Many Somalis and non-Somalis alike have theories on why Siad Barre’s brutal regime fell. The more tribalist and propaganda prone Somalis will flamboyantly exclaim it was because of his/her clan. The relatively more oppressed Somalis may claim he ‘lost’ support due to the brutal genocide orchestrated by his goons in Hargeisa, Northern Somalia. Some may go even further and infer divine intervention because of his atheist communist tendencies.
I however wish to take a different approach, a more non-sentimental approach. To understand the previous Somali government we must understand politics and with them some basic political rules. Essentially the most important one being “acquire the loyalty of your key supporters” this can be done through a variety of pathways however most if not all acquire a monetary fund. Its no surprise then a leader must acquire a country’s treasury to succeed. A second lesser but important rule is that a leader must keep the number of supporters “needed” low and must be able to replace disloyal essentials(supporters needed to run the country) effectively.
If one follows these rules in an autocratic government,or any government for that matter, he/she may have a chance at beating the eternal game of politics. Of course, there are a few other rules but we shall instead focus on the rules which Barre broke, principally what brought down his regime.
Flashback to 1969, Siad Barre takes over the democratically elected Somali government in a “bloodless” coup. He is a new player in the game of politics. As a military general, he has complete control of the military wing and most likely has bought of influential chieftains within Somalia. He furthermore began arresting democratically elected politicians, judges, and other essentials as they would be detrimental to the legitimacy of his regime and hence his existence. An observer must understand that politics is all about survival, a politician does what he needs to do to increase his political longevity. Siad here followed the two fundamental rules as he simultaneously reduced the number of essentials and bought off those that were needed.
Somalia, under Barre, didn’t effectively exploit its natural mineral resources and hence the government focused on taxation along with foreign aid. Through his communist aligned government, he acquired hundreds of millions of “foreign aid” from the Soviet Union. He furthermore began mass literacy campaigns throughout his reign to increase productivity and hence increase taxation from agriculture etc. Under Barre Somalia mass exported bananas, tobacco, etc. A naïve person may assume that his literacy campaigns, taxation laws, and what little infrastructure he built were a heartfelt gesture to the Somali populace. Such a person is just that, naïve, Barre needed to increase productivity so that the populace produced larger amounts of agricultural goods at a higher rate. He could consequently then use his money to pay off his essentials. An unconvinced reader can just look at the state of Somalis from 1969 to 1991. Infrastructure was dismal and there was next to no sewage substructure throughout the country. Barre understood that it wasn’t the people who would keep him in power but rather his essentials. He lavished millions of foreign aid and taxation on his essentials while most of the Somali population was in poverty. Barre was playing by the political rules to the point, he certainly was an intelligent autocrat.
The rampant poverty within the country had the added effect of forcing essentials to stay extremely loyal to the leader. Any essential who tried to defect would find himself in the midst of such poverty and misery, if any essential wanted to keep his luxury apartments, jet skis, scholarships, and Cuban cigars he needed to stay loyal to “jaale” Siad. Barre understood that he needed a large pool of recruits to quickly replace any disloyal essential and hence promoted a merit/loyalty propaganda campaign. Anyone could be close to the dear leader as long as they were more loyal than an incumbent essential, this resulted in everyone fighting for his neck in the government. Barre was consolidating his power and nowhere was his genius at politics more noticeable but in the 1977 war between the autocratic regimes of Ethiopia and Somalia.
Fast forward to 1977, war broke out between Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia was an ancient enemy in the hearts of all Somalis, mainly because they occupied most of “Western Somali”, the current-day Ogaden region of Ethiopia. This ancient hatred for Ethiopia coupled with large amounts of propaganda funneled out through state-owned radio and televisions set both countries on a collision course. However the war in the eyes of Barre and most current political analysts was a resource war, The Ogaden was rich with natural resources and the ancient right of Somalis was simply an excuse for the real reason. The war in the end was a loss for the Somali people but a win for Barre.
Barre attacked with lightning speed against the Ethiopian regime. He took over large swathes of land in an instant and for a second looked as if he would overrun the politically divided and hence militarily divided Ethiopia. However Barre was an autocrat and like any autocrat, he was thinking not of the present but of the future. A period of war is a great time in which an internal coup may arise to overthrow a distracted regime. Barre kept the most advanced forms of weaponry close to the real battlefield, right in Mogadishu. He gave the best weapons primarily to the most loyal instead of the most deserving, a recount of Abdullahi Yusuf( Somali military commander) as he neared the capital of Ethiopia states that he asked for a higher amount of advanced weaponry but was rejected. To a novice in politics, this is counterintuitive but to any politician it was genius. Siad was crushed eventually by a joint Soviet, Cuban and Ethiopian offensive, thousands of Somalis perished but this had no impact on his world view. Instead, his political genius allowed him to crush the coup that occurred in the year of 1978. A textbook case where war is simply the continuation of politics.
For Barre, the war was not a failure but a success, the Soviets abandoned him which garnered the watchful eyes of the USA. The USA began sending hundreds of millions in foreign aid to Barre in exchange for loyalty against the Communist regime, Barre understood that without funds he couldn’t pay his essentials and hence would be overthrown in an instant. Luckily for him, the USA had no problem sending him aid in all forms for loyalty, he spent most of the aid on himself and his loyal essentials. The populace and the country were of no real concern to him, even though thousands were killed by his recklessness, all forms of resistance were crushed using a military-funded by their own money. He was playing directly by the book, Siad ruled for another 15 years siphoning off billions of funds from the mouths of the people to the bellies of the essentials.
Barres's increasingly harsh stance had the consequence of public anger and disgust. New factions arose throughout the country some funded by the Ethiopian regime while others were a grassroots Somali movement. The SNM was one of these movements and was based in northern Somalia. Barre, who was now politically stable, simply crushed the movement and many other movements to prolong his hand in power. The SNM controlled northern Somalia’s villages along with the areas around major cities. They thus formed an effective guerrilla movement, the height of their power was seen when they laid siege successfully to Hargeisa. After taking over Hargeisa, Barre understood that he must destroy the rebels instantly or he would face an extreme threat to his authority. With the money meant to feed the people of Somalia, he bombed the SNM along with the people of Hargeisa to oblivion. A dull reader who is thinking sentimentally might say this was a large factor in his downfall, however I argue against that. This, for an autocratic regime, was the right move. He paid off his essentials to help successfully destroy a rebel movement and massacred potential enemies arising from sympathy for the rebels. Barre ruled for another 4 years with an iron fist. As the Soviet Union collapsed the USA began to criticize the human rights abuses by the government of Somalia. The USA had no need to support a dictator who was spending millions of their dollars on propping up his shabby regime along with one who was prolonging the suffering of the Somali populace. The foreign aid sent to the Barre government was reduced to zilch and this was a major problem for Barre. Anybody who has been paying attention can see the problem, Barre didn’t have enough revenue arising from agricultural exports and other taxation pathways. Hence Barre was short on money, this meant he wouldn’t be able to pay his essentials lavishly. The result was that he broke one of the most important rules of politics.
Not long after his foreign aid revenue was drastically reduced revolutions occurred throughout the country, these revolutions occurred because the essentials of the military wing fractured along clan lines. With no effective military, the Somali people forced the tyrant away from his stronghold of Mogadishu. Siad Barre lasted 22 years in power, his downfall was that of many leaders before him and indirectly prolonged the civil war in Somalia for 26 years…. The lack of revenue.