How Kenya helped to fight Siad Barre

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    In its 40-year history as an independent nation, no country has caused Kenya as much pain and grief as its eastern neighbour, Somalia. Although Kenya has not fought with any country or interfered in the affairs of its neighbours, it made a singular exception in the case of Somalia – not just by fighting the Shifta War, but also by sponsoring guerrillas during the reign of deposed dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, as writer KEN OPALA found out …

    Though only visiting Kenya for the Somali peace talks, Abdullahi Yusuf is quite at home at the Kenya College of Communications Technology in Mbagathi. His grandson, Mohammed Yusuf, 4, seeking out his grandfather in the expansive gardens, and when he spots him, comes over and snuggles up to him.

    The Mbagathi venue is close to a home Yusuf has owned in the Karen area for the past 20 years.

    His hair is rolled back – Ronald Reagan style – and his chiselled physique is dressed in a neat, well-cut gray suit. He hardly fits the portrait of a seasoned rebel. Yet history betrays the 68-year old President of Puntland, Somalia’s vast region with population of 2.5 million.

    While in Nairobi, he is only one of two leaders who have round-the-clock police bodyguards assigned to them.

    As he begins to speak, carefully and in measured tones, Yusuf unlocks some of the most closely guarded secrets that defined relations between Kenya and Somalia.

    As an exile in Nairobi, Yusuf launched the first serious military onslaught on the regime of Mohammed Siad Barre in 1979, from a hideout. It was an insurgency he would sustain until the dictator’s fall in 1991.

    Yusuf claims that former President Daniel arap Moi facilitated the airlift of Somalia fighters through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Ethiopian bases. His claim is corroborated by a senior intelligence officer and a former Somali envoy to Kenya who played a key role in transforming the otherwise icy relations between the Somalia and Kenya in the 1970s.

    The operation was so covert that, at one time Kenya – fearing antagonising the West – told Yusuf that the assistance would be “secret”.

    Two decades since he left Kenya, and 10 years after he helped topple Barre, Yusuf’s accounts are measured, his confessions careful. He shies away from divulging the finer details of the kind of support he received from Kenyan authorities. But he recalls assistance from, first President Jomo Kenyatta, and later Moi.

    A graduate of military colleges in Italy and Russia, Yusuf rose through the Somalia military ranks – from a cadet officer to the chief of staff of the Somalia National Army, northern sector. After Barre seized power in a coup d’etat in 1969, he detained Yusuf.

    The chain-smoking dictator would find use for Yusuf yet. Barre, adept at the game of musical chairs, appointed him a parastatal head.

    “When the Ogaden war broke out, he recalled me and put me at the frontline,” Yusuf says. In the war, Somalia wanted to seize the Ogaden and Haud regions, which Barre and his predecessors considered part of their country, having been carved into Ethiopia by Italian colonialists in 1914.

    Barre’s dream was to redraw his country’s map by creating a “Greater Somalia”, annexing Somali-inhabited parts of Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

    The Somali forces under Yusuf’s command hit Ethiopia in the south and pushed their frontline to Neagaile. When Somalia lost the Ogaden War, Yusuf withdrew his forces and returned to Buluhawa. Even as he withdrew, he was convinced his next target was his boss, Barre.

    Yusuf’s critics, including Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya at the time, Hussein Ali Dualeh, doubt Yusuf’s rectitude in the conflict, especially seen against the lavish benevolence extended to him by Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Ethiopian leader gave Yusuf the base to mount the insurgency.

    “Col Yusuf believed that the Somali army, when defeated, would – out of frustration – topple the Barre regime,” writes Dualeh in his biography, From Barre to Aideed. In the book, Dualeh writes that officers from Yusuf’s ********** clan had no confidence in Barre so they “decided to sabotage the war effort”.

    On April 9, 1978, word reached Yusuf that 17 officers had been executed by the Barre administration after an attempted mutiny failed.

    As chief of staff of the Somalia National Army, northern sector, Yusuf had planned a coup d’etat that failed. “My officer friends participated. I also participated, but I was away,” he says.

