For his post-secondary education, Samatar studied at the Frunze Military Academy in the former Soviet Union, an elite institution reserved for the most qualified officers of the Warsaw Pact armies and their allies.
A Lieutenant General in the Somali National Army (SNA), Samatar was a key figure in Somali politics throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During the Ogaden campaign of the late 1970s, he led all SNA units and their Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) affiliates. He also served as national Defense Minister from 1980 to 1986.
Samatar was a member of President Siad Barre's ruling Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC). In May 1986, Barre suffered serious injuries in a life-threatening automobile accident near Mogadishu, when the car that was transporting him smashed into the back of a bus during a heavy rainstorm. He was treated in a hospital in Saudi Arabia for head injuries, broken ribs and shock over a period of a month. Samatar, who was then serving as Vice President, subsequently served as de facto head of state for the next several months. Although Barre managed to recover enough to present himself as the sole presidential candidate for re-election over a term of seven years on December 23, 1986, his poor health and advanced age led to speculation about who would succeed him in power. Possible contenders included his son-in-law General Ahmed Suleiman Abdille, who was at the time the Minister of the Interior, in addition to Barre's Vice President Lt. Gen. Samatar.
From February 1, 1987, to September 3, 1990, Samatar was the national Prime Minister, the first person to fill that post since Barre abolished the position upon seizing power in 1969.
In the late 1970s, Samatar was the Chief Commanding Officer of the Somali National Army during the Ogaden Campaign. He and his frontline deputies faced off against their mentor and former Frunze alumni Marshal Vasily Ivanovich Petrov, who was assigned by the USSR to advise the Ethiopian Army, in addition to 15,000 Cuban troops supporting Ethiopia, led by General Arnaldo Ochoa. The Ogaden Campaign was part of a broader effort to unite all of the Somali-inhabited territories in the Horn region into a Greater Somalia (Soomaaliweyn).
A tough, determined man, used to having his wishes carried out promptly.