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Who was the man known to history as Mohamed Siad Barre | Biography

Mohamed Siad Barre 

Early Life

Mohamed Siad Barre was born on October 6th 1910 to a nomadic father Siad Barre and his first wife Shaqlan Warfa in Laas Gacal a district in Ceel Gaab region presently under Shilaabo, the Somali Region of Ethiopia (Ogaden) at a time when life was fast changing with the ever growing hardships, as was the norm in the nomadic lifestyle young Mohamed would be influenced by his immediate environment and one that shaped him in his formative years. Barre’s father and brother died when he was 10 years old in the long wars sparked by colonialists that sometimes degenerated into intra-clan raids. This has been said to have deeply changed young Mohamed.

Mohamed Siad Barre spent a significant part of his life dedicating himself to both formal and self-taught education while always maintaining a burning desire to pursue his potential profession. Orphaned at the age of 10, he attended the elementary school at the town of Lugh (luuq) formally part of Upper Jubba. He also attended Dugsi the Quranic school all Somalis attend to master the reading and memorization of the Holy Quran.


Many sources site Garbahrey, the provincial capital of the Gedo region of Somalia (Upper Jubba at the time) as his birthplace, but this has been revealed to be his adopted birthplace as a soldier in the colonial army because ethnic Somalis born outside of the two colonial protectorates (Italian and British) were not allowed to enlist in each of their respective armed forces by colonial powers.

In the late 30s Barre joined the Zapties, part of the Italian Cabanieri made up of locally raised gendarmerie from the Italian Colony of Somalia, he saw armed conflicted for the first time at the southern theatre in the Italian Conquest of Ethiopia. Despite his tender age Barre is said to have exhibited exemplary skills as a young soldier both in tactic and leadership.

A young Siad Barre, in his early 20s

Barre went back to complete his secondary education and 1941 aged just 20, he joined the Police Force then under the authority of the British military which occupied the country since the start of the World War II hostilities. He would travel to Kijabe,Central Kenya for police training where the British authorities noticed his probative nature hence considering him for the role of head of detectives they trained. In the mid-40s he would be moved back to the capital Mogadishu where he would be based henceforth and in 1950 he had already attainted the highest rank possible for an indigenous native—Chief Police Inspector! In the same year Britain will transfer the colonial administration back to Italy. In 1952, the cream of the crop of the Somali Police encompassing Siad and his notable colleagues would be flown to Italy to attend the police academy in the military academy of Moderna. He mainly studied politics and administration and gave heavy emphasis to mastering languages as he already spoke Somali, English, Italian and Swahili- a polyglot even by today’s standard! He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant after completing his training. He received the role of police chief in 1955, one year after finishing his training in Rome, and was thereafter deployed to the capital city of Mogadishu. He was in charge of the security forces, including the executive director of the Italian police, by 1958 and had attained the rank of major. 

Siad, known by his childhood sobriquet, Afweyne, which was given in reference to his extrovert nature was to be appointed Vice Commander of the Somali National Army upon the nation’s 1960 independence as the Somali Republic. Barre became a proponent of Soviet-style Marxist-Leninist government in the early 1960s after participating in joint training exercises with Soviet Military Officers and Advisors. He believed in a socialist government and a stronger sense of Somali nationalism.

In the late 60s after a string of national elections, the Somali military appeared to be the only institution in the government immune from unbridled corruption and nepotism in the late 1960s. 90% of the pre-independence army was made up of Somali National League and Somali Youth League soldiers. The Somali police force was the first organization to be Somalized during colonial rule, and many years before independence, complete leadership was transferred to the local officers. Under the excellent leadership of Brigadier General Daud Abdulle and Brigadier General Mohamed Siad Barre, the armed forces of the Republic of Somalia already established a reputation for brilliance within the first ten years of that country’s existence. Siad Barre would eventually rise to the top of the Somali National Armed Forces, following the death of former commander General Daud Abdulle Hersi in Moscow.

