Somaliland:From Clan Dictatorship To Self-determination Somaliland Cyberspace From Maroodi Jeex: A Somaliland Alternative Press
No. 1 (January/March 1996)

Somaliland: From Clan Dictatorship To Self-determination

Mohamed Bali


The Birth of A Nation

Thirty years after its creation, Somalia dissolved into a patchwork of pre-nation state territories, each controlled by armed clans. Long and brutal clan-based dictatorship was finally destroyed after General Siyaad Barre fled Mogadishu in a tank on 27 January 1991, to his clan homeland of Gedo. This dramatic defeat of the dictatorship didn't come with a small price. The following report by Jonathan Manthrope, Montreal Gazette, on the hammering of the last nail of the death throes of the Somali state was typical Somali news of the 1990s:

Coming on the heels of the collapse of state in Somalia, Somaliland Republic came into existence on May 18, 1991, following the decision reached by Somaliland's traditional leaders in Berbera and Burco. It was declared that the 1960 Act of Union with Somalia to be void. This decision came on the heels of a tremendous upsurge of popular sentiment - especially among the Isaaqs - demanding the establishment of a separate state in the North. For all practical purposes, the act of independence of Somaliland ended the national dream of creating a homeland for all Somalis, who were partitioned by European imperialists into five colonies during the scramble for Africa in 1880s.

Although the unilateral independence declaration made by the SNM leadership in 1991stunned the Somalis who live outside Somaliland, for most Somalilanders who survived the northern genocide, it came only at the worst time. The cities in the North, most notably Hargeisa and Burco, were annihilated; hundreds of villages were burned to the ground, and tens of thousands of people were massacred.(3) A civil war that will be discussed later erupted in Somaliland in May 1988, when the SNM fighters moved their war effort north of the border with Ethiopia. SNM's objective was simple -- the end to southern domination of Somaliland and the liberation of their homeland. (4)

This paper is an attempt to explain a local crisis prelude to the northern Somalia civil War, how peace was achieved, how in particular northern clans forged a coalition that led to the declaration of independence and statehood of Somaliland. The first part of the paper introduces salient features of the initial period of the clan dictatorship. The second part gives a brief review of the military regime's policies directed against northern Somalia's unrest beginning from 1982 student riots and the rounding up of the 'Hargeisa Group' activists. The last part concerns the reinstatment of soveriegnty to Somaliland and the current civil war raging in the major cities in Somaliland. This paper argues that the current political crisis in both Somaliland and Somalia are rooted in the structure and policies of Siyaad Barre dictatorship and no understanding will be complete without reviewing of that period of the Somali history.

The Making of the National Nightmare: The Rise of A Dictatorship

In October 1969, after nearly nine years of civilian rule, General Siyaad Barre seized power in a military coup, coming on the heels of the unplanned assassination of President Abdirashiid Ali Sharmaake by a police guard, who was acting alone. The tragic interlude between the killing of the President and the coup was marked by indecisiveness and acrimony in the part of the administration and Parliament, as they failed to elect a timely successor acceptable to the military.

The military regime after introducing itself as Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) quickly suspended the constitution, disbanded Parliament, banned political parties and professional associations, and abolished the Supreme Court. Somalia was subsequently governed without a constitution until August 1979. A hard-nosed police state was installed, complete with Soviet bloc-trained security troops, national security courts (run by military officers),Guulwadayaal or 'Victory Pioneers'; the latter being poorly trained, urban/rural drifters recruited to spy on the bewildered citizens.

Somalis initially welcomed the military coup, because of the failure of the parliamentary process, because of clanism, nepotism and corruption. In fact, nepotism and clan-based politics made it difficult for democracy to thrive in Somalia throughout the 1960s. Competition for state power and wealth often took the form of shifting alliances, one-man political parties and conflicts between lineages and clans and led to rampant corruption. Ironically, these same evils will be pointed to had led to the violent collapse of the military regime, and of the Somali state itself. General Siyaad Barre ruled Somalia for the next two decades, with the active support of the Soviet Union and United States, and their respective allies. This military regime, built on the twin structures of domestic repression and Somali irredentism against other Horn of African states, ended in 1991.

