In January 1991, after a concentrated two-month assault on Mogadishu by insurgents, Somalia's President Mohammed Siad Barre and the remnants of his regime were forced to seek refuge in their traditional clan area in the southwestern corner of the country. With the end of Siad Barre's twenty-year-old dictatorship, it was widely hoped that peace and rule through consensus would come to Somalia after years of intensifying civil war. As the world well knows, this was not to be.
During the relatively peaceful interregnum before armed conflict again erupted in southern Somalia, a portion of the country decided to go its own way. In May 1991 the Somali National Movement (SNM), an armed rebel group composed largely of the Isaaq clan-family that had taken over administration of northwestern Somalia after the defeat of Siad Barre, unilaterally declared the independence of a break-away Somaliland. Since then, copious press attention has focused on famine and violence in the remainder of once-unified Somalia, the portion facing the Indian Ocean to the south and east.
Meanwhile, conditions in the now-largely pacific Somaliland, which faces north toward the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Peninsula, have attracted little notice. The name 'Somaliland' itself comes from that period dating from the end of the nineteenth century until Somalian independence in 1960, when this region of the Horn of Africa inhabited by Somalis was first a British protectorate and then a colony. Somalia to the east had been colonized by Italy, French Somaliland (now Djibouti) was on the west, and the vast inland Ogaden region to the south, also inhabited by ethnic Somalis, had been conquered by the Ethiopian Empire at roughly the same time that the Europeans were carving up the rest of the Horn. The Italian and British colonies were united into one independent country, with its capital of Mogadishu in the south, but many Somalis long cherished the hope of someday uniting the five fragments of their traditional homeland (including northeastern Kenya) into a "Greater Somalia."
Siad Barre, a southern Somali, had come to power on October 21, 1969 at the head of a military junta that overthrew a largely ineffectual civilian regime. In an atmosphere of hope and renewal, the new regime rallied Somalians to participate in volunteer reconstruction and re-vegetation projects. Mass organizations were launched to mobilize young people, women, and other social sectors in support of the new nationalism and government. Later, literacy campaigns taught a new Latin script to a people for whom Somali had been strictly an oral medium, and the regime began to institute the long-neglected education of girls.
A family law promulgated in the mid seventies recognized women as fully competent legal persons. The unfortunate flip side of these developmental measures was the suppression of civil society. Association and expression deemed to exacerbate clan divisions were banned, and this included the suspension of free political activity. Striking, viewed by the state as a form of economic sabotage, was legally punishable by death. The judiciary was an arm of executive policy, and as such readily meted out long prison sentences even to non-violent anti-government demonstrators. The media was totally state-run, and criticism of the regime not tolerated. Agents of the National Security Service habitually tortured political detainees, who were often held indefinitely without charge or trial. The paramilitary 'Victory Pioneers,' created to protect the gains of the Revolution, were repeatedly implicated in the rape of women from clans such as the Isaaq that resisted the regime. And in a harsh move reminiscent of the methods, if not the goals, of Sudan's current NIF regime, ten Somalian clerics were executed for insisting on publicly criticizing the Siad Barre government's policies favoring female emancipation.
The full cost to Somalians of the squelching of civil society was only appreciated as time passed. A single ruling party had been created in 1976 and a constitution went into effect three years later to give a civilian and de jure veneer to what was a military-dominated regime, but they only served to formalize the president's already absolute power. By the beginning of the eighties, the regime had lost any credit that it might have amassed as a government committed to broad national interests when Siad Barre began openly showing favoritism to a narrow grouping of clans to which he was linked by blood or marriage. Chief among the favorites was his own Marehan clan. Once the regime began openly discriminating against the majority of the country's clans and "privatizing" the state for the benefit of its own members, it had removed any possibility of independent forces holding it accountable without resort to violence.