The successful integration of the former British and Italian-trained forces, that surpassed the efforts of the civilian population to integrate, had a stunning effect. Self-help programs were utilized by the police and the military, especially the military, something that the civilian authorities could not do. The fact that the military never detached itself from the populace was crucial. A positive public image and a reputation for dedication were greatly enhanced by their highly creative public relations staging of traditional dance and drama, poetry and music competitions, sports events, and other events. As a result, the public had confidence that they would intervene if constitutional processes and the public were to collapse. This set the Somali army apart from the vast majority of African militaries that become a usable personal machine in the power struggles. The national sense that they acquired after gaining independence—basically, the unity of the Somali country as its hinterland—also helped them to become detached from the political battles that were taking place. This understanding grew stronger as a result of the political class’s blatant corruption, which strengthened their belief that they were the only strong and functional force in the fledgling Republic.

The 1964 border war with Ethiopia was fought under unbelievably unprepared conditions, with army cut off from its own lines and the government growing more and more corrupt. This incident fed resentment and hostility toward the regime, which was already inept as well as impotent and dishonest. A national rebirth that was particularly conscious of the hardships and exploitation of the Somali community was the goal of the circumstances provided for a political will to mature and spread.

General Mohamed Siad, who was in charge of the military at the time, spoke with the Italian newspaper “Unita” in 1966. In his interview, he expressed the local population’s displeasure with the existing government and gave reasons for a new political vision. That vision had the stated aim of a significant shift in path for Somalia that would be inextricably related to the needs of the people. General Siad responded when asked if the Armed Forces were prepared for a coup d’état, saying that the Somali Army saw itself as being only “In the service of the people, not just for the protection of the boundaries, but to support its political, economic, and social advancement.” He proceeded, referring to the nepotistic and extremely corrupted SYL administration, by saying, “Whoever wants to keep the people in poverty and in ignorance is our enemy.” Thus, it can be stated that the Somali Armed Forces developed their own soul until they reached a point where they became a force with deeply held democratic and progressive beliefs that could intervene whenever the situation called for it.



The official presidential portrait of the third Somali President, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre

As fate would have it, while touring a region of northern Somalia that was suffering from a drought, President Abdirashid Ali Sharmake was shot and killed in Las-Anod on October 15, 1969, by a police officer. This happened while Prime Minister Egal was on a state visit to the USA. As the parliament and the leadership were bickering on who should succeed the slain president, the public’s willingness to support the corrupt government was dwindling by the hour. Armed forces assisted by armored vehicles occupied strategic locations in the Somali capital in the early hours of October 21, 1969, when the members of the parliament finally agreed to give the president to their hand-picked successor in an unconstitutional manner. The police, led by General Jama Ali Korshel, arrested all of the parliamentarians before morning. These lawmakers were said to have ties to tribal leaders or foreign interests, the police also supported the takeover, and in some capacity cooperated in the coup.

Many westerners were puzzled by the coup since they wrongly assumed Somalia as an extremely stable and “democratic country.” After all, neither the military nor the police of Somalia had ever attempted to sway the political decisions of the post-independence governments. However, the military’s decision to intervene was a reaction to the corrupt and inefficient rule that was aggravating not just the armed sector but also the majority of the Somali populace.

The public enthusiastically supported the coup d’état, and it wasn’t until a few days later that it was revealed Siad Barre, the head of the Somali National Armed Forces, had been behind the operation that put an end to Somalia’s brief, difficult and tumultuous democratic age.

A banner depicting the heads of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, the coup leaders

The very model of the post-independence regimes had been based, according to Siad Barre “on the prolonged period during which there have been over a hundred parties in Somalia and a parliament of not even two hundred members, made solely to demonstrate therein the most convincing of manner that the models colonial countries transferred to Africa serve only the new-colonial purposes of said countries, and not certainly to promote African perceptions of democracy.”

On October 24, in his first speech after the coup, Siad Barre would set a new tone for the country. 

“Intervention by the armed forces was inevitable,” he said in his signature mellifluous heavy bass sound. “I would like to ask all Somalis to come out and build their nation, a strong nation, to use all their efforts, energy, wealth and brains in developing their country,” he continued. 

“The imperialists, who always want to see people in hunger, disease and ignorance, will oppose us in order that we may beg them… let us join hands in crushing the enemy of our land.”

