Fred Halliday conducted this interview in London in May 1982.

How would you assess the Somali revolution?

The Somali “revolution” is the title bestowed retrospectively on the military coup of October 1969. This coup was partly a reaction to the ineptitude and alleged corruption of the last civilian Somali government. The impetus mainly came from some younger officers in the armed forces. However, they were quickly outmaneuvered, and their commander, Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre, very soon emerged as the undisputed leader.

Were any socialists involved in the initial period? Were any of the army officers, or Siad himself, socialists?

This is very difficult to assess accurately. Gen. Siad had studied works of political philosophy during his military training in Italy.

He was in Italy under the fascists, wasn’t he?

This is after that. He 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. By 1969, some military people had had some training in Eastern Europe. There was certainly a small group of the intelligentsia who had some sort of socialist orientation. Previous civilian regimes had all been neutralist officially, but in practice pro-Western. Any new regime seeking legitimacy would thus adopt something which distinguished it from the Western camp, lt’s very much in that context that one should see the adoption of scientific socialism — in Somali, literally “wealth sharing based on knowledge or wisdom” — as a political formula. The regime was trying to differentiate itself as much as possible from previous regimes, and to seek new grounds of legitimacy, since it hadn’t been elected to power.

Some say that the adoption of socialism is just a way of attracting Soviet support. This doesn’t strike me as very persuasive. They had been getting aid from the Soviets from 1963 on. And what they achieved in social and economic terms in the 1970s was, given their resources, very creditable.

I agree. This was a formula for development, attempting to mobilize popular enthusiasm for a whole range of programs. The obvious rallying cries of eradicating poverty and ignorance and disease were very prominent in the litany of the Siad regime in the early 1970s. There were a number of concrete manifestations of this in practice: community health programs, rural education programs and encouraging local communities to build schools and hospitals and dispensaries. There was the usual emphasis on cooperatives. The regime also sought to mobilize popular support for such projects as the famous sand dune stabilization program on the road south of Mogadishu. There were tree planting programs and urban slum clearance programs.

The most impressive achievement, I think, was the adoption of the Roman script for the Somali language, and the campaigns for urban literacy in 1973 and rural literacy in 1974. The urban literacy campaign has been rather successful. Elderly people who have learned the Roman alphabet are on an equal footing, as far as written communication goes, with young educated members of the intelligentsia, because their command of Somali, their native language, is usually greater.

The main thrust was the rural development campaign in 1974, which unfortunately coincided with one of the worst droughts in Somali history. That transformed it into a massive relief operation. I was in Somalia in 1974. This was the heyday of the Russian entente. Some 30,000 secondary school and university students and teachers were sent out into the interior, in parties of eight, with some medical and veterinary backup. They were supposed to bring the 60 to 70 percent nomadic population of the country into the framework of development and progress.

The government responded very well to the drought, lt organized a massive famine relief program, lt set up emergency camps for destitute nomads and it instituted a program of settlement (rather than resettlement, as it’s often described). Something like a quarter of a million nomads were destitute. They had lost a great proportion of their livestock. They were placed first in emergency relief camps, and later in a number of small fishing cooperatives along the Somali coast and in three large agricultural settlements in the south of the country. The government had great difficulty in getting the Arab help they had hoped for, but they got Soviet help in the form of transport planes and lorries. So the “rural prosperity campaign” turned into a somewhat desperate drought and famine relief campaign, but one that was humane and reasonably well organized. Of course, the sites for the nomads were chosen very quickly without feasibility studies of their appropriateness. They have not all turned out to be ideal for farming or fishing.

It strikes me as extraordinary, compared with other countries, that you can get nomads to become fishers. Whatever the force of necessity, the resistance to such a thing must be incredible.

