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

2. The Somali civil war

Since the late 1970s Somalia, and those areas of the Horn inhabited by the Somali people, have been in a virtually continual state of conflict. The historical origins of the present civil war lie in the defeat of Somali army in the Ogaden war of 1977 and, with it, the end of pan-Somali unity. As the Somali war has become more protracted, that sense of unity has dissipated further and Somalia has become more fractured probably than at any other time in its history.

2.1 War with the Majeerteen

The Majeerteen clan inhabit the north-eastern corner of the Somali peninsular, in Mudug, Nugaal, and Bari regions. Since the nineteenth century, they have also formed a prominent business community in Kismayo, where they are known as Harti (the generic term for the Majeerteen, Dolbahunte, and Warsengeli).

Since the arrival of the European powers, the Majeerteen have always played a significant role in Somalia's politics. After independence Somalia's first two Prime Ministers were Majeerteen, as was the second president, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, who was assassinated in 1969.

In April 1978, following the defeat of Somalia in the Ogaden, Majeerteen colonels attempted to remove Barre in a coup. The coup failed, but those officers who escaped went on to form the SSDF, led by Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf. The SSDF launched military campaigns against the regime in the early 1980s in Mudug region, home of Abdillahi Yusuf's sub-clan. The response of the regime to the SSDF guerrilla campaigns was savage. In the months of May and June 1979, over 2,000 Majerteen were said to have died in Mudug region at the hands of Barre's crack troops, the Red Berets (Samatar, 1991). The brutality of the campaign against the Majeerteen was a forerunner for an even more vicious campaign against the Issaq people.

The SSDF collapsed in 1986, when its leader Abdillahi Yusuf was arrested by the Ethiopians, who at the time were seeking rapprochement with Barre. It was reconstituted as a political party in 1989 in Rome. In 1989, as the civil war spread into the central regions, the north-east became cut off from the south. In 1990, several prominent Majeerteen joined the 'Manifesto Group' of politicians, businessmen, and elders who sought the peaceful removal of Barre from power. However, the SSDF played little part in the military over-throw of Barre. Since the overthrow of Barre, the north-east has remained largely free from fighting, except for a short-lived conflict with the Al Itihad Islamia (Islamic militants) in June 1992. In contrast, the southern Harti have been involved in a fierce war, under the banner of the SPM/SNF, against the USC/SNA, for control of Kismayo.

Since 1991, the Chairman of the SSDF has been General Mohamed Abshir, former Chief of Police in the 1960s, with Colonel Abdillahi Yusuf resuming military command of the SSDF after he was released from Ethiopian jail with the fall of Mengistu.

2.2 War with the Issaq

The Issaq, all located in the north-west of Somalia, made up the major section of the population of the former British Somaliland Protectorate.

Somaliland gained independence from Britain on 26 June 1960. Six days later it joined with Italian Somalia to form the Somali Republic. Although the Issaq lost their majority position in the new Republic, they continued to have influence in the government. Between 1967 and 1969 Somalia had an Issaq Prime Minister, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal.

Part of the traditional grazing land of the Issaq lies in the Haud in Ethiopia. The decision to unite with the south was partly based on a belief that through unity there was a chance of reestablishing control over the Haud. The Issaq were therefore supportive of the war against Ethiopia to reclaim the Ogaden. The loss of that war resulted in a mass influx of Ogadeni (Darod) refugees into the north. The threat which this posed to their own lands in the north, coupled with the dictatorial policies of Barre, led the alienated Issaqs to form the Somali National Movement (SNM), in London in 1981.

The SNM did not achieve widespread support until 1988. In May 1988, fearful of losing their bases in Ethiopia because of the peace accord, the SNM attacked government garrisons and briefly captured the northern cities of Burco and Hargeisa. In response to the SNM offensive, the Somali Armed Forces then proceeded to carry out a systematic assault on the Issaq population, forcing thousands of civilians, mainly women and children, to flee to Ethiopia. Some 50,000 people were estimated to have been killed between May 1988 and March 1989 (Africa Watch, 1990), and up to 600,000 fled to Ethiopia. These brutal attacks succeeded in uniting the Issaq behind the SNM.

