Hargeisa, Somalia — ``You have only to look at a map of the Horn of Africa to understand our strategic importance,'' stressed Brig. Gen. Muhammad Haashi Gaani, the gov- ernment's strongman in this troubled northern region. Steel-faced and aloof, he leaned back in his chair in his boardroom-style office at the military's new headquarters here in Hargeisa.
``You have the Soviets in Ethiopia, the Soviets in South Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, and the Soviets in the Indian Ocean,'' he said, speaking through an interpreter in Somali, but occasionally dropping into English or Italian for emphasis. ``We are victims of a superpower struggle.''
The general was appointed acting governor of the Northwest Province this year. But he would rather discuss military matters than talk about thorny regional issues -- a preference that reflects his desire to divert attention from the growing political dissidence within Somalia itself.
Dissatisfaction with Somalian President Siyad Barre's corrupt and moribund socialist ``revolution'' has been growing steadily for years in Somalia. But in the north, which was British Somaliland until independence in 1960, it has become acute.
Although Somalia prides itself on being one of Africa's few single-ethnic nations (the others are Botswana and Lesotho), it suffers from severe tribal and clan cleavages. Many northerners bitterly resent what they consider to be discrimination by the southern-based tribes of which both President Barre and Gaani are members. Not only have the southerners concentrated economic development in their own region, but the president has showered jobs and privileges on his own Marehan clan.
As one of several possible successors to the president -- who, according to some reports, is ailing and may be intending to step down -- Gaani has established a ruthless reputation in Hargeisa for dealing with alleged political dissidents.
On July 29, one day before speaking with this reporter, he presided over a military tribunal held at the town's national theater in which a reported 17 dissidents were sentenced to death. They were shot by a firing squad hours later at the military shooting range outside town. Since the beginning of this year, as many as 100 dissidents and prisoners are said to have been executed.
But Gaani has, at the same time, impressed some members of the international-aid community by his proclaimed determination to step up economic development of the north, a move aimed at demonstrating the Somali government's active concern for the region. Since becoming acting governor, he has convened meetings of aid coordinators in his office where he has stressed the need for greater cooperation on water-conservation projects for agriculture. He has also supported the establishment of new industries, a nd wants to build an all-weather road to Djibouti, which would increase trade within the region.
But some observers say Gaani's hard-line policies show that the government is ``running scared.''
Barre's 16-year-old government faces armed opposition from two major dissident guerrilla movements, the Somali Democratic Salvation Front and the Somali National Movement. Both groups are backed by Ethiopia and Libya.
The groups are reportedly attracting sympathy among the local population. In the northwest region -- where urban communities are known for their good contacts abroad and for populations that work harder than their southern neighbors -- secessionist views are often heard. These range from calls for regional autonomy to demands for outright independence or union with Djibouti.
Guerrilla activities have been concentrated mainly in frontier areas. But they sometimes spill over into the towns, including the Somalian capital, Moga- dishu. Last December, the security forces brutally crushed a 600-man guerrilla detachment from across the border and cracked down on suspected rebel sympathizers within Hargeisa.
The atmosphere in Hargeisa last month appeared tense. Antigovernment feeling was widespread. The likes of General Gaani have done little to alleviate this tension. Public animosity is directed against the military and the National Security Service (NSS) for their blatant abuse of the local population.
``They are just stealing from the people. People are scared,'' said one Western relief worker. ``Everybody hates the government. But what can they do? If they say too much, they just disappear.''
Somali and Western sources say the security forces, most of whom are brought in from the south, act more like occupation troops. With the northwest province still under a state of emergency, numerous security checkpoints dot the outskirts of Hargeisa and other towns, and along the main roads. Local residents (but not foreigners) need permits to travel from one place to another, and are forbidden to move around after 10 p.m.
Residents are constantly arrested and taken to jail. Some are held only for a few hours or days, others for longer periods. ``People simply disappear into the night,'' said one Somali source. The main detention center is near Gaani's headquarters, but political prisoners are also sent to jails in the south, a few never to be heard from again.
``When we learn that one of our local staff have been picked up, we can usually go down to the detention center and get them out,'' said one European aid coordinator. ``The ones who suffer are those without outside connections.''
Such assertions were confirmed by the human-rights group Amnesty International (AI) in its last annual report. Although some Western diplomats say the Barre government is not as bad as many other African nations, AI cites many reported cases of ``harsh'' treatment of political detainees in Somalia.
``No matter how you look at it, this government is nothing less than a dictatorship,'' commented a Somali businessman. ``These people have got to go.''