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Forty-two years on, freedom-fighting Welsh Somalilander recalls the day he avoided prison

20 Feb 2024 6 minute read
Eid Ali Ahmed and three UFFO comrades with Cardiff Lord Mayor Brian Griffiths and his Lady Mayoress in 2010

Martin Shipton

A leading member of the Welsh Somaliland community has been recalling the day 42 years ago when he avoided being jailed with 20 fellow freedom fighters because he had escaped to a neighbouring country.

Around 20 of Eid Ali Ahmed’s comrades were jailed, some with life sentences, for taking a stand against the brutal regime of Siad Barre, the president and dictator of Somalia.

Eid and his colleagues had formed a group of intellectuals known as UFFO (a strong wind in Somalia), to discuss and write about the way their northern part of the country was being starved of resources – and what they could do about it.

In the autumn of 1981 they were arrested and on February 20 1982 sentenced to terms of imprisonment, their varying sentences of between three years and life to be served in the faraway capital Mogadishu and remote locations in the country’s south west.

Eid wasn’t among them – he’d been warned that if he returned from the neighbouring country of Djibouti, where he had a trading business, he would be arrested.

Breakaway republic

The fact that he wasn’t in custody was of benefit to the nascent freedom movement that wanted to establish a breakaway republic within the old borders of what had been British Somaliland before it merged with the former Italian colony of Somalia 20 years before.

Eid went to the UK, settling in Cardiff where years later, having been a refugee himself, he became deputy chief executive of the Welsh Refugee Council.

In the meantime, however, despite the setback of his friends’ arrest, he was free to plan for his nation’s future.

Now splitting his time between Cardiff and Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa, he recalled the day his comrades were sentenced: “It was a big blow to our cause, but we weren’t going to give up. There was so much injustice in the way Somaliland was treated. All the resources of Somalia were devoted to Mogadishu and our people were forced to live in extreme poverty. There were no universities and anyone who wanted tertiary education either had to go to Mogadishu or overseas.”

By 1989 power was ebbing away from Siad Barre, and Eid’s jailed comrades had either completed their sentences or benefitted from an amnesty. UFFO had developed into the Somali National Movement (SNM), which led an armed struggle which resulted in the defeat of the dictator and the creation of a de facto independent state.

Stable democracy

The prescience of the freedom fighters in splitting off from Somalia has been amply demonstrated over the decades. While Somalia has descended into a chaotic failed state, with large chunks of its territory controlled by the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Al-Shabaab, Somaliland has developed into a stable democracy where elections are held and when an election is lost by the incumbent president, the reins of power are handed over to the winner without rancour – a rare occurrence on the African continent.

The missing ingredient has been the lack of international recognition – a factor that has impeded Somaliland’s economic development because of the reluctance of foreign investors to put money into an economy that does not have a tradable currency.

Recently the Somaliland government achieved a breakthrough when it agreed in principle a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with neighbouring Ethiopia, a landlocked nation since its northern province of Eritrea broke away and became recognised as an independent state in 1993. Under the terms of the MOU, Ethiopia will grant recognition to Somaliland in return for access to the Red Sea and the Somaliland port of Berbera.

This recent development has made Eid optimistic that more countries will recognise Somaliland, including Britain.

He said; “Forty-two years ago the situation seemed bleak when my comrades were sent away to prison in Mogadishu and beyond. It takes two days by road to get to Mogadishu. But our spirit wasn’t broken. My mother told me not to come and visit her because she knew I would be arrested if I went back to Hargeisa. I came to the UK and found refuge in Cardiff, a place I love. Wales has been so welcoming to the people of Somaliland because of our links that go back many years, to the time when Cardiff was the biggest coal-exporting port in the world.”

Letter

Eid treasures a letter sent to him by his jailed friends from Djibouti after their release on August 13 1989 which said: “This is a thanks letter from our group and will write you a personal letter later. We thank you for all your efforts in our release from jail and the role that you and your organisation played in the material support that we got from Amnesty International.

“Thank Allah that your efforts were not all in vain. Our release and that of other political prisoners signifies how your efforts finally forced Faqash [ a phonetic sound in Somali used by Somalilanders to describe the sound Barre’s soldiers’ boots made against the mud. The people and the rebels eventually began to refer to all government soldiers from Somalia in a derogatory way as ‘Faqash’] to grant us our freedom.

“True, the way to freedom is a long way off, and we still need patience and reorganisation to achieve our objective. We don’t have to go deeper into the political and the socio-economic factors that govern our situation, for this letter is meant to be just a thanks letter. Anyway, we hope to contact you later on. Thanks very much and keep up the good work.”

One of Eid’s friends who was among those jailed in 1982 went on to become a minister in Somaliland’s first government after the revolution that ousted Siad Barre. Omer Esse now lives between London and Hargeisa.

He told Nation.Cymru: “My jail sentence of three years was the shortest of those of us who were sentenced in 1982. The conditions in the prison were terrible. There were big rats that came out of the toilet. Eid did the right thing in leaving Somaliland at the time. It meant he could work for the cause in freedom.

“He has always spoken very highly about Cardiff and Wales and about the help given to Somaliland by Welsh people.I always knew it would take time to gain international recognition. We’re still on that journey but the MOU with Ethiopia is a very significant step forward. A lot of MPs are supportive of our cause, and given that we have managed to establish a properly functioning democracy in contrast to Somalia, we hope the UK will recognise our independence soon.”

 


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Alwyn
Alwyn
1 month ago

Isn’t it ludicrous that Uk – or even Wales! – hasn’t yet recognised Somaliland?

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

VG doesn’t really do north of Methyr as with JFS doesn’t do south of Llandudno Junction. So good to have these folk with their finger on the pulse of Wales and it’s people.

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