The three years of warfare in the north were largely confined to the Issaq territories in the western regions of Waqoyi Galbeed, Togdheer and Sanaag. Areas inhabited by the Gadabursi (Awdal), Dolbahunte (Sool) and Warsengeli (Badhan) remained largely free from fighting, and today the towns of Boroma, Las Anod and Badhan remain relatively undamaged.

When Barre fled from Mogadishu, in January 1991, the SNM took over the territory of the former British Somaliland and assumed authority. In May 1991, having reached an accommodation with the non-Issaq clans in the north, the SNM declared the secession of the north-west region and reasserted their sovereignty as the independent Republic of Somaliland.

2.3 War with the Ogaden

The Ogaden, a sub-lineage of the Darod, are the largest Somali clan confederacy, inhabiting the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, Somalia south of the Juba river, and northeast Kenya.

The Ogadenis did not play a prominent role in the independent civilian governments. The majority live in the Ethiopian Ogaden, and it is their location there, and the force of Somali irredentism, which has given them a particular role in Somalia's politics. The refugees who entered Somalia after the Ogaden war, by and large, provided Barre with a new, supportive constituency, which he later armed to fight the SNM.

In April 1989 Barre dismissed the powerful Ogadeni Minister of Defence, Aden 'Gabiyo', thus sparking a mutiny among Ogadeni soldiers in the southern port of Kismayo. This led to the formation of a second armed opposition movement, the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), led by the brother-in-law of Gabiyo, General Bashir 'Beliliqo'. The sacking of Gabiyo arose out of Marehan fears of Ogadeni dominance in the army. However, the mutiny in Kismayo had its roots in a protracted conflict between the Marehan and Ogadeni pastoralists over the resources of the Juba region.

The creation of the Ogadeni opposition movement signalled the break-up of the Darod alliance of clans that had dominated the ruling group in Somalia for twenty years. A second Ogadeni front was formed in June 1989, when Colonel Omar Jess defected with soldiers from the Somali army in Hargeisa. Since the overthrow of Barre, the SPM have divided into two factions, one led by Aden Gabiyo, and the second by Omar Jess.

2.4 War with the Hawiye

The final downfall of Barre was precipitated by the emergence, in 1989, of a Hawiye-based military force, the United Somali Congress (USC), in the central rangelands. As the largest clan in southern Somalia, stretching into Kenya and Ethiopia, their size, geographical spread, and economic strength within Mogadishu have made the Hawiye significant players in the country's politics. The first president of Somalia was Hawiye, and throughout the civilian 1960s they retained 20 per cent of cabinet posts. During Barre's regime, while their political power was limited, they were economically strong and benefited from the concentration of development programmes in the south. They were therefore not marginalised in the same way as the Issaq.

In October 1989 a section of Hawiye soldiers mutinied in Galkaiyo. Afterwards some 200 Hawiye civilians were reported killed. From that point fighting spread throughout the central regions of Mudug, Galgaduud, Hiraan and the towns of Dusamereb and Beletweyne. The USC was supported in its campaign by the SNM. Again the Somali army retaliated, with bombings of villages and massacres of civilians on a scale that matched those against the Issaq and Majeerteen.

The USC, founded in December 1989, was formed from the Habr Gedir sub-clan of the Hawiye, a number of whom were members of the SNM Central Committee. The first leader of the USC, Mohamed Wardhigly, who sought a peaceful solution to the conflict, died in June 1990 and was replaced by General Mohamed Farah Aideed (Hater Gedir Saud), who favoured a military solution. By October 1990, having agreed a joint campaign with the SNM and SPM, the USC had reached the outskirts of Mogadishu.

2.5 The Digil and Rahanweyne

The Digil and Rahanweyne, located between the Juba and Shabelle rivers, belong to the Sab branch of the Somali people. Although they share the language and religion of other Somalis, they are predominantly agriculturalists and, as such, are looked down on by the Somali pastoral clans.

Their inferior status and smaller numbers have prevented them from playing a major part in Somali national politics. In 1989, a Rahanweyne opposition movement was formed, the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), calling for the removal of Siad Barre. Their small size meant that they played only a limited role in the overthrow of Barre. After Barre fled, they were unable to withstand the rampaging bands of both Barre's and the USC fighters, and became the principal victims of the war and famine.