The first clan-family to become openly rebellious was the Isaaq. The Somali National Movement (SNM), founded in London in 1981 and largely an Isaaq organization, did not mount a full-scale offensive from its base of operations in nearby Ethiopia until 1988. Surprisingly, within only a few months it was able to seize control of the major towns in the Isaaq heartland before being forced out into the countryside in a counteroffensive by Somalian troops. The action by the army was not only directed against SNM combatants, but also against civilians. Employing all-too-familiar tactics practiced against noncombatant populations throughout the Horn, the army and security forces destroyed water wells, burned off critical grazing areas, detained and tortured men, and gang-raped women. Military police rounded up people at random and publicly executed them both in reprisal for guerrilla attacks and to intimidate would-be rebel recruits and sympathizers. A campaign of destruction sent bombers and artillery batteries against civilian targets, devastating Hargeisa and other major cities in the region. As many as half a million northern Somalis fled, becoming refugees in neighboring Ethiopia and Djibouti. Many of them have not yet returned to a country now independent but still largely unrecovered.
After the SNM finally took charge of Somaliland in 1991, there was initial uncertainty as to whether the territory should
ultimately dissolve its union with Somalia; opinion within the movement, as well as the population, was split. But sentiment for independence immediately increased in the North after the quick accession of Ali Mahdi, a member of the Hawiye clan-family of central Somalia, as interim successor to the overthrown Siad Barre. The SNM felt it had not been consulted in the choice of president, foresaw the creation of another regime in which northerners would be marginalized, and felt mounting popular pressure to cut ties after years of genocidal policies emanating from far-off Mogadishu. With independence, Abdurahman Ahmed Ali "Tur," chairman of the SNM, was named the first president of Somaliland by an all-national Guurti, or council of elders. By separating from the South, however, Somaliland had not ensured that it would avoid being drawn into the type of inter-clan conflict that was soon to rage in what remained of Somalia.
In fact, armed conflict sporadically erupted for the first year and a half after the SNM came to power. Almost immediately after victory over the Siad Barre regime was achieved at the beginning of 1991, there was fighting in and around the town of Borama, in the middle of traditionally Gadabursi territory to the west of Hargeisa. Elements of the Isaaq-dominated SNM, said to resent what was alleged to have been collaboration by the leadership of the Gadabursi with the Siad Barre regime, reportedly struck out in retribution at the smaller clan after the fall of that regime. The following month, an all-clan conference was held in the port of Berbera in an attempt to avoid such conflicts in the future.
But a year later fighting moved to Berbera itself and to Burao. Isaaq militiamen from different subclans sporadically battled each other during much of 1992 as their factions jockeyed for local control. When not directly involved in the maneuvering for advantage itself, the national government had been unable to impose order. The executive seemed incapable of persuading Somali clans to delegate it authority, and Hargeisa has been in no condition to impose either order or its own will by force. That it has come to recognize that fact is clear by its recent advocacy of a polity it terms "modified clan rule." The North's hard experience with Siad Barre's regime and army ensures that the likelihood of any more centralization than that is slight. A conference finally convened in October to promote peace between the rivals, selecting a group of elders to resolve future disputes before they erupted into violence. This proved to be a turning point both in the search for national peace and in the organization of the country at the center.
Women, alarmed that the clan conflict might fling the region back into the level of armed conflict experienced before liberation from the Mogadishu regime, reportedly picketed the seat of government in Hargeisa, holding signs that read, "We Don't Want to Flee Again" and "We Don't Want a Civil War." At the start of 1993, representatives from both the Isaaq and minority clans, and members of the government met in Borama at a gathering of the national Guurti. At the conference, the man whom as prime minister had been deposed by Siad Barre's coup in 1969, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, was chosen as the new president to replace the incumbent Abdurahman Ahmed Ali "Tur." "Tur" had been criticized for his inability to: attract international recognition and development aid; increase the non-Isaaq presence in the transitional government and SNM; and make progress on the demobilization of the various armed militias at large in Somaliland. Though clearly unhappy with his defeat, the now ex-president gracefully turned over his office.
In proceedings that went on for some three months, the Guurti also confirmed that it would formally transform itself into an upper legislative body in 1996 when the transitional regime was due to expire. It also drafted a transitional national charter, and appointed an interim parliament and supreme court. In seizing the initiative by taking such bold and sweeping decisions, the Guurti has shown itself to be a match for the chief-of-state and the ruling party's central committee, a balance of power rare in the Horn of Africa.