Skip to main content

U.S. envoy Peter Bridges affords us here an unusual personal look into the experience of a professional diplomat taking up the post, for the first time, of the American ambassador.

He went to a nation, in this instance, noted for its problems, including in more recent years, widespread violence and foreign intervention. We invite you to share his impressions and judgments. ~ Ed.


Envoy to Somalia

by Peter Bridges

Safir —ambassador
Safirka —the ambassador
Waxaan ahay safirka mareykanka —I am the American ambassador

~ Somali phrase book




T WAS MAY IN ROME. I wished it were Sunday and my wife and I were climbing Monte Gennaro. The intercom buzzed; I had a call from Robert Oakley in Washington. Bob Oakley was our ambassador to Somalia, in Washington for consultation. We had agreed that on his way hack to Mogadishu he would stop in Rome for lunch with people from the Italian foreign ministry. We and Italy each had a major interest in Somalia; we were both major aid donors; we often compared notes. Oakley said that he would be delayed in leaving Washington. I agreed to rearrange the luncheon for the following week. He went on to say that he had just learned that he was to leave his post, to head the State Department’s anti-terrorism office. A big, hard job, I said; congratulations. Who’s going to replace you in Somalia? I don’t think they’ve given that any thought yet, he said . . . . Would you be interested?
My question had come from simple curiosity and I had not expected his question in return. I thought for a minute. Yes, I said. I’d be interested. Good, said Oakley. Let me just tell a couple of people here. See you soon. He hung up, and after a bit that marvelous lady from Boston, my secretary Maria Lo Conte, came in and found me staring out the window. Spring fever, Peter? she asked. Not quite. What had I let myself in for?
The year was 1984 and I was the deputy chief of mission, DCM in Foreign Service lingo, in the big Rome Embassy. I was the deputy to an ambassador, Maxwell Rabb, a Reagan political appointee, a lawyer with long experience who had been secretary to the Cabinet under President Eisenhower. He left to me the management of our oversized Embassy—which included representatives of twenty federal agencies besides the State Department and he also left me room to act as a senior American representative in Italy. He and I and other Embassy officers, and our seven consuls general in other Italian cities, had a wide range of personal contacts in government, politics, business, journalism, academia, and the arts. We sometimes suggested to Washington that ours was the best Embassy in Europe, and that Italy, in part thanks to our efforts, was our best ally. Sometimes, we sensed, Washington agreed.
Rome diplomatic life was not all roses. Soon after I reached Rome in 1981 the Red Brigade terrorists kidnapped in Verona an American general, James Dozier. We worked closely with the Italians on the case, and after some weeks Jim Dozier was freed by an Italian police team. But in 1984 I lost a good friend and former Foreign Service colleague, Ray Hunt, who headed the Sinai peacekeeping force and who was gunned down on his way home from his Rome headquarters. He was the third friend of mine killed by terrorists.
But what of Somalia? I had served on several continents, but never in Africa. Did that matter? The Somalis did not like to be lumped in with other Africans, and belonged to the Arab League as well as the Organization of African Unity. I knew a fair amount about Somalia and its relations with the outside world. More importantly, none of the senior Africanists in our Service seemed interested in going to Mogadishu. I confirmed my interest to Personnel, and soon it looked like I was the Department’s candidate. But then I heard that a group of black Foreign Service officers had told Secretary of State Shultz that not enough black officers were being given ambassadorships. Mr. Shultz decided to put forward to the White House the name of Richard Fox, a black officer who had been ambassador to Trinidad. Dick Fox was a friend of mine and an able officer, which made the news easier to take. More news was forthcoming. In July, Dick Fox decided to retire. My name went forward.
I doubted any Republican fat cat wanted to go to Somalia. Sure enough, the White House agreed to name me. But processing presidential appointments takes time, and the White House was busy with an election. On November 14, just after Mr. Reagan won a second term, he named me ambassador to Somalia. The Senate was in recess and I was urgently needed in Somalia— Oakley had left there in August—so I would proceed without delay and Senate confirmation hearings would come later. The Department gave me ten days to wind up my affairs in Rome, and the Sunday after Thanksgiving I flew to Washington to be sworn in and get briefed.