2.6 The Manifesto Group

For a year after the outbreak of war, the capital, Mogadishu, distanced from the fighting in the north and south, remained relatively calm. However, disaffection with the economic situation, the rising tide of displaced people in the capital, and the government's handling of the conflict burst into violent opposition to the regime in July 1989. Following the assassination of the Bishop of Mogadishu, and the subsequent arrest of several prominent religious leaders, some 450 people were killed during a day of riots, followed by mass arrests and executions of civilians.

The events of July signalled a turning point in the conflict. The ruthless way in which the government suppressed the riots shattered any loyalty to the regime. In May 1990, over 100 prominent Somali citizens, including the first civilian president of Somalia (Aden Abdulle Osman), a former police commander (General Mohamed Abshir), cabinet ministers, ambassadors, civil servants, religious leaders, elders and businessmen (including Ali Mahadi Mohamed), signed an open letter ('Manifesto No 1') condemning the policies of the regime, and calling on the government to accept a process of discussion with opposition groups to bring about a lasting solution to the political turmoil. Forty-five of the signatories were arrested and put on trial for treason, but later released after a mass demonstration in Mogadishu.

2.7 The Fall of Siad Barre

In December 1990 Italy and Egypt belatedly offered to sponsor a Peace Conference in Cairo. This was rejected by the SNM, SPM, and the USC, as the USC forces, under the command of General Mohamed Farah Aideed, were poised to infiltrate Mogadishu.

On 3 December fighting erupted in Mogadishu as armed Hawiye attacked the army garrison at Villa Baidoba and the President's residence at Villa Somalia. The battle for Mogadishu lasted almost two months, during which time attempts by the Italians, Egyptians and the Manifesto Group to broker a peaceful solution failed. On 4 and 5 January 1991, the UN and remaining foreign nationals were evacuated by helicopter from the city to the US aircraft-carrier Guam, which had been diverted from its duties in the Gulf War.

Barre fled from the city on 26 January, together with his son-in-law General Said Hersi Morgan, to his home area in Gedo region in the south-west of the country. In Gedo he reconstituted his army under the banner of the Somali National Front (SNF), twice attempting to recapture Mogadishu. In April 1992 Siad Barre fled from Somalia to Kenya and eventually Nigeria.

2.8 War and Famine

The fall of the Barre regime left a huge vacuum. Any control that the USC arid SPM leaders exerted over the situation was quickly lost in the battle against Barre in Mogadishu. The hurried appointment of Ali Mahadi Mohamed as interim President and Omar Arteh Ghalib as Prime Minister by the Manifesto Group after Barre fled immediately precipitated a split among the loose alliance of opposition movements that had fought to overthrow Barre. Early attempts by the Italian government to reconcile the various factions showed some signs of promise at two conferences held in Djibouti in May and June 1991. However, without the agreement of General Aideed, Omar Jess, and the SNM, the recommendations of that conference proved impossible to implement.

After months of friction a second and more intensive battle between General Aideed and Ali Mahadi in Mogadishu began in November 1991. The fighting, which lasted four months, cost the lives of as many as 26,000 civilians. A ceasefire brokered by the United Nations, on 3 March 1992, coincided with a second attempt by Siad Barre to recapture Mogadishu. His forces, which came within 70 km of the capital, were repulsed by the USC, and the former President was forced to flee into permanent exile.

For some 16 months, from December 1991 to March 1992, the south suffered almost continual warfare. The coastal towns of Merca, Brava and Kismayo and the inland towns of Baidoba and Bardheere suffered waves of invasions by the undisciplined fighters of the USC, SPM, SNF, and others. Rape of women, particularly among the coastal Hamr and Bravani populations, mass executions, destruction of agricultural land, looting of grain stores and livestock, destruction of water supplies and homes led to the massive displacement of people into Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen, and mass starvation.

2.9 lnternational lntervention

Throughout this period a handful of aid agencies witnessing the vicious violence and impending starvation, notably ICRC, SCF, MSF and the International Medical Corps (IMC), called on the UN and international community for a large-scale infusion of food to subdue the fighting (Africa Watch, 1992).

In April 1992, after 18 months of inaction, the UN appointed a Special Envoy to Somalia, Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun, and mobilised a six-month Plan of Action to provide $23 million in aid and the deployment of 560 military personnel as peace-keepers. The operation, known as UNOSOM, was enlarged to 3,500 peacekeepers in August, after the UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali accused the West of being more concerned with the 'rich man's war' in former Yugoslavia than with Somalia. In October 1992 another 100-Day Plan for Somalia, worth $82.7 million in aid, was set back when public criticism of the UN operations in Somalia by Ambassador Sahnoun caused a dispute with the Secretary General, and Sahnoun was forced to resign.

