By the end of the Sixties people had become tired with the corrupt and autocratic government which paid little attention to their needs. The assassination of President Shermarke on the 15th October 1969 brought the short democratic rule to an end. On October 21st 1969, the army took control of the government without encountering resistance. The reins of power were held strictly by General Muhammad Syiad Barre. Barre’s government chose scientific socialism as the ideological framework for the country’s development. This decision placed Somalia in the Socialist camp and made Somalia a huge recipient of Soviet assistance in military and economic terms. Marxism, Islam and anti-imperialism were all combined in an energetic effort to transform the state and modernize the nation. In the first years of his governance, Barre had some important successes. Unemployed youths were recruited for a whole series of public work projects. Destitute children and orphans were gathered into the Revolutionary Youth Center where they were fed, clothed and educated under revolutionary ideals. Serious programmes against corruption were introduced, and tribalism was blamed as the ‘anathema’ that for so long had kept the nation backward.
Τhe most important achievement of Barre’s administration was probably the introduction, for the first time in Somali history, of an official orthography using the Latin script for the Somali language. Massive literacy campaigns started in the early seventies that proved to be popular and successful. Women were empowered to take more active roles in society and the socialist government introduced inheritance rights for women. Schemes for health and veterinary care were introduced for the nomadic population in the rural areas. General Siyad Barre engaged in a process of improving the efficiency and education levels of state officials in 1973. These massive campaigns for social change were combined with strict control of the economy and brutal suppression of any opposition. The dictatorship of Siyad Barrre has rightly been characterized as one of the most repressive governments in Africa. This is quite a weighty title, if we take into consideration that Mobutu controlled Zaire and Bokassa was ‘emperor’ of Central African Republic at the time.
By the mid-seventies the political climate changed. In 1974 catastrophic drought and famine led to the forced displacement of the northern pastoralists into southern Somalia which was observed as an aggressive act against the Isaaq who preferred to remain in their home areas and receive aid from the government. Later on in 1977, French Somaliland became independent and voted against the union with the Republic of Somalia, thus becoming the independent state of Djibouti. Meanwhile, inside Ethiopia in the Ogaden region, Somalis rebelled against the authority of Addis Ababa following Haile Selassie’s overthrow. The establishment of the communist Derg in Ethiopia in 1974 made the Soviet Union abandon its military assistance to Somalia and focus on supporting communist Ethiopia, which seemed a more significant country in the global arena.
The Ogaden’s Somali Nationalists had already set up their rebel organization – the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) - and by the mid ‘70s were at open war with the Ethiopian forces. These political facts led Barre to order a full scale offensive in support of WSLF, with the goal to reclaim the Somali inhabited desert of Ogaden. By late 1977 the Somali troops controlled Ogaden and had advanced up to the point of Harar, a major eastern Ethiopian town. Russian and Cuban forces in support of the Ethiopian Army beat back the Somali forces. After two years of war the Somalis had witnessed one of their most serious defeats which had destructive consequences in its internal affairs. This defeat led to the vast exodus of Ogadeni Somalis and Oromos from Eastern Ethiopia. Up to one million refugees entered Somalia from 1978 to 1980, further straining the fragile economy. By the end of 1980 one out of every four people in Somalia was a refugee.