    A day after the abortive coup, on April 10, 1978, Barre summoned Yusuf to Mogadishu. He knew what fate awaited him in the capital, so he fled to Kenya through Mandera.

    “Those hanged were my close friends and relatives,” says Yusuf.

    He and other escapees were seized by Kenyan authorities and interrogated for 10 days in Garissa. The officer who questioned them is now highly-placed at the National Security Intelligence Service headquarters in Nairobi.

    “We were 10 officers and a few civilians accompanied us,” recalls Yusuf.

    Dualeh says when he received reports of the escape, he beseeched Kenyan authorities to give asylum to the exiles because they risked execution back home in Somalia.

    “I went to see Dr (Munyua) Waiyaki, the Foreign Minister. I managed to convince him that if sent back to Somalia the officers would be summarily executed. This would naturally tarnish the image of Kenya. He promised to help,” Dualeh reminisces.

    “I then contacted Peter Kenyatta (Kenyatta’s son and a member of the President’s court) about the plight of the officers and the certain death they would meet if sent back home. President Kenyatta listened very attentively – he then spoke to his son in Kikuyu, but I could see that he was giving instructions to somebody on the line.

    “I do not know who the person was – President Kenyatta, with that usual charming smile of his, said: ‘Mr ambassador, your friends will be brought back to Nairobi by air and will be released tomorrow morning. They will be free men.’ I was exceedingly happy that I had succeeded in my mission,” he says.

    On arrival in Nairobi, Yusuf and his group were accommodated at the Fairview Hotel, at the State’s expense, for 15 days. “After that, the government gave us asylum,” he says. “The government of Kenya saved my neck. If they had taken me back to Somalia, I would be dead,” he says matter-of-factly.

    With Barre dead and out of power, Yusuf can now confess: “I met Kenyatta and Moi separately several times at State House to talk about the rebellion I was building up against the Mogadishu regime.”

    With the tacit support of Kenyatta, Yusuf formed the Somalia Salvation Democratic Action Front (SDAF), which ran underground guerrilla training in Kenya.

    “We asked the Kenya Government to give us a base, but they said they could only assist us secretly. Ethiopia accepted to explicitly host us and Kenya said it was ready to facilitate the ferrying of rebels to Ethiopia.”

    Yusuf denies ever receiving financial or military support from Kenya.

    “Our first guerrillas, about 300, left for Ethiopia through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in July, 1978.”

    An 8,000-strong army was later flown from JKIA to Ethiopia. “There were plane-loads of our fighters who left Somalia to Ethiopia through JKIA,” he says.

    Yusuf says Kenyatta, having been scarred by the Shifta War in the north, had little time and space for Barre.

    Even after Kenyatta’s death in August, 1978, Yusuf’s links with the Kenyan authorities were not severed. At least twice, he says, Yusuf visited President Moi at State House, Nairobi, to discuss Somali matters. He battled Barre’s forces until 1982, when the Somalia National Movement emerged to also challenge the Mogadishu regime.

    According to Dualeh, Kenyatta allowed in the exiles on humanitarian grounds, but documents available indicate that relations between Kenya and Somali have always been uneasy.

    From the mid-1960s, Kenyan forces had been involved in a costly war with Somali forces, variously called shiftas, or bandits.

    Declassified documents at the Kenya National Archives reveal that in May 1964, the Somalia regime employed 20,000 soldiers for the purpose of invading Kenya. For close to two decades, the shifta ran a devastating war against Kenyan forces in the so-called northern frontier district that sought to secede from Kenya. Kenya spent close to $8.4 million a year to counter the shifta menace in the north. The unpleasant memories of that war notwithstanding, Moi’s antagonism towards Barre stemmed from a diplomatic incident that would not be resolved even at the highest level.

    According to Dualeh, two Somali youths stole the then Vice-President’s Mercedes Benz and freighted it to Mogadishu. Following protestations from Dr Waiyaki, Dualeh took up the matter with Somalia’s Chief of Intelligence and Barre’s son-in-law, Ahmed Suleiman.