The early scholarship on this period of the dictatotship was characterized by narrow interpretations of empty slogans as 'revolutionary' awakening, and march toward the formation of a modern, socialist state in the place of stale, 'tribalistic' society. Because of the "scientific socialism," announced by the SRC as the state ideology, timely analysis of the imposition of a harsh military rule over traditionally anarchic Somali clans was thwarted. (5)

Poorly defined as "Hantiwadaag"-- literally sharing of live animals the erstwhile herders own --socialism was not envisioned to become a blueprint for meaningful socioeconomic changes, such as carrying out country-wide improvement in education, health and rural development. Instead, many people, especially Northern Somalis, who were locked out of political and economic opportunities saw the socialist experiment as a concerted raid over the economic and natural resources, belonging to more prosperous and rival clans, such as theIsaaq in Somaliland, and Hawiye and Digil Mirifle in the South.

In essence, the clan coup of 1969 was a direct result of the ceaseless competition within and among the clans over scarce economic resources, political seats, and social recognition. Typically, the biggest price to be won by the competing clans was - and still is: control over the state - the entire post-colonial structure of army, police, civilian agencies, public resources - and foreign aid.

Accordingly, after quickly establishing authoritarian rule, Siyaad Barre consolidated his power through an association of three small clans from the Daarood clan family, known as the M.O.D (Marehan-Ogaden-Dhulbahante) alliance. I.M. Lewis explains the nature of the M.O.D clanism:

The M.O.D alliance, however, suffered setbacks stemming from the defeat of the Somali army by Ethiopia during the Ogaden war in 1978. Clearly, Somali irredentism had reached its peak, and the dream of a 'Greater Somalia', which formed the basis of pan-Somalia nationalism, had become a mirage. The bitterness over the military defeat, the increasingly discriminatory rule of Siyaad Barre, severe economic crisis and harsh human rights conditions, along with the government's mishandling of the war effort, ignited bent up clan-related tensions.

During the same time, in the aftermath of the Ogaden war, and the drafting of a new constitution in August 1979, enormous powers were vested in the President, who also became Secretary General of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party and Chairman of its Politburo. Siyaad Barre was in direct control of all facets of state power, including the security institutions, Parliament, and all branches of judiciary. Siyaad Barre, to stay in power in a period of growing political opposition and economic despair, tightened the patronage base of his regime, openly promoting the interests of his family and Marehan lineage (8). Siyaad's obsessive struggle to retain his power through his family and clan support sounded the death knell, not only for his hated regime but for the Somali state as well.

The slippery slope to the Somalia's death knell started when hundreds of soldiers from the Majeerteen lineage were summarily executed and the rebel's homeland's decimated by the military following a failed coup, led by Colonel Mohamed Sheikh Osman (Ciro). An era of clan insurgencies hidden behind the mask of the acronym of international liberal political slang was spawned when the surviving Majeerteen dissidents established the first anti-Siyaad liberation front, Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), with military bases in Ethiopia.(7) The Isaaq soldiers, fearing for their lives, fled to Ethiopia.

In April 1981, the Isaaq announced in London the formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM),with the declared objective to overthrow the military regime with the use of force, and replace it with a democratic government. In retaliation, in February 1982, 30 Hargeisa professionals and businessmen were rounded up, and after they were found guilty of subversion by the National Security Court, were given sentences that ranged from three years to life imprisonment (9). These professionals had formed a voluntary association to improve the conditions of the dilapidated General Hospital of Hargeisa. Ever frustrating development efforts in the North, the military rulers interpreted their independent, social activities as anti-government (kacaandhiidh), and thus a challenge to the military rule. The immediate results were the radicalization of the students and others in the North, and the SNM's hurried decision to set up bases in the border area in eastern Ethiopia. Preparation for liberation war began in earnest.

