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Safirka
Envoy to Somalia
by Peter Bridges

 

M
OHAMED SIAD BARRE DIED IN EXILE in Nigeria in January 1995. He was a ruthless man who deserves much blame for Somalia's sad fate. The civil war that dethroned him was a reaction against his latter-day rule, when he had surrounded himself with cronies and guards from his clan, the Marehan. He had excluded effective participation by other groups of clans, ignoring the democratic traditions of Somali pastoral society; his regime had become increasingly corrupt. Yet one must give him his due. Few leaders anywhere would have had the courage to expel thousands of Soviet advisers, many of them enmeshed in Somalia's police and military, as Siad did in 1978. Nor was he always the corrupt and cruel dictator of the years when I knew him. After the 1969 coup Somalia was run by a kind of coalition between Siad's military junta and a group of civilian professionals, which enjoyed considerable popular support. But this coalition ended in 1974-75 and Siad sent many men to prison, some for years. In early 1986 I got to know, and like, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, who had been prime minister when Siad seized power in 1969 and who had spent most of the years since then as a prisoner. At one point Siad had released Egal and sent him as ambassador to India. But, Egal told me, he was soon called back from New Delhi on consultation, and jailed again. Apparently Siad's Soviet advisers had "whispered in his ear" that Egal was plotting against him in New Delhi. Today, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal is president of the Somaliland Republic which, unrecognized by other governments, controls the northwestern parts of what used to be a single Somalia.
   We knew that the Labataan Jir prison, which the East Germans had built for Siad in a remote area, housed a number of political prisoners, many of them former top officials. I had no instructions to raise the subject, but did so anyway in the course of one of my long meetings with the president. I delivered a letter from President Reagan reiterating our strong support for Somalia. Siad was glad to have it. He began to complain of slanderers who spread lies; he particularly had it in for the BBC Somali service. I said I thought most people told the truth about Somalia. His government was widely credited for the way it had faced up to a huge refugee problem and a financial crisis which, as Mr. Reagan's letter had said, was not all of Somalia's making. But there was also the question of how Somalia's internal regime was viewed. Dissidents had invaded northern Somalia from Ethiopia, and the Somalis had repelled them. I knew that a number of civilians had then been executed. And there was a number of Somalis sitting in prison for political reasons. It was not for a foreign ambassador to tell a President how to run his country, but I thought he would want me to be frank. To be frank, the picture was not pleasant. I would only add that at a time when the world received daily reports about Mengistu's repressive regime in Ethiopia, Somalia could only benefit if it could demonstrate that things were different here.
   For all I knew this was the end of me in Somalia. Two of my friends had been expelled from Zaire for speaking frankly to Mobutu. But Siad replied simply that I did not understand. Of course there were dissidents, but he had put much effort into national reconciliation and the situation was much better. . . .
   I discussed political prisoners with a top Somali official one other time, in December 1985, again without instructions. (I reported to Washington in each instance what I had done; Washington did not demur.) We had heard that a number of former officials in Labataan Jir, including a well-known former foreign minister, Omar Arteh, might be put to death. I called on Ahmed Mohamed Adan, the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry, and told him that I had no instructions from Washington, but that the situation was of deep concern to the Reagan Administration—a slight exaggeration on my part—and I wondered what I could tell Washington beyond rumors. A day later Adan told me that "the responsible judge"—I wondered if that meant Siad Barre—had told him that the investigation was continuing and turning up new evidence of misdeeds. I wondered if I had hurt rather than helped these poor men; but I knew that at least one Arab ambassador had weighed in on their behalf, and I concluded that it was a good thing I had, too. Subsequently the men were sentenced to death, but then had their sentences commuted. In 1991, after Siad fled from Mogadishu, Omar Arteh became briefly the prime minister in Ali Mahdi's interim government. But he was from the northern Iraq group of clans, and soon decided there was no place for him in a Hawiye regime. He took a leading role along with Mohamed Ibrahim Egal in the northern Somaliland Republic.
   I did succeed in getting two Somali prisoners freed. Two of the Embassy's senior Somali employees had been arrested for defaming the president and faced ten- to fifteen-year terms. I sent our admirable consul, Christopher Costanzo, to see General Mohamed Jabril Musse, the head of the dreaded National Security Service, or NSS. Costanzo told Jabril that I believed the men were the victims of false charges; I wanted them released. Jabril said he had no reason to disbelieve the witnesses against them—one of them a Somali employee we had discharged for cause—but he finally agreed to release them.
   Relations with Siad and his officials were seldom easy, though I grew fond of a few of them like Raqiya Haji Dualeh Abdalla, a woman deputy minister who published, in London, the first book on the horrid practice of female circumcision and infibulation. Sometimes relations came to crisis. One evening Lou and Barbara Cohen offered a reception for all the Somalis whom we had trained in the United States. None came; the NSS had stationed men up the street to stop them. Our CIA station chief, who had excellent sources, learned that a minister had told the president that Cohen was organizing a pro-American political movement. And Siad had told the NSS to stop it. I saw the minister of the presidency and said I contemplated stopping all aid, civilian and military, until I had an explanation. I then reported what I had done to Washington, which backed me. Next evening the President invited me, Lou Cohen, and our other senior officers to dinner at Villa Somalia, to make up for the unauthorized action of some subordinate.
   Later Somalia resumed relations with Libya. We protested, to no avail. Reportedly Qadhafi had sent a huge bribe to Siad Barre and his foster-brother Jama Barre, the foreign minister. We knew that one of the Libyan "diplomats" who came to town had lately tried to plant a bomb in the American Club in Khartoum. I told Jama Barre that if any of our people were killed or injured and the Libyans seemed involved, I would stop all aid and go to Washington on consultations. I had instructed John Hirsch to do the same if I were killed. (As in the earlier case I then told the Department what I had done, and they agreed.) For the next few days a young police lieutenant accompanied me on my dawn run. More importantly, Jama Barre assured me he had warned the Libyans to stay clear of the Americans, and they did.