    From Barre to Aideed claims that Suleiman had the thieves arrested and the car impounded.

    “But he got the shock of his life – as he later told me – when Barre personally intervened on behalf of the two thieves and instructed Suleiman not only to release them, but also to give them the car even though (Barre) was fully aware that it belonged to Kenya’s Vice-President.”

    Dualeh flew to Mogadishu to personally intercede with Barre. He gave him a memorandum from the Kenya Government on the stolen car. Barre, says Dualeh, gave him a stern look.

    “Look here. This car belongs to two Somalis. I know that you and your friend Col Suleiman want their car to be given to a Kenyan. I do not care whether he is Vice-President or a minister. The subject of this car is closed. You will go back to Nairobi and remember that your job is to look after the Somalis,” Barre is quoted as saying.

    “I was most demoralised and shocked,” says Dualeh. It happened that the thieves, on their way to Djibouti to dispose of the car, had an accident in it.

    By 1994, about 16 years after Moi had become the President, the Benz’s scrap was still near the town of Garowe, in central Somalia.

    Even as Yusuf launched onslaughts from his Ethiopian bases, a disagreement broke out between him and his host, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who wanted a chunk of the land seized by rebels from Somalia.

    “Mengistu said he wanted the districts that had been felled to be annexed to Ethiopia. In fact, he started hoisting Ethiopian flags in the areas we had rescued,” claims Yusuf.

    The rebels would hear none of it. Disgusted, Mengistu detained Yusuf for six years in a prison in central Addis Ababa. He would be rescued when forces loyal to Meles Zenawi toppled Mengistu on May 28, 1991.

    Almost as soon as there was a change in Ethiopia, Barre’s regime fell.

    And the fighters went for the spoils. In doing so, they balkanised Somalia, leaving chaos and misery in their wake.

    Mogadishu was the epicentre of the battle. Today, it is under the control of various militia aligned to clan leaders. Yusuf moved to Puntland, where he organised an administration.

    Somaliland also seceded from mainland Somalia, and has snubbed subsequent peace overtures.

    The balkanisation of Somalia has been along clannish lines.

    Puntland and Somaliland are the only regions spared the instability and fighting because they have working administrations. Puntland, says Yusuf, has a Parliament, a Judiciary, a security force, and a civil service.

    “We have employed about 30 teachers from Kenya,” he says. Hospitals, roads and schools are functional, says the region’s spokesperson, Awad Ashara.

    Unlike other African countries polarised along linguistic and ethnic lines, Somali is made up of one tribe – the Somali, who speak one language. It has one religion, Islam, and the people share a common cultural background. Yet the country’s own survival and social order is knit together by clan loyalties and tensions, all wrapped up by decades of dictatorial leadership since independence in 1960.

    Political organisation is based on kinship groups. According to From Barre to Aideed, there are six main clans: ****** , **** , Dir, ***** , Digil and ********* . Incidentally, the clans are weaved together from a plethora of sub-clans.

    What this means is that divisions within the population can be traced to a multiplicity of political parties, each of them drawing support from specific clans or clan alliances.

    Yusuf, a father of four, is one of the 37 people contesting for the position of transitional president in the new Somalia, expected to evolve from the Nairobi talks being held at the KCCT, Mbagathi.

    Yusuf knew what fate awaited him in Mogadishu

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    “Col Yusuf believed that the Somali army, when defeated, would – out of frustration – topple the Barre regime,” writes Dualeh in his biography, From Barre to Aideed. In the book, Dualeh writes that officers from Yusuf’s ********** clan had no confidence in Barre so they “decided to sabotage the war effort”.

    While tens of thousands of heroic Somalis were losing their lives fighting to liberate their brothers from Ethiopians, this depraved man and his insidious supporters were plotting agaist them?? 😡 . How disgusting can peopple get?