By this time inter-clan warfare had declined and was replaced by the armed looting of food aid, thus exacerbating the deadly famine that, at its height, was killing 1,000 people every day in the south. The cost of armed protection for relief supplies was equivalent to the cost of the food delivered. The inability of the UN troops to control the ports and secure the aid supplies finally led the UN Security Council to endorse resolution 794 (1992), which authorised an offer by the outgoing US President Bush to deploy 30,000 US troops in Somalia. Code-named Operation Restore Hope, the limited objective of the US-led United Nations International Task Force (UNITAF) was to 'create a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief', throughout the country.

The intervention of the UNITAF was followed by two hastily arranged reconciliation conferences between the military factions, as a precursor to handing over to a UN multi-lateral military peace-enforcement administration. On 8 January 1993 in Addis Ababa, leaders of the politico-military movements, the 'warlords', agreed a cease-fire and signed an agreement on modalities for disarmament. This was followed on 27 March 1993 by an agreement for National Reconciliation in Somalia. By this agreement the factions reaffirmed their commitment to the cease-fire and a process of disarmament, and agreed to the formation of national transitional political and administrative institutions that would lead to the formation of a new government within two years.

On 4 May 1993, UNITAF handed over to a UN international military and civilian operation known as UNOSOM II, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 814 (1993). A month later 24 Pakistani UN peace-keepers were killed in Mogadishu during a weapons search of the Aideed-controlled Radio Mogadishu. The deaths of UN peace-keepers ushered in a new cycle of violent conflict in Somalia in which, by mid-September 1993, over 56 UN soldiers and several hundred Somalis had been killed.

2.10 Impact of the War

In 1992, at the height of the conflict and famine, the situation in Somalia was described as the worst humanitarian crisis faced by any people in the world. Certainly, four years of civil war and famine have been catastrophic. At the end of 1992, it was estimated that over 400,000 people had died and 1.5 million had fled from the country, seeking refuge abroad.

In the aftermath of Barre, Somalia has become divided into semi-autonomous regions, represented by clan-based military organisations and administrations. On 18 May 1991, the SNM declared the secession of the northern regions to form the independent 'Republic of Somaliland'. In the North East Region the SSDF established an administration for the regions of Mudug, Nugaal and Bari. In Mogadishu and the traditional Hawiye territories directly north and south of the capital, there were said to be some 30 military groups at the end of 1992 claiming control of different areas, as the USC had fractured along clan lines. Various areas of the densely populated and resource-rich Lower Shabelle and Juba regions have, at different times, come under the control of the USC, SPM, SNF, SDM and SSNM (Southern Somali National Movement).

The war has affected all parts of Somalia and Somaliland. Only the north-eastern regions of Mudug, Nugaal and Bari and Sool and Awdal regions of Somaliland have escaped the worst of the violence. However, these areas, like others, have been affected by the pressures of destitute and traumatised people displaced by the war. Whole communities have been uprooted. The majority of the non-ethnic Somali population has left the country. The war has resulted in the wholesale destruction of housing, urban industry, communications, social service infrastructure, and agricultural infrastructure. In Hargeisa alone 60,000 houses were destroyed. From Hargeisa and Galkaiyo to the Kenyan border all government and public buildings have been completely ransacked. The most resilient part of the economy and way of life has been the pastoral sector in the north-east and Somaliland.

At the same time the focus of international attention on the war and famine in southern Somalia has hidden more positive developments elsewhere in the region. Except for a short-lived conflict between the SSDF and Islamic fundamentalists in June 1992, and intermittent skirmishes along its southern border with the USC, the North East Region has, by and large, remained peaceful. In the self-declared Republic of Somaliland the euphoria of independence was shattered by an outbreak of fighting in Berbera and Burco in early 1992. However, after some eight months of insecurity, a political settlement was brokered by the Somaliland elders. In May 1993, the Somaliland elders went on to conclude a national reconciliation conference at the town of Boroma, and the election, through peaceful means, of a new government for Somaliland.