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Somali President Jaalle Maxamed Siyaad Barre

When Siad Barre took over

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By Jonathan Stevenson

When Siad Barre took over, Somalia’s population was three-quarters nomadic and largely illiterate. Nationalization of agricultural industries focused and coordinated production, crowded out sleazy and inefficient middlemen, and nurtured foreign trade. Through largely inspirational government self-help programs Somalis built an operating health and education infrastructure from the ground up and inched Somalia in to the twentieth century. In 1973, Siad instituted Somalia’s first written language (a hybrid of indigenous argots and Arabic) and promptly brought literacy in Somalia up to a level that was in fact exemplary for the Third World. By 1975, with his program of “scientific socialism”, he had centralized the budget, nationalized land, and imposed wage and price controls. He conscientiously tried to ban khat, recognizing that it rotted the core of Somalia’s work force by creating young addicts who spent the morning hours scoring the amphetamine weed and the afternoon hours chewing it. The ban didn’t work—but Siad tried.

At the same time, Siad left the most lucrative industries in private hands and devoted 20 percent of his budget to the military. Private plantation owners, many of them Italian, continued to grow all of Somalia’s bananas, and individualistic nomads remained free to trade their livestock on the Arab and Persian Gulf market. That Siad’s economy was mixed, not dyed-in-the-wool socalist, reflected his intention to fund Somalia’s economic progress eclectically, and not only from the Soviet Union. He recognized that Somalis were at heart mercantilist entrepreneurs, driven by profit.

 In 1972, Siad admitted, with prescience no doubt unintended, "Our nation is rather too clannish. If all Somalis are to go to hell, tribalism will be their vehicle to reach there."

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