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Hail the commander, earn your meagre bread, dream in silence

By Bashir Goth - posted Friday, 5 May 2006

Both Iraq and Somalia have been ruled by ruthless dictators who squeezed their nation’s resources to the last drop, building hollow military machines.

A popular story says that when Hajjaj Bin Yusuf Al Thaqafi, the notorious tyrant, the butcher of many Muslims and the viceroy of the Ummayad rulers in Iraq, was about to die he wanted to do something that would make the people yearn for his reign and pray for his soul despite the atrocities and the genocides he committed against them.

He ordered that those who carried his coffin to the graveyard should take a straight path and demolish every building, house or mosque they encountered in their way, regardless of who owned it. When the order was carried out, the affected people thought that it was Hajjaj’s successor who ordered this destruction and brought such unprecedented calamity on them. They spontaneously started cursing the new viceroy and asked God’s mercy on Hajjaj’s soul saying: Salamullah Ala Hajjaj or “May peace be upon the soul of Hajjaj.”


It is a tragedy for a nation to survive under the highhandedness of a tyrant who inflicts untold misery, but it is a far worse tragedy when the moment of deliverance arrives, and the new saviour ushers in a situation that makes their predecessors’ reign seem like Plato’s ideal city: a situation where instead of breathing a sigh of relief and nursing wounds, people look back at the old days with nostalgia and yearn for them.

Nowhere is the truth of this anecdote more clearly manifested than in Iraq and Somalia. Both countries have been ruled by ruthless dictators who squeezed their nation’s resources to the last drop, building hollow military machines. Both Saddam Hussein and Siyad Barre went on a killing spree, slaughtering people in their hundreds and sometimes thousands and stripping them of their basic rights and human dignity. Both of them embarked on military adventures and depleted their countries of badly needed material and human resources for the sake of achieving illusionary nationalistic goals.

With the departure of these butchers after many years, people of both countries thought the sun would finally rise to end their long dark nights. For both nations, however, the situation had developed from grim to gloom. More people have died in more grisly manner than ever experienced under the reigns of dictatorship.

Despite the oppression and daily humiliation, people previously had jobs, children went to schools, universities produced graduates and professionals, and women were part and parcel of society, enjoying more freedom than experienced in many Arab-Islamic states. Under the dictatorship era, people had a political and ethical roadmap and followed it. The rule of thumb was to avoid politics, hail the commander, earn your meagre bread, dream in silence, and abandon all kinds of ambition except that of excelling in servitude to the divine leader.

Three years after the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people live in constant fear: death is at every corner and thousands of innocent citizens - women, children, elderly, students, teachers and ordinary citizens - going about their own business or worshiping their God in mosques, are blown up. While in Somalia, almost 16 years after Siyad Barre’s departure, the people live under the iron grip of tens of warlords whose ruthlessness and savagery make Siyad Barre’s atrocities look like child’s play.

Coming to power through a bloodless military coup in October 21, 1969, Siyad Barre ruled Somalia by the gun for more than 21 years. He wasted the meagre resources on self-aggrandising plans such as reviving an old dream of unifying the Somali people scattered in the Horn of African countries. Taking over the reigns of power in the same year, Saddam Hussein had also dreams of uniting the Arab nation under the banner of the Ba’ath Party.


Both men built a strong military might with the help of the former Soviet Union and launched a war on the more populous and more powerful neighbouring countries, Ethiopia and Iran. The two countries were coincidently going through similar circumstances at the time, where both of them had emerged from the shadows of rotten kingdoms, both weakened by internal strife and grinding economic conditions.

The two dictators’ euphoria in their Pyrrhic victories over Ethiopia and Iran, however, didn’t last long. In the case of Somalia, the Soviet Union had switched sides when young officers overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie: bringing an end to the longest reigning kingdom in Africa south of the Sahara, and declared Ethiopia as a socialist state. With newly acquired Soviet military hardware and thousands of Cuban forces, Siyad Barre’s forces were badly defeated in the harsh Ogaden desert. The eight-year war with Iran also left Saddam with empty coffers and an oversized military returning home to roost.

Siyad Barre’s plight came first when angry units made an attempt to overthrow him. He aborted the coup with the help of his close henchmen. He then entered a state of panic and fear of all people. He started an era of oppression, torture and summary executions of perceived enemies.

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First published in the Khaleej Times on April 18, 2006.

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About the Author

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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