially, when viewed from the perspective of the post-independence era, which leaves a gnawing feeling that all was not as orderly as it was made to be.

Regarding the context of the social factors, Egal always held a sway over the traditional leaders - Sultans, cuqaal , etc. - and older women who, in a Somali version of Horatio Alger's rags to riches stories, came to admire the boundless ambitions of the "Big Odweine kid". Today, walking through a dusty sorghum market, an ancient-looking old women can be seen scooping the produce as much as Egal's praises. In short, it is much more than a measure of a man's public record, as much as it is a memory of the dreams of bygone days, of what it could have been, of missed opportunities, and of what came in between then and now."


The Interview Method

This interview was conducted in April 1997, largely on face-to-face conversations with Mr. Warsame, who is currently visiting Iowa, USA, where he is seeking medical attention for an eye injury he had sustained during the conflict in Burao. From the transcribed text in the Somali language, the editor rendered a difficult and highly poetic interview text into this plain English version.

For more details, see


Mohamed Bali, editor