Somalia: Sex, Power, and the Siad Barre Regime
By: Hassan M. Abukar
“Power was my weakness and my temptation.”
J.K Rowlings, Harry Potter and the
Two incidents intrigued me about Siad Barre, the man and the president. One related to him personally, and the other involved members of his government.
Barre (Courtesy: The Times, 10/22/1969)
In the early 1970s, some of the teenagers in my Isku-Raran neighborhood in Mogadishu told me a bizarre story. Because our neighborhood was mostly dark at night and did not have sufficient street lights, boys used to hang out in front of the old Somali Youth League Center which was well lighted. They said that after mid-night on several occasions they had met President Siad Barre driving his old Fiat 125. He would get out of his car and briefly chat with them. Barre, interestingly enough, was not tagged by a gaggle of bodyguards like he would be several years later. This time frame must thus have been either 1970 or 1971 when Barre was popular and hence had no organized opposition groups threatening his regime. The story made no sense to me, and I simply thought these boys were pulling my leg. After all, it was a well-known fact that Siad Barre conducted his official business at night, often summoning government officials and even foreign ambassadors to Villa Somalia. The American Ambassador in Somalia in the 1980s, Peter S. Bridges, actually wrote in his memoir, Safirka: An American Envoy, about Barre’s nocturnal and inconvenient way of doing business.
Barre’s habit of roaming around Mogadishu after midnight gave him the aura of a concerned leader checking on his subjects as they slept. It must have been the perfect picture: A Somali leader being seen as extra vigilant and making sure no harm befell his people. However, there was likely an ulterior motive for Barre’s odd outings in the dark of night.
In our neighborhood, there was a single mother with a daughter very close to my age. The family lived in a house across from old Sidow’s three-story building and a block from the Somali Youth League Center. Sidow, a man of some wealth, and his family occupied the second and third floors of his building, while the first floor was rented by a half-Arab woman named Zeinab, and her daughter and two sons. Zeinab’s husband, ironically, was none other than Barre’s arch nemesis, Yusuf Cismaan Samantar “Bardacad,” Somalia’s renowned communist leader, who spent 18 years of Barre’s 21-year reign in detention.
The single mother and her daughter, who will remain nameless for privacy reasons, kept a low profile. The girl truly was well behaved and no one knew her father or had seen him in the neighborhood. However, immediately after Siad Barre came to power, the woman suddenly declared that her daughter’s father was President Barre. She and Barre belonged to the same clan, but the claim that Barre had a wife other than his officially known two wives, Khadija and Dallaayad, was indeed news. It turned out that Barre had fathered the girl and most likely the short union was “Qudbi-Sireed,” (a secret marriage) that had run its course.
Barre (Courtesy: Google Images)
In 1965, when the girl was four or five years old, Barre became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Four years later, he staged a coup and became the supreme leader of the country. His daughter, on the other hand, received paternity acknowledgment but did not fare as well as the children of Khadija and Dallaayad. Then, as the years passed, Barre was seldom, then never seen in our neighborhood again. Many parts of Isku-Raran were demolished to make way for a paved street, and Barre was beset by opposition groups some of which were peaceful and others violent. Many families moved to the new Wadajir District after our neighborhood was demolished, and I never heard of the woman and her daughter again.
The other incident also took place in the 1970s.
Three cabinet ministers had met, exchanged information and reached a curious consensus for their upcoming meeting with President Barre. Barre, by nature, was a suspicious man for whom conspiracy was always coiled and ready in his mind.
“We came to talk to you about an important matter,” they said.
Barre allowed them to proceed still ruminating on what the three were up to.
“We have a grievance against one of our colleagues, a government minister,” they replied.
Barre, relieved that the complaint was not about him, asked the name of the said minister.
“It is so and so [they mentioned a name].”
Barre became slightly agitated and asked them to explain the nature of the problem.
Then, they delivered stunning news. One spoke in an embarrassed tone and said that the minister in question was messing with their wives.
“What? “Barre screamed.
“Yes, he is having affairs with our wives,” said one. “We are helpless.”
Barre was shocked by the allegation against the minister who had carved out a reputation of being loyal and obsequious to him. He knew the accused minister was sleazy, brash, and an inveterate womanizer, but the fact that he was raiding the wives of three other ministers was groundbreaking.
“Do you have any complaint against the minister other than philandering?” Barre asked.
“No,” they all replied.
Barre had heard enough and, instead of taking the matter under advisement, he spun into a rage barking: “Get out of my office.”
This true story was related to me by a former high-ranking government official who was privy to the gathering. Interestingly, the three complainers and their accused minister all had a falling out with Siad Barre in the 1980s.
Barre cared about only one thing, absolute loyalty to him. He put a premium on how trustworthy and loyal a government minister was to him. Sexual impropriety, for him, was child’s play. Any other leader would have initiated an internal investigation to put a stop to such brazen and unbecoming acts. At a minimum, these sexual exploits obviously hurt the morale of these other officials.
Poet Togane (Courtesy:
I had seen the three complainers and they were not handsome. However, I went to school with a daughter of one of them, and she was a dazzling beauty. She was close to how the Somali poet Togane described a young Somali woman in Toronto:
“A stunningly beautiful nubile comely lass.
A Marin brunette bombshell Traffic Stopper.
A real looker.”
I can confidently attest that this girl got her exceptional good looks from her mother.
Regarding the accused minister, he was indeed handsome and charming, but shallow, and a man who lacked any moral compass. He was one of those men who could charm birds out of their trees. When I asked this minister, while doing research on another topic, about the incident, initially he did not want to dredge up the past. He acted as though he were in a rather contemplative mood and then looked at me and smiled. “It is true,” he said reluctantly.
“Why?” I inquired.
He gave me a pointed and honest answer.
“Power,” he answered. “I had power and money.”
The accused also mentioned that Barre had summoned him and shared with him what had transpired in that emblematic meeting. He did not even get a slap on the wrist, and furthermore, to his amazement, Barre took notorious delight in poking fun at the three complainers. The president, according to the minister, could not fathom that the three had no qualms about depicting their wives in less than a flattering light.
Two of the three complainers, who are no longer with us, were not angels themselves; they had skeletons in their closets. They were involved in infidelities and had broken the hearts of their wives before this incident. There is no doubt that powerful men, at times, attract women of unsavory character who are gold diggers. When Barre jailed one of the complainers for suspicion of disloyalty, the latter’s wife abandoned him. When asked why she did not stand by her imprisoned husband, she was terse in her reply: “I married a minister, not a prisoner.”
The remaining complainer was, in all fairness, a family man and is still semi-active in Somali politics. He has, though, remained permanently wounded by the incident and developed an animosity of the utmost intensity toward the accused minister to the point of obsession. Until today, he never misses an opportunity to criticize the tenure of the accused minister in Barre’s government. At times, his lashings are harsher than his criticism of Barre, the dictator and boss of the accused.
President Sukarno of Indonesia
Sex and political power have always been stitched to each other. There are more sexual scandals in political circles than is widely known. However, different countries handle these scandals differently. I was shocked by how President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky affair was handled. Clinton, of course, lied under oath about the affair and the House of Representatives impeached him on perjury and obstruction of justice. The “abuse of power” charge failed in the House. What was interesting was that Clinton was not treated as someone above the law. In fact, in a deposition, he was commanded to undress so he could be checked based on something in the evidence. In many countries, such an invasive investigative procedure on the leader of the country would be unfathomable. In closed societies like Somalia in the 1970s, sexual scandals were best swept under the rug. There were grander goals, such as building the country and defending the Motherland, that were more important than investigating the crimes of moral turpitude.
In the 1960s, one story had it that the KGB sent some Russian women to the Indonesian dictator, Sukarno, who was on a state visit in Moscow. The goal was to blackmail him with pictures taken of the Indonesian in compromising situation. When the images were shown to Sukarno, the Soviet agents were in for a big surprise. The dictator was contemptuous and sarcastic and told them, “I like this picture and I like that one.” Then, he made a startling request: “Can I have a copy of these pictures? My people back home will be proud of me.”
Hassan M. Abukar