Meanwhile, Northern Somalia became a military colony in the seventies and eighties, where brutal punishment was meted out to the Isaaq majority. Examples abound of the severe repression of civilians, mismanagement of the economy and natural resources, and destruction and looting of property, as Jama Mohamed Ghalib writes in The Cost of Dictatorship:

Most northern intellectuals, artists, educators, and members of the business community were either transferred south, or were enticed to move to Mogadishu in search of better professional and business opportunities. Others fled to the Gulf states in search of peace and employment. To ensure that the thriving northern cities won't compete with the South, building restrictions (no more than two stories high), construction moratoriums (sometimes lasting more than two years), harassment and imprisonment of private masons and builders, freezing of bank credit, and other draconian financial and urban planning measures, were instituted by successive military governors. (11) One rather nebulous governor, General Bile Rafleh Guleed, allegedly ordered during his long tenure, the destruction of all documents and files dating back from the colonial era, in a futile bid to wipe out the history of Somaliland. (12)

Economic restrictions, systemic discrimination, and erratic policy zigzags had decimated the most productive sector -- the private enterprise in the North. In less than two decades, a small but growing economy was reduced to a penury. Isaaq elders in a memorandum, dated 21March 1983, to General Siyaad Barre, outlined some of the northern Somalia problems:

Following the defeat of the Somali military and the Somali Abo mongrels by Ethiopia in1978, half a million ethnic Somalis and Oromos refugees arrived in the North. Following the the SNM's stationing across the border in Ethiopia, the military gang-pressed the able-bodied male refugees into military conscription with the stated purpose of policing the Isaaq population. This, in a region already reeling from the economic and social devastation wrought by the Somali military aggression against Ethiopia, as I. M. Lewis reported on the conditions of the north in late eighties:

The Somali Civil War

In April 1988, the two dictators, General Siyaad Barre of Somalia, and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, signed a peace truce that instead started a civil war. Each country agreed to remove troops from border areas and cease supporting opposition organizations from each other's country. Stunned by this clever diplomacy and the loss of patron, an estimated force of 4,000 guerrillas, representing the exiled, Isaaq-dominated SNM, having taken advantage of the removal of the Somali troops from the border area, crossed the border from Ethiopia into Northern Somalia, where they swiftly occupied Burco and Hargeisa cities in May 1988. Following initial victories by the SNM against the formidable Somali government troops and allied clan militias, the army destroyed both cities -- killing tens of thousands of mostly Somali civilians.

During the first month of hostilities, particularly after heavy gunfire in Hargeisa, an estimated 6,000 people throughout the Northwest region were arrested, and imprisoned, of whom the vast majority was Isaaq. In the view of absence of any evidence of complicity with the invaders, virtually all of them were reported to had disappeared. Western human rights organizations reported that government troops were systematically butchering the local civilian population in an attempt to curb support for the SNM. Some 600,000 Isaaq refugees fled to Ethiopia (15). Africa Watch, in its report, "Somalia: A Government at War with its own People," states:.

As Jama M. Ghalib explains, the brutality of the regime in power was well-planned and orchestrated well-ahead of the intitial commencement of the hostilities:

The devastating war ended in February 1991, following the ouster of Siyad Barre and the United Somali Congress's (USC) takeover of the nation's capital, Mogadishu, and the surrender of Siyaad Barre's troops in the north to the SNM. On 29 January 1991, the USC appointed Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a former government minister in the 1960s and a rich hotelier, as interim president. Omer Arteh Ghalib, an independent-minded Isaaq, and a former secretary of state for foreign affairs recently released from house arrest was asked to form a provisional government. The appointment of Ali Mahdi as an interim president, however, was opposed by all the liberation movements, including the SNM, as usurpation of power, and it has led to the current anarchy in Somalia. Southern Somalia became engulfed in protracted civil war, with massive famine, severe refugee crisis, and rampant clan violence.(16)

Reinstatement of Independence

Subsequently, intensive debate ensued throughout the shattered north on what direction to head : renegotiate the terms of the Act of Union with the South or unilaterally declare independence. As expected, the leaders of all the clans of the North decided to renounce the Act of Union that the government of the British Somaliland Protectorate passed on 27 April 1960, and agreed to liberate the North from the South that condemned it to political and economic underdevelopment, and lately, to physical annihilation. On 18 May 1991, Somaliland's leaders seized the moment, and formally announced the restoration of sovereignty to Somaliland Republic and the election of Mr. Abdurahman Ahmed Ali as an interim President for two years.