That’s quite true. Traditionally, “fish eater” is a term of abuse among the Somali pastoral nomads. But there have always been little fishing communities along the Somali coast, lt’s reasonableto think that people who have been thrust out of the nomadic economy in the past, perhaps by loss of their livestock, had somehow been recruited to join these fishing communities. Also, surplus population from the nomadic pastoral economy has long sought employment working as engine boilermen among the merchant fleets of the world. You thus find tiny Somali communities of sailors in most of the world’s ports.

To get back to the tangible achievements under the framework of scientific socialism: once the people were in these camps and large settlements they were much more accessible and amenable to the new education and literacy training and also to the political indoctrination which had been one objective of the rural development campaign in the first place.

More generally, the regime set up a number of governmental agencies designed to control the economy in socialist fashion — state agencies for the purchase and distribution of grain, for instance, produced mainly in the south of the country, lt also set up similar agencies for controlling imported goods, lt nationalized the banks and the main local industry, the sugar plantation and factory complex on the Shebeli River. The nationalized banana export agency controlled the cash crop produced on still largely privately owned plantations. Interestingly, the livestock industry was not effectively nationalized during this period. There was a nationalized hides and skins purchasing and exporting agency, but hides and skins were also exported privately, and livestock on the hoof were exported privately throughout this whole period. The importance of the banana crop in the export economy declined between 1970 and the present, whereas the importance of the livestock exports has increased rather markedly. So, in fact you have a mixed economy, and the major item in the mixed economy is not subjected to socialist controls at all.

Presumably the two main sources of capital, apart from aid, were livestock exports and workers’ remittances.

That’s very important. As inflation has increased in Somalia, as job opportunities have decreased and as people inside the country have found conditions more and more unattractive politically, they have increasingly taken up job opportunities in the Gulf states. There is a very significant “muscle drain,” as the Somalis call it, as well as a “brain drain,” to the Gulf states. There must be very few families in Somalia now which don’t have one member, near or distant, as a migrant wage worker in the Gulf states, sending home remittances which subsidize the growing deficits of the internal economy. Very little of the hard currency that the livestock trade earned found its way back into the Somali Republic directly. Traders, Somalis and Arabs, shipped Somali livestock to the Gulf states at official Somali prices, but once there, the stock were revalued in hard currency. The net result has been to bring various goods back into the Somali Republic which are sold, but this trade is conducted in such a fashion that the hard currency has not been available for the country’s banks or to the government directly. Quite recently, the government announced measures to encourage the opening of foreign exchange accounts inside Somalia, but the response of the big merchants who have been exploiting this situation for years is still problematic. When the government nationalized the banks, it encouraged this extraordinary export trade, bypassing the official economic structure of Somalia and working at a fantastic disadvantage to the national economy. There are lots of Somalis who have settled in the Gulf states who are operating all of this. And it’s widely believed that prominent members of the government are involved in this lucrative trade.

Had there been a group of honest people at the top who wanted to nationalize, would the consequences have been catastrophic in terms of the killing of livestock and so forth?

I suppose. One is dealing with an extremely resilient, highly individualistic population who are very entrepreneurial. They are skilled and experienced in avoiding barriers imposed by government. They thrive on exploiting governmental decrees tb their own advantage.

What is the balance sheet of the scientific socialist period?

Some development projects have had perceptible effects — for example, the introduction of literacy, particularly in towns. Other measures, however well- intentioned, have not been effective. The economy of the country has certainly declined terribly since 1969. Price control of grain and of imported products like rice and cooking oil is excellent in principle, but the effect has been to discourage local producers — the Somali farmers who cultivate in the relatively fertile region between the Giuba and Shebeli rivers in the south, the main arable area. Agricultural production has declined.

