Ali Mahdi Mohamed 1940–
Ali Mahdi Mohamed 1940–
The Roots of Armed Struggle
For quite some time, Somalia has been a nation in chaos. Anarchy rules as armed citizens use brute force to survive. Children die for lack of proper food and medicine. Humanitarian aid and the military presence of the United States Army have not helped to restore an efficient government. The situation in this African country has been compared to that of America during the lawless days of the Wild West.
Somalia’s nominal president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, has fought to retain his precarious position since being named interim president by the United Somali Congress (USC) in January of 1991. According to the U.S. State Department, neither the United States nor any other government recognizes Ali Mahdi as the official leader of Somalia, but his presence as a contender for succession to the helm of a legitimate national government cannot be denied. A former businessman from the capital city of Mogadishu, Ali Mahdi commands some 4,000 troops and actually controls only a small portion of northern Mogadishu. Since taking power he has faced almost constant opposition from another powerful Somali military leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Each man claims to be the ruler of Somalia, and their inability to reconcile is one of the primary forces destabilizing the nation. New York Times reporter Jane Perlez called Aidid and Ali Mahdi “the strongmen of Somalia’s chaotic, clan-based society, each with the ability to call on more fighters, money and ammunition than anyone else in the land.”
The country at stake in this pitched battle is an east African coastal nation that juts out into the Indian Ocean and is bordered on the north by the Gulf of Aden. While never particularly prosperous, Somalia has provided a subsistence living for its six million inhabitants from farming and herding of cattle and camels. For more than two decades the nation was run by dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and members of his clan. Siad Barre and those in his inner circle enjoyed an opulent lifestyle at the expense of the ordinary citizen, and some observers feel that Ali Mahdi and General Aidid are attempting to achieve that kind of economic and political control for themselves; at the very least, each one accuses the other of holding that goal.
Many African nations contain tribes of people with different languages and cultures. Somalia is an exception. Almost all of its citizens speak the same language, Somali, and share the same religion, the Sunni branch of Islam. Legend says the entire populace descends from a mythical founder named Samaale. Ironically, the uniting factors of language and religion have been offset by a complicated system of clan loyalty,
Born in 1940 in Mogadishu, Somalia; member of Abgal sub-clan of the Hawiye clan, based in Mogadishu. Education: Completed teacher training courses in Somalia and community health training in Egypt and Italy, 1963–66.
Somali Ministry of Health, head of malaria control program during the late 1960s; became active in Somali politics; elected deputy for Jowhar, Benadir region, 1969; imprisoned by President Siad Barre, October 1969; owner of the Maka al Mukarama Hotel, Mogadishu; former UNICEF director; named interim president of Somalia by faction of the United Somali Congress (USC), January 29, 1991; sworn in, August 18,1991.
Addresses: c/o Office of East African Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2201 C St. N.W.,Washington, DC 20520.
with six major clan groups divided into numerous sub-clans and extended families. This loyalty to a small clan unit once contributed to social stability in Somalia, as clan elders ran their communities and united for common causes. Tragically, the clan system has not provided a workable solution for the current social deterioration in Somalia.
Since Somalia is a coastal country, it has played host to European and Arabic colonizers who ruled with varying degrees of severity. In the nineteenth century, the country was divided between a British protectorate in the north and an Italian protectorate in the south. The Italians controlled most of Somalia into the twentieth century.
The Roots of Armed Struggle
In the late 1950s, the United Nations engineered independence for Somalia. The former British and Italian colonies were united under one government that became the country of Somalia on July 1,1960. Under its first constitution, Somalia had a parliamentary government consisting of a president, a prime minister, and a national assembly. Somali citizens elected the president and the members of the assembly. One of the early members of the Somali parliament was Ali Mahdi Mohamed. He lived in Mogadishu and was a member of the Abgal sub-clan and the Hawiye clan. The Abgal people comprised the merchant middle class in Mogadishu and retained power and prestige by maintaining strong family ties. For his part, Ali Mahdi ran a posh hotel whose clients included heads of state and members of the British royal family.
In 1969, the second president of Somalia was assassinated as part of a military coup. When the coup ended, General Mohamed Siad Barre became president, backed by the military and police forces. Siad Barre consolidated his power with help from the former Soviet Union. The Somali parliament was eventually disbanded and opposition parties were declared illegal. Throughout the mid-1970s, Ali Mahdi maintained his hotel business and began working with his fellow Hawiye clansmen to undermine the Siad Barre regime.
