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The Warrior Tradition and Development of a Modern Army

Historically, Somali society accorded prestige to the warrior ( waranle--see Glossary) and rewarded military prowess. Except for a man of religion (wadaddo) (wadad; pl., wadaddo--see Glossary), and they were few in number, all Somali males were considered potential warriors. As a result, a culture of military readiness flourished throughout a long history of foreign invasion, colonial occupation, domestic conflict, and wars with neighboring countries.

Warfare always had been an important factor in relations with outsiders such as the Ethiopian Christians and the Oromo and even with other Somali clans. The lack of modern weapons, however, prevented the Somalis from successfully resisting the imposition of European colonial rule. Antagonists in intra-Somali conflicts generally belonged to groups bound by their commitment to pay or receive diya. Because the entire group would be considered responsible for paying diya to compensate for damages inflicted, and would receive diya for its own losses, a war would begin only with the unanimous approval of its likely participants. A meeting of the elders of the warring groups was the usual means of restoring peace. The elders would determine which group was responsible for starting the war and would decide compensation, usually livestock, for damages incurred. The group judged responsible for starting the war normally would be the only one fined unless it emerged the victor. In a jihad (holy war) against infidels and in most conflicts against non-Somalis, such rules would not apply.

The number of warriors who belonged to each party traditionally determined the strength of rival clans and diya-paying groups. However, after the introduction of firearms in the Horn of Africa in the late nineteenth century, firepower became the primary determinant. Although Somalis may have used matchlock guns as early as the sixteenth century, firearms became numerous in the region only in the 1890s, when various European nations and arms merchants began supplying them to Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. Shipped through the port of Djibouti, some of these weapons fell into Somali hands and came into use against the Ethiopians and the British in Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hasan's 1899-1920 jihad. After 1920 the Italian and British colonial governments pursued a policy of disarming Somali nomads. For several years before independence, however, nomads frequently were more heavily armed than the colonial forces responsible for maintaining public order.

In 1884 Britain declared a protectorate over northern Somaliland. During its first sixteen years, the colonial administration relied on naval landing parties, detachments from the Aden garrison, and a small local police force to maintain order. The emergence in 1900 of Mahammad Abdille Hasan (the "Mad Mullah") and his band of about 3,000 dervishes represented the first serious challenge to colonial rule in British Somaliland (see Mahammad Abdille Hasau's Dervish Resistance to Colonial Occupation, ch. 1). In response, the British deployed to Berbera the Central Africa Rifles, 2d Battalion, which included 16 British officers, 1 British warrant officer, 30 Sikh, and 862 African troops, to prevent Hasan from crossing into British Somaliland from his base in eastern Ethiopia.

After the battalion left Somalia in December 1900, Captain E.J.E. Swayne raised the Somali Levy, a force that included 1,000 infantry and 500 mounted men commanded by 20 British officers and 50 Punjabi havildars (drill instructors). Armed with Enfield rifles, swords, bayonets, and Maxim guns, the Somali Levy was one of the region's best trained military units. In 1901 the British redesignated the Somali Levy as the 6th King's African Rifles (KAR). They disbanded the unit in 1902, reactivated it in 1903, reorganized it in 1904, and converted it to an all-Indian unit in 1905, when the colonial administration started drafting Somalis into a new standing militia.

Between 1900 and 1904, the British launched four unsuccessful campaigns against Hasan. After 1904 Hasan moved to Italian Somaliland. When he returned to the British sphere in 1909, the colonial administration reinforced the 6th KAR with an Indian battalion; the standing militia and 300 police also supported military operations against Hasan. In 1910, after failing to defeat Hasan, the British relinquished control of the interior, withdrew to the coast, and disbanded the 6th KAR and the standing militia.

For the next two years, British administrators in Somaliland argued for a more assertive policy. Finally, in June 1912 the British government approved the formation of the 150-man Camel Corps, which operated within an eighty-kilometer radius of Berbera to counter Hasan's hit-and-run tactics. There also were 320 Aden troops and 200 Indians from a disbanded contingent of the 6th KAR to support the Camel Corps.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, the British reorganized the protectorate's military establishment. The Camel Corps became the Somaliland Camel Corps. The British also increased the unit's size by enlisting 450 Somalis, with a 150- man Somaliland Indian Contingent in reserve. The authorities organized this force into two camel companies and one cavalry company; eighteen British officers seconded from the Indian and regular armies commanded the force. A 400-man Somaliland Indian Contingent (less 150 assigned to the Somaliland Camel Corps) and a temporary garrison of 400 Indian infantrymen completed the protectorate's military.

