The Economist, July 9th 1988 (reprinted with publisher’s permission)
THREE months ago it all made beautiful sense. Reeling from secessionist victories in the provinces of Tigre and Eritrea, the Ethiopian government offered next-door Somalia an attractive deal. The Ethiopians said they would end a decade of border skirmishing between the two countries by returning two captured Somali villages and ending their support for the rebel fighters of the Somali National Movement (SNM), whom Ethiopia had previously armed and protected. The Somalis reciprocated by declaring that they would no longer support rebels inside Ethiopia. The relieved Ethiopians transferred troops to more desperate fronts, and booted the SNM’s fighters out of their old Ethiopian sanctuaries.
But if Somalia’s president Siad Barre thought he had got a bargain, he was quickly disabused. The SNM, deprived of its comfortable camps across the border in Ethiopia, decided to come home fighting. Within two months of the border agreement its guerrillas were engaged in the largest insurgency Somalia has faced since it gained independence in 1960. At the end of May, while Somalia’s president and defence minister were attending a conference of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa, the rebels captured the northern provincial capital of Hargeysa and the town of Burao, and attacked the garrison near the port of Berbera, where the Americans have naval facilities.
Somalia responded by moving troops from the south and bombing Hargeysa and Burao. But its claim to have recaptured the two towns is qualified by foreigners in the area. The say that the guerrillas, with 5,000 or so men under arms, are holding out in pockets inside the town as well as in nearby villages, and still control some stretches of main road. Berbera is said to be “calm but anxious”. Many people—some estimates go as high as 10,000—have been killed in the fighting.
President Barre abolished tribalism in 1970, but that is mostly what the civil war is about. The SNM is a movement of the Isaq, a clan of northern cattle-herders and traders, who feel that the Somali government in Mogadishu discriminates against them. The president, on his father’s side, is from the Darod clan, which the Isaq complain monopolises political power. On his mother’s side, he is from Ogaden, a clan with whom the Isaq have been in dispute ever since the Dervish rebellion against the British early this century.
The SNM is not a separatist movement: it simply wants to get rid of the president. Some non-Isaq Somalis view the rebellion with modest enthusiasm because they frown on the resolute way President Barre has centralised authority in his own person and family. His half-brother is the new finance minister; his son-in-law the military commander of Hargeysa; his son the general in charge of the garrison in Mogadishu. His war against Ethiopia in 1977-78 kept the country briefly united around a dream of Greater Somalia, which would have incorporated the ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden. But the Somalis lost, and 800,000 impoverished Ogaden refugees stayed in Somalia, adding to the country’s economic burdens.
President Barre abandoned the previous Soviet-style economy in the early 1980s in favour of IMF-inspired free-market reforms. Decontrol of foodgrains led to a production boom which helped Somalia through the worst of the drought that brought famine in Ethiopia. Prosperity would be a useful ally in the battle against the rebels. But the IMF stopped lending to the country in 1986 when it failed to service its debts. Now price controls have returned, and food shortages with them: the foreign-currency auctions that used to keep the exchange rate realistic have been abolished.
The Somalis are still talking to the IMF. An unexpected 44% devaluation at the end ofJune suggests that the war has at last panicked the government into trying to sort out the country’s finances. President Barre may hope that, without Ethiopian backing, the rebellion in the north will eventually fade. But there are plenty of wealthy Isaq traders in the Arabian peninsula who could willingly provide the rebels with weapons; Somalia’s coast is vast and unpatrollable. And the president seems intent on fanning his country’s tribal animosities. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Isaq businessmen have been arrested and tortured by policy in Mogadishu in the past month alone.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, July 9th 1988