The process was dangerous and frustrating. Siad Barre imported sophisticated weaponry from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and sent his deputies there for military training. The dictator instituted a “One Somalia” policy dedicated to ending clan loyalties, but he also used the entrenched clan system to create friction between groups that might oppose him. He was more successful in stirring clan rivalries than he was in curbing the clan system. Africa Report correspondent Richard Greenfield noted that as the 1980s progressed, Siad Barre “was increasingly driven back [by] unpopular and unrealistic reliance on his own small Marehan clan… He also came to rely more and more on his wider family, including his in-laws and those of his clansmen who were military men rather than politicians or bureaucrats.”
Human rights violations in Somalia increased dramatically as Siad Barre attempted to hold onto power. In one instance, a 1988 revolt by the Isaaq clan in the north led to indiscriminate aerial bombing of the town of Hargeisa. Many of the buildings there still have not been repaired. Countrywide, more and more businesses came under the control of mafia-like clan-based cartels. Government corruption was widespread, and a portion of each foreign aid and development donation sent to Somalia fell into private pockets. When the Soviet bloc withdrew support for the Siad Barre regime, the dictator begged for help from the United States.
By 1990, Siad Barre’s own brutal tactics began to backfire. Greenfield wrote: “Regardless of clan affiliation, there developed an absolute consensus that change had to be brought about and that Siad had to go.” By spring of the same year, Ali Mahdi and more than 100 other prominent Somalis signed an open letter denouncing the existing regime. Ali Mahdi’s urban Hawiye clan helped to fuel the opposition, providing both fighters and equipment for a revolution. “In the capital, demonstrations, explosions, looting—mainly by Barre’s own guard—and indiscriminate killings became commonplace,” Greenfield continued. As the situation deteriorated, prosperous Somali citizens fled, refugees poured into neighboring African nations, and famine loomed.
Ali Mahdi was not trained as a military leader, but he lent his considerable political and economic muscle to the United Somali Congress (USC), a rebel group composed primarily of Hawiye clansmen. In January of 1991, the USC managed to bring the rebellion against Siad Barre right into Mogadishu. The dictator attempted a last, desperate defense by shelling the city, destroying homes at random and killing scores of citizens. This final act of casual brutality inflamed the populace, and on January 26, Siad Barre fled for his life as a mob attacked and ransacked his compound.
The death toll reached 20,000 as mobs looted the city, the deserted embassies, and the seaport installations. “As the city descended into complete anarchy, looting became a way of life and a means of survival for thousands of people with their plethora of newly acquired weapons, carried openly on the streets,” observed Peter Biles for Africa Report. “Weeks after Barre had fled and the USC had established a caretaker government, I saw booty still being carted away by men pushing rickety wheelbarrows, piled high with every moveable asset, including on one occasion, the proverbial kitchen sink.” Biles added: “What future awaits a nation which was plundered by its own people, torn apart by years of civil strife and insolvable inter-clan rivalries, and which has lost all strategic interest to the superpowers?”
The first step the USC took to restore order was to name Ali Mahdi interim president of Somalia. The appointment was made only a few days after the ouster of Siad Barre and was accomplished without consultation with some of Somalia’s other armed political movements. At his installation ceremony, with his right hand on the Koran, Ali Mahdi swore “in the name of God Almighty to work without fear or favor in the interests of the Somali people,” as quoted in the Boston Globe. He invited the other rebel groups to join in running the country and promised to seek international aid to restore the shattered economy.
The tide of clan warfare could not be stemmed, however. Siad Barre loyalists continued to make trouble in the southern portion of Somalia. Some powerful rebel groups refused to support Ali Mahdi’s administration, while others supported him for a short term. Worse, the Hawiye clan itself split into factions, with fellow Hawiye Mohamed Farrah Aidid emerging as a military leader in armed opposition to Ali Mahdi. Whatever peace might have been possible was scuttled within months, as forces loyal to Ali Mahdi or Aidid battled in the streets of Mogadishu. Washington Post contributor Keith B. Richburg noted that the dual between Ali Mahdi and Aidid “has been brutally played out in the streets of the capital. They have carved up the city into warring camps. Artillery shells have wrecked streets and buildings. Burned-out and mangled cars litter largely empty highways. In the absence of any kind of authority, armed militias have taken to roaming the streets in jeeps outfitted with rockets, mortars and antiaircraft guns.”
