Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

In 1990, facing deep cuts in foreign aid and diplomatic isolation after international exposure of massive human rights abuses by his government, President Mohamed Siad Barre announced a number of measures, largely cosmetic or unimplemented, intended to improve his image. These included the release in October and November of about 20 suspected rebel sympathizers held without charge or trial since July and August 1989; promises of a referendum on a new constitution and local multiparty elections in 1991; abolition of the National Security Court (NSC), a special court which reported directly to the President and handled "political" cases; reintroduction of the right to habeas corpus in political cases; the abolition of the principal security agency, the National Security Service (NSS); ratification of a number of international treaties; and promises to allow Africa Watch and Amnesty International to visit the country. On September 3, the President dismissed his Prime Minister, whose government had been in power only since February, and in late November, he made further Cabinet shuffles; in each case these moves were preceded by talk of "change." And on December 26, in a move to forestall the collapse of his government, President Barre legalized the formation of oppostion political parties.

The various announced reforms, by only scratching at the surface of repression, did little to stem a dramatic deterioration in the human rights situation throughout 1990. In part for that reason, the organized rebel movements and prominent opposition voices rejected these moves as irrelevant to the raging political turmoil and demanded, as in the past, that President Barre step down before negotiations to end the civil war can begin.

For example, the abolition of the NSS was not accompanied by the demise of other security agencies with similarly unlimited powers of arrest and detention and notorious reputations for torture and ill-treatment of detainees. These include the President's own bodyguards, the Red Berets; the "Backbreakers," a branch of the military police; the Hangash, another branch of the military police; the Victory Pioneers, a uniformed paramilitary group; and the investigative wing of the ruling Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP). Similarly, the decision to dismantle the NSC did not guarantee a fair system of justice because other courts, such as the Mobile Military Court and the Regional Security Court, retained the power to sentence people to long prison terms and even death without any pretense of due process. In an effort to show that the government was opening the political system, President Barre resigned as Secretary General of the ruling party, only to be replaced by a son-in-law who for many years headed the NSS.

Promises to allow international human rights groups access to the country never materialized. In an April meeting with representatives of Africa Watch in New York, then Foreign Minister Ahmed Jama Abdulle extended an invitiation to visit the country but later failed to respond to inquiries about the timing of such a visit. In June, Amnesty International was due to have talks in Mogadishu with the government but the authorities postponed the visit at short notice.

The government continued to arrest and detain citizens without charge or trial for peaceful expression. In June, 45 prominent Somalis, including the first civilian president, the former president of parliament, former ambassadors, civil servants, religious leaders, elders and intellectuals, were arrested after they signed a document that was sharply critical of the government's human rights and economic policies and detailed steps toward national reconciliation. They were detained for three weeks and brought to court on charges of sedition and treason, which carry the death penalty. Surprisingly, they were acquitted for lack of evidence – the first such acquittals ever in a political trial in Somalia. The trial, which lasted only a few hours, became a major political event, with the court surrounded by huge crowds facing heavily armed guards. The government was clearly anxious to avoid a bloodbath if heavy sentences were imposed.

But Somali jails and unofficial detention centers continued to hold thousands of lesser known political detainees and common criminals, living under inhumane and abusive conditions. In fact, the number of those in custody escalated dramatically as the government sought to "contain" the thousands of displaced persons arriving every month in Mogadishu by detaining many of them in former military training camps outside the city. Arrested during roundups known locally as "rafs," several thousand people, for the most part small farmers and nomads from the central region belonging to the Hawiye clan, were held at Dhanane military training camp, situated near Laanta Bur prison in the direction of Merca; Qorileh camp, located about 25 kilometers east of Mogadishu on the coast; and a camp to the west of Belet Weyne. It was impossible to estimate the exact number of prisoners and detainees in Somalia, since the government refused to publish any figures, but unofficial sources placed the figure at between 7,000 and 10,000, including many arrested when war broke out in the north who were believed held at Berbera, Borama and Burao.

By the end of 1990, Somalia was in an advanced state of anarchy. As conditions worsened and the economy crumbled, opposition intensified and citizens became more outspoken in their criticism of government policies and leadership. The three principal rebel movements also agreed to coordinate their military tactics and to cooperate politically in their campaign to hasten the departure of President Barre.

