|Zooming into the Past|
is a scoundrel and a rascal
[Interview with Somali President Mohamed Siyaad Barre by Stefano Malatesta in Mogadishu]
[Excerpts] Mogadishu - Entering Villa Somalia, Somali President Mohamed Siyaad Barre's residence, even when you are expected, is always somewhat unpredictable. You therefore have to be very cautious. The handpicked members of the presidential guard, trained by German antiterrorist experts, have orders to shoot at the slightest suspicious movement. A short time ago a minister was welcomed with a hail of machine gun fire because his car had driven too casually through the main entrance gate. Our car therefore drove at walking pace, and stopped outside the entrance, waiting for a tough but indolent junior guard to deign to inspect us.
The president was wearing dark glasses, and seemed rather tense. We therefore adopted a cautious approach and tried to give the interview the high tone of international politics, before turning to the controversy over aid. The first questions were about the very recent agreement between Somalia and Ethiopia. It is a very important agreement for the Horn of Africa, underestimated by the European newspapers, which makes provision for Somali and Ethiopian troops to withdraw to a line 15 km from the border, an end to all hostile propaganda and activity, the resumption of diplomatic relations, and an exchange of prisoners. Siyaad Barre recounted the lengthy preparations for the agreement and the difficulty of the initial contacts. He then told us about the sudden speeding up of the process a few weeks ago and the conclusion of the agreement.
According to diplomatic observers, the reasons why the process was speeded up are the victories won by Eritrean guerrillas, which are causing chaos in the Mengistu regime (there is talk of between 18,000 and 20,000 Ethiopian soldiers going over to the guerrillas, and of mass executions of high-ranking officers ordered by an increasingly enraged Mengistu). On the Somali side, the reasons are the hope of improving the situation in the north of the country - the Hargeisa area - which is in a state of constant revolt, and ending the Ethiopian aid to the guerrillas and the Isaq rebels.
Siyaad Barre said that the Ethiopians are skilled and tough negotiators. He also mentioned Mengistu's abilities, unlike his usual habit of speaking ill of him and even insulting him.
[Malatesta] But is this agreement not certain to damage the Eritrean guerrillas? Mengistu is now free to launch his troops from Ogaden toward Asmera.
[Barre] It will not be the agreement which damages the Eritrean guerrillas. The Ethiopians have many regiments and large numbers of troops. They have planes, tanks, weapons of all kinds; and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and the ability to repel any attack by Eritrean guerrillas if they so wish.
[Malatesta] However, the Soviets seem more tepid in their support for the Mengistu regime.
[Barre] I have had talks with the Russian deputy foreign minister in the past few days. He told me that we cannot make progress like this, and that there must be peace in the Horn of Africa. It struck me as a fairly significant statement. I do not know how much hope the Eritrean guerrillas have, although they have made major gains.
[Malatesta] What about the situation of endemic civil war in northern Somalia? How do you intend to solve this problem?
[Barre] The situation will be resolved when other countries stop stirring up trouble. As you know, the British are fomenting trouble. They do not accept the fact that Italy has special ties with Somalia. [Barre ends]
He continued to talk for a while about political problems, about the north, and so forth. The president then removed his spectacles, stared at me and said: "We in Somalia do not allow people to speak ill of Italy and the Italians. Anybody who does so knows that he will come to a bad end. We are great friends of Italy. So, how can you allow people in Italy to talk ill of Somalia? How can you allow them to make slanderous accusations against its president?"
We had finally come to the point. We tried to point out that in Italy there is a distinction between the government and the free press.
[Malatesta] The accusations of corruption made against you, sir, did not come from the government, but from the newspapers. And the newspapers were reporting the evidence given by Ali Khalif Galaid, a former Somali minister, during a trial. The minister referred to a rumor about a bribe of 7 million dollars pocketed by the president's office for a deal on a fertilizer factory.... [Malatesta ends]
The president grew angry: “Ali is a scoundrel and a rascal. He deserves a thrashing. But at the time, Ali was industry minister and signed the deal. Then, after he lost his position, he fled with the help of the English, and is now moralizing, as you say.”
[Malatesta] Sir, the urea factory is still standing unused, and possibly abandoned.... This is Italian aid which has been misused.
[Barre] The factory was constructed with Somali money and the Italian aid arrived later. Nobody was to blame. It was to be run with Iraqi oil which has not arrived because of the war. There have been other problems with the electricity power station. Ours is a very poor country, we lack resources, and many things function badly.
[Malatesta] The rumors about corruption with regard to Italian aid in Somalia are fairly widespread: It is not just Ali Khalif Galaid who mentions them.
[Barre] They are rumors put about by scoundrels, and are spread in Italy, not here in Somalia.
[Malatesta] I can understand that. Your immediate entourage, sir, does not have a good reputation in Italy.
[Barre] Listen, we are very pleased with Italian cooperation. We are 99 percent satisfied. But these things you are talking about, bribes as you call them, and bundles of bank notes, have nothing to do with us. Nobody here takes bribes. We have always told the Italians: Thank you, thank you very much for your gifts. But we do not want to know about your problems and your quarrels, or about bribes. They are your problems, they are party quarrels. We want the keys in our hands, we say thank you, and that is enough.
[Malatesta] Recently, some Somali officers, who were on courses in Italy, appeared on Italian television: They did not speak well of you.
[Barre] They are just kids; they have been taken in by scoundrels and rascals. The responsibility rests with the military attaché in Rome who failed to keep control over them. Yes, the blame certainly rests with the military attaché.
[Malatesta] There are many Somalis living in exile in the United States who also attack your regime.
[Barre] They too are scoundrels. I do not say that because they are making criticisms but because they are damaging Somalia. There are also Ethiopian exiles in the United States who criticize the Mengistu regime. However, at the same time they say: Give food to the Ethiopians who are starving. However, the Somalis are saying: Stop aid to Somalia, because Siyaad Barre is a bad man. Do you understand the difference?
[Malatesta] Sir, the American Academy of Science Human Rights Committee published a report recently on the state of civil rights in Somalia: It talks of hundreds of people being illegally arrested and detained, and even of torture.
[Barre] Listen, last week some former ministers and prominent people were put on trial for plotting again the state. The trial was conducted properly. Two of them were sentenced to death. Then, in the end, they were a pardoned and they are now at home drinking tea. Do you call that a repressive regime?
[Malatesta] The report, based on eye-witness accounts gives an entirely different picture. The pardoned men cannot leave their homes, not even Mohamed Aden Sheikh, who was acquitted.
[Barre] Yes, it is better for them to stay at home, because they are intelligent and could do harm. The more intelligent a man is, the more harm he can do, if he so wishes. These are all people I made, like the others who fled. I dragged them up out of the dirt, and now they are attacking me. They are scoundrels; that is what they are.