A whole apparatus of agencies look sound on paper, but in practice have not improved the economy. The fantastic expansion of the bureaucracy is one of the most obvious features of the Siad regime since 1969. Agencies and ministries overlap and duplicate functions. Presumably one objective is to provide jobs for as many people as possible, but the national wage structure is totally out of line with rampant inflation. Government employees are now paid roughly the same as they were ten years ago, whereas prices have gone up many times over. Therefore it’s virtually impossible for most public servants to survive on their salaries. They engage in a whole range of secondary and tertiary activities, as well as being subsidized by remittances from relatives in the Gulf states. A university lecturer — say in electrical or mechanical engineering — spends his spare time repairing land rovers or trucks. Anyone who drives a government vehicle will use it as a private taxi whenever he has the opportunity.

Despite the unity of the language and common history, there are enormous divisions within Somali society. To what extent has Siad created a Somali nation particularly vis-a-vis the north-south and Italian-British divisions, and secondly vis-a-vis tribalism?

One stated aim of the new regime was to eradicate the divisive force of tribalism and clan rivalry, and to create a stable sense of national identity. With the slogan “socialism unites, tribalism divides,” Gen. Siad attacked the prevailing and rampant tribal nepotism. In fact, for a time it was illegal to act according to traditional clan ties. People were put in prison for allegedly behaving in this way, after trials in national security courts. Take the traditional systems of social security based on blood money: A group of people who belong to the same kinship group pay blood money as a unit. It’s like an insurance society: If one of their members is killed or kills someone else, all are accountable. This is at the heart of the traditional pattern of the feud in the pastoral, nomadic society. This system had spilled over into the urban setting, where traffic accidents give rise to claims for blood money on a clan basis. All this was officially outlawed. Also, a substitute arrangement for providing burial expenses by the state was introduced.

Orientation centers were set up in market centers among the rural nomadic population, or among the settled agricultural people in the south, and in all urban centers and subdivisions. At these, the aims and objectives of the Somali revolution were discussed and explained by officials from the president’s office, which was actually the nucleus of the party. This was an important vehicle for scientific socialism in Somalia. Many cadres were subsequently trained in Eastern Europe and some in North Korea. There was an attempt to usethe orientation centers as an alternative to the traditional tribal structures. People were encouraged, for example, to marry at orientation centers and to stop paying the traditional marriage payments.

Each orientation center has its little triptych of Challe Markis [Comrade Marx], Challe Lenin and Challe Siad. The regime introduced the word challe, which means literally “friend” or “comrade” — to replace “cousin,” the traditional term of address, because “cousin” is tied up with the traditional pattern of kinship divisions. The idea was to substitute neutral loyalties which have a nationalist rather than divisive connotation.

At the same time, a strong cult of personality developed around the president as the father of the nation whose mother was the revolution. Much play was made of the beneficial measures taken to deal with orphans and unemployed street urchins in towns. They were rounded up and put in rather arduous military boarding school conditions, where they were given food, clothing and lessons. These young children, the “flowers of the revolution,” were not attached to specific kin groups if they were orphans. They were therefore authentic representatives of this transcendent nationalism which the regime was trying to foster.

What about recruitment to the state? The great criticism is that the state represents the Darod confederation. More generally, does the division between north and south persist?

First of all, there was an extensive apparatus of propaganda and indoctrination, plus the national security service, as well as “people’s vigilantes” which were linked in an indirect way to the National Security Service, partly to secure “thought control” and monitor opinion.

The National Security Service was run by Abdullah Suleiman?

Yes, one of the president’s sons-in-law. Of course many sectors of the nomadic population escaped very easily from any such structures. You would find skeptical nomads who, meeting the head of state when he was touring their region, would say, “People say that you’re our father. This is quite remarkable because we have our own genealogies and you don’t figure in them.” They would roar with laughter when told that the head of state was their father.