A
N AMBASSADOR NEEDS A GOOD DEPUTY and I had one in John Hirsch, who later became ambassador to another troubled country, Sierra Leone. John readily agreed when I told him that while I had no problem with the size of our civilian and military aid programs, our American staff was too large. I could send an American employee home for cause; I had no authority to cut positions. But I could stop further growth. John drafted a cable which I sent Washington, after sharing it with the heads of other Embassy elements. I said I saw no reason to beef up staff when there was no reason to believe any of our aid or other programs would grow. The security situation was uncertain, another reason to restrict our resident staff to only those people definitely needed. I would not permit any additional Americans to be assigned to Mogadishu. Nor were they, for as long as I was there.
   Mogadishu was known as one of our more difficult posts. In some ways the reputation was not deserved. Embassy housing was generally adequate, food supplies more than adequate. We had a skilled Embassy nurse and the half-time services of a young American doctor, and relatively few cases of serious disease, mainly dengue. There was a swimming pool and a club, and an American elementary school with good teachers. Yet our people were far from content. In part this had to do with security, not only the terrorism threat but plain burglary. In October 1984 Siad Barre had ordered an amnesty to celebrate fifteen years in power, and it put a lot of thieves back on the street. Beyond this, Somalis could be hard to get along with. It was not that they were puritanical Muslims; they were Muslims but few were puritanical. More important was a kind of ruthlessness which perhaps resulted from their harsh environment. The greatest Western scholar on Somalia listed, among Somali attributes, deeply-ingrained suspicion and open contempt for others.2 Mogadishu was a place where kids came up to a foreigner with hands out for bakshish and threw stones at him as he walked away. Some Americans and Somalis became good friends, but all in all, it was not a place where many of my staff felt at ease. In a few cases, psychological problems that might have remained minor at another post grew critical at Mogadishu, and we sent an American home.
   Clearly I was the father figure in the American community. Inwardly, I did not much care for the role of chief morale raiser. My wife and I had served at other difficult posts—Panama during the 1959 riots, Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Prague in the bleak 1970s after the Soviet invasion—and although we had ambassadors whom we respected and who provided good leadership, we basically took care of our own morale. Well, perhaps Mogadishu was different. I held periodic community meetings, and invited small groups of Americans to our house Thursday evenings after the Mogadishu work week ended. The sun would already be low in the sky, falling toward the western ridge in the city beyond us. As it fell its heat decreased; the monsoon blew cooler. At six came sunset, and soon we saw the sky turning dark eastward over the ocean, until the line between sea and sky was invisible and the bright stars came out. Who would want to be anywhere else? Too bad the feeling did not last.
   I made many Somali acquaintances and became better known around town than I had realized until, one morning on my dawn run, I rounded a corner and a teenager called to me "Warhaye, Peter!" I made few friends I felt I could trust completely. This was a police state and I had to assume that what I said would reach Siad Barre. There were exceptions, one of them a well-placed man who came, like Siad Barre himself, from the largest family of clans, the Darod. My friend was part of a small circle of well-placed Darod people who, the president was informed, met to discuss ways to advance particular Darod interests. The secret fact was that they were discussing how to create a better, democratic Somalia once Siad was gone. My friend believed, and it seemed reasonable to me, that the old Somali democratic tradition would reassert itself. Initially there would probably be some sort of junta headed by both civilians and military officers. One could hardly exclude the men who had the guns. But the post-Siad future should be brighter; and it did not seem Siad's rule would last very much longer. He had rebuilt a house at the air force headquarters adjacent to the airport, and now spent some nights there instead of at Villa Somalia. The reasonable assumption was that one night, but who knew when, he would flee the country.
    My friend and I were wrong; terribly wrong. We did not foresee what happened, not soon but five years later--Siad's flight not abroad but to the upper Juba valley, where he held out for months with his clan allies while the country fell apart and many, many thousands of Somalis died in civil war and famine.