Perhaps the most significant development in 1990 was the extent to which the war, until then confined largely to the rest of the country, was felt in the capital. As thousands fled to Mogadishu from more insecure regions, the economy weakened substantially. In addition, the United Somali Congress (USC), a rebel organization formed in 1989 by the Hawiye, Somalia's largest clan which is centered in Mogadishu, stepped up its campaign to destabilize the government. Beginning in August, the USC intensified its attacks in Mogadishu, and at year's end was said to be within 50 kilometers of Mogadishu. It was widely believed that the main obstacle holding the USC back was advice from clan elders that an assault by the USC on Mogadishu would unleash massive government reprisals against civilians.

Random killings by soldiers, particularly the President's heavily armed bodyguards, the Red Berets, as well as by ordinary criminals and soldiers in plainclothes, became so common that people were afraid to leave their homes at night. The government blamed "robbers" for the murder of a number of foreigners, but it was widely believed that they were killed by the Red Berets. Shooting was heard every night in Mogadishu and corpses were found in the morning in different districts. Both soldiers and civilians were responsible for looting government warehouses to obtain food; looting of private homes was facilitated by the frequent absence of electricity, adding to the climate of fear. Government troops and rebels used rocket-propelled grenades, injuring many innocent bystanders. Bomb explosions at the central post office, at a military barracks and outside a government ministry killed at least 10 people.

The Red Berets shot dead over 100 civilians at a soccer stadium on July 6 after the crowd jeered the President; over 300 were injured. A number of demonstrators, policemen and soldiers died in late October when protests about a sharp increase in gasoline prices and calls for the release of political prisoners escalated into violent clashes in Mogadishu. Scores of others were injured. Families of those injured during political protests often did not take their wounded to hospitals for fear of arrest. From the end of November to the end of the year, more than 150 people died in Mogadishu, mainly as a result of fighting between two clans, the Abgal and the Galgalo. The Abgal accused the Galgalo of attacking them at the government's instigation. In addition, many civilians died from shots fired from passing cars belonging to the army and security agencies.

Many embassies reduced their staff, restricted the movement of those who remained, and advised their citizens not to visit Somalia. Insecurity in Mogadishu forced thousands of people to seek a measure of peace in the refugee camps in Ethiopia. The government's ability to mobilize its forces against the USC was strained by the growing defections from the army of both officers and rank-and-file soldiers; many joined one of the armed rebel movements.

The war in the north, which broke out in May 1988 between the government and the Somali National Movement (SNM), continued unabated in 1990. In addition, the insurgencies that began in 1989 in the central region, led by the USC, and in the south by the Somali Patriotic Front, intensified and led to massacres of unarmed civilians by the army. The heavy fighting created such a level of insecurity that most aid agencies pulled out of Somalia, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced within the country beyond the reach of international assistance and observation. Hunger and disease also took their toll on the civilian population. The war has destroyed the country's infrastructure – which was limited to begin with – and the displaced face food shortages, inadequate shelter and the absence of medical facilities. Refugees, mainly from the north, continued to flee to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen to escape the insecurity in Somalia. International assistance to Somali refugees in Ethiopia and Djibouti became increasingly inadequate as more people fled.

The government's counterinsurgency strategy continued to draw no distinction between civilians and armed insurgents. Targeting the nomads who make up an overwhelming majority of the country's population, the army and pro-government militias sought either to punish them for their presumed support of the rebel movements or to discourage them from providing any such assistance. In Belet-Weyne, Kismayo, Bosaaso, Burao, Loya'ade and other towns and villages, the army killed unarmed civilians, destroyed their livestock and water-reservoirs, and looted and burned their homes and warehouses. This repression has encouraged the civilian population to arm itself and to form militia groups. The increasingly militarized situation throughout country, as well as the government's lack of effective control over much of the territory, rendered the government's promise to hold multiparty elections largely meaningless.

US Policy

From 1978 until 1989, the United States was Somalia's most important ally, and a significant source of economic and military assistance. The relationship was cemented during the Somali war with Ethiopia in which the Soviet Union switched its alliance from Somalia to Ethiopia. The provision of military, economic and diplomatic support, accompanied by a decision to refrain from public criticism of human rights abuses, was rationalized by the need to protect US interests in this strategically located country. Those interests include a naval facility for the US Central Command at the port of Berbera as well as military and electronic facilities elsewhere. Even after war broke out in the north in May 1988, the Reagan administration continued to provide military assistance and to defend the regime against a US Congress that was increasingly critical of the government's human rights record and its conduct of the war.

