Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Somali military staged a coup and installed its own leader, reversing the democratic rule of law introduced by Somalia’s European colonizers one century earlier.

Summary of Event

On October 15, 1969, Somali president Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated; Assassinations and attempts;Abdirashid Ali Shermarke[Shermarke] six days later, on October 21, the military staged a coup and chose its own leader, ending the remnants of the democratic rule of law that was introduced into Somalia by the European colonial powers—namely France, Great Britain, and Italy—a century earlier. Shermarke’s assassination and the military coup that followed proved that democracy, even at its most effective, was a colonial (Western) construction that never took root in Somalia. The political, social, and economic instability that has since replaced attempts at democracy in Somalia bears out this fact. Somali coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Somalia Postcolonialism;Somalia [kw]Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup (Oct. 21, 1969) [kw]Democracy Ends in a Military Coup, Somali (Oct. 21, 1969) [kw]Military Coup, Somali Democracy Ends in a (Oct. 21, 1969) [kw]Coup, Somali Democracy Ends in a Military (Oct. 21, 1969) Somali coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Somalia Postcolonialism;Somalia [g]Africa;Oct. 21, 1969: Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup[10520] [g]Somalia;Oct. 21, 1969: Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup[10520] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 21, 1969: Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup[10520] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Oct. 21, 1969: Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup[10520] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 21, 1969: Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup[10520] Siad Barre, Muhammad Shermarke, Abdirashid Ali

To understand the history of Somalia since the time of the coup, it is first necessary to consider Somalia’s institutions and traditions, to see how the Somali people have historically interacted with these institutions and traditions, and to show how a combination of tradition and modernity made democracy and the Somali people, particularly after 1969, irreconcilable. For centuries, Somali society formed around extended families, kinship groups, and clan. Consequently, institutions were also formed along such lines, with family, kin, or clan providing social and economic support. Also, regional chiefs had authority as heads of political councils and as law enforcers. These social methods suited the decentralized path Somalia had followed from the beginning of its history. However, this tradition was challenged when Somalia became a European colony, and a democracy.

In the late nineteenth century, Somalia’s central location between the West and vital trade posts in the East brought European colonialism. Between 1886 and 1893 the British, the Italians, and the French came to discover Somalia’s geopolitical importance, as they all arrived to enjoy the country’s vast trade resources. By the end of the nineteenth century Somalia was divided among these interests into separate protectorates, including parts in the east of Somalia that were claimed by Emperor Menelek II of Ethiopia. As colonial powers took charge they brought with them institutions to facilitate their economic objectives. Thus, the Somali people were now divided along colonial as well as clan lines, and they would come to face the traditions of those Western countries who would rule them. For instance, Somalis within the Italian protectorate experienced fascist rule, while the British and the French transplanted versions of Western democracy to those within their protectorates. The transplantation of these systems was intended to buttress economic prosperity for each colonial group.

Before the arrival of Western interests, Somalia’s economy was a clan-based agrarian system, in which propertied workers owned livestock and relied on farming. The system of production and distribution was also organized along these lines; because social life was organized along family lines, economic life followed similarly, making it difficult for individuals to slip through the system. However, colonialism brought with it an international market economy based on the commodification of existing livestock and farming resources. This took the distribution out of the hands of the clan and made it a responsibility of the institutions that were created to facilitate economic prosperity. In this new order the market took precedence over the people, challenging the viability of the society to overcome the effects on society.

The presence of colonials and the division of the country between foreign powers gave rise to Somali nationalism. In 1960, Somali gained independence from Great Britain, Italy, and France, and then unified. Adapting the institutional traditions of the former colonial masters, independent Somalia was created with a central state apparatus. However, tradition clashed with the modern, as the system of labor and production did not become any more responsive to the people than it did during colonial times. Along with the increasing challenge brought on by capitalism and democracy, representatives and leaders of the newly unified state set about only for personal gain, which facilitated massive corruption. Also, the government ignored its role as providers of social welfare, but remained enforcers of the law.

