THE hijacking of a Somali airliner on Nov. 24 by military dissidents drew renewed attention to the deep-seated cleavages that threaten to sunder the stable appearance of the United States' firmest friend on the edge of the troubled Middle East. Because of its position, Somalia has an obvious strategic value.
President Mohamed Siad Barre recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of the military coup that brought him to power and ended Somalia's nine-year experiment with democracy. At first President Barre ruled autocrati-cally, with lavish Soviet assistance. But he abandoned the Soviets in 1977 when they tried as well to befriend Ethiopia, Somalia's bigger neighbor and arch rival.
This shift in alliances provided an opening for the US, which had been very close to Ethiopia before the revolution of 1974. Since 1979 the US has given significant amounts of assistance to Somalia and has refurbished the old Soviet airfield and port at Berbera, in northern Somalia across the Gulf of Aden from Southern Yemen and near the critical Bab el Mandeb strait at the southern end of the Red Sea.
Somalia is a country of nomads who herd cattle, sheep, and goats across a wasteland slightly smaller than Texas. Its population is about 5 million, all of whom are Muslims. They speak Somali, as well as English, Italian, and Arabic. Yet Somalia has fierce ethnic rivalries.
The hijackers were northerners, from what before 1960 was the British colony of Somaliland. They demanded the freeing of seven northern Somali youths who had been sentenced to die for opposing Barre's rule. They also sought the release of 14 former government officials, six of whom were jailed in 1982 for allegedly plotting a coup against Barre. The six have never been tried.
Northern Somalis oppose rule by southerners, who were brought up in what was the Italian colony and then the post-World War II Trust Territory of Somalia. More than the north-south split, there is a bitter resentment in many quarters at Barre's funneling of power and privilege of office to men largely drawn from his own Marehan clan. Modern Somalia includes nine major clans, none of which is believed to contain more than 12 percent of the entire population.
In a socialist state that is demonstrably corrupt, where the opportunities for achieving fortune, or even making a living, are all in the giving of Barre and the small group around him, it is no wonder that there is discontent among those who have been pushed aside. More broadly, many politicians and officials, even some of those who are still in the government, worry that Barre wants to abandon the US and resuscitate ties to the Soviets. Former Cabinet ministers cite overtures to the Soviets by President Barre which have been spurned, but may someday soon be accepted.
President Barre may hanker after the solid support against his internal allies, as well as the financial rewards for him and his cronies, which would follow a return to the Soviet fold.
US and other foreign aid provides about 30 percent of Somali gross domestic product annually. It has been the country's main source of foreign exchange since last year, when Saudi Arabia stopped buying Somali cattle on the hoof. (The Saudis claim that Somalia is contaminated with hoof-and-mouth disease, but the Saudis also want to exert pressure on Somalia to become more puritanical in its worship of Islam.)
The Saudis were supplying petroleum, but have turned off the tap. Without oil of their own, and without the foreign exchange with which to purchase more than minimal amounts to keep the Army and Air Force in limited amounts of diesel fuel , Somalia has fallen on hard times. Its shops are empty of imports. Gas is rationed. Endless lines of cars seek their daily injection of energy.
On the surface Somalia seems secure. President Barre's praetorian guard of men drawn from his own clan is powerful. The national Army of about 60,000 men, enormous for a country of Somalia's size, is demoralized, bruised by its losing battle for the Ogaden against the Ethiopians, badly paid, and without good equipment.
In addition to the regular Air Force, President Barre recently obtained 11 Hawker Hunters from Kuwait. They are for the repression of internal dissidence. No Somalis were available to fly or service them, however, so the President is reliably reported to have recruited white pilots from South Africa and Zimbabwe who once flew in the air forces of those countries. The aircraft are being maintained by a white-owned Kenyan company.
Because Berbera and the nearly 2,000-mile-long Somali coastline are strategically situated facing the Arabian Peninsula, the United States wants to keep its base and Somalia out of Soviet hands. It will give assistance to a country that uses it poorly, even knowing that much of the aid serves merely to shore up a regime that is unpopular and undemocratic. But official Americans also realize how fragile Somalia is and, possibly, how dangerous being tied to Barre may ultimately prove.