Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Abdirizak H. Hussein: A Reflection

By Hassan M. Abukar

Three years have gone by since the passing of Abdirizak Haji Hussein, the former prime minister of Somalia. Since then, two books have been written about him: Abdi I. Samatar’s Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussein, and Abdirizak Haji Hussein: My Role in the Foundation of the Somali Nation-State, a Political Memoir, edited by Abdisalam Issa-Salwe. Both books are important additions to Somali studies because they cover Abdirizak’s early life and his tenure as premier.

Prime Minister Abdirizak H. Hussein in the 1960s.

Abdirizak, a major historical figure in Somalia, has always generated unusual interest among Somalis. On the one hand, he was an incorruptible politician and a reformist, embodying two traits that have scarcely been found in Somali politics for a long time. Yet, a few still see him as a product of his time, the 1960s, an era during which when clan politics were the norm. My reflection on Abdirizak was partly shaped by my childhood memories, family ties, and a meeting with him at a Somali conference in Europe several years ago.

I grew up in a household in which Abdirizak was neither lionized nor reviled. My mother, a northeasterner, sympathized with former premier and president, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who belonged to her sub-clan. Her lukewarm attitude toward Abdirizak was not accidental. In fact, it was more personal than political. Abdirizak had fired her brother, my beloved uncle Abdi Gurey, when he became prime minister. Abdirizak, the ever-conscious leader of Karti iyo Hufnaan (efficiency and integrity), instituted a mass firing when he took office. Many civil servants, who owed their positions to patronage, lost their jobs. Many were collecting salaries without reporting to work, while others were simply inept. Abdirizak did the taxpayers a favor by eliminating these loafers from the government’s payroll. My uncle, not a man known for his good work ethic, eventually benefited from his firing when he started a new business in rental cars. However, my mother and my uncle never forgot his unfortunate job termination.

In the 1970s, Abdirahman Jama Barre became the foreign minister of Somalia. (Full Disclosure: Abdirahman and I are related through marriage). Abdirizak was at the time serving as Somalia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Without going into much detail about the relationship between Abdirahman and Abdirizak, it can be said that the two had a deep and visceral loathing for each other; interestingly enough, their feelings dated back to the 1960s. At that time, Abdirizak was premier and Abdirahman a junior bureaucrat in the foreign ministry. They had crossed paths on numerous occasions, and their encounters were formal but mistrustful.  Paradoxically, Siad Barre, Abdirahman’s brother, and at the time head of the armed forces, had an amicable relationship with Abdirizak.

In a reversal of fortune, Siad Barre seized power in 1969 and arrested many politicians including Abdirizak. After three years, Abdirizak was released from prison and retired to his farm in Janale, 95 kilometers (59 miles) south of Mogadishu. Barre, whose secret service operatives were keeping Abdirizak under surveillance, became insecure and wondered what Abdirizak, the man who had refused to endorse his military takeover, was up to in his retirement. Barre decided to name Abdirizak as ambassador to the United Nations; by doing this he could send a potential rival all the way to New York.

Regarding Abdirahman and Abdirizak’s relationship, there were two anecdotes about the genesis of their inimical relationship that are cited by supporters of each man.

Say What?

Members of Abdirahman’s camp tell me about an incident in the mid-1960s when the two men had a minor tiff. Abdirahman, then a junior bureaucrat, had been summoned to Abdirizak’s office and was reprimanded for an administrative mishap. Abdirahman, in a moment of inexplicable anger, gazed at Abdirizak with scorn and said, “War wax yahow,” (you, an inanimate object) and then walked out without uttering another word. Abdirizak, stony-faced, looked at Abdirahman in bewilderment and then went back to his paperwork. Abdirahman was not punished following the incident. This raises some disturbing questions. Was this a case of insubordination on the part of Abdirahman, or was it a manifestation of political realism on the part of Abdirizak?

Normally, Abdirahman’s action would have been classified as an act of insubordination or, at a minimum, ill-mannered behavior. First, one does not talk back to one’s superior. Second, one does not call him “an object.” It is well known that Abdirizak was widely feared in government circles because he was, as author Ismail “Geeldoon” Ali Ismail aptly wrote in his book, Governance, a reformer but nonetheless “a strong leader with a streak of authoritarianism.” Perhaps this incident was one of those moments when Abdirahman was presented as a fearless bureaucrat who did not cower or bow to anyone.

Abdirahman J. Barre in the 1960s.

