Unheralded and unnoticed, a nation is born

While the international media concentrated on the flight of Mengistu Haile Mariam from Ethiopia and the downfall of his government, few newspapers noticed that Somalia was also changing the course of its history.

On May 18 the former British Somaliland, comprising the whole of northern Somalia, set up its own Republic of Somaliland. Since then it has con firmed that its decision to secede is ir­reversible and that it will not yield to the pleading of the Mogadishu government to preserve Somali unity.

Like Eritrea in Ethiopia, the Somaliland Republic has been born out of a guerrilla struggle , by a people long estranged from the government at the centre. The new state is the creation of the Somali National Movement (SNM), a guerrilla organisation which at firs fought the tyrannical government of Siyad Barre almost single-handed.

The SNM was launched at a press conference in London in 1981. It was founded out of the disillusionment and demoralisation felt in Somalia over the national defeat in the 1977-78 Ogaden war against Ethiopia. It felt Siyad Barre had pursued the wrong cause and been proved a loser.

The SNM was formed mainly by the Isaq clan, though some of its top lead­ers come from other clan groups such as the Hawiye. They share a British, not Italian colonial tradition, and their second language is English. Millions of Somali exiles live abroad. Many are Isaqs living in Britain and as students or political refugees. They are a dominant force in the re­nowned Somali service of the BBC. In the early 1980s the SNM drew financial and logistical support from Ethiopia. It set up camps in the Ogaden desert, along the border of north­ern Somaliland and made daring raids attacking military posts and blowing up strategic targets.


The situation changed dramatically in April 1988 when Siyad persuaded Mengistu to sign a peace agreement. Under it both countries resolved to drop support for the rebel movements they harboured in their countries.

Ethiopia betrayed its former SNM al­lies and closed Radio Halgan that had been broadcasting SNM propaganda from Addis Ababa. The SNM leader­ ship became afraid that it would be expelled from the country, or even ar­rested and murdered. Such betrayals were a hallmark of the Mengistu re­gime.

Instead of waiting for the Ethiopians to drive them out, they simply put all units into action and invaded northern Somalia, their homeland. Their action was so swift and deci­sive ii took the Somali government entirely by surprise . With remarkable speed the SNM took the northern pro­vincial capital of Hargeisa, Burao and other northern towns. They tried un­ successfully to take the port of Berba­ra, where the United States navy has facilities.

Siyad’s response was swift and bru­tal. He hired foreign pilots, including South Africans, because many of his own airforce refused to bomb their fel­low countrymen. He relentlessly bombed the northern cities, reducing them almost to rubble.

One visiting Dutch journalist said hardly a building left standing in Hargeisa was more than one storey tall. Siyad’ s troops followed, pursuing a deliberate policy of eliminating the Quirmis, a derogatory term used by Siyad’s son-in-law, General Morgan, meaning ”the rotten ones”.

Morgan’s troops razed whole towns and villages. Using a typical Somali metaphor he said: “It is essential to sweep away the broken glass without leaving a single piece behind.” He unleashed officially sanctioned genocide against the northerners. There was even evidence that poi­soned gas, supplied by Libya, had been used in some raids. New African magazine published photographs of the test kits used by government troops to test for poison gas.

Northern Somalia was raped and traumatised by Siyad’s troops. Mines were sown everywhere. In Hargeisa alone an estimated 50 000 people died in the bombardments and only five percent of the buildings were left standing, according to official esti­mates. Millions were left homeless and hundreds of thousands fled into Ethiopia.

When the United Somali Congress stonned to power in Mogadishu in February and put Siyad to flight, there was a moment when a new, united So­malia could have been created. But the USC set up an interim government without consulting the SNM. The SNM remembered when, after independence in 1960, the southerners had taken the premiership and all the most important ministries for their own. That time they had co-operated in the interests of Somali unity.

Some SNM central committee mem­bers wanted to continue the tradition of co-operation. Others wanted to seize the opportunity to break away. The SNM knew it was the best organised, most homogenous, and most viable of all the Somali liberation movements. After weeks of debate the hawks prevailed . Independence was declared. Their country was shattered by war and plagued by the drought and fa­mine. It has no economy or regular source of finance. War has prevented normal planting or harvesting.

The new government is dependent mainly on the funds of Isaq exiles, but many have lost their jobs in the uphea­vals of Kuwait, Iraq and the Gulf. Diplomatically the world does not want yet another secessionist regime. The United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity are still trying to digest the much older and more justifi­able claims of Eritrea that will soon be asking for its own independence.

They are worried about further se­cesion and the fragmentation of the Horn of Africa. And the Arab League has already condemned the secession­ist move. – Alan Rake, Gemini News


The article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail

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