Since then, Somaliland has enjoyed a degree of peace and stability not experienced in the North since the formation of the SNM in 1981, and not in the South since 1991. To avoid winner-take-all politics characteristic of the stateless Somalia, most Somaliland's leaders endeavored to apply consociational democratic methods by building consensus among the competing clans and factions, and maintaining the all-important clan proportionality and balance. Southern-style all-out war of retribution was avoided, and a country-wide comprehensive peace agreement was drawn up by the Council of Elders (Guurti).

Accordingly, Somaliland strives to learn from the experiences of the failed Somali state by avoiding the consolidating of its power at the political center and the extracting of considerable economic and human resources from the society. Alternatively, preserving a degree of segmental autonomy is generally accepted as a more prudent option to reduce governmental burden. Thus, creating indigenous political and economic structures are encouraged everywhere for attaining grass-roots self-determination, rather than accepting a forced union in favor of fictitious Somali unity by fiat. History shows that such a polity will only be lorded over by the power-hungry southern warlords and their looters, who reduced their own once splendid capital city to ruins for power and looting.

Following the now-established traditional practice, in May 1993, meeting in Borama, the Council of Elders, after three months of deliberations, drawn up a new state charter with a two-tiered government and elected Mohamed Ibrahim Egal as a president. Mohamud Abdi Ali's assessment of the Borama conference, minces no words on the futility of the elite politics, which destroyed Somalia, and pushed Somaliland onto the brink of internecine clan and-factional strife, and the sensitivity and wisdom of traditional leaders:

Consociational democracy, however, like any other type of democracy, takes time to take roots. Also, it requires a gradual accumulation of knowledge and economic resources for convergence of interests to develop between the citizens and their elected government leaders. Such convergence is less likely to occur as economic disparity between various clan-held areas (for example, rural vs. urban, or east vs. west) continues to grow wider than ever and will require extraordinary efforts to redress. Lack of national resources -- not augmented by the dearth of international aid trickling in, and made worse by the government's long-standing suspicions of the international NGO's' humanitarian' intentions -- stymies any governmental efforts to bridge these growing gaps (18). In addition, the prevalence of short-term political expediency calculations that permeate the political climate limits the range of political possibilities for laying down of the foundations for the emergence of a civil society and thus their attendant long-term political risks for the governing elites.

Since 1991, no country recognized Somaliland Republic, and, as a consequence, this has effectively denied Somaliland access to badly needed economic aid to strengthen fragile state institutions, rehabilitate educational and health infrastructures, and improve security by demobilizing the armed segments of the population. Domestically, Somaliland has not completely escaped the internecine clan warfare raging in Somalia. Sporadically, clan fighting erupts in Somaliland -- challenging legality, disrupting the evolution of vital state structures, and paralyzing trade in the country.

In 1995 and 1996, Somaliland's so far successful demobilization efforts had suffered major setbacks resulting from the outbreaks of clan and factional-related clashes. More than 300,000 Somalilanders were forced to flee their homes in Hargeisa and Burco, and millions of dollars of investments were lost, following daring anti-Somaliland rebel assaults on those cities. (19) Their overwhelming support for the self-determination status of Somaliland notwithstanding, these rebel groups are united in their determination to topple the Egal administration with the use of force, and to install a president of their own choice.

It may first appear to be an aberration to support a state but still take up arms to steadfastly oppose its democratically elected president, and, as a result, put the state itself in jeopardy. Paradoxically, in a deeply fragmented society, where nomads make up a majority, it is not atypical for the call of kinship to take precedence over reason (20). Moreover, after 20 years of brutal divide and rule policies of the Mogadishu dictatorship, clan suspicions and jealousies run rampant. Unfortunately, subscription to one's clan membership and its claims to clan power are beheld to be the shortest route to preserving one's rights and privileges, rather than identification with the institutions and the policies of a national regime. For his part, Egal is determined to serve his term, despite the rebel groups' repeated calls for his resignation. Also, to the dismay of some of the Somalilanders who believe change is overdue and desirable, Egal might even seek a third term from another clan conference in 1996. (21)

Since the totality of the dreams of most Somalis is the sum of their individual clan strategies, grass-roots unity debates and leadership are desperately needed to address the multiple crises confronting Somaliland. Otherwise, the internecine clan warfare could only lead the fledgling country to prolonged famine, anarchy and dismemberment.

