Somalia Table of Contents

IN JANUARY 1991, a bloody rebellion that had begun in 1988 finally succeeded in ending the twenty-one-year authoritarian regime of President Mahammad Siad Barre. The civil war had taken more than 50,000 civilian lives and had left the capital, Mogadishu, in shambles. Many other cities and towns also were in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of Somalis had fled to neighboring countries as refugees.

Although the major clans had been united in their opposition to Siad Barre, their leaders had no common political vision of Somalia's future. Consequently, civil strife continued at a reduced level after Siad Barre was deposed. The dominant faction in the north, the Somali National Movement (SNM), refused to accept the legitimacy of the provisional government established by the United Somali Congress (USC). Responding to widespread popular resentment of the central government, in June 1991 the SNM declared an independent Republic of Somaliland in the region that had constituted the British Somaliland before independence and unification with the former colony of Italian Somaliland in 1960.

The legacy Siad Barre left of a country devastated by civil war and riven by intense clan rivalries contrasted starkly with the future he had envisaged for Somalia when he took power in a military coup d'état in October 1969. Siad Barre, at the time a major general and commander of the army, and his fellow officers overthrew an elected civilian government that had become widely perceived as corrupt and incompetent. Siad Barre was determined to implement policies to benefit the country economically and socially and to diminish the political influence of the clans. During his regime's early years, Somalia experienced considerable economic development and efforts were made to replace clan loyalty with national pride.

However, Siad Barre proved susceptible to a cult of personality and over the years grew increasingly intolerant of criticism. Following his army's disastrous 1978 defeat in Ethiopia, Siad Barre's rule became more authoritarian and arbitrary, which only caused opposition to his regime to increase. Forsaking appeals to nationalism, Siad Barre tried to maintain control by exploiting historical clan animosities and by relying more and more on the loyalty of his own family and clan. By the mid-1980s, the opposition to Siad Barre had developed into several organized movements determined to overthrow his regime by force. Angered by what he perceived as local support of the opposition, particularly in the north, Siad Barre ordered the machine-gunning of livestock herds and the poisoning of wells in disaffected rural areas, as well as the indiscriminate bombing of cities. In the most notorious of these air attacks, the north's administrative center and largest city, Hargeysa, was virtually leveled in 1988.

Siad Barre's tactics inflamed popular anger and greatly strengthened the appeal of the various guerrilla groups. Nevertheless, the opposition's ultimate triumph caught the rebels themselves by surprise. Their only common goal, to be rid of Siad Barre, was achieved by USC forces essentially without assistance from the other rebel groups. USC fighters had entered Mogadishu clandestinely at the end of December 1990 to assist clan members who had formed popular committees of self-defense to protect themselves from attacks by a rival clan that supported Siad Barre. The presence of the USC guerrillas prompted the intervention of the Red Berets (Duub Cas), an elite military unit whose members acted as bodyguards for Siad Barre, and which was commanded by Siad Barre's eldest son. The fighting quickly escalated, forcing the USC to send more of its forces into the city. The USC guerrillas and the Red Berets battled in the streets of the capital for four weeks. After the USC defeated Siad Barre's forces, the other rebel movements declined to cooperate with it. Each of the several opposition groups drew its primary support from a particular clan-family, and Siad Barre's sudden removal from the political scene opened the way for traditional clan suspicions to reassert themselves. The reemergence of clan politics cast doubt on the prospects for Somalia's stability and unity.

By September 1991, intense rivalry among leaders of the USCdominated interim government had degenerated into street fighting within the Mogadishu area. Because the different clans resorted to the use of armed force to buttress their claims for political power, government and civil society disintegrated, and essential services such as food distribution collapsed. Nature compounded the political disaster with a prolonged drought. In 1992 severe famine affected much of southern Somalia. International relief agencies mounted a food and medical aid campaign, but an estimated 80 percent of food shipments were looted by armed groups affiliated with various clans. The worsening situation prompted the United Nations (UN) to intervene. On April 22, 1992, the UN proposed to send a 550-man mission to Somalia; and on April 24, in UN Resolution 751, the Security Council voted to send fifty UN observers to monitor the cease-fire in Mogadishu.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Somalia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress