News of Africa Today in History: 21 October 1969

Today in History: 21 October 1969


The Somali Parliamentary regime collapsed like an empty sack

On the morning of 21 October 1969, Somalis still unable to come to terms with the brutal killing of their beloved Head of State, on October 15, woke up to a reality that may have been new to them but familiar in many other African countries: a military takeover of the government.

It was made public the news that the National Assembly had been convened in extraordinary session to elect a new President to fill the vacuum created by the premature death of the former President, just three years before the end of his 6 years mandate. Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was the Prime Minister, and Sheikh Mukhtar Mohamed, President of the National Assembly, became Head of State Pro tempore of the Somali Republic. (Article 74 (2) Constitution) However, on 21 October, no election took place, and the National Assembly did not meet as planned, as “those officers who were watching the developments decided to act”. Twenty-four hours after the funerals of the slain President, a self-styled Military Council seized power, led by military officers who had donned civilian garbs.

A foundering regime had weakened itself by discontenting almost everyone. The 1969 election fraud was only one of the fuses that could detonate an explosion at any moment. Public unease mounted, faith in the regime waned and the optimistic mood quickly gave way to cynicism. The slaying of the President by a rogue solder appear to have increased the pressure on the military to speed up the take-over. With great theatrics, it was termed the most peaceful coup that had been experienced in Africa. The new rulers put the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers under house arrest at the presidential resort at Afgoi, 30 Km south-west of Mogadiscio.

The Military coup was welcomed by the public at large, not because the Army looked best, but because the people was sick of the corrupt and inept civilian administration led by the SYL party since 1956. Out of desperation, the Somalis seemed accepting a military dictatorship leading them to uncharted water. The country’s name was immediately changed into “Somali Democratic Republic”, a formulation that in Africa, usually, albeit not always, signifies an intention to drift to the left.

The military’s action was quickly dubbed a ‘revolution’. As Bernard Lewis said, the word ‘revolution’ was much misused in the Middle East, being applied to, or claimed for, many events which much more appropriately be designated by the French coup d’état, or the Italian colpo di Stato. Interestingly, he emphasized, the English language does not provide an equivalent term.

The bloodless military take-over had suspended the Constitution in force at the time, and other constitutional organs (Judiciary, Parliament, political parties, elections and trade unions).

A low-key Military Take-over

At a time when almost every African States had experienced some sort of military coup or plot, Somali civilian politicians of the time seemed not prepared for such and eventuality, choosing instead, to believe that a military coup was not a method to change the government of their country. According to well-informed sources the Minister of Interior of the time, Yassin Nour, dismissed categorically to consider as true news of imminent military take-over that leaked out late afternoon on 20 October. The same sources say that General Siad Barre, the Commander in Chief of the National Army, was with the Minister when the latter received reports on the plot being hatched by the Army. General Siad Barre’s move was a deceptive ploy to mislead the credulous Minister at the very time when his younger officers were preparing criminal acts for the purpose of changing the constitutional order of the country, a crime which carries the punishment of life imprisonment (article 217 Somali Penal Code).

Somalis emerged from the 1969 parliamentary elections far more polarized than before along clan lines. The Courts were bent, public institutions dysfunctional, and the economy, dominated by Italian-era banana production, was sick. Political leaders focused on the conflicts with neighbouring countries, relegating economic and social problems to the bottom of their priority list. The following figures extracted from the national budget for 1967 show how the social sectors have been neglected. The allocation in the budget for the Ministry of Defence was 19, 95%, against 6, 99% and 7, 02% for Health and Education respectively.

By 1969 Somalia was bankrupt, shackled to foreign aid for survival, and prone to sliding into dictatorial regime. The Italian historian, Angelo Del Boca, described the lack of direction and sense of general despair the country was going through few months before the military coup in his words: “By the summer of 1969, nine years after independence, the country U Thant, the Burmese UN Secretary General, liked to define as ‘darling child of the United Nations, nothing remains of the characteristics that made her an example. The democracy is a mere memory. The multiparty is a mockery; the neutrality, faded option; and in the National Assembly, confusion reigns”.

The deposit Prime Minister along with some of his Cabinet Ministers was brought before s special Court whose three Judging panel were members of the military Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC). Ironically, the trial was held at the building which once was the seat of the National Assembly, now converted into courtroom, where the Deputies were expected to meet on 21 October 1969 for the election of the New President.

The military ruled the country over 20 years in the course of which, except perhaps in the first few years, their celebrated merits were very few and modest, in the face of the dramatic failures in foreign policy and a military adventure against Ethiopia which proved to be a fatal calculation. Like the civilian regime they ousted in 1969, they too ran out of direction.

Mohamed I. Trunji
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