In 1920 a combined British land and air offensive--which included the Somaliland Camel Corps, Somaliland Police, and elements from the 2d and 6th KAR and an Indian battalion--finally defeated Hasan's army. Despite this defeat, many Somalis continued to hail Hasan as a warrior hero and the source of modern Somali nationalism. In 1923 the colonial authorities attached the Somaliland Camel Corps to the KAR. The unit, whose nucleus remained non-Somali, relied on Yao askaris (East African native soldiers) from the 1st KAR to fill its ranks. In the early 1930s, the Somaliland Camel Corps consisted of one camel and one pony company, both staffed by Somalis, and one Yao mechanized infantry company.

In 1940 Italian forces overran British Somaliland, which had been defended by the Somaliland Camel Corps and five British, Indian, and African battalions. Before withdrawing from Somaliland, the British disbanded the Somaliland Camel Corps. After defeating the Italians in 1941, the British reformed the Somaliland Camel Corps and created two battalions, the 71st and 72d (Somali) KAR battalions, both of which eventually were disbanded after World War II. In 1943 the colonial authorities converted the Somaliland Camel Corps into an armored car regiment. The following year elements in this unit mutinied; as a result, the British permanently disbanded the Somaliland Camel Corps.

The history of Somalia's postcolonial armed forces began in 1941, when the British formed an irregular force known as the Somali Prisoner of War Guards. The next year, the colonial authorities renamed the unit the Somali Companies; in 1943 the British redesignated the unit as the Somaliland Scouts. During the war, the British used this force to maintain lines of communication and patrol the colony's frontiers. After 1945 the Somaliland Scouts, which never belonged to the KAR, performed internal security duties. In 1960 the British assigned the Somaliland Scouts to Somalia's independent government; the unit subsequently formed the nucleus of the SNA.

On the eve of independence, the provisional government in the Italian-administered trust territory requested permission from the United Nations (UN) Trusteeship Council to establish a national army to protect its borders. The UN agreed and, a few months before independence, the provisional government created a small army from the Somali Police Force's Mobile Group (Darawishta Poliska--commonly known as the Darawishta). At the time the trust territory joined with British Somaliland to form the Somali Republic, troops from the Darawishta combined with those of the Somaliland Scouts to form the 5,000-man Somali National Army (SNA). Its first commander was Colonel Daud Abdullaahi Hersi, who had served in the Somalia Gendarmerie, the British Military Administration's police force. He was succeeded at his death in 1965 by Siad Barre.

Even before the 1969 coup, the SNA played a central role in the foreign policy process. Although the 1961 constitution renounced war as a means of settling international disputes, it also urged the amalgamation of Somali-inhabited territories in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya into a Greater Somalia. The government also deployed the SNA in support of Somali irredentism in Ethiopia.

The SNA was battle-tested in 1964 when the conflict with Ethiopia over the Somali-inhabited Ogaden erupted into warfare. On June 16, 1963, Somali guerrillas started an insurgency at Hodayo, in eastern Ethiopia, a watering place north of Werder, after Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie rejected their demand for self-government in the Ogaden. The Somali government initially refused to support the guerrilla forces, which eventually numbered about 3,000. However, in January 1964, after Ethiopia sent reinforcements to the Ogaden, Somali forces launched ground and air attacks across the Ethiopian border and started providing assistance to the guerrillas. The EAF responded with punitive strikes across its southwestern frontier against Feerfeer, northeaast of Beledweyne, and Galcaio. On March 6, 1964, Somalia and Ethiopia agreed to a cease-fire; at the end of the month, the two sides signed an accord in Khartoum, Sudan, agreeing to withdraw their troops from the border, cease hostile propaganda, and start peace negotiations. Somalia also terminated its support of the guerrillas.

Despite its failure to incorporate the Ogaden into a Greater Somalia, the SNA continued to enjoy widespread support. In the late 1960s, for example, most Somalis believed that the SNA was less influenced by clan divisions and corruption than the civilian sector. The military also had succeeded in integrating British- and Italian-trained units more rapidly than had civilian institutions. The armed forces, moreover, maintained contact with the people through civic action projects and public relations programs. An army-trained, quasi-military youth group called the Young Pioneers worked in several agricultural and construction projects connected with national development ventures.

The SNA's reputation soared during the early stages of the 1977-78 Ogaden War. After Ethiopia defeated Somalia, however, public support for the military waned. As opposition to Siad Barre's regime intensified, the SNA became more and more isolated. During the late 1980s, various international human rights organizations accused the armed forces of committing crimes against civilians, dissidents, and government opponents. Costly counterinsurgency campaigns in northern, central, and southern Somalia gradually sapped the military's strength. After Siad Barre fled Mogadishu in January 1991, the SNA ceased to exist. As of early 1992, although the SNM and the USC had announced their intention to reconstitute professionally trained national armies in their respective areas of operation--northern and south central Somalia, respectively, no progress had been made toward this goal. A lack of resources and expertise, however, would almost certainly prevent both groups from achieving their objectives over the short term.


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