In 1989 and 1990, however, the Bush administration began to disengage significantly from Somalia, and the change in its policies were as dramatic as they were welcome. This was in large measure the result of pressure from Congress, which demanded the disengagement on human rights grounds, as well as of the realization that the government was disintegrating. The end of Cold War rivalries also reduced Somalia's significance to the United States.

The erosion of confidence in the Somali army apparently prompted the United States to cancel "Operation Brightstar" naval exercises in September 1989; the exercises were not rescheduled in 1990. The ten-year Berbera agreement granting access to these facilities expired at the end of 1990.

The Persian Gulf crisis renewed fears that Somalia's strategic location would encourage the Bush administration to overlook Somalia's human rights record and strengthen ties to the government, but the crisis did not appear to have influenced administration policy toward Somalia. By the end of 1990, the administration had announced no plans to use the Berbera base, which in any event had less strategic significance as a jumping point to the Persian Gulf in light of the massive deployment of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Nor, in light of the turmoil in Somalia, did the port present itself as an inviting spot for rest and relaxation for troops on leave.

In a reflection of the administration's dissatisfaction with the government of Mohamed Siad Barre, there were no new Economic Support Funds or military assistance granted in fiscal years 1989 or 1990. A once large USAID mission has been scaled down to two people whose purpose is to close down old programs. All projects, including development programs, have been suspended. By contrast, US economic aid for 1988 totaled about $30 million.

Aside from human rights considerations, the provisions of the "Brooke Amendment" also made Somalia ineligible for new aid beginning in January 1990 because the government was in arrears on its international debt. But even in the unlikely event that the government were able to repay its debts, Congress placed strict limits on aid to Somalia in the Foreign Aid Appropriations bill for fiscal year 1991, which President Bush signed into law on November 7, 1990. No provision was made for military aid or Economic Support Funds, and all other assistance to Somalia was placed on a "reprogramming basis," meaning that Congress must be informed before any disbursement of development aid goes forward.

State Department officials issued a number of public statements in 1990 either protesting government abuses or criticizing the government's conduct of the war. For example, on July 11, The State Department condemned the killings in the soccer stadium:

According to reports we have received from Mogadishu, troops inside the stadium fired shots into the air after a crowded soccer match became unruly. The crowd rushed out of the stadium and was fired upon by troops outside. The troops inside then also opened fire on the crowd. President Siad Barre was inside the stadium and he had delivered a speech just before the incident occurred.

We deplore the continuing violence in Somalia. We call upon the government, as we have done in the past, to establish control over its own forces and to take political steps necessary for national reconciliation.

In August, the State Department publicly protested, both in Mogadishu and in Washington, a massacre in Berbera in which the army shot dead 17 Isaak men and critically wounded two others in front of a restaurant in the center of town on August 16, in retaliation for attacks against government personnel and property by the SNM.

The Work of Africa Watch

In January 1990, Africa Watch published a 268-page report on the war in northern Somalia, which had broken out in May 1988. By the beginning of 1990, an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 had been killed and nearly half a million had fled the country, the majority for Ethiopia. Entitled A Government at War with Its Own People: Testimonies About the Killings and the Conflict in the North, the report was based on research and interviews with newly arrived refugees in August 1989 in Djibouti and from June to October 1989 in England and Wales, where a sizeable refugee community had also gathered. The report provided eyewitness accounts of the human rights abuses that preceded the outbreak of war, and examined the conduct of the war by government forces and SNM insurgents.

In July 1990, Africa Watch issued a press release on the massacre of over 100 unarmed civilians at a soccer stadium in Mogadishu. In August, Africa Watch issued a press release drawing attention to the August 16 massacre in Berbera. A 30-page newsletter published in September exposed the superficiality of the government's "improvements" and documented a wide range of recent government abuses, including several massacres of unarmed civilians and the detention and torture of political opponents.

Africa Watch published an article in the November edition of Africa Events underlining the limitations of the government's campaign of reform. An article in The Christian Science Monitor, also in November, drew attention to the plight of Somali refugees in Ethiopia and the displaced within Somalia, particularly the deliberate denial of food by the government to the displaced. And an article by Africa Watch in December, describing the acceleration and abuses of the war in Mogadishu, appeared in The Guardian of London.

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