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Anniversary of Somalia Coup Marks 20 Years of War

Government troops patrol a neighborhood destroyed by years of fighting in Mogadishu, January 10, 2008
Government troops patrol a neighborhood destroyed by years of fighting in Mogadishu, January 10, 2008

Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.
It is now 20 years that Somalia has been at war with itself. Since 1991, the Horn of African nation has been synonymous with violent coups, cruel warlords, Islamic insurgents and civilian death. On January 26, 1991, the socialist dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was pushed out of power as rebel groups descended upon the capital, Mogadishu.

Many of the groups, including the United Somali Congress, led by now-infamous warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, formed in opposition to Barre’s programs which they felt had marginalized major clan-groups in Somalia. Barre’s fall came as a shock to the outside world and triggered an unending anarchy as the clans jockeyed for control of the failing government.

Many Somalis have since fled, including Somali academic and political analyst Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamed, who recalled the day for VOA.

“At that time I was working with the British Embassy,” Abdisamed said. “It was a Sunday, in the morning, when I heard gunshots and mortars. I asked my boss to release me from the duty so that I can take care of my family. Siad, what he did: there was a televised speech, just requesting the people ‘calm down, I’m going to hand over the power to the prime minister and we will form a government, then he is going to allow the multi-party system, he is going to conduct elections very soon. Please stop the fighting. If the problem is me, I’m going to hand over the power peacefully.’ Those are the last words I heard from him.”

Clan rivalry has been the catalyst of much conflict in Somalia over the past 20 years. During his years in power, Barre sought to eradicate clan identity and instill a sense of unity in the Somali communities of neighboring countries.

Though he tried to create a strong Somali nation, Barre will likely be remembered for more than 30 years of iron-fisted rule, as well as vast abuses of human rights including the arrest of dissidents, the suppression of free expression and torture. Barre’s government received near universal condemnation from international human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

But the reality of Somalia on January 26, 2011 is, in many ways, much worse. Somalia’s younger generations have grown up with nothing but war. Since Barre’s fall successive versions of internationally-backed governments have struggled to maintain control of small areas in Mogadishu. And there are near daily battles in the capital between Islamist insurgent groups and U.N. peacekeeping forces.

Outside of Mogadishu, the al Qaida-linked insurgent group al-Shabab has claimed much of southern Somalia, restricting access to education for women and imposing harsh versions of Islamic law on the population.

Perhaps most worrying is the breakup of the Somali state. Two regions in the north, Somaliland and Puntland have separated from Mogadishu, hoping to insulate themselves from the chaos.

For Mohamed Aden, a Somali who fled to Kenya in 2001, the iron rule of Siad Barre was a better time.

Aden told VOA that when he moved to Mogadishu for school in 1986 it was a safe and happy place where he could walk through the streets at all hours without fear. Aden said the situation began to deteriorate in 1990, when crime and violence rose sharply in the capital. At that time, it became commonplace for Mogadishu residents to carry weapons and gunfire could be heard in the streets.

The policies of Siad Barre had suppressed clan divisions which have since exploded onto Mogadishu’s streets, but political analyst Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamed says his suppression of traditional Somali values in favor of socialism created an even greater problem for Somalia.

“He destroyed the traditional institutions,” Abdisamed added. “Siad Barre was against Islamism. Al Shabab, Hizbul Islam, Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa is a product - is a victim of the confusion. During the Siad Barre time these people were there but they were not active. But, unfortunately, since there is no government, no order, Somalia became a free-for-all.”

Twenty years on from the fall of Siad Barre, Somalia remains an international dilemma. The current U.N.-backed government is racing against time to fulfill its mandate but many are losing faith. The August deadline to adopt a new constitution could bring yet another attempt to revive Somalia and prevent violence from raging for another 20 years.