I
TRAVELED ALL I COULD IN SOMALIA. My first trip to the north, the country of the Issak clans which until 1960 had been British Somaliland, came in early 1985.1 started at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. It was an old place, the Malao of the first-century Periplus, and it was squalid. I was lucky to stay at the camp of the M. W. Kellogg company, which had a Navy contract to rebuild and lengthen, for civilian and possible military use, the Soviet-built quay in the port. From Berbera I drove up to the largest northern city, Hargeisa, through the mile-high town of Sheikh, once the summer capital of the British Protectorate. It was from Sheikh that a reckless officer named Corfield had ridden out in 1913 with a mounted force in pursuit of the "Mad Mullah," Mohamed Abdallah Hassan, whom Somalis revere as the Said. The Said, who had declared a holy war against the British, was both a great fighter and a great poet. Corfield lost his life, and the Said wrote, "Now, Corfield . . . the valiant Dervishes have slain you . . . they have abandoned your rotting corpse, with its gaping dagger wounds, to the carrion-eaters. . . ."3
   Adan, the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry, had told me that while working for the British in Hargeisa in the 1950s he would often go walking in the woods above town. When I reached Hargeisa the woods had long since vanished, cut for firewood and charcoal for a population which had reached nearly half a million. I visited a ring of nearby refugee camps run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was caring for over a hundred thousand people. Many ethnic Somalis had fled Ethiopia in the 1977-78 war; many of the Somalis and Oromo people in these camps were new arrivals, fleeing Mengistu's program of forced resettlement which, we had heard, even his Soviet advisers thought unwise. These camps were competently run, but at the edge of Hargeisa I found a place called Gannet where forty thousand squatters were living in miserable shelters. It was not a UN camp; the people were there because the news had spread in the Ogaden that at Gannet was the food warehouse for the regular camps. Neither the Somalis nor the UN were caring for them. The rains were due in a month, and even if the drought continued in most of the country, there was sure to be rain at Hargeisa, five thousand feet above sea level. Gannet had no latrines; the people defecated on the ground; I foresaw a dysentery epidemic. After I returned to Mogadishu we pressured the refugee managers to act. Before they did, rain and disease came to Gannet. Not just dysentery, but cholera; over a thousand people died.


B
OTH IN 1985 AND 1986, MOST OF SOMALIA HAD SUFFICIENT RAINS. For now the drought was broken. This did not keep the Somalis from calling what they advertised as a major conference on the drought emergency. A European Community commissioner came from Brussels and the Somalis flew him inland to Belet Weyn to see the parched countryside. They were a little late in doing so. The plane was unable to land; the strip had been flooded by persistent rains. The conference brought no offers of additional aid from UN agencies or any government. The foreign minister spoke of "donor fatigue," but it was a case of my ambassadorial colleagues and me being unwilling to support Somali requests for drought relief like the one for new millions to fight cholera, when it was not drought, but the rains that were bringing cholera, and the international community was already shipping in what was needed. Drought and famine would someday return to Somalia. I hoped that before that happened the Somalis might start resolving their country's basic problems, more environmental and political than anything else. It was a faint hope.
   I never sailed on a dhow. I did sail on a U.S. Navy hydrographic ship, the USNS Harkness, almost to the Horn of Africa to see the great headland called Ras Hafun, where a British archaeologist had found Roman remains, where the Italians had produced a quarter-million tons of salt a year before World War II—and where some CENTCOM people dreamed of building a great American supply base. Fortunately, Washington agreed with me that it was a wild idea.
   In the spring of 1986, I was getting good marks for my work in Somalia, but I had decided to leave government. Mr. Reagan was doing no better by our country in his second term, and I thought I was still young enough to do other things. I went on one last trip, with Bill and Arlene Fullerton, to the northeast, which had not been visited by either of our embassies for several years. The Somalis were pressing both of us to provide more aid to the region and we wanted to see what the real needs were. Modest, it turned out.
   We also wanted to have some fun, if you could call it that. Fullerton and I wanted to make our way, by whatever means we could find, to Cape Guardafui, and stand on the very Horn of Africa, as perhaps no ambassador had ever done before. And we made it, by small plane and Land Rover and fishing boat and finally, the last several miles, on foot across a landscape of sand and marble. Then I came home to America. I left Somalia sorry that I would never go back to that poor country of brilliant sunlight.
   Well, I did return; but that is another story.

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END NOTES

1. See "The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia," by Wolfgang Achtner in the Washington Post, January 24, 1993. The last Italian ambassador to Somalia, Mario Sica, who arrived there in 1990, gives a defensive account of Italy's aid programs in his Operazione Somalia (Venice: Marsili Editori, 1994) .

2. I. M. Lewis, Somali Culture, History and Social Institutions (London: School of Economics and Political Science, 1981), 39-40.

3. Translation by Abdi Sheik-Abdi in Divine Madness (London: Zed Books, 1993), 77.

Note: This article appeared in a slightly different form under the title "Safirka: The Envoy in Somalia," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1998, pp. 1-21. Published with permission.

© Copyright 1997 by Peter Bridges.

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