Cover Image
close this bookThe Somali Conflict (Oxfam)
close this folderPart II: Background to the Somali war
View the document1. Introduction to Somalia
View the document2. The Somali civil war
View the document3. Understanding the conflict

1. Introduction to Somalia

1.1 The Somali People

Somalia1 covers almost 640,000 square kilometres in the north-eastern tip of the Horn of Africa. In the main this is a semi-desert region, with a vegetation cover and water resources that dictate a pastoral nomadic existence for the majority of the population. The exception is the area between the two southern rivers, the Shabelle and Juba, and in valleys of the northern escarpments, where higher rainfall and richer soils provide land suitable for agriculture.

The Somali-speaking people form one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, living dispersed throughout the Horn, from the Awash Valley, through the Ethiopian Ogaden, and into northern Kenya as far as the Tana river. A Cushitic-speaking family or 'nation' of people, Somalis belong to the Hamitic group of peoples, which includes the Afar, Oromo, Saho and Beja peoples of the Horn. The Somali are distinguished by a shared common ancestry, a single language, an Islamic (sunni) heritage and a way of life that is overwhelmingly pastoral.

The Somali are divided into six 'clan families'-Dir, Issaq, Darod, Hawiye, Digil, and Rahanweyne-which are further divided, according to agnatic descent, into subsidiary clans or lineage groups (see diagram 1) (Lewis, 1961). The Somali kinship system and the flexible and shifting alliances of clan kinship groups are fundamentally entrenched in the social, political, and economic culture of the Somali people.

Until the colonial period the Somali 'nation' did not form a single political unit; any concept of political identity was based on clan affiliation. It was only when the Ethiopian empire and the colonial powers of Britain, Italy, and France divided the Horn and the lands of the Somali peoples into five states-British Somaliland, Italian Somalia, French Somaliland (Djibouti), the Ethiopian Ogaden, and northern Kenya - and the Somali Republic was subsequently created that the concept of a Somali nation state began to grow. The international colonial borders that separate Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya make little reference to established territories of the Somali pastoral clans. Of particular importance are the Haud grazing reserves ceded to Ethiopia by Britain in 1954. Since independence, irredentist policies to reunite the 'lost' Somali territories have been one of the driving forces of Somali national politics.

1.2 The Barre Regime

Created from the union of Italian Somalia and the British Somaliland Protectorate, the Somali Republic attained independence in July 1960. For its first nine years Somalia enjoyed a succession of democratically elected governments. In October 1969, amid accusations of corruption and electoral malpractice, the military seized power. Under the leadership of General Mohamed Siad Barre, 'Scientific Socialism' was adopted as the guiding ideology for the country's development.

Under the banner of Scientific Socialism, Barre embarked on a radical programme to fundamentally restructure Somali society. This programme initially received support from a class of urban intelligentsia and technocrats, grappling with the move from a pastoral society to a modern nation state, and disillusioned with the debilitating effects of 'clanism'. With a centrally planned programme, national development was promoted through an end to 'tribalism' and a commitment to 'popular participation', under the guidance of the single Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party. The masses were mobilised for crash development programmes, such as the 1973/4 literacy campaign; effigies of 'tribalism' were ceremonially burnt; marriages were celebrated at orientation centres and stripped of clan significance; clan elders were renamed 'peace-seekers' (nabad-doons) and made part of the state bureaucracy. This assault on the fabric of Somali society was coupled with state control of the economy. The intention was to turn this 'nation of nomads' into a modern state, in which people were required to look to the state for security and welfare, instead of the clan. Embodying the nation was the President and 'father of the nation', Siad Barre.

In 1974, Somalia suffered one of the worst droughts (dabadheer) in its history. In September of that year the regime of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia was overthrown. In 1977, taking advantage of the weakened Ethiopian state, Barre launched a war to reclaim the Ogaden for Somalia. The war, which met with almost universal support among the Somali people, was a high point of Somali nationalism and Barre's popularity. Defeat a year later by the Soviet-supported Ethiopian army of the new Ethiopian Marxist government caused fissures in Somalia, previously hidden by the war, to open.

In 1978 military officers of the Majeerteen (Darod) clan made an abortive attempt to overthrow the regime. Some officers who escaped arrest went on to form the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), which launched a guerrilla campaign against the Barre regime in the central regions of Somalia. In 1981, disaffected Issaq of the northern regions formed the Somali National Movement (SNM) and took up arms against the regime. The end of the Ogaden war destroyed any sense of national unity. The fact that both the SSDF and the SNM sought sanctuary in Ethiopia was an indication of the disintegration within the Somali state.


Diagram 1: Somali Clans and Modem Politico-Military Movements

From that period power became more entrenched in the immediate family and clan of the President. Despite the elaborate structures of state that Barre introduced, and despite his anti-tribal rhetoric, Somalis regarded the regime as essentially clanbased, supported by those clans of his extended family commonly known as the 'MOD alliance': Marehan (father), Ogaden (mother), and Dolbahunte (son-in-law). By the late 1980s, even the MOD alliance began to break down, as the Marehan consolidated their positions in the face of growing insecurity.

Many Somalis point to the Ogaden war as the real starting point for the present Somali conflict. The 1988 peace accord between Somalia and Ethiopia brought an end to ten years of hostility between these countries. However, the accord also signalled a further demise in pan-Somali solidarity, as Ethiopian control over the Haud was finally recognised by Somalia. The accord precipitated an assault by the SNM on the northern cities of Burco and Hargeisa in May 1988, which provided the overt starting point of the present war.

1.3 The Militarisation of Somalia

As Cold War politics in the region demanded, the Barre regime was initially supported by the Soviet Union and later, when the Soviets switched support to Ethiopia, by the USA. Siad Barre was particularly adept at using the tensions of the Cold War and super-power interests to solicit a vast array of armaments for his government. Between 1969 and 1977, with the support of the Soviets, Barre was able to build Africa's largest army. After 1977, when Barre turned for support to the USA, he was able to secure $100 million a year in development and military aid, in return for US access to military facilities at Berbera port for its Rapid Deployment Force. In late 1987, at a time when Somalia was on the verge of signing a peace accord with Ethiopia, some 16 per cent of Somalia's imports were in the form of arms (Third World Guide 1991/2). In June 1988, a few weeks after the outbreak of war in northern Somalia, the USA delivered $1.4 million in military aid to the Barre government.

The USA and the Soviet Union were not the only suppliers of military equipment to Somalia. At different times Italy, Romania, East Germany, Iraq, Iran, Libya, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and China have all contributed. The vast arsenals of weapons that the warlords have had at their disposal to fight the civil war have been the Cold War's main legacy to Somalia.