    Profile photo of LANDER

    If I remember correctly, the SSDF or the SDAF had almost nothing to do with the topling of Siad Barre. Their insurgence started way before that of the SNM and the USC and they were defeated by Barre’s national army. Later on the clan of the SSDF agreed to some truce with the leaders of the former regime, after those poor people in Bari were tortured for the actions of the rebel movements. However, you will notice the clear difference between the origins of this particular movement lead by war lord Ali Yusuf, as opposed to say an SNM or even USC movement. These people were nothing short of power hungry, and for those reasons they dragged their entire populous through a brutal tribal war that did not favor them. Already Ali yusuf had a prominant position and yet his thirst for more power lead him to the actions he took. If history had went down the same way for Somalilanders, it won’t be the equivalent of Mohamed Ciigal founding the SNM because Barre had taken him out of his prime minister post. Therefore Ciigaal, out of hunger for power would have dragged his entire clan into tribal warfare simply for the sake of his ambitions. Obviously this was not the case and this scenario I choose to draw simply to expand some peoples sense of logic. Often people bring up the SSDF and the suffering of the people in Bari or modern day Puntland region, and compare it to the SNM and the suffering of the people in Waqoyii or the modern day state of Somaliland. Even though the two movements in my mind can simply never be compared because of their origins, and that is why one was successful and the other failed.

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    I didn’t know history can be re-written, but then you can’t blame me for believing that. 🙁

    Two decades since he left Kenya, and 10 years after he helped topple Barre, Yusuf’s accounts are measured, his confessions careful.

    Some people will swear that the below quote was copied from Jackie Colins’ novels. 😀

    His hair is rolled back – Ronald Reagan style – and his chiselled physique is dressed in a neat, well-cut gray suit. He hardly fits the portrait of a seasoned rebel.

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    Che -Guevara

    Lander……….Geeze, i wonder what the SNM and USC movements were about……?…..Liberating the somali race……lol….Saaxib, All these movements were started by people who felt that they didn’t get their piece of pie….Period. It is individual qabiils lead by power hungry men aiming for the “Kursi”…..Each movement was carried by one qabiil… if you are saying, SNM liberated Somaliland for the sake of peace and independence for all its inhabitants and get rid of the oppressors, i find that hard to believe, and iam sure ppl in Adwal, sanaag, and sool will agree since they were as much terrified of SNM as they were of Barre’s forces. Now tell me,why would the good of awdal, sanaag , and sool be afraid of their liberators. Why tuur and Cigaal drag the people of Sland through another ugly war, all for what?. What about USC. Yeah sure, they get rid off barre…….But Saaxib, USC wanted to install another dictator……..
    Aidid’USC ethnically cleansed mogadisho, killed three hundred thousand ppl in Bay & Bakool. i guess you call that success, and may i ask what have the intervine ppl to deserve just punishment. They were not barre loyalties. N you said sufferings of puntlanders can’t be compared to Waqooyi,…………. 🙁 ..ok
    Saxiib….history can be manipulated or sometimes even re-written,but one thing in somalia that can’t be denied is that every so-called movement were about power hungry people……Period.

    Samarui-Warrior….It is sad Ina Yusuf was running for presidency of the somali state, the man should awarded with another “Kursi”…A kursi in the defendants corner in the Hague.

    Profile photo of LANDER

    I can’t speak about the USC in the same terms as the SNM, however let me ask you a few questions. When the SNM where victorious in the waqoyii war, and they had the entire populous of Somaliland at their mercy including Awdal and Sool regions, why did they not take revenge? or better yet why didn’t they install themselves as the new dictatorial leaders of those regions? sort of the same things some warlords had done in the war in the south. Simply because this movement was completely different from others. It had been iniated by 4 men who had nothing to do with the former regime and most of their leaders also where not affiliated with the old regime. Obviously there were some members of the National army who joined the SNM, but I never really considered them to have any say in the Barre regime anyway. The highest ranking official from the former regime to be part of SNM was probably Siilanyo who had a minor ministerial position. These people noticed the suffering and oppression of their own, and simply decided to take matters in to their own hands. Don’t you think if they were power hungry and they achieved the peak of their power immediately after the war, they would have continued their conquest and choosen leaders to run the regions among themselves? But instead they decided that their goals were achieved, their people were free, and therefore the movement was no longer needed. For the sake of the entire region and the future of their populous, they decided to lay down their arms and give up all of their power in probably what could be the most unselfish move in Somali history. So this short explanation all boils down to one question, If the SNM was so power-hungry, why did they relinquinsh all of their power?