Proposals for building up a democratic society based on laws and a social contract -- not on the mandates of the stateless, nomadic tradition -- are critically needed to redirect the energies of Somalilanders toward rebuilding their society. Hopefully, such societal reconstruction may one day in the future ennoble the Somalilanders from existing for the divisive and obsessive clan-specific strategy to articulating a unifying national strategy and a national vision. Now, building up a system of effective checks and balances through a popularly approved constitution and an equitable arrangement for power-sharing holds the promise for long-term solution for this intractable political crisis.

To summarize, the independent statehood of Somaliland is a result of distinct colonial history, brutal political and economic exploitation and clear failure of Somali irredentism. The most important and immediate reason that led to the declaration of statehood of Somaliland may be the violent suppression of the time-honored, democratic values such as the Somali Xeer (customary law), clan proportionality and balance, and the due process of law by the military regime of General Siyaad Barre. Furthermore, the brutal colonization of the North by the southern and western clans, their massacring of the Isaaq civilians, and the massive destruction of their property, left the Somalilanders with no other choice but to opt for independence and statehood.


  1. Plato, The Republic VII, in THE DIALOGS OF PLATO 779, (B.Jowett trans. 1920).
  2. Manthrope, Jonathan. Montreal Gazette, 21 March 1991.
  3. Africa Watch Report", Somalia: A Government at War with its own People-Testimonies about the killings and the conflict in the North,"(New York-AfricaWatch, January 1990) [ Hereinafter Africa Watch Report].
  4. For details, see Greenfield, Richard, "Somalia's Death Letter,"New African,July 1987,p14-16, and Dr. Saeed Sheikh Mohammed, "Siyad's vendetta againstthe North," New African, Sep.1987, p21.
  5. Davidson, Basil, "Somalia: toward Socialism, " Race and Class, v11,n1(1975), p25 .
  6. Lewis, I.M, A Modern History of Somalia, (Westview, Boulder, 1988), P22-23.
  7. For full description of the evolution of these guerrilla fronts, see Compagnon,Daniel, "The Somali Opposition Fronts: Some Questions and Comments," Horn of Africa, V13, p29-54, 1990.
  8. For details, see "Documentary Evidence of the Clan-Base of the Current Regime,"Somali Horizon, v9, (Oct. 1987), p16-18.
  9. See Adan Yussuf Abokor, "Why We Were Arrested," p227-230; Mohamed Barood Ali, "Inside Labaatan Jirow Secret Maximum Security Prison," p231-256; in Jama Mohamed Ghalib, "Cost of Dictatorship"(New York: Lillian Barber Press, 1995).
  10. Ibid. pp. 216.
  11. Abdi Haybe, former official of Hargeisa municipal authority in a pamphlet article, circa 1987.
  12. Gulaid, Abdulkarim Ahmed. "Barre's Brutal Legacy", New African,pp11(2),February 1991.
  13. Africa Watch Report, p35-36; see also Gersony, Robert, "Why Somalis Flee:Synthesis of Accounts of Conflict Experience in Northern Somali Refugees, Displaced Personsand Others," U.S. Dept. of State, August, 1989.
  14. Lewis, I.M," The Ogaden and the Fragility of Somali Segmentary Nationalism,"Horn of Africa, V13, 1990. Also see Africa Watch Report, p3.
  15. Main faction leaders in Somalia include:
    (a) Mohamed Farah Aideed, the well-known warlord, who invaded most of the territory of southern Somalia from Ethiopia in late 1990, ultimately driving dictator Mohamed Siyaad Barre from power. In June 1995, General Aideed declared himself 'president', a claim unrecognized by all factions in Somalia and Somaliland.
    (b) Ali Mahdi Mohamed, declared himself interim president of Somalia with the help of the 'Manifesto Group', and currently controls north of the city.
    (c) Mohamed Said Hersi 'Morgan', the son-in-law of dictator Siyaad Barre and a leader of Darood-based Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), controls the port city of Kismaayo.
    (d) Colonel Ahmed Omer Jess, a leader of a faction of Somali Patriot Movement (SPM), which is part of General Aideed's alliance, had controlled the small city of Afmadow in Lower Juba, since 1993, after his faction and sub-clan were driven out from Kismaayo by General Morgan's militia.
    (e) Osman Ahmed Atto, a former Aideed ally and banker, currently commands a well-armed and very active militia made up of his lineage , and opposes Gen. Aideed.
  16. In March 1993, a UN-sponsored Conference on National Reconciliation meeting in Addis Ababa ended with an agreement by 15 armed political groups to set up a 78-member Transitional National Council (TNC) as interim political authority for Somalia for a two-year period. However, two problems plagued these so-called national conferences: the independent statehood status of Somaliland, and the conference participants' fears that the TNC will likely be dominated by General Aideed's Somali National Alliance (SNA).

