Twenty years ago the overthrow of Somali president Mohamed Siad Barre left the country in chaos. Since then, Somalis have been through years of civil strife and one of Africa’s longest civil wars.
One observer says the country is weak because it is divided into clans. Hussein Warsame, a professor at Calgary University in Canada, says Somalia has never had a strong sense of nationhood, and the civil war exposed years of sectarianism.
In the 19th century, he says, other governments furthered their own interests by dividing Somalia into territories. Clan membership plays a central part in Somali culture and politics. There are at least five major clans, each with different interests, Warsame says, “Somali factions were always fighting each other and they never thought about statehood.”
Individual clans fought Siad Barre’s rule, but they never united. “The first clan group to organize against him were [the] Majeerteen. He came down on them hard, as if they were not Somalis, poisoning their wells,” says Warsawme.
“Somalis should have told Barre to stop the killing. In 1988, he started doing the same thing to another group in the far north, the Isaaqs, and again the Somalis should have reacted,” he says, but instead thought ‘They’re not killing my clan, so who cares?’”
After Siad Barre was overthrown 1991, the clans were so divided that they could not unite to form a government. Civil war erupted, leading to a humanitarian emergency. When relief agencies brought in food aid, Warsame says one of the many clans would burn it to prevent it from falling into the hands of its rivals.
Parts of the country, like Somaliland and Puntland, seceded.
“Those clans and their militias not having any common programs caused disintegration after Siad Barre had done his damage,” Warsawme says, adding that for the most part, the international community was distracted by the invasion of Iraq into Kuwait and failed to focus on Somalia until the humanitarian intervention of 1992.
He says the chaos and lack of government exacerbated the humanitarian emergency that followed Barre’s overthrow. Warsame says for all the bad things Siad Barre, he did some things very well; he oversaw the building of hospitals, schools and universities and handled humanitarian emergencies effectively in the 1970’s.
Somalia is now best known to the outside world for piracy and for being one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. But Warsame says it should also be remembered as one of the first African countries to hold elections after independence and a peaceful transfer of power. In the 1967 presidential elections, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke beat out Aden Abdulle Osman Daar to become the second President of Somalia.