    P.S. by the way I wasn’t undermining the suffering of the Bari populous, I simply was stating that the origins of the SSDF and SNM were not comparable, since supposedly according to the former regime, these movements were the reasons for the extended suffering of the 2 respective regions.

    Profile photo of BN

    I didn’t think you were so naive. There were several grouops in NW Somalia by 1991: SNM, SDA(Awdal), USF(Awdal) and USP(Sool&Sanaag). After the fall of Siyaad the SNM went into Awdal and fought(skirmishes) with USF/SDA militia’s before withdrawing. They did not go into Sool/Sanaag because they didn’t want more fighting. Afterwards there were numerous agreements signed between clans/subclan elders to maintain peace and stability. This was of course before the SNM clan started killing each other for greed and power. Who is to blame for those thousands of deaths/destruction? Not Afweyn this time–but the ‘nobel’ snm…


    “The take over of the north by the SNM in February 1991, produced an exodus largely composed of non-Issaq groups, such as Gadabursi, Darrod and Isa, who sought refuge in Teferiber, Dher Wanaje, Kebri Byah and Aisaha camps. These refugee groups, particularly the Darrod, contained a large number of refugees who were supported in the camps in the north. The Darrod were associated with the fallen regime of Siad Barre, and the Gadabursi fought against the SNM during the civil war because of fear of Issaaq hegemony. The Isa cooperated with the SNM in the war against the Gadabursi in Awdal region, but differences developed between the Issaaq and the Isa who were suspected of harbouring a secession tendency- to annex their traditional territory in the disputed Zeila district in the north-west to the neighbouring Djibouti. Thus, non-Issqaq refugees fled from the north because of fear of reprisal from the SNM and political uncertainty.

    “On top of all these calmities, the SNM, spearheading an entire division of Mengistu’s troops, slaughtered five hundred fifty innocent people in Borama, Dila and Zeila on February 4th, 1991. And when the SNM had occupied, with the “generous” assistance of these troops and had inherited the ammunation dumps in the north of somalia, the first step they took was a deliberate clan-cleansing of the non-Isack clans from their homes at Gebiley, Hargeisa, Arabsiyo, Eiragavo and Ainabo. To humilate further the clans in the north, they hijacked their elders and took them first to Harar (Ethiopia) in April 1991 and later to Burao where they were intimidated to sign a “compulsary declaration of independence” that has been concocted directly by “Mengistu Haila Miriam”. Two ex-Ethiopian generals, violating directly the sovereignty of the Somali state, were directing that so-called conference at Burao. Thus, by carrying out these repugnant deeds that are contrary to whatever values or culture we shared as Somlis since the millennium, the SNM dealt a mortal blow to any bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood we shared.”

    Btw, Where was ‘Somaliland’ president Riyaale when all these groups were fighting Afweyne? He was out killing/torturing/overseeing the deaths of Somalis in Berbera….

    p.s. Lander it wasn’t just Bari but also Nugal and Mudug(Yusuf’s subclan) regions that first suffered under Barre.

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    wind talker

    great story,

    BARI, bro I think when LANDER refers to “Bari,” he means the entire region also known as Puntland or Majerteniya, whichever suits you’re needs. Also, the origins of the SSDF and the USC or SNM or any other rebel movement were all inherently the same and had a double edge as a cause: 1) topple the regime; 2) maintain control of the movement by tribal means. i.e. SSDF (MJs); SNM (**** ); etc.

    Let’s not blind ourselves and ignore the dire facts on the ground.

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