    As a result of the civil war and this political deadlock, organized governmental activities at the district and national levels do not exist. Security for civilians and food supplies is inconstant jeopardy. Warring clans, disease and death are daily consequences associated with the extinction of the Somali governmental infrastructure. War, famine and anarchy have combined in Somalia to an atmosphere that is both tragic and surreal.

  17. Mohamud Abdi Ali, (1993)," The Grand Peace and National Reconciliation Conference in Borama: Background, Significance, and Perspectives," Mimeographed paper, Feb. 14,1993,P4-5.
  18. For example, the UNDP/OPS Project Manager, Basil Comnas, was expelled from the country in 1995; EC. special envoy to Somalia and Somaliland, Sigurd Illing, and the UN agencies were ordered to leave in 1994. For details, see Julie Flint, "Somaliland expels 'interfering' UN, " The Guardian, Aug. 29, 1994, p6; "Somaliland fights alonely battle ( aid agencies ignoring needs of peace-making Somaliland)," The Guardian,Oct. 15, 1993, p13.
  19. See Rake, Alan. " Fighting Flares in Somaliland," New African, June 1995,p32.
    A key player in this conflict is the former interim president, Abdurahman Ahmed Ali, who renounced the secession of Somaliland that he presided over himself after he lost a vote in 1993. He went on to become a vice-president of warlord Aideed's "government" in south Mogadishu. Most Somalilanders see Abdurahman Tuur as the chief implementor of the southern warlords "Northern Strategy"; namely, wiping out Somaliland's independence by ensuring continuous instability.
  20. Kinship ties among the Somalis are based on two important features of the Somali pastoral tradition. First, there exists a collective blood-paying protocol, a dia, for homicide (tribal retribution/an eye for an eye) exists among adult males, (For instance, according to the Xeer, the blood payment for the killing of an adult male is reckoned to be equivalent to 100 camels, whereas the death of a female person is valued at 50 camels). Traditionally, every Somali belongs to a dia-paying group, and there are over 500 of them. Second, the communal access to the land among the pastoral Somalis that is essentially defined by the circuit of nomadic migrations.

    The traditional social structure, organized this fashion, thus, was characterized by intense competition and conflicts, and ceaseless clan conflicts and rivalries have been an important feature of the Somali society. Unique for Africa, Somalis belong to one ethnic group that shares a common language (Somali) and religion (Sunni Islam). However, Somalis are divided into six rival clan families: Darood, Isaaq, Dir, Hawiye, Rahanweyn and Digil. Each clan family, in turn, subdivides into clans, which are composed of numerous rival subclans and sub-subclans.

  21. See Smerden, Peter. "Profile of Somaliland's Egal", Reuters Newswire, February 18, 1996, (recounting a conversation he had with Egal in Hargeisa: "Asked whether he ever plans to retire, Egal says that he will not let all his efforts for Somaliland go to waste and if he believes his achievements are endangered he will stay on...No one in Somaliland expects him to give up his power soon "[Italics mine]. For more details, see "Holding on in Somaliland," Africa Confidential,, 31 March 1995, p6-7.

Use these links to jump back to where you came from: