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Talking Point
By M. M. Afrah, Toronto (Canada)

The other day, a lady in Denver Colorado in the United States, who corresponds with me from time to time, sent a nasty email on how she was reading about how things in Africa are getting from bad to worse, from the economy to politics to everything else. Another e-mailer suggested that we should lease the country to Walt Disney in order to bring in Dollars, as if the country is a prime real estate!

Like many Americans, these e-mailers are so ignorant that they think that Africa is a country populated with naked savages, skeleton-looking mothers, pot-belied children with clouds of flies having an open season on their shrinking faces and wild animals, like elephants and lions.

My Dear American e-mailers, in order to save you the trouble, or rather to enlighten you, Africa is not a country. Rather it is a continent twice as large as the United States of America with some 55 independent countries from Algeria in the north to Zimbabwe in the south with a population of more than 300 million people who speak a plethora of languages and vernaculars. However, English and French (inherited from their colonial masters) are the official languages for most African countries. There is no single lingua frank in Africa. There are North Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa and Southwest Africa, now called Namibia. Remember, Africa is the cradle of mankind.

Somalia, roughly the size of Texas, is located in the Horn of Africa with a population of about seven million people who speak the same language, profess the same Islamic faith and pursue the same way of life, unique characteristics in Africa South of the Sahara.

You asked me how did all start? I deduce your question concerns the civil/clan wars that have been dragging on and on for almost twelve years in Somalia.

As a policy we do not condone tribalism or clannism on this Website, but for historical reasons I reluctantly describe the names of some tribes who first became the victims of the late military dictator, Major-General Mohamed Siyad Barre's regime in the 1970s and 1980s which fueled the current deadly upheaval. Since then most Somalis took refuge in their clans as the only protection against the rigors of a cruel war imposed on them by predatory warlords. No one can blame them, because under similar adverse circumstances you too would have done the same to save your skins.

General Siyad Barre initiated the policy, but the warlords bent on replacing him replicated his policy of divide and rule antics. During his 21-year rule General Barre manipulated clan loyalties and rivalries and favoured his own clan. Following an April 1978 coup attempt led by disgruntled army officers from the Majerteen clan, General Siyad Barre forces singled out Majerteen civilians for reprisals. An insurgent organization named The Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) was launched to try to dislodge his regime. A new SSDF radio station, KULMIS, (Siyad Barre called it Qurmis - Stinker or bad odor) called all Somalis to take to the streets and overthrow the military despot. The government unleashed a reign of terror against the Majerteen, killing thousands of innocent civilians, slaughtering their livestock and poisoning their life-saving water wells in the process. That was when the time bomb started ticking in that Horn of Africa country.

After the creation in 1981 of the Somali National Movement (SNM), another rebel movement that drew its support from the Isaaq clan in the Northwest, the military unleashed brutal force, including the air force against Isaaq civilians, killing 50,000 to 60,000 between May 1988 and January 1990 (Africa Watch). And when the Hawiye pilots mutinied against their Marehan commanding officer, the government hired white mercenary pilots to carpet bomb Hargeisa, the capital of Northwest. And for the first time in the history of warfare, pilots flew from the airport of the same city they had targeted for carpet-bombing.

As soon as he came to power in a military coup in October 1969, General Mohamed Siyad Barre favoured his own clan, the Marehan, who were recruited in large numbers into the army and the security services, including the dreaded National Security Service (NSS) and favoured within the civil service. And with the help of a network of son-in-laws he suppressed all dissent voices in the country, including Somali journalists representing international news organizations.

Despite this favouritism General Barre purported to outlaw "tribalism" by banning clan gatherings, such as the traditional annual Shir performed by the Abgal clan and wedding ceremonies, ordering that such ceremonies should be performed at Orientation Centres "minded" by NSS agents. He recruited elders as salaried Nabadoons (peace keepers) and armed one clan against another to settle old scores.

Thus seeking to maintain himself in power, the General fanned the flames of clan animosity that refuses to go away. The reason why it refuses to go away is partly due to a solid wall of ignorance, pettiness, arrogance, extortion, corruption and greed perpetrated mainly by his former army officers turned warlords.

In January 1991, the United Somali Congress (USC), a ragtag rebel group created in 1989 that drew its support from the Hawiye clan, forced General Mohamed Siyad Barre from the capital. Poorly equipped and poorly trained, these young rebels, in beach sandals and sarongs, routed one of Africa's most powerful army in terms of training, numerical strength and superior firepower in less than a month. Similarly, in the Northwest the SNM defeated the government forces and decided to go solo, calling their part of the country as the Somaliland Republic, and blaming the Southerners for their relentless grief, simply because General Barre and The Butcher of Hargeisa were from the South, or so they believed. There is, however, no barrier between the two former British and Italian Somalilands and that goods and people move across the old colonial boundary, unhindered. It is the people that matter, not the self-styled leaders in both countries, they say.

With the flight of General Barre and his entourage, fighting soon broke out between two rival factions of the USC, one led by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, and the other by Ali Mahdi Mohamed, a wealthy Mogadishu hotelier and one time Director of the Ministry of Health, who declared himself Interim President of Somalia, to the immediate objection of General Aideed. Both men vowed to destroy each other with the huge arsenal left behind by General Barre. As a matter of fact, they made the capital look like Berlin of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were either killed or fled the inferno with only the clothes on their backs to neighbouring countries. They still do.

Although the two main protagonists have left the scene of the carnage years ago, the clan wars have been gathering momentum day in and day out, showing no restraint in the civilian population and the militia are regularly firing weapons indiscriminately without regard for the safety of civilians still clinging to life. Thousands of bloated bodies are scattered on the streets of the devastated city.

In Mogadishu no one has the time to bury the dead.

The war drastically disrupted commerce and farming and prevented people from feeding themselves. As a result the control of food became the key to power and profit. General Barre would have turned in his grave! Forgive the expression.

I am confident that this brief introduction to Somalia will convince my American readers and e-mailers. By the same token, I apologize to my Somali readers for using the names of some tribes and clans. But as I mentioned above I did this for historical purpose only without which this synopsis would not have been complete. You may consider it as raison d'Ítre, as the French would like to say.

By Mohamoud M. Afrah © 2002

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