After a week, by November 1st 1969 the constitution would be suspended, the parliament dissolved, all the very many political parties banned and the subsequent abolition of the Supreme Court. The country was to be later renamed the Somali Democratic Republic, and the coup plotters founded the Supreme Revolutionary Council.

In an effort to create a socialist society, Barre started immediately mobilizing Somali society using the newfound powers he had placed in the government’s executive branch. The new philosophy was going to be hantiwadaag, which is a literal translation from Somali for “sharing of wealth” or socialism. Moreover, Somalis were encouraged to address one another as “Jaalle,” the Somali word for comrade to replace the traditional “ina adeer” which meant cousin and had clannish connotations of kinship. Barre would, himself adopt the moniker Guulwade, or Victorious Leader, which would influence many followers around his personality and that of the revolution.

Major businesses and farms, including banks, insurance firms, and fields in use for oil distribution, were nationalized as part of Barre’s socialist ideology.

Thousands of acres of wind-driven sand dunes that threatened to engulf towns, roads, and farmland were also being pushed forward by thousands of acres, and Barre’s administration initiated the Shalanbood Sand Dune Stoppage project in 1971 to stop it. By 1988, 265 of a projected 336 hectares had been treated, with 39 range standby sites and 36 forestry plantation sites being established.

The Shalambood town’s restoration from the engulfing sandunes, 193

A severe drought known as the Abaartii Dabadheer (“The Lingering Drought”) devastated Somalia’s northern regions between 1974 and 1975. Approximately 90,000 people were flown from the ravaged districts by the Soviet Union, which at the time had strategic links with the Barre regime. The Danwadaagaha, or “Collective Settlements,” are new settlements of small villages that were developed in the Jubbada Hoose (Lower Juba) and Jubbada Dhexe (Middle Juba) districts. The newly relocated households were trained how to farm and fish, which was a shift from their previous pastoralist lifestyle of herding sheep. In an effort to erode clan unity, Barre undertook more resettlement initiatives that dispersed nomads and relocated them from clan-controlled territory.

The evacuation of the Dabadheer drought afflicted poeple in 1974
Students from the Mogadishu schools, tasked with helping in the mass literacy campaigns of the countryside.

In order to significantly raise the literacy rate, the Supreme Revolutionary Council developed extensive public works programs and successfully carried out an urban and rural literacy campaign. Barre started a program of nationalizing business and land, while the foreign policy of the new government focused on Somalia’s historical and religious ties to the Arab world. As a result, Somalia finally joined the Arab League in 1974. Barre presided over the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union, in the same year (AU) and he still remains the only Somali leader to chair the African Union

Siad Barre, as the Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (precursor to the African Union) in The Annual Meeting of Heads of State, 1974 Mogadishu,Somalia.

Barre’s Supreme Revolutionary Council disbanded itself in July 1976, and the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP), a de-facto state party based on Islamic principles and scientific socialism, supplanted it. The SRSP was an endeavor to bring official state ideology and official state religion into harmony. Muslims’ emphasis on social progress, equality, and justice was emphasized along with the government’s own emphasis on self-sufficiency, public participation, and popular regulation, as well as direct ownership of the means of production. The government claimed that these Islamic principles formed the basis of scientific socialism. Despite the SRSP’s modest promotion of private investment, the administration’s general course was deemed to be Communist.

Chairman Siad Barre overseeing the Supreme Revolutionary Council’s congress in July 1976.

In 1979, a new constitution that provided for the holding of People’s Assembly elections was enacted. Although Barre’s Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party’s Politburo still remained in power. The Supreme Revolutionary Council was reinstated in its stead when the Supreme Revolutionary Socialist Party was abolished in October 1980.

Uganda was invaded in September 1972 by rebels supported by Tanzania. Barre was enlisted by Ugandan President Idi Amin, and he helped broker a non-aggression treaty between Tanzania and Uganda. A road in Kampala was named after Barre as a result of his achievements.



Nationalism and Greater Somalia

Greater Somalia (Soomaaliweyn), which refers to the areas in the Horn of Africa where ethnic Somalis inhabit and have historically comprised the majority population, is a concept that Barre espoused. Greater Somalia includes the Horn of Africa nations of Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia’s Ogaden area, and Kenya’s former North Eastern Province, where Somalis represent a large majority of the population.

