Mili Meme

The story of the Somali insurrection

Wes Lysander

The formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM) was sparked by general mass discontent with Siad Barre’s Regime. The initiative was made by members of the Isaaq Communities outside the country particularly in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, who were free from the intimidation and repression of the regime. In late 1978 and early 1979, mobilizations intended to upgrade the consciousness of the Somali people started within the country. Committees comprising of elders or community leaders, officers, intellectuals, business people, students, youth and civil servants started underground campaigns in an effort to educate the people against Siad Barre’s regime.


The driving force has been the unified desire to oppose the oppressive socialist dictatorship of General Barre, rather than to support any particular clans, such as the Isaaq clans that provided the largest fraction of its membership. Therefore, it collected intellectuals with a wide variety of political views who shared this common goal. There was a longer-term desire to stop the oppression from the central government in Mogadishu as well as to decentralize much of the power of that government. However, the short-term motivation of stopping the growing genocide of the Isaq group of clans by General Barre focused the goals of the SNM on a narrower clan basis.

In sharp contrast to other liberation movements at that time, the SNM did make a serious effort to use internal democratic procedures to develop political goals based upon an internal consensus – and to publish them. Following is a statement published in 1981:

“We propose a new political system built on Somali cultural values of co-operation rather than coercion; a system which elevates the Somali concept of ‘Xeer’ or inter-family social contract in which no man exercised political power over another except according to established law and custom, to the national level.”

On April 6, 1981 the Somali National Movement (SNM) was officially proclaimed as an opposition organization in London, UK. In November 1981, the residents of Hargeyisa initiated self-help programs intended to upgrade the educational and health facilities of their community. 38 young professionals, intellectuals, and businessmen who were the leading organizers of the community project were imprisoned, some of them tortured. In February 1982 they received sentences ranging from two years to life. As a result, the first anti-government riots broke out in Hargiesa and Burao. This marked the first head-on confrontation between the public and the regime. Barre who had never experienced open public unrest was caught by surprise. Consequently, he started a Hitler-like repression comprising of detentions, tortures, and execution.

Among the militia groups inspired by the SNM were the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), United Somali Congress (USC), and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM). Rather than to try to expand further to include members from even more clans and groups of clans, it assisted the Hawiyes in forming their USC and the Ogadenis in forming their SPM as sister liberation movements in the fight to oust the socialist dictatorship of General Barre in the war-of-liberation. In 1982, the Executive Committee of the SNM moved from London to Addis Ababa. This was prompted by oppressive actions of the dictatorship in Hargeisa in February 1992 as well as the desertions of many senior army officers to the SNM in Ethiopia.

Colonel Mengistu of Ethiopia also supported the SNM at the beginning, for the same reasons as he supported the SSDF earlier. There were some jealousies between the SSDF and the SNM, whereby the SSDF tried to force the SNM to join it and the SNM refused. Ultimately, Colonel Mengistu dropped the SSDF and sided with the SNM. However the SNM was never as cooperative as the SSDF had been, refusing to take orders from the Ethiopian Dictatorship and refusing to accept the “Green Book” of Colonel Qaddafi as the pre-requisite for receiving financial and military aid from him.

With the acceptance of the Ethiopian government, the SNM Executive Committee moved from London to the Somali populated areas in Ethiopia in order to keep the movement close to home. They started setting up offices and training camps. Within very short time, groups of military officers, soldiers, intellectuals, businessmen, and students crossed the border and joined the movement. Area nomads and villagers also joined and signed up for their training programs. Surprisingly the SNM started attacks against the regime almost immediately. In those attacks the SNM inflicted great damages on Faqashi’s troops. They also confiscated combat as well as transport vehicles, arms ammunition, and communication equipment.

In the Mahollin area, south of Gashamo, the regime lost more than 450 soldiers in 1982 and 1984. Residents captured military documents, communication equipment, small arms and ammunition. In the Xaye and Qararo area it lost more than 350 including 3 officers. The area residents seized two jeeps, an armored personnel carrier, and three army trucks. In Afweyne, troops suffered 250 casualties in 1984; they also left behind various military equipments.

On April 12, 1983, in a spectacular rescue mission, the SNM forces freed Colonel Abdillahi Askar from the highly fortified prison of the 26th sector of the Somali army. He was caught in Hargeisa by the security forces while fulfilling a secret mission with the SNM internal wing. Colonel Abdillahi Askar who was savagely tortured with candles and cigarettes was to be executed the day following the evening he was rescued. When Siad Barre realized the threat that the SNM poses to his dictatorial regime and the popular support it enjoys both in and outside the country, he ” Afweyne” started to fight with the SNM and its supporters ferociously. Those who lived under his jurisdiction were those who were hit hard. They have suffered:

Indiscriminate detentions, imprisonment, and massacres. Looting and constant confiscations of private property. Total blockade of food and fuel supplies. Denial of access to water supplies during the dry seasons. Destruction or poisoning of water reservoirs and watering wells. Burning down of entire villages and communities. Children killed and women raped.

