Somalia’s civil war of 1978-91 has commonly been analysed as a conflict between competing clan-based groups. Identity-based conflicts are not unique to Somalia. A tendency to interpret the war in clan terms emerges in several of the testimonies in this book, in which women describe how life or death could hinge on a person’s claims to clan membership. And as Dahabo Isse’s testimony illustrates, a clan-based interpretation of the war influenced the UN’s controversial peace-keeping operation in Somalia. (Bradbury 1997)

The clan certainly is the basis of social organisation among ethnic Somalis, as detailed in Chapter 7; and clan loyalty was used by warlords to mobilise support for the war. Yet the clan system was not a cause of the Somali civil war. The causes lie in a complex set of issues relating to distribution of resources and power, Somalia’s economic marginalisation in the world economy, long-term corruption and exploitation, oppression and uneven development.6

General Mohamed Siad Barre’s military coup in October 1969 overthrew a democratically elected but corrupt civilian government, suspended the constitution and banned political parties. In their place Siad Barre set up a Supreme Revolutionary Council of military and police officials and declared ‘war on ignorance, hunger and tribalism as enemies of the people’. Exploiting the Cold War superpower politics of the time, he declared Somalia a socialist state in 1970 and introduced Soviet-backed ‘Scientific Socialism’ as the ideological framework for the country’s future development.

Although Scientific Socialism was progressive in some areas – for example improving literacy and women’s status – its prevailing impact was a high degree of centralised state control. This found expression in many aspects of daily life, press censorship, the banning of trade unions and (as described in Part 2, Section 3: ‘Women’s rights, leadership and political empowerment’) the Party’s manipu­lation of civil organisations such as the Somali women and youth associations. The regime’s priority was to maintain political control at all costs.

In 1977 Siad Barre invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in an attempt to regain lands and people separated from the Somali state by colonial treaty. Somalia was heavily defeated when the Soviet Union switched sides and backed Ethiopia in the war. Defeat in the Ogaden was soon followed by the emergence of armed opposition groups within Somalia – first the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) formed in 1978 by military officers from the Majeerteen clan in the north east, and then in 1980 the Somali National Movement (SNM) drawing support mainly from the Isaq clan in the north-west. But it took another decade to overthrow Siad Barre. During this period, the government prosecuted a scorched-earth policy against the Majeerteen and increasingly repressive policies and human rights abuses against the Isaq. Barre increasingly concentrated power and resources within his own clan and sub-clan family, manipulating Somalia’s clan system to his own ends.

By the early 1980s the country’s economy was starting to collapse, with gross national product (GNP) per capita just US$280 per year and an estimated 70 per cent of the rural population living in absolute poverty. Security expenditure accounted for nearly three quarters of government spending, and consumed more than half as much again as was earned from exports.7

In May 1988 the SNM attacked and briefly captured Burao and Hargeisa, the two main towns in the north west. The government’s response was savage: relentless aerial bombardments destroyed most of the buildings in both towns and forced thousands to flee. Shukri Hariir’s testimony is an eye-witness account of what happened. By March 1989 an estimated 50,000 people in the north west had been killed by their own government.8 This massacre eventually prompted the international community to cut most development aid to the country, which was by now bankrupt.

Siad Barre’s downfall came three years later when an alliance between three armed opposition groups led to an attack on Mogadishu by the United Somali Congress (USC)9 headed by General Mohamed Farah Aideed, in December 1990. This is considered the start of the civil war in the south, a war that has yet to be laid to rest.