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Labo Isma Saarin: Memoir of An Armed Struggle: A Book Review

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa
Author: Hussein Khalif Jama
Language: Somali
Publisher: Ciid Publisher
Pages: 300
Publication date‏: ‎2021

What drives a young medical student to take up arms against his government? This is the central question explored by Labo Isma Saarin, a memoir by Hussein Khalif Jama, a former official of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the first liberation movement to mobilize against Siad Barre’s military dictatorship, setting in motion a series of events that would culminate in the collapse of the state in 1991. Hussein recounts what motivated him to join SSDF and to abandon it 5 years later, the establishment and evolution of the rebel group, its triumphs, and its eventual collapse.

A Rebel is Born

When Hussein graduated from high school, he decided to join the police force, which had a good reputation at the time. Six months into cadet officer training, he resolved to leave the academy after seeing many young men who could barely read or write join despite the fact that the minimum requirement was a high school certificate. He was shocked and grew demoralized by the unchecked nepotism and the lack of professionalism he observed in the security institution. Finally, Hussein took the advice of one of his instructors at the academy who advised him to leave, warning: “If you remain here, these new recruits who are barely literate will be promoted above you and soon, you will be taking orders from them”. Discouraged, he left the academy and joined medical school.

In 1978, when a coup attempt led by Colonel Mohamed Osman Irro was foiled, the government brutally persecuted Irro’s clansmen, which included Hussein’s family. The government only targeted and killed perpetrators from Hussein’s clan (the Majeerteen), while releasing suspects from other clans so as to portray the coup as being staged only by members of the Majeerteen clan. While most were summarily executed, a few of Irro’s co-conspirators fled the country and formed a rebel movement in adjacent Ethiopia. Up until that point, Hussein had been an apolitical youth, but while planning to go to practice for professional basketball one night, his friend told him that the government would kill Hussein’s cousins the following day. That same night, aged 21, Hussein made the fateful decision to join the struggle to overthrow Barre’s autocratic regime and left the only country he had ever known for the hinterlands of Ethiopia.

Hussein was one of the first 200 enlisted in Somalia’s first rebel group. The gross injustice meted out against Hussein’s clan caused many people including politicians, teachers, and students, to massively join the rebellion. Most notably, Barre’s government indiscriminately attacked civilians in the Mudug and Nugaal regions, carrying out gross human rights violations including the destruction and poisoning of water reservoirs, the rape of women and girls, and widespread looting, among other abuses.

The author argues that it was thus not accidental that SSDF was predominantly led and concentrated by one clan; the government’s scorched earth policy specifically targeted Majeerteen people and lands, and so it was only natural for this community to mobilize against this clan-based injustice. The same can be said of later rebel groups such as the Somali National Movement (SNM) which was formed in response to the government’s targeting of the Isaaq clan which faced human and material destruction at an industrial scale, actions that the author believes led to desires for secession from Somalia.     

Breaking Codes and Beating Barre: The Rise of SSDF

Hussein discusses one of the early successes of the rebels: breaking the code of the Somali National Army and giving the rebels access to sensitive information about the army’s movements and plans. SSDF also invested in public awareness campaigns; the opening of Radio Kulmis played a significant role in attracting and mobilizing hundreds of young men to join the rebellion. Hussein recalls the interesting programs of Mustafe Haji Nur, a former BBC Somali reporter, the satirical short story of Laaska Daawada (The Pond of Medicine) by Hirsi Magan Isse, the powerful poetry of Khalif Sheikh Mohamud, and the preaching of Sheikh Abdullahi Moalim. This activism drew the attention of people back home who were inundated with regime propaganda. At 9:00 pm, people secretly tuned into Radio Kulmis programs in their homes, fearing that the Victory Pioneers (Guulwadayaal) would arrest them for listening to ‘enemies of the state’.