N THE NEXT TWO WEEKS I LEARNED ALL I COULD ABOUT AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN SOMALIA. Our aid was running at 120 million dollars a year, the largest set of American aid programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. About $25 million of this was military. We were supplying defensive weapons to the Somali military for use against the frequent incursions from Ethiopia, and a lot of other materiel and training. On the civilian side we were providing food for hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees from Ethiopia; we were providing financial aid to the government; we were involved in various economic development projects. My new Embassy had a very large staff, almost as many Americans — 218, plus 179 family members—as in the Rome Embassy. I knew something would have to be done about that.
Early one morning a little T-39 jet flew me and David Newton, who was going out to head our Embassy in Baghdad, down to U.S. Central Command headquarters near Tampa. There General Robert Kingston and his staff briefed us on how CENTCOM would respond if the Soviets ever moved beyond Afghanistan, which they had occupied since 1979, toward the Indian Ocean. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility included the Horn of Africa—Somalia, Ethiopia, little Djibouti—and in 1984 our military were emphasizing the strategic importance of the Horn.
Moscow, too, put high value on the Horn of Africa. Soviet military involvement in Somalia had grown quickly after Somalia became independent in 1960. This had largely to do with Somalia’s differences with neighboring Ethiopia. In 1897 the British, with a protectorate over Northern Somalia, agreed to Ethiopian control over the Ogaden, a huge area of grasslands which were traditional grazing areas for Somali clans. In the 1930s, Somalia had been Italy’s base for the invasion of Ethiopia. There was no love lost between Somalis and Ethiopians.
After independence the Somalis decided to build a strong military. In 1962 President Kennedy turned down a Somali request for arms, on grounds that we did not want to fuel regional conflicts–although we were supplying arms to Ethiopia. The Somalis went to Moscow, which responded positively. In 1969 the commander of Somalia’s armed forces, Mohamed Siad Barre, made himself president, proclaimed “scientific socialism,” and turned still closer to Moscow. By the 1970s there were at least three thousand Soviet military and civilian advisers in Somalia and the Soviets were building major bases there.
But in 1977 Somalia went to war with Ethiopia, causing a quandary for Moscow which had a strong position in both countries. Moscow opted for Ethiopia, and Siad Barre expelled all the Soviet advisers in Somalia and turned West for aid. Eventually, in 1980, we had come to terms with him, and U.S. military assistance began. CENTCOM thought Somalia might be useful in case of conflict with Moscow farther east, but for now at least our military assistance was helping Somalia defend against Mengistu’s Ethiopia.


FLEW FROM WASHINGTON TO ROME ON DECEMBER 6, and after two evenings with my family (and one last Sunday hike in the Apennines), I flew out of Fiumicino airport at midnight, bound for Mogadishu via Addis Ababa on an Alitalia Airbus. A year later Alitalia stopped flying to Somalia, after Somali debts to the airline reached a point which Alitalia’s chairman Umberto Nordio found intolerable. He had been pressured, he told me, by the Italian government to keep on flying to the former colony. He had told officials that if it was a case of Italian national interest, they could reimburse him for the Somali debts. They would not; he stopped service. For now the Airbus still flew, but it took an odd route. Mogadishu was seven hundred miles southeast of Addis Ababa, but we took off and flew northeast. We could not cross the Ethiopian-Somali border because of the continuing, if intermittent hostilities. So we flew up to Djibouti, turned right, and started south down a thousand miles of Somalia. There were no clouds. I looked down on a reddish world with no villages or roads, only occasional vehicle tracks. There must be vegetation; I could not see it. There had been two years of drought. Here now was a little river full of tight bends, the Webi Shebeli, flowing down from the Ethiopian highlands. Soon it would dry up completely, and stay dry until it rained again in Ethiopia in April or May. We came down over a sprawling city, curved out over a blue ocean and in again, and landed. On the edge of the runway were carcasses of many planes: a Vickers Viscount, an ancient DC-3, an old brown Soviet biplane. I thought to myself, the eighth poorest country in the world.
I was met by my old friend and new deputy, John Hirsch, our charge d’affaires these past four months since Oakley left, by Somali Chief of Protocol Abdi Haji Liban, and by the Embassy section chiefs. I had been wondering if Mogadishu would be like Panama, my only previous tropical post, always hot and humid. Well, this equatorial sun was hot, but it was not sultry, not with this strong northeast monsoon, which blew for half the year. Here now was my official sedan, a blue Oldsmobile, and my new driver, Scerif Ahmed Maio. I knew from Bob Oakley that he was a good man. We soon became friends, indeed comrades.
The books and many briefing papers I had read about Somalia were lamentably short on pictures. I had met a number of Somali diplomats over the years. The people I saw now on the streets were that same race, tall and thin and dark-skinned, with features more European than Bantu. No one had told me to expect all the animals wandering the streetshandsome goats, ugly fat-tailed sheep, small thin brown cows. The streets were full of vehicles. The town was not unattractive; the walls were whitewashed; there were shade trees. We passed a large new mosque, then the incongruous Gothic cathedral which the Italians had built, and the still more incongruous Fascist arch with an inscription to Crown Prince Umberto who visited here in 1928. Scerif pointed out the decrepit chancery building of our Embassy, and we continued up the shore road almost to the edge of town, turned left up rutted sandy lanes, passed a dumpster in which goats and a couple of little boys were foraging, and here we were: my residence! I found it was a pleasant house, and not immodestly grand: three bedrooms, two baths, and a study at one end; a small dining room and big kitchen at the other; in between, a thirty-foot living room which had a large roofed patio on one side and, on the other, a small porch looking toward the ocean. From the patio an outside stairway went up to a roof terrace. There was a wide view of the blue ocean, the great brilliant sky, and this mainly one-and two-story capital.
The next morning I woke at first light, before six, and it was cool. In my Potomac Valley Seniors Track Club shirt I ran down the sandy lanes to the beach. The ocean was beautiful, with small quiet waves lapping the land’s edge. On the horizon, the sun’s first rays shone from behind a range of clouds that must have been fifty miles out to sea. I ran down the beach, wide and hard at low tide. A boy was wading, though sharks took victims here. By the water’s edge a tall thin Somali sat quietly, gazing at the sea and the glorious sun.
After breakfast Scerif drove me to the most decrepit American Embassy chancery I had ever seen. John Blane, our ambassador to Rwanda, wrote me later that as Vice Consul at Mogadishu in 1958 he had leased this building for what was then our Consulate, thinking that with luck it might last ten years. In 1984 we were still there, and the place had never been renovated. At least we had a modern telecommunications system.
Some months later our ancient building tried to kill me. One morning I went to call on the minister of agriculture. When I returned, my secretary Katherine Astala explained that the seat of my chair was punched in because a fifty-pound hunk of concrete had fallen through the ceiling onto it. Ms. Astala was as always imperturbable. I hoped she did not regret having joined me from Rome, where she had been Max Rabb’s secretary. We made sure no more hunks were coming down, and asked the Department what they could do to speed up the plans for a new Embassy.
I could not function as ambassador beyond our premises until I presented my credentials to the President. I busied myself getting to know my Embassy colleagues, and asking them to brief me further on us and Somalia. I told them, remembering troubles in Rome between Embassy officers from different Federal agencies, that I wanted them to work closely together no matter who paid their salaries. I added that I planned frank reports and recommendations to Washington. While I wanted this Embassy to work closely with Washington, I had no further ambitions and I did not need to play up to anyone.
The Department had agreed that after presenting credentials I could return to Rome for a few days, to wind up my affairs. Perhaps I could get there in time for Christmas with my family. The Rabbs were planning a large farewell reception for me and my wife. The minister of interior, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, with whom Max Rabb and I had worked closely on terrorism and other matters—and who had kindly told me privately that he hoped one day I would return to Rome as American ambassador to Italy—was offering me a luncheon. (The minister himself later became President of the Republic.)