Ali Mahdi found himself restricted to a region of Mogadishu only a few blocks wide as the fighting raged. His opponent could not press the advantage, however, because both sides were well-armed and motivated by self-interest. Several cease-fire attempts lasted for weeks or months at a time but eventually fell apart. In the meantime, Ali Mahdi was unable to enact any measures to curb the violence in Somalia’s countryside and the other major cities. “In the current tragedy of Mogadishu, it is difficult to tell between the president and the general who is the democrat and who the would-be dictator,” wrote Richburg.
Sporadic but intense fighting continued in Mogadishu throughout 1992 as Somalia plunged into famine. Ali Mahdi formed a coalition of rebel factions into an anti-Aidid alliance, but the stalemate continued. Efforts by the United Nations and the United States to unite the two warlords failed to provide a lasting settlement. As the months dragged on, neither leader could prove that his side had earned wide support in Somalia.
In Africa Report, Alex de Waal and Rakiya Omaar offered a reason for Ali Mahdi’s ineffectiveness as a leader. “Many members of opposition groups are interested essentially in control of the state, as governmental office amounts to a license to print money,” wrote the reporters. “Thus the interim government of President Ali Mahdi, while controlling only a few square miles of north Mogadishu, has a cabinet of over 80 ministers—each clinging to his fictitious position in the anticipation of having his hand in the honeypot if the government obtains recognition.”
Conditions in Somalia became so desperate by December of 1992 that then-U.S. President George Bush approved an American military operation with the objective of providing humanitarian aid. Operation Restore Hope began on December 9, 1992, and continued into 1993 in an attempt to save the lives of an estimated two million people at risk of starvation. Acting president Ali Mahdi welcomed the intervention by the United States and United Nations forces. He told Newsweek that he has been fighting for “the restoration of democracy and free elections,” adding, “Americans are the fathers of democracy, so I hope Somalis can become like Americans.”
“The world can provide short-term humanitarian aid to Somalia, but it cannot rebuild a nation that appears set on a path of self-destruction,” wrote Peter Biles in Africa Report as the crisis continued. “National reconciliation is proving more and more elusive, if not impossible.” Like all other would-be leaders in Somalia, Ali Mahdi faces the daunting task of reigning in a populace that has become accustomed to rule by lethal force. The chaotic violence, black marketeering, and clan rivalry that was nurtured throughout the Siad Barre regime has become a way of life. In spite of the fact that Ali Mahdi and Aidid announced in early 1993 an official end to the division of Somalia’s capital into separate sectors, few people, if any, seemed willing to lay their weapons down and forge peaceful solutions to the nation’s ills.
Then, in June of 1993, Aidid ordered an attack that left 23 UN peacekeepers from Pakistan dead and prompted fierce retaliation from UN troops. According to a Somali journalist quoted in Time, “The UN attacks [may] have made [Aidid] even more important as a spokesman for the Somalis against foreign aggression.” Still, the degree of public support for either Ali Mahdi or Aidid remained unclear.
Ali Mahdi himself had stated earlier in the Washington Post: “I don’t like to be president,” but he quickly added that his rivals want to be dictators in the Siad Barre mold. Ali Mahdi added that he will continue to try to establish himself as a recognized national leader, despite the obvious dangers of his position. He is not afraid. “As a Muslim,” he said, “I know my fate is predestined.”
Africa South of the Sahara: 1993, 22nd edition, Europa, 1992.
Africa Report, March-April 1991, pp. 14–18; May-June 1991, pp. 56–59; November-December 1991, pp. 35–37; January-February 1992, pp. 58–61; July-August 1992, pp. 31–33; November-December 1992, pp. 62–64; March-April 1993, pp. 21–28.
Atlanta Constitution, January 30, 1991, p. A3.
Boston Globe, January 30, 1991, p. 13; November 27, 1991, p. 10; July 21, 1992, p. 9.
Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 1991, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1991, p. A20; January 31, 1991, p. B6.
Newsweek, February 22, 1993, p. 37.
New York Times, October 4, 1992, p. 1.
Time, January 11, 1993, pp. 24–25; June 28, 1993, pp. 46–48.
Washington Post, January 11, 1992, p. A1.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the U.S. State Department.
—Anne Janette Johnson