The rebels waged many wars including the over-running of Goroyo-Awl base near Boroma in 1980, but the biggest wins were the capture of the cities of Galdogob and Balanbale, with the support of Ethiopia. The author argues that they wanted to capture those cities several times, but their Ethiopian hosts refused before eventually allowing them. After researching the reasons Ethiopia allowed them to attack and capture those cities, Hussein concluded that there were two reasons for this change in policy: reason number one was strategic in that Mengistu Haile Mariam wanted to capture those cities and then claim they belonged to Ethiopia to force Somalia to make concessions, such as ceding its claims to Hawd and Reserve Area. The other reason was to retaliate against the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which had attacked oil fields in Shilaabo, attacks that Ethiopia believed were organized from Balanbale.

Bloody Days in Galdogob…and A Generous Gaddafi

The heart of the book is the rebels’ combat and military operations. Interestingly, Hussein writes candidly about the operations they won, those they lost, and the wrongs committed by the rebels, including prisoners that were mistreated and innocent people that were wrongly kidnapped or killed. For example, he mentions that the insurgents killed innocent men from Siad Barre’s clan while the rebel leaders failed to prosecute those who actually committed crimes. When the rebels captured Galdogob, Hussein was dismayed by how the rebels pillaged the city, and by how the rebel leaders did nothing about these excesses. Hussein’s account is courageous as it is unprecedented in Somali culture to be so self-critical and acknowledge the crimes and atrocities committed during war.

He reveals that the rebels were operating on small arms and rations provided by Ethiopia, but their situation improved when they received military and financial support from Libya. They got Libya’s support, he asserts, because Somalia refused to cut ties with Egypt after the Camp David Accords, which angered Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Former President of South Yemen, Ali Nasir, paid a visit to Gaddafi and requested that he support SSDF which Gaddafi spontaneously accepted. The rebels’ leader, Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, then paid an official visit to Libya where he forged a strong relationship with Gaddafi.

Leadership Failures and the Beginning of the End

In the latter part of the book, Hussein grapples with the reasons for the movement’s inertia and its failures. He argues that the rebel leader, Chairman Abdullahi Yusuf, was not much better than dictator Siad Barre. The author reflects: “I couldn’t fathom bringing down a military dictatorship only to pave the path for another one.” Hussein recalls a rhetorical question posed by a doctor stationed with the rebels who asked Hussein: “What is the difference between Siad Barre and Abdullahi Yusuf, except for the fact that Abdullahi is our cousin?” He asserts that the Chairman was morphing into another authoritarian leader, rewarding loyal supporters, and punishing those who disagreed with him. He emphasizes that it became a modus operandi for the Chairman to replace any officer who disagreed with him with a newcomer who was enthusiastic for the struggle until he became an opposing voice.

Another reason for the failure of the rebels, he contends, is that the rebels were not led by civilians except for 6 months when Mustafe Haji Nuur led the group. He draws one important contrast between SNM and SSDF, asserting that the former was largely led by civilians and held regular elections while one military man was at the helm of SSDF for a long time. He notes that a general meeting was not held for many years, and when it was finally held in 1983, the Chairman packed his supporters. Hussein argues that this meeting was a major turning point and precipitated the decline of SSDF, which was reeling with internal political conflict. Hussein had a strong passion for the struggle and though he was not content with how things were going, he initially did not want to abandon the cause. He had dedicated 5 difficult years to the struggle and expected that a change for the better would come. When he realized the general meeting would not bring change, he finally left the rebels later that year in December 1983.

The Fall of SSDF

Following the consequential general meeting, SSDF members dissatisfied with its outcome organized a mutiny in 1984, resulting in the defection of many rebels to the Somali government. They deserted the struggle with their weapons and tanks in tow, inflicting a heavy blow to SSDF and hastening its military disintegration. SSDF finally collapsed when Chairman Abdullahi Yusuf was arrested in 1985 by the Ethiopian government.