General Barre was extremely irritated by the growing number of Hawiyes joining the SNM and the fact that the Vice Chairman was a Hawiye. He did succeed in creating a conflict between the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the SNM so that the Vice Chairman, Ali Mohamed Ossoble (‘Wardhigley’) finally resigned. Other foreign countries appear to have cooperated with General Barre in developing the theory that since the SSDF had stopped their armed resistance to General Barre, only the SNM was left. If the SNM could be induced to give up their armed struggle, there would be no more conflict and opposition to General Barre. Despite the various bribes offered, the SNM refused to stop in its war-of-liberation. Many other leading Hawiye members of the SNM also left the SNM in 1987 as a result of this episode.

In April 1988, Colonel Mengistu of Ethiopia struck a peace deal with General Barre, to their mutual convenience, whereby each agreed to stop supporting the liberation movements based in their countries and launching raids in the other country. The basic idea was to force the SNM to withdraw from the border, deeper into Ethiopia, from where they would not be able to launch any more raids across the border. However, with the “rug pulled out from under their feet”, the SNM went in the other direction and moved its militias to within Somalia. In a surprise attack, they captured Burao and most of Hargeisa on 27 and 30 May 1988 respectively. This led to a rapid escalation in the intensity of the war-of-liberation on both sides.

The reactions of the Barre regime were oppressive, including bombing the major cities and villages in the North and extra-judicial executions of large number of innocent civilians. This led to popular uprisings and military defections throughout the whole of Somalia.

It is relevant to note that during this period, the top leadership of the SSDF defected from their political base by joining forces with General Barre, while their political base continued to oppose General Barre. Nominally, the majority of the leaders of the Majerteens, Dhulbahantes, and Warsangelis (all Darods) living on both sides of the border between the Republic of Somaliland and the former Italian Somalia were on the side of General Barre. However, large numbers of individuals at the grass roots level, such as intellectuals and officers, continued to fight against General Barre, in parallel with or together with the SNM, such as by joining the SNM in 1988. This may help to explain why the vast majority of the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli residents of the Republic of Somaliland today support independence for their Republic of Somaliland, whereas very small cliques of elite leaders have cooperated with other members of the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans living in the South near Kismayo to form the very small USP faction that opposes independence for the Republic of Somaliland today.

The SNM and its militias did most of the fighting in the war-of-liberation against the socialist dictatorship through the 1980’s. Only at the end, in the last 1 to 1 1/2 years, did it receive substantial assistance from the USC and SPM in the South.

Faced with saboteurs by day and sniper fire by night, Siad Barre ordered remaining units of the badly demoralized Red Berets to massacre civilians. By 1989 torture and murder became the order of the day in Mogadishu. On July 9, 1989, Somalia’s Italian-born Roman Catholic bishop, Salvatore Colombo, was gunned down in his church in Mogadishu by an unknown assassin. The order to murder the bishop, an outspoken critic of the regime, was widely believed to have had come from the presidential palace.

On the heels of the bishop’s murder came the July 14 massacre, when the Red Berets slaughtered 450 Muslims demonstrating against the arrest of their spiritual leaders. More than 2,000 were seriously injured. The next day, forty-seven people, mainly from the Isaaq clan, were taken to Jasiira Beach west of the city and summarily executed. The July massacres prompted a shift in United States policy as the United States began to distance itself from Siad Barre.

With the loss of United States support, the regime grew more desperate. An anti-Siad Barre demonstration on July 6, 1990, at a soccer match in the main stadium deteriorated into a riot, causing Siad Barre’s bodyguard to panic and open fire on the demonstrators. At least sixty-five people were killed. A week later, while the city reeled from the impact of what came to be called the Stadia Corna Affair, Siad Barre sentenced to death 46 prominent members of the Manifesto Group, a body of 114 notables who had signed a petition in May calling for elections and improved human rights. During the contrived trial that resulted in the death sentences, demonstrators surrounded the court and activity in the city came to a virtual halt. On July 13, a shaken Siad Barre dropped the charges against the accused. As the city celebrated victory, Siad Barre, conceding defeat for the first time in twenty years, retreated into his bunker at the military barracks near the airport to save himself from the people’s wrath.

Immediately after defeating the military forces of General Barre in January 1991, the SNM called a meeting in March 1991 of the Elders of all non-Issaq clans in the former British Somaliland to reconcile any potential differences between them and the Isaq clans – as agreed upon by all liberation movements before the end of the war-of-liberation.

The SNM then met with the Elders of the Isaq group of clans in the middle of April 1991 in Hargeisa. They called a Congress of the SNM at the end of April, together with representatives of all clans, Isaq and non-Isaq. This Guurti Congress of the Elders and other democratically-selected representatives forced the SNM, against its will, to announce the creation of the independent Republic of Somaliland on 16 May 1991.

The SNM has generally done an outstanding job in restoring respect for the human rights of minorities within its midst. Even the Human Rights Bureau of the US State Department has recognized this achievement, even though the rest of the US State Department is opposed to the SNM because of its insistence upon independence.