SPENT MY FIRST WEEKEND IN SOMALIA, and a number of later weekends, touring the countryside with Scerif by Oldsmobile and by Jeep. After one left behind the whitewashed villas of the wealthy—there were quite a few of these—one could believe that Somalia was as poor as reported. The countryside was arid, with scattered acacias, occasional villages of small huts, and now and then a string of loping camels with one thin boy in charge. Many Somalis were still nomads—over half the nation, it was said—but there were no real statistics. The nomads roamed for hundreds of miles through the bush in small family groups, with their camels, goats, and sheep. Their staple was camel’s milk, which could be kept for days in charred containers.
The loss of vegetation in Somalia was serious. There were too many animal mouths, and too many people on the land. I had no instructions from Washington on population. The Reagan Administration did not want to be criticized at home by those who opposed not just abortion but contraception. And many Somalis took what one might call a Reaganesque approach. In coming months Mohamed Siad Barre would tell me that the country was underpopulated. We need, he said, more young men for soldiers, to defend ourselves against Ethiopia. Educated Somalis pointed out to me that children were useful in nomad families. A boy of ten or twelve was entrusted with a string of camels and would go off alone with them for days in search of forage. Girls took care of goats and sheep and helped their mothers. I understood this, but people were turning away from nomadism, crowding into town. Mogadishu’s population had been 75,000 in 1960 and now in 1984 it was at least a million, many or most of them without steady work. Everywhere were bars where young men sat all day drinking tea and talking, for want of anything else to do. Yet the average Somali woman, according to the best statistics I could find, still bore seven children.
The unemployed young men worried me from the beginning. They were a recipe for trouble in any country—crime now in Mogadishu (there was a lot of burglary) and something worse in the future. The civil strife that broke out in Mogadishu several years later, after I had left, drew on these idle young men for its heedless, deadly gunners.


SEVERAL DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS I RECEIVED WORD that the president, Mohamed Siad Barre, would receive me and my credentials at Villa Somalia, once the residence of Italian colonial governors and now the president’s heavily fortified office and residence complex. I reviewed an honor guard, walked into the most elegant building in Somalia, and met the man who had been running Somalia for fifteen years. He had been born into a nomad family in the Ogaden when birth records were unknown, but he was probably about seventy. He was tall and thin, with a small square mustache—I thought to myself, Chaplin or Fuehrer?—and he spoke good English to me, although I had supposed we would speak Italian.
The State Department had cabled main points they wanted me to make, and left the rest to me. I told the President that Somalia was important for us; I was the first ambassador appointed since President Reagan’s reelection. Stability in the Horn of Africa and the peaceful development of Somalia were high priorities for Washington. The Department had told me to point up the size of our aid programs. I did so, but then went on to say that what we were doing should complement Somalia’s own efforts; we wanted Somalia to help itself on the economic front. I was personally delighted to be here, and I intended to travel widely and meet as many people as I could. I said this last because I was not going to let Siad Barre and his people restrict my contacts, as I was sure he would like to do.
Siad replied that he deeply admired President Reagan; Somalia was “an allied country” and he hoped for much greater American support. He warned me about what he called quislings and traitors. There were a lot of them in any country and they spewed out misinformation. When I wanted the facts I should come see him, at any time. He might ask to see me rather late at night; such were his habits.
I was thinking hard as he spoke. I knew about his habits from my predecessors; Siad worked through most of the night before going to bed, and had often called my predecessors in after midnight. Somalia from our point of view was a friendly country, not an allied one. I was certainly not going to agree to stay clear of “quislings.” So I said that I had just come from three years in Italy, a country closely allied with the United States, but I could not imagine any President of Italy speaking of our President in warmer terms than he had just used. As to assistance, we would do what we could. I intended to report to Washington frankly and accurately on Somalia, and to do this I intended to see a broad range of people. I hoped this would not occasion reports to the President that I was seeing quislings. And I looked forward to seeing the President frequently, and would come willingly at any hour.
So we parted. Tom Hull, who headed our U.S. Information Service, had invited me to a film showing together with a number of Somalis. Soon I was sitting in the Hulls’ garden watching It’s A Wonderful Life. And so it was: Jimmy Stewart on the screen, the Southern Cross above us, the smell of flowers in the air, and I had just been matching wits with the President of Somalia. I thought I had come off all right.

Deputy John Hirsch administers oath of Office to Amb. Bridges on the rooftop of his Mogadishu residence, as wife Mary Jane looks on.
Deputy John Hirsch administers oath of Office to Amb. Bridges on the rooftop of his Mogadishu residence

By the time I left Mogadishu for Christmas in Rome I had met several Somali ministers and a number of other foreign ambassadors. The thought came to me that since our aid program was larger than that of any other country, larger than those of the United Nations and the World Bank, I was in Somali eyes the most important foreigner in that Texas-sized country. I was not sure I liked that thought. We were doing good things in Somalia, on both the civilian and the military side. The defensive weapons we provided would not permit Somalia to invade Ethiopia again, but they helped the Somalis defend themselves against Mengistu’s troops and Soviet tanks, a serious threat. Still, I did not like military dictators like Mohamed Siad Barre. And there was a rapacious side to the Somalis. Siad Barre’s insistence that Somalia needed still more American aid was echoed by every minister that I called on, and many of their requests were clearly not justified. William Fullerton, the British ambassador, a canny Arabist with a wife from Brooklyn, told me to read Richard Burton’s 1856 account of his first visit to Somalia. Burton said Arabs called Somalia Bilad wa issi, the Land of Give Me Something. The longer you are here, said Bill Fullerton, the more you will think that name is apt. He was right.
After I left Mogadishu for Rome, a sizable armed force from Ethiopia crossed the Somali border in the north. I cut short my stay and returned to Somalia. My wife, who worked for the Internal Revenue Service, would be coming out to Mogadishu in June after the tax season ended, but our four children would soon be scattered. In the succeeding decade there would be times when the six of us found ourselves on four different continents. I was sorry to miss the Rabbs’ reception and lunch with Minister Scalfaro. Just after my return the defense minister, Mohamed Ali Samantar, summoned me and ambassadors of other Western countries. There had been new skirmishing on the border; the Ethiopians seemed to be preparing massive new attacks. Somalia, I was not surprised to hear, wanted more help from its friends. I was pleased when Bill Fullerton rose and asked the minister why he thought Mengistu’s army would attack when it faced major insurrections in Tigre and Eritrea, as well as continued famine. I went back to the chancery and, after a talk with our defense attache, John Ryan, cabled Washington what Samantar had told us. I did not recommend we increase or even accelerate our military assistance, which in any case would have been difficult to do. A week later Samantar found the situation less critical; he went off on a long foreign tour. Soon we ascertained that the invaders had not been Ethiopians but Somali dissidents, armed and aided, to be sure, by the Ethiopians.


HAD COME BACK TO MOGADISHU with a viral infection, and after cabling Washington about the military situation I collapsed on my front porch with The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. A work of the first century, it described the ports one found sailing southward down the Red Sea, and then along the coast of northern Somalia to the Cape of Spices—the Horn of Africa—and down the Erythraean Sea — the Indian Ocean. Mogadishu was perhaps what the author called Nikon. Somalia was probably also the Land of Punt, where Egyptians had sailed for ivory and incense and slaves two thousand years before the Periplus, I I raised my eyes and looked out at the ocean. The northeast monsoon was blowing strong this afternoon. I could imagine ancient traders coming down this steady wind with cargoes from Alexandria and Rome. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s tale of the adventurous Lincoln Forsner, on a dhow not far out from Mogadishu. Somali dhows still sailed the Indian Ocean. Perhaps someday I too could sail this clear blue sea.
I got well and called on Siad Barre’s second vice president, Hussein Kulmie Afrah, an older man with a quiet way. He was in government as senior representative of the Hawiye clans, who lived in the region from Mogadishu north for several hundred miles. The later Mogadishu “warlords,” Ali Mahdi and General Mohamed Farah Aydid, were Hawiye leaders. Kulmie did not accomplish much; perhaps Siad Barre would not let him. But he had good ideas. He thought this sunny, windy country should develop wind and solar power, rather than beg oil cargoes from the Saudis. Villagers should be taught to make adobe bricks, rather than use precious wood. There was an enormous potential for coastal fisheries; small harbors could be built at modest cost, and rough roads to link them with existing roads inland. And the green revolution could come to Somalia, with higher-yielding grains and better animal breeds. This all made sense to me.
Soon I got to know the Catholic bishop, Monsignor Salvatore Colombo, who had served here since his 1946 ordination in Milan. His flock comprised only several hundred Somali Catholics, plus a thousand Italians. Siad Barre permitted no Catholic proselytizing—but was happy to accept Catholic aid. There were sixty Italian and Indian nuns in Mogadishu, providing the only corps of skilled nurses. The Caritas agency provided Somali villages with sturdy, easily repaired hand pumps for village wells; they needed neither electricity nor diesel fuel, always scarce commodities. If, the Bishop said, he had learned anything in his decades here, it was to keep aid projects simple if they were to outlast the foreigners who brought them and soon left. In July 1989, three years after I left, the Bishop was murdered in his cathedral. The nuns left the country. The cathedral was vandalized and burned. The perpetrators may have been inspired by anti-Christian feelings, but I saw it all as part of the great horror visited on Somalia, almost all of whose victims were not Christians but Muslims.
The director of our Agency for International Development mission was Louis Cohen, an experienced officer who ran the largest element in our Embassy, so large that AID people did not like to be called part of the Embassy. Lou Cohen did not much disagree with Kulmie’s and the Bishop’s ideas, but our AID program was what it was and it was hard to get Washington to change course. It was Cohen who brought to my attention in 1985 one development project which he recommended we terminate quickly. I was quick to agree. The project was to set up health clinics in a dozen Somali towns where there were no clinics and no trained medical personnel. The American company which had won the contract would provide buildings for the clinics and train Somalis to staff them. They had shipped to Somalia the prefabricated clinic buildings. But the contract did not require the company to send staff to erect the buildings, and the Somalis proved incapable of doing so. There was more. The buildings were designed to be air-conditioned. With low ceilings and small windows, they had to be air-conditioned to be used in the Somali climate. But, as the Bishop had noted, electricity was at best a scarce item in a Somali town. Even if there was a town generator there was often no fuel to run it. We terminated the project, saving the American taxpayer perhaps as much as had been wasted.
Many of our developmental aid programs, which concentrated on agriculture and animal husbandry, did make sense. We were pushing the green revolution. We were helping Somali farmers to import seeds which increased yields by fifty to seventy-five percent; we supported an artificial insemination program which had already improved cattle herds; we were teaching Somali herdsmen how best to protect a fragile environment threatened by the increase in herd numbers. When someday we left, would the Somalis carry on, or revert to traditional ways? Other foreign donors faced the same question, and made similar mistakes. The European Community provided an expensive network of automatic, diesel-powered weather-reporting stations which for the first time would provide the Ministry of Agriculture with nationwide temperatures and rainfall. The stations were too sophisticated and there was no more fuel to run them than there had been for our clinics. Only one or two of the stations ever sent in data.
I soon decided that the sensible thing for us to do was to concentrate on helping Somali education. In 1963 AID had built the teachers’ college at Lafoole outside Mogadishu. It still functioned, but the Somalis had spent nothing on upkeep and the buildings were in bad shape. AID had recently thought up a way to generate Somali shillings to renovate the college, but AID was not focusing on education. Yet if we were to help the Somalis effectively to master their problems and become truly independent—and economically, at least, they were becoming ever more dependent on donor governments—we should, I concluded, put all possible effort into teaching them what they needed to know. That might be called simplistic; I thought it fundamental. It was not the direction in which AID was headed, and I got nowhere.


S 1985 ROLLED ALONG I ASKED THE DEPARTMENT WHEN I MIGHT PLAN TO COME BACK for my Senate hearing. I was told that Foreign Relations Committee staff said the Committee had confidence in me, and would call me back at an appropriate time. This turned out to be mid-June, after I had served in Somalia for six months. After the hearing my name was held up, along with two dozen others, by Senator Jesse Helms who wanted more proteges in the State Department—but I had gone back to Mogadishu and my recess appointment was still valid. Soon the senator got his pound of flesh and in July the Senate voted unanimously to confirm me.
By 1985 our position as top aid donor was being eclipsed by the Italians. It began with Marco Panella, head of the Italian Radicals, one of the smallest parties in the Italian parliament. The Radicals had successfully championed divorce and abortion in Italy. In the 1980s Panella needed a new cause and found it in foreign aid. Italy was one of the seven top industrialized countries, but was doing little to help the third world. Panella began hunger strikes; not long ones, but enough for media coverage. He shamed the country, and parliament appropriated over two billion dollars for additional foreign aid. It was decided to spend most of this on Italy’s former colonies. About a billion dollars was allocated for projects in Somalia. Other Italian parties got involved. The Radicals were outside the governing coalition; the Christian Democrats and the Socialists ran it. Christian Democratic interests would handle aid projects in Ethiopia; the Socialists, whose leader Bettino Craxi was prime minister, would work Somalia.
This became a dirty scene. Italian firms linked to the Socialists got the Somalia contracts, working through the Italy-Somalia Chamber of Commerce headed by Craxi’s brother-in-law, Paolo Pillitteri. A quarter of a billion dollars was spent on an unnecessary road in northern Somalia. Many more millions went to renovate a useless pharmaceutical plant, several large fishing boats that never went to sea, and a fertilizer plant which never produced a bag of fertilizer. A former Somali minister testified later in Italy that ten percent of the money had gone into the pockets of Siad Barre’s family and cronies.1 In 1985-86 my good friend the Italian ambassador, Mario Manca, could no doubt sense the corruption in the air. We all could. But clearly the schemers were not going to take into their confidence this ambassador, who had won a reputation for standing up to bad guys when, as consul general in London, he had acted heroically during a terrorist incident.

END NOTES1. See “The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia,” by Wolfgang Achtner in the Washington Post, January 24, 1993. The last Italian ambassador to Somalia, Mario Sica, who arrived there in 1990, gives a defensive account of Italy’s aid programs in his Operazione Somalia (Venice: Marsili Editori, 1994) .


OHAMED SIAD BARRE DIED IN EXILE in Nigeria in January 1995. He was a ruthless man who deserves much blame for Somalia’s sad fate. The civil war that dethroned him was a reaction against his latter-day rule, when he had surrounded himself with cronies and guards from his clan, the Marehan. He had excluded effective participation by other groups of clans, ignoring the democratic traditions of Somali pastoral society; his regime had become increasingly corrupt. Yet one must give him his due. Few leaders anywhere would have had the courage to expel thousands of Soviet advisers, many of them enmeshed in Somalia’s police and military, as Siad did in 1978. Nor was he always the corrupt and cruel dictator of the years when I knew him. After the 1969 coup Somalia was run by a kind of coalition between Siad’s military junta and a group of civilian professionals, which enjoyed considerable popular support. But this coalition ended in 1974-75 and Siad sent many men to prison, some for years. In early 1986 I got to know, and like, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, who had been prime minister when Siad seized power in 1969 and who had spent most of the years since then as a prisoner. At one point Siad had released Egal and sent him as ambassador to India. But, Egal told me, he was soon called back from New Delhi on consultation, and jailed again. Apparently Siad’s Soviet advisers had “whispered in his ear” that Egal was plotting against him in New Delhi. Today, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal is president of the Somaliland Republic which, unrecognized by other governments, controls the northwestern parts of what used to be a single Somalia.
We knew that the Labataan Jir prison, which the East Germans had built for Siad in a remote area, housed a number of political prisoners, many of them former top officials. I had no instructions to raise the subject, but did so anyway in the course of one of my long meetings with the president. I delivered a letter from President Reagan reiterating our strong support for Somalia. Siad was glad to have it. He began to complain of slanderers who spread lies; he particularly had it in for the BBC Somali service. I said I thought most people told the truth about Somalia. His government was widely credited for the way it had faced up to a huge refugee problem and a financial crisis which, as Mr. Reagan’s letter had said, was not all of Somalia’s making. But there was also the question of how Somalia’s internal regime was viewed. Dissidents had invaded northern Somalia from Ethiopia, and the Somalis had repelled them. I knew that a number of civilians had then been executed. And there was a number of Somalis sitting in prison for political reasons. It was not for a foreign ambassador to tell a President how to run his country, but I thought he would want me to be frank. To be frank, the picture was not pleasant. I would only add that at a time when the world received daily reports about Mengistu’s repressive regime in Ethiopia, Somalia could only benefit if it could demonstrate that things were different here.
For all I knew this was the end of me in Somalia. Two of my friends had been expelled from Zaire for speaking frankly to Mobutu. But Siad replied simply that I did not understand. Of course there were dissidents, but he had put much effort into national reconciliation and the situation was much better. . . .
I discussed political prisoners with a top Somali official one other time, in December 1985, again without instructions. (I reported to Washington in each instance what I had done; Washington did not demur.) We had heard that a number of former officials in Labataan Jir, including a well-known former foreign minister, Omar Arteh, might be put to death. I called on Ahmed Mohamed Adan, the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry, and told him that I had no instructions from Washington, but that the situation was of deep concern to the Reagan Administration—a slight exaggeration on my part—and I wondered what I could tell Washington beyond rumors. A day later Adan told me that “the responsible judge”—I wondered if that meant Siad Barre—had told him that the investigation was continuing and turning up new evidence of misdeeds. I wondered if I had hurt rather than helped these poor men; but I knew that at least one Arab ambassador had weighed in on their behalf, and I concluded that it was a good thing I had, too. Subsequently the men were sentenced to death, but then had their sentences commuted. In 1991, after Siad fled from Mogadishu, Omar Arteh became briefly the prime minister in Ali Mahdi’s interim government. But he was from the northern Iraq group of clans, and soon decided there was no place for him in a Hawiye regime. He took a leading role along with Mohamed Ibrahim Egal in the northern Somaliland Republic.
I did succeed in getting two Somali prisoners freed. Two of the Embassy’s senior Somali employees had been arrested for defaming the president and faced ten- to fifteen-year terms. I sent our admirable consul, Christopher Costanzo, to see General Mohamed Jabril Musse, the head of the dreaded National Security Service, or NSS. Costanzo told Jabril that I believed the men were the victims of false charges; I wanted them released. Jabril said he had no reason to disbelieve the witnesses against them—one of them a Somali employee we had discharged for cause—but he finally agreed to release them.
Relations with Siad and his officials were seldom easy, though I grew fond of a few of them like Raqiya Haji Dualeh Abdalla, a woman deputy minister who published, in London, the first book on the horrid practice of female circumcision and infibulation. Sometimes relations came to crisis. One evening Lou and Barbara Cohen offered a reception for all the Somalis whom we had trained in the United States. None came; the NSS had stationed men up the street to stop them. Our CIA station chief, who had excellent sources, learned that a minister had told the president that Cohen was organizing a pro-American political movement. And Siad had told the NSS to stop it. I saw the minister of the presidency and said I contemplated stopping all aid, civilian and military, until I had an explanation. I then reported what I had done to Washington, which backed me. Next evening the President invited me, Lou Cohen, and our other senior officers to dinner at Villa Somalia, to make up for the unauthorized action of some subordinate.
Later Somalia resumed relations with Libya. We protested, to no avail. Reportedly Qadhafi had sent a huge bribe to Siad Barre and his foster-brother Jama Barre, the foreign minister. We knew that one of the Libyan “diplomats” who came to town had lately tried to plant a bomb in the American Club in Khartoum. I told Jama Barre that if any of our people were killed or injured and the Libyans seemed involved, I would stop all aid and go to Washington on consultations. I had instructed John Hirsch to do the same if I were killed. (As in the earlier case I then told the Department what I had done, and they agreed.) For the next few days a young police lieutenant accompanied me on my dawn run. More importantly, Jama Barre assured me he had warned the Libyans to stay clear of the Americans, and they did.