The rebels protested his arrest, to which Ethiopia responded by disarming them and killing many who refused to lay their arms. Three civilian leaders succeeded Abdullahi. These were Mohamed Abshir Waldo, a graduate from the Columbia School of Journalism in the 1960s and former director of Radio Mogadishu, Hassan Ali Mire, a graduate from Princeton University in 1962 and the first Somali to earn a Ph.D., and former Minister of Education (1969-1970) and former Ambassador to Kuwait and Egypt, Muse Islaan. Nevertheless, the civilian leaders were not able to avert the demise of the insurgent movement. The reason, Hussein contends, was that many of the rebels were supportive and loyal to ex-chairman Abdullahi and refused to take instructions from the civilian leaders.

Between Ethiopian and Libyan Interests

In his 2011 book, Struggle and Conspiracy – A Memoir, Abdullahi Yusuf claims that he was arrested due to his defiance of Goshu Wolde, former Ethiopian Foreign Minister who claimed Galdogob and Balanbale belonged to Ethiopia. Author Hussein debunks Abdullahi’s claim by showing that Abdullahi’s response to Wolde and his detention was one year apart. Further, Hussein details that he interviewed Goshu Wolde in his home in Maryland, USA. He asked him about his reasons for stating that Galdogob and Balanbale belonged to Ethiopia. Wolde explained that this was for local consumption; he added that his statement was not the official government policy and  Mengistu asked him to retract his statement. Hussein asked Wolde if Abdullahi’s disagreement with him was what prompted him to jail him to which he firmly responded, “No”. 

Hussein went on to query him about what had gone wrong with the movement and caused its collapse. “The reason for SSDF’s failure is you were caught in a fight between an Arab leftist government led by Libya and other African countries regarding the recognition of Western Sahara,” he told Hussein. The relationship between Libya and Ethiopia had soured to a low point after a disagreement on Western Sahara and SSDF was caught between a rock and a hard place: choose between Ethiopia, which provides a military base, and Libya which provides financial and military support.

Reflecting on the Rebels 40+ Years Later

Why couldn’t the SSDF and SNM rebels unite to form a single front to fight their common enemy: dictator Siad Barre? Hussein highlights that SSDF had several meetings with SNM leaders where SSDF invited SNM to join them, but SNM refused, arguing that they wanted to stand on their own feet as a separate entity. Hussein adds that SNM was divided into two groups: a group that wanted secession from Somalia and another group that wanted unity. Hussein also explains that Ethiopia’s position was that no additional rebel groups should be established in Ethiopia. When SSDF challenged Ethiopia on this, Ethiopia responded that “it is important that SNM put blood on their hands first” and show that they were serious about fighting Barre’s government before SSDF unites with them. In hindsight, Hussein believes that Mengistu was operating on a secret plan to divide Somalia, which is why he worked to ensure that SNM would never join SSDF.

Could the war between the rebels and the government that led to the Somali state’s disintegration have been avoided? Hussein contends that the ball was wholly in the government’s court. If they had genuinely negotiated with the opposition and reached a settlement with rebel groups, perhaps the country could have been saved from mayhem and destruction. Instead, Barre’s junta chose forceful suppression and treated them as a handful of traitors who did not deserve to be spoken with; similarly, the government-controlled media ignored them as though they did not exist. Hussein closes his engrossing memoir with some cautionary words: taking up arms against the government is less than desirable, but citizens must not be forced to do so (to salvage their dignity and freedom).

 Labo Isma Saarin is the first book of its kind about SSDF and took the author 25 years to write. Hussein has documented an important part of Somalia’s history for posterity, taking the reader through the key events that led to the collapse and implosion of the Somali state. It is an unflinching account about the dangers of state oppression and the subjugation of people, the hopes and dreams, highs and lows among freedom fighters, and the horrors of warfare. Most unprecedented, Hussein records this history without the bias, self-adulation, and clan-centric heroism that is typical of most Somali rebel writers. It is also written with great eloquence, weaving together fascinating tale after tale. Labo Isma Saarin is a good reference text for researchers and students of Somali history and African rebel movements, on which very few books have been written.

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa 

Issa is a student  of Somali History, culture, society and politics. His interests also include governance and development in fragile and post conflict contexts. He can be reached at  [email protected]

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