The composition of the Supreme Revolutionary Council was implicitly designed to represent the main traditional clan blocs within the Somali Republic. When the Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party was set up in 1976, .partly in response to Soviet pressure, this created a wider framework for representation. Implicitly, though not explicitly, President Siad has always had in mind the need to balance the prominent traditionally based groups within his government. However, from the mid-1970s onward, there were three groups — all Darod — which were very prominent: Marehan, the clan group of the president himself; Dulbahante, the clan group of his son-in-law Abdullah Suleiman; and Ogaden, the clan of his mother’s people. So the unofficial acronym for his regime from the mid-1970s onward was MOD. It wasn’t something people said lightly in public, but opponents of the regime who were not members of these groups muttered it privately. MOD itself included an element of bridging between the former British Somaliland — the northern part of the Republic — and the southern, former Italian part of the Republic. The president’s son-in-law was a key element in the MOD formula: he comes from a group which is in the extreme east of the former British Somaliland and which spills over into the northern part of the former Italian area. The main northern clans were not inside that MOD framework, although they were represented in the wider power structure, both on the Supreme Revolutionary Council and in the party hierarchy when that was in vogue.

These are the Ishaq?

These are mainly the Ishaq. They were not sufficiently represented, in their view, but they were never completely excluded. There’s obviously been an effort to bridge this north-south division throughout Siad’s rule, both on a narrow basis within the innermost power structure and in his wider councils.

I think that this MOD formula made the president always susceptible to pressure from the Ogaden, his mother’s people. The issue of the Ogaden — ethnically western Somalia and politically eastern Ethiopia — has been a problem ever since Ethiopian rule was set up there. The people have never really accepted this. Once the Somali state had been created on the basis of Somali identity in 1960, the problem of extending the state to include the whole nation immediately arose. The intensity of the issue varies with other factors, but you have an inherent paradox: You set up a state in the Horn of Africa based on self-determination of an ethnic group, the Somali people. But it only includes those parts then under British and Italian jurisdiction. You create the Somali Republic out of two of the five segments of the Somali nation, represented by the five points on the Somali star. You have to deal with the aspirations of the Somalis inside the Somali Republic. A lot of people are involved as direct relatives, not just distant people. All the clans outside the republic are represented inside the republic in one way or another.

There was obviously the problem of the remaining Somali communities achieving some degree of Somali self-determination. That didn’t work out in northern Kenya, but it did in Djibouti. By that time, 1977, the pressure in the Ogaden for support from the Somali Republic for a concerted armed campaign against Ethiopia had become very powerful. There had been sporadic guerrilla activity in the Ogaden since 1960. It really goes back to the beginnings of Ethiopian rule. The Somali national hero, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan — the so-called “mad mullah” — fought a 20-year campaign against the British, the Ethiopians and the Italians from 1900 to 1920. We’re talking about something with a very long legacy. As the Selassie regime in Ethiopia began to fall apart in the early 1970s, there was strong pressure by the Ogadeni Somalis on their countrymen to help them achieve self-determination for the Ogaden. For a long time, these entreaties and requests received little support from the Siad regime. By 1977, when Djibouti had gained independence under a Somali president, the force of national fervor inside the Somali Republic had been fanned by the measures designed to conquer tribalism, lt became extremely difficult for the Siad regime to go on resisting appeals to support the Ogaden guerrillas against the Ethiopians. Very quickly, the guerrilla movement managed to secure clandestine support, initially from elements within the Somali armed forces. This clandestine military support became increasingly formalized as the campaign in the Ogaden gathered momentum, particularly after the major, very bloody engagement between the Ogadeni guerrillas and the Ethiopians at Gode, where there were a lot of Somali casualties.

Were there any Somalis who opposed this on the grounds that it would lead to a complete break with the Russians?

The Russians were generally unpopular, and associated with the repressive aspects of Siad’s rule. Ethiopia hadn’t yet become openly involved with the Soviet Union. As the hostilities in the Ogaden developed, Mengistu went off to Mos? cow and set up his public military arrangements. If one wants to be very legalistic, the Soviets really breached their friendship treaty with Somalia, which included not supporting hostile parties of the other side. Of course, there was anxiety that a breach with the Soviet Union might destabilize the Siad regime.