N AMBASSADOR NEEDS A GOOD DEPUTY and I had one in John Hirsch, who later became ambassador to another troubled country, Sierra Leone. John readily agreed when I told him that while I had no problem with the size of our civilian and military aid programs, our American staff was too large. I could send an American employee home for cause; I had no authority to cut positions. But I could stop further growth. John drafted a cable which I sent Washington, after sharing it with the heads of other Embassy elements. I said I saw no reason to beef up staff when there was no reason to believe any of our aid or other programs would grow. The security situation was uncertain, another reason to restrict our resident staff to only those people definitely needed. I would not permit any additional Americans to be assigned to Mogadishu. Nor were they, for as long as I was there.
Mogadishu was known as one of our more difficult posts. In some ways the reputation was not deserved. Embassy housing was generally adequate, food supplies more than adequate. We had a skilled Embassy nurse and the half-time services of a young American doctor, and relatively few cases of serious disease, mainly dengue. There was a swimming pool and a club, and an American elementary school with good teachers. Yet our people were far from content. In part this had to do with security, not only the terrorism threat but plain burglary. In October 1984 Siad Barre had ordered an amnesty to celebrate fifteen years in power, and it put a lot of thieves back on the street. Beyond this, Somalis could be hard to get along with. It was not that they were puritanical Muslims; they were Muslims but few were puritanical. More important was a kind of ruthlessness which perhaps resulted from their harsh environment. The greatest Western scholar on Somalia listed, among Somali attributes, deeply-ingrained suspicion and open contempt for others.2 Mogadishu was a place where kids came up to a foreigner with hands out for bakshish and threw stones at him as he walked away. Some Americans and Somalis became good friends, but all in all, it was not a place where many of my staff felt at ease. In a few cases, psychological problems that might have remained minor at another post grew critical at Mogadishu, and we sent an American home.
Clearly I was the father figure in the American community. Inwardly, I did not much care for the role of chief morale raiser. My wife and I had served at other difficult posts—Panama during the 1959 riots, Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Prague in the bleak 1970s after the Soviet invasion—and although we had ambassadors whom we respected and who provided good leadership, we basically took care of our own morale. Well, perhaps Mogadishu was different. I held periodic community meetings, and invited small groups of Americans to our house Thursday evenings after the Mogadishu work week ended. The sun would already be low in the sky, falling toward the western ridge in the city beyond us. As it fell its heat decreased; the monsoon blew cooler. At six came sunset, and soon we saw the sky turning dark eastward over the ocean, until the line between sea and sky was invisible and the bright stars came out. Who would want to be anywhere else? Too bad the feeling did not last.
I made many Somali acquaintances and became better known around town than I had realized until, one morning on my dawn run, I rounded a corner and a teenager called to me “Warhaye, Peter!” I made few friends I felt I could trust completely. This was a police state and I had to assume that what I said would reach Siad Barre. There were exceptions, one of them a well-placed man who came, like Siad Barre himself, from the largest family of clans, the Darod. My friend was part of a small circle of well-placed Darod people who, the president was informed, met to discuss ways to advance particular Darod interests. The secret fact was that they were discussing how to create a better, democratic Somalia once Siad was gone. My friend believed, and it seemed reasonable to me, that the old Somali democratic tradition would reassert itself. Initially there would probably be some sort of junta headed by both civilians and military officers. One could hardly exclude the men who had the guns. But the post-Siad future should be brighter; and it did not seem Siad’s rule would last very much longer. He had rebuilt a house at the air force headquarters adjacent to the airport, and now spent some nights there instead of at Villa Somalia. The reasonable assumption was that one night, but who knew when, he would flee the country.
My friend and I were wrong; terribly wrong. We did not foresee what happened, not soon but five years later–Siad’s flight not abroad but to the upper Juba valley, where he held out for months with his clan allies while the country fell apart and many, many thousands of Somalis died in civil war and famine.