President Mohamed Siad Barre with American President Gerald Ford

The Ogaden War exploded in July 1977 as the Somali administration attempted to merge the numerous Somali-populated territories in the Ogaden into a Greater Somalia through force of arms. The Somali National Army successfully entered Ethiopia, which was then governed by the Derg, a communist regime backed by the Soviet Union, and initially succeeded in taking control of the majority of the Ogaden region. With the Soviet Union switching its allegiance to Ethiopia and nearly the whole communist world standing against Somalia, the invasion came to a painstakingly ground halt. The Soviet Union stopped supplying Barre’s administration and provided aid, weaponry, and training to Ethiopia’s government and was in turn expelled from Somalia. They also sent in around 22,000 Cuban troops to help the Ethiopian government. The Somali soldiers were finally pushed out of the Ogaden in 1978. Due to its strategic location at the entrance of the Red Sea, Somalia was of tremendous interest to both the Soviet Union and the United States. Barre removed all Soviet advisors after the Soviets severed ties with Somalia in the late 1970s, tore up his friendship agreement with the Soviet Union, and proclaimed his support to the West in a speech broadcast in English. Additionally, Somalia severed all links with the Soviet Union and the Second World (except China and Romania). The United States responded and was a staunch ally of the Barre administration. In 1982, Barre met with Ronald Reagan to declare the new policy.

Mohamed Siad Barre with American president Ronald Reagan at the White House.

President Barre, an insomniac who mostly worked into the late hours of the night, was seriously hurt in a life-threatening car accident in May 1986 when his vehicle crashed into the back of a bus during a torrential downpour near Mogadishu. He was treated for head injuries, broken ribs, and shock for a month in a Saudi Arabian hospital. Lieutenant General Mohammad Ali Samatar, then the vice president, assumed de facto control of the country for the following few months. This has been cited many times as when overseeing the day to day activities of the state proved harder for the ageing president and in essence when things deteriorated.

President Mohamed Siad Barre receiving Egypt’s the biggest civilian honour from Egyptian president Anwar Saadat.


Ouster and Exile

By the late 70s, discontent with the Barre administration was festering as the Somali Army had also been severely diminished by the Ogaden War, and the economy had been wrecked by military spending.  Following the Ogaden campaign’s collapse, Barre’s administration started pursuing government and military officials on suspicion of complicity in the failed coup d’état attempt in 1978. The majority of those accused of involvement were jailed. However, many officials managed to move abroad and founded the first of several dissident groups dedicated to overthrowing Barre’s government by force of arms.  

As the Cold war came to an end and Somalia’s strategic importance diminished in the 1980s, the regime further faltered. As the regime grew more obsolete, resistance organizations sprouted all throughout the country with the aid of Ethiopia’s communist Derg government. This finally culminated in the civil war of 1991, the fall of Barre’s government, and the dissolution of the Somali National Army (SNA). The Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), United Somali Congress (USC), Somali National Movement (SNM), and Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), in addition to the several political rivals in the names of Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), the Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA), and the Somali Manifesto Group (SMG), were among the militia groups that orchestrated the insurrection.

After Siad Barre’s regime was ousted, many of the opposition organizations started vying for influence in the power vacuum that resulted from Barre’s departure on the 26th of January 1991 towards the Kenyan border. Armed groups, particularly those headed by USC General Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed, engaged in combat in the south as they struggled for control of the city. That marked the last time there was a unitary government in Somalia, a mirage that ever seems unachievable to this day 31 years later.

Mohamed Siad Barre would later move to Kenya then Nigeria where he would die of a heart attack on 2nd January 1995 in Lagos, Nigeria at the old, fulfilled age of 84 years. Then, as in now he still divides opinion among Somalis; benevolent guardian of the Somali state or ironclad dictator? Well that depends on who you ask but what is certain is that, no other Somali man or woman has managed to attain a scintilla of what Barre accomplished in the limited time of the modern Somali state’s independence. He still remains the most consequential great leader of modern and contemporary history of Somalia and Somalis!



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