But the Soviets never actually backed the Ogaden claim, did they?

They didn’t, but they left it ambiguous. I think that the Russians tried to discourage the Somalis. After that failed, they definitely made some attempt to put together a socialist federation in the Horn of Africa. There’s the famous Castro meeting in South Yemen with Mengistu and Siad, which seems to have been singularly unsuccessful. Soviet concern was one factor which likely helped to restrain the Somalis up until 1977. But there were other factors. Siad is a very cautious man. I think he was never keen on being pushed into a war with Ethiopia. Any turbulence could have all sorts of unforeseen effects. I think that initially the Somalis were trying their luck. They hoped that their relations with the Soviet Union would not be utterly jeopardized. By that time, there had been so many disasters in the Somali Republic — the drought, the famine, the economy was already reeling — perhaps there was a certain diversionary aspect which appealed to Siad. But I don’t personally think that was a very strong factor, if it was a factor at all. Much stronger was the tide of nationalist fervor inside Somalia, partly stimulated anew by literacy and all these campaigns which appealed to nationalism, by the fact that a new Somali state had just emerged in Djibouti, and by conditions inside Ethiopia.

Your enemy’s weakness is your occasion.

Sure. They’d had several chances previously. For example, the incident when the Ethiopian Air Force was surrounded by the Ethiopian military in 1974. The Somalis were certainly discussing whether they should go into the Ogaden then, but at that time Siad was Organization of African Unity chairperson.

Didn’t the Arabs also encourage them?

It’s very difficult to know to what extent. I have the impression Siad was getting mixed advice from different Arab parties. The Iranians were very cautious, although the Shah eventually supplied military equipment, as did Egypt and other Arab states. You say that pressure came from the very success of the literacy and anti- tribal campaigns. The impression one gets from your Guardian article last year is that the Ogaden war has exacerbated divisions inside Somalia. That’s the way I see the present situation. When things were going well, the Ethiopians were reeling and the Somalis were jumping up and down with jubilation. The Third Division of the Ethiopian Army retreated in disarray through Harar. But it soon became apparent that the Ethiopians had succeeded in getting Russian military support, and that the Russians had decided to sacrifice whatever interests they had in Somalia for the opportunities that were available in Ethiopia. It was prepared to pay the price for that in terms of supplying military equipment on a fantastic scale. This involved the intriguing combination of East European, Cuban and South Yemeni military advisers, with apparently some Libyan financial assistance and even an Israeli element. The Ethiopian reconquest of the Ogaden and withdrawal of Somali forces was a terrible blow to nationalist feeling in the Somali Republic. A whole series of postmortems opened on the conduct of the military operations, on the wisdom of the enterprise.

This led to a resurgence of all the internal divisions in the Somali nation that had been briefly suppressed. The outburst of nationalist fervor in the Ogaden campaign was now turned inside out. It’s quite amazing that Siad wasn’t unseated at that point. He had been very concerned about destabilization inside Somalia at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. During the period of national fervor he was very popular. Once the whole Ogaden venture collapsed and it became apparent that the American superpower wasn’t going to replace the Russians automatically, then the situation became even graver. There was a very marked outburst of criticism and dissatisfaction centering on the head of state. All the feelings that had been suppressed, particularly duringthe era of close relationship with the Soviet Union, surfaced. There was a brief attempted coup against Siad in the spring of 1978, associated with the Mijertein, one of the major clans in Somalia, lt had enjoyed a disproportionate share of power in previous, civilian regimes and so tended to be vociferous in criticism. Those dissidents who escaped left Somalia and set up the Somali Salvation Front in Ethiopia. This was a fatal mistake.

Is opposition still based just on the Mijertein group?