TRAVELED ALL I COULD IN SOMALIA. My first trip to the north, the country of the Issak clans which until 1960 had been British Somaliland, came in early 1985.1 started at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. It was an old place, the Malao of the first-century Periplus, and it was squalid. I was lucky to stay at the camp of the M. W. Kellogg company, which had a Navy contract to rebuild and lengthen, for civilian and possible military use, the Soviet-built quay in the port. From Berbera I drove up to the largest northern city, Hargeisa, through the mile-high town of Sheikh, once the summer capital of the British Protectorate. It was from Sheikh that a reckless officer named Corfield had ridden out in 1913 with a mounted force in pursuit of the “Mad Mullah,” Mohamed Abdallah Hassan, whom Somalis revere as the Said. The Said, who had declared a holy war against the British, was both a great fighter and a great poet. Corfield lost his life, and the Said wrote, “Now, Corfield . . . the valiant Dervishes have slain you . . . they have abandoned your rotting corpse, with its gaping dagger wounds, to the carrion-eaters. . . .”3
Adan, the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry, had told me that while working for the British in Hargeisa in the 1950s he would often go walking in the woods above town. When I reached Hargeisa the woods had long since vanished, cut for firewood and charcoal for a population which had reached nearly half a million. I visited a ring of nearby refugee camps run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which was caring for over a hundred thousand people. Many ethnic Somalis had fled Ethiopia in the 1977-78 war; many of the Somalis and Oromo people in these camps were new arrivals, fleeing Mengistu’s program of forced resettlement which, we had heard, even his Soviet advisers thought unwise. These camps were competently run, but at the edge of Hargeisa I found a place called Gannet where forty thousand squatters were living in miserable shelters. It was not a UN camp; the people were there because the news had spread in the Ogaden that at Gannet was the food warehouse for the regular camps. Neither the Somalis nor the UN were caring for them. The rains were due in a month, and even if the drought continued in most of the country, there was sure to be rain at Hargeisa, five thousand feet above sea level. Gannet had no latrines; the people defecated on the ground; I foresaw a dysentery epidemic. After I returned to Mogadishu we pressured the refugee managers to act. Before they did, rain and disease came to Gannet. Not just dysentery, but cholera; over a thousand people died.


OTH IN 1985 AND 1986, MOST OF SOMALIA HAD SUFFICIENT RAINS. For now the drought was broken. This did not keep the Somalis from calling what they advertised as a major conference on the drought emergency. A European Community commissioner came from Brussels and the Somalis flew him inland to Belet Weyn to see the parched countryside. They were a little late in doing so. The plane was unable to land; the strip had been flooded by persistent rains. The conference brought no offers of additional aid from UN agencies or any government. The foreign minister spoke of “donor fatigue,” but it was a case of my ambassadorial colleagues and me being unwilling to support Somali requests for drought relief like the one for new millions to fight cholera, when it was not drought, but the rains that were bringing cholera, and the international community was already shipping in what was needed. Drought and famine would someday return to Somalia. I hoped that before that happened the Somalis might start resolving their country’s basic problems, more environmental and political than anything else. It was a faint hope.
I never sailed on a dhow. I did sail on a U.S. Navy hydrographic ship, the USNS Harkness, almost to the Horn of Africa to see the great headland called Ras Hafun, where a British archaeologist had found Roman remains, where the Italians had produced a quarter-million tons of salt a year before World War II—and where some CENTCOM people dreamed of building a great American supply base. Fortunately, Washington agreed with me that it was a wild idea.
In the spring of 1986, I was getting good marks for my work in Somalia, but I had decided to leave government. Mr. Reagan was doing no better by our country in his second term, and I thought I was still young enough to do other things. I went on one last trip, with Bill and Arlene Fullerton, to the northeast, which had not been visited by either of our embassies for several years. The Somalis were pressing both of us to provide more aid to the region and we wanted to see what the real needs were. Modest, it turned out.
We also wanted to have some fun, if you could call it that. Fullerton and I wanted to make our way, by whatever means we could find, to Cape Guardafui, and stand on the very Horn of Africa, as perhaps no ambassador had ever done before. And we made it, by small plane and Land Rover and fishing boat and finally, the last several miles, on foot across a landscape of sand and marble. Then I came home to America. I left Somalia sorry that I would never go back to that poor country of brilliant sunlight.
Well, I did return; but that is another story.

END NOTES1. See “The Italian Connection: How Rome Helped Ruin Somalia,” by Wolfgang Achtner in the Washington Post, January 24, 1993. The last Italian ambassador to Somalia, Mario Sica, who arrived there in 1990, gives a defensive account of Italy’s aid programs in his Operazione Somalia (Venice: Marsili Editori, 1994) .

2. I. M. Lewis, Somali Culture, History and Social Institutions (London: School of Economics and Political Science, 1981), 39-40.

3. Translation by Abdi Sheik-Abdi in Divine Madness (London: Zed Books, 1993), 77.

Note: This article appeared in a slightly different form under the title “Safirka: The Envoy in Somalia,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1998, pp. 1-21. Published with permission.

© Copyright 1997 by Peter Bridges.

Comments are closed.