At this time, Somalis found themselves in a precarious situation. They were expected to live under the rule of a central state and adhere to the rule of centralization. However, before colonialism, Somalis were not centralized; during colonialism the country was divided along foreign lines; and after colonialism the central state apparatus still continued to operate along the divisions that their colonial masters had created. This situation gave primacy to the traditional kinship-clan based system, pitting chief against president—the traditional thus clashed with the modern. It is not surprising, then, that the people, dissatisfied, turned to their traditional system of kinship and clan and ignored the state. As the relationship between the state and the people became increasingly more predatory, the incumbent president, Shermarke, was assassinated.


After the assassination of President Shermarke, clan-based dissatisfaction rose among military officers over the choice of Shermarke’s successor and gave rise to a military takeover. Major General Muhammad Siad Barre was selected to lead the country. He was hailed as a reformer who not only would restore democracy but also would install an effective democracy. He formed the Supreme Revolutionary Council Supreme Revolutionary Council, Somalian (SRC), made up of military leaders, as part of his government, and set in motion a series of social changes that placed the country on a path toward great change. The SRC proved effective in settling unresolved parliamentary issues, including the creation of adult literacy programs, and it helped resettle populations displaced by drought. Later, the president introduced scientific socialism as the leading centralizing ideology, outlawing the traditional clan, or kinship system.

However, even as a promise, Barre’s democracy was short-lived, as his regime became increasingly authoritarian and his policies failed. Although he outlawed traditional methods of politics he would form relationships with clans—relying on alliances with the Dorad and the Ogaden subclans in particular—and manipulate these ties to his own advantage rather than for the welfare of the people. Similarly, in 1977 he led the country into a war against Ethiopia to seize the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, but he failed.

The failed war against Ethiopia over Ogaden was followed by a series of other failures, including increased competition in the 1980’s in the international market for livestock, which precipitated a devastating decline in export prices. This, in turn, affected state revenues and incomes for producers. This setback to the Somali economy triggered economic depression for pastoral producers, trade producers, merchants, and, the state, leaving no one untouched. With a debt-to-gross-national-product ratio of almost 203 percent, economic decline followed.

In the 1980’s, Barre used force to impose his will, adding political decline to his list of failures. This led to protests in the streets against the state’s authoritarianism, which in turn led to his use of the military as a force for suppression. According to reports from Amnesty International, a global human-rights organization, Barre had his army target certain groups of protesters for arrests, focusing especially on the Issaq clan. Amnesty referenced one incident in which forty-six individuals were arrested and shot on the way to detention. What followed, in 1991, was a country in civil war, Barre fleeing into exile, and the Somali people returning to tradition. Combined with the remnants of a postcolonial construction of democracy, however, these traditions had become distorted and thus failed to bring back the stability the country experienced before colonial times.

Once the state lost the ability to force the people’s will, it lost the all-important control of the means of violence, making the state ineffective. However, Somalia’s descent into civil war in 1991 was not responsible for the country’s democratic failure. Instead, whatever vestiges of democracy had existed after independence in 1960 ended in 1969 when Barre was selected by the army, rather than elected by the people, to lead the country. The hope that Barre could have contributed to democratic development through reform was misguided because of how he was brought to power. With such an arrangement, the state played the role of benefactor rather than of centralizing authority, making its relationship with the people one based not on loyalty but on obligation. However, once the people no longer felt obligated to Barre’s office they did what they had always done with an unsatisfactory leader: They removed him. Somali coup of 1969 Revolutions and coups;Somalia Postcolonialism;Somalia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hashim, Alice Bettis. The Fallen State: Dissonance, Dictatorship, and Death in Somalia. University Press of America. 1997. Hashim discusses the postcolonial regimes of Shermarke and Barre to show that democracy in Somalia failed because of history. She argues that democracy failed because its artificial construction did not lend itself to success in a clan-based society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyons, Terrence, and Ahmed I. Samatar. Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention, and Strategies for Political Reconstruction. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995. Provides a brief history of Somalia while outlining possibilities for the reconstruction of the Somali government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tripodi, Paolo. The Colonial Legacy in Somalia: Rome and Mogadishu, from Colonial Administration to Operation Restore Hope. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Tripodi uses Italian colonization of Somalia as his case study to show the causes of the current instability and outlines where and how past attempts at solutions could have been more effective.

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Categories: History