There is a wider base now, but the Mijertein group is the most militant. The complexities of Somali politics are such that the Salvation Front by no means embraces all the Mijerteinis. Some Mijerteini sections are still loyal to the Siad regime. Then we have the northern-based Ishaqi dissidents from the former British Somaliland. Their people in the Arabian Gulf and Europe have set up a parallel organization, the Somali National Movement. Individually, these opposition groups are seen by their rivals as still primarily based on particular tribal divisions within the Somali nation. This, of course, is how they are represented and resisted by President Siad. His strategy appears mainly to be the old-fashioned and well-tried one of divide and rule. Two smaller, ideologically left groups, based in Djibouti and South Yemen, joined the Somali Salvation Front in October 1981 to form a broader front, and representatives of these and the Somali National Movement are currently negotiating in Ethiopia. Although the results have yet to be seen, this is an expression of the extent of alienation and disaffection following the Ethiopian reconquest and currently resurgent tribalism.

How does the refugee question fit in?

That is another ingredient in the adverse criticism of the Ogaden campaign. Not only did the Somalis not succeed in the campaign, but they inflicted on themselves the terrible wound of this huge surplus population, a tremendous drain on the already moribund Somali economy. lt has just made the whole situation even worse, and has added to the general confusion that exists inside the country. This confusion, in a curious way, contributes to the persistence of the present regime. I think it has only managed to survive because there is such confusion, and because the main opponents of the regime are so mutually polarized and can be easily criticized as tribalist.

Is there a possibility of a compromise solution on the Ogaden?

Different groups within the Somali Republic have different degrees of interest in the Ogaden question. Some of the northern Somalis are traditional rivals with Ogaden Somalis for grazing and access to water. A lot of people from the Ogaden have been placed among them in refugee camps, straining the already stretched economic resources. This has refueled traditional rivalries between non-Ogadeni Somalis and Ogadeni Somalis in the north of the country. So the commitment to support for the Ogaden aspiration to self-determination is not an inflexible and absolute thing, equally binding and attractive to all Somali groups. Probably it would be true to say that a quite substantial body of opinion within the Somali Republic, not just in the north of the Somali Republic, feels that it’s pointless to go on fighting and that it’s essential to try and reach some kind of negotiated settlement with Ethiopia over the Ogaden. I think a lot of people in the Somali Republic would really like now to be rid of the Ogaden problem. They wouldn’t oppose negotiations with Ethiopia to seek some kind of accommodation. The western Somalis in the Ogaden, the Ogadeni Somalis — it’s very difficult to generalize about them — but I think that they are realists, as most pastoral nomads are. They would also probably see the need for some kind of negotiated settlement which would allow them to have an acceptable degree of regional autonomy. The problem really is that the Somali side is in a weak position currently in relation to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is apparently not in a position where it feels it needs to make concessions toward Ogaden self-determination.

Siad Barre has recently reorganized his government. Does this involve any broadening of his regime?

The recent government changes in Mogadishu have more an air of musical chairs than any significant broadening of tribal representation. They have resulted in several interesting appointments, though, including the former head of the National Security Service — the president’s son-in-law — as minister of planning. The reshuffle is seen by most Somalis as a survival strategy by a leader whose talents in this domain are acknowledged by even his most bitter opponents. In the same vein, the recent release of two prominent political prisoners, Gen. Mohamad Abshir, commander of the police before the coup, and ex-Prime Minister Mohamad Haji Ibrahim Igal, seems designed to placate their respective kinsmen. These gestures might also have had the purpose of disgorging the additional US military aid which Siad so urgently requests. The more the northern and other opposition groups seek Ethiopian help, the easier it is for Siad to substantiate his claim that Somalia’s security is seriously menaced by an impending Ethiopian attack. It will be interesting to see how Siad’s most active opponents extricate themselves from this corner, and to see what measures he is prepared to take to defuse the present high level of discontent in northern Somalia. For true Somali nationalists, this growing tribal polarization raises the forbidding specter of potential civil strife, which no one wants.

How to cite this article:

I. M. Lewis "“Nationalism Turned Inside Out”," Middle East Report 106 (June 1982).

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