If this incident happened as it was told to me, there are three possible reasons why Abdirizak did not take corrective action against the junior bureaucrat.

First, Abdirizak became prime minister only four years after the country gained its independence. Abdirahman was either the second or third civil servant hired by the new foreign ministry in 1960. He had recently completed university training in political economy in Italy. At the time, Somalia did not have a pool of university graduates and most of the country’s leaders, including Abdirizak, had neither higher education nor extensive experience in administration. Abdirahman was young and fresh out of college. His job in the foreign ministry was the beginning of many years he would spend toiling in the administrative aspect of diplomacy. Being one of a handful of university graduates apparently put him in a unique position to help the nascent country. Abdirizak was a realist, and he did not want to lose an educated civil servant.

Second, it may also have been for purely political and clannish reasons that Abdirizak did not act against Abdirahman. The latter was no ordinary young bureaucrat; he was the brother of the commander of the armed forces, Siad Barre. One might argue that Abdirizak did not want to alienate Siad Barre, a prominent Darod figure and a political ally. When General Daud Abdulle Hirsi, the previous commander of the armed forces, died in 1965, some powerful politicians tried to ensure that his position did not go to his deputy, Siad Barre. “Abdirizak may have lobbied for Mohamed Siyaad Barre’s promotion,” wrote Hussein Bulhan, author of Politics of Cain: One Hundred Years of Crises in Somali Politics and Society (2008) and a diehard seccessionist, “in order to forestall another Hawiye to replace Daarood.” In other words, “Despite Abdirizak’s reputation for promoting people based on merit, he may have chosen in this case to affirm loyalty to another Daarood.” Bulhan could be wrong; Abdirizak could also have wanted to preserve seniority in the armed forces.

Incidentally, Abdirizak was also involved in an eternal power struggle with his rival and fellow Majerteen, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, and therefore needed the support of General Siad Barre. It is a known fact that Abdirizak, prime minister at the time, put Sharmarke under twenty-four surveillance, and Sharmarke was not even in the government.  Sharmarke was constantly followed by secret service agents, and his daily activities were reported to Abdirizak. This Nixonian aspect of Abdirizak’s rule is something his fervent supporters would rather not talk about. In his book, The Cost of Dictatorship: The Somali Experience (1993), Jama Mohamd Ghalib, also known as Jama Yare, wrote about Abdirizak’s actions. Jama Yare was then the head of the Special Branch of the Somali police and he said he ended the illegal surveillance.

President Siad Barre

A third possible explanation for Abdirizak’s lack of response to Abdirahman was an attempt by the prime minister to stay above the fray. He simply might have chosen to take the high road and let the matter slide. Perhaps Abdirizak saw the entire incident as too trivial to merit a response. If he’d wanted to, he could have pulverized Abdirahman, but instead he refused to assign any importance to the matter. This attitude was similar to that of a beleaguered American general who once said, “As a professional soldier, I had been shot at so many times that one more shot from an amateur would not hurt me.”

An incident at Croce Del Sud

Supporters of Abdirizak told me about an incident between Abdirahman and Abdirizak that happened in the 1960s. Siad Barre, then the head of the armed forces, met Abdirizak at the Croce the Del Sud restaurant in Mogadishu in order to ask the premier, as a favor, to give his younger brother, Abdirahman, a plum job. While the two men were drinking coffee, Abdirahman, wearing his signature bow tie, arrived and joined them. Abdirahman was known for brash talk and a tendency to rub people the wrong way, and during the conversation, he said something that miffedhe prime minister. Siad Barre was visibly shaken. After Abdirahman had left, he said jokingly, and in an attempt to console the premier, “Cabdirisaaq, haddii uu jiro caqli iib ah, midkan baan u gadi lahaa.” (Abdirizak, if there was a brain for sale, I would have bought it for this [one]).  Abdirizak brushed off the faux pas, or so it seemed.

When in the late 1970s Abdirizak resigned from his diplomatic post in New York, he received a call from Hussein “Koofi Cadde” Mohamoud Mohamed (former head of Somali Airlines and ambassador to Djibouti). Koofi Cadde (a Marehan) reprimanded his old friend Abdirizak for failing to contact President Siad Barre, who at the time was on an official visit to Washington. Koofi Cadde said, “You and the president were long-time friends. Why didn’t you at least call him directly and explain to him about your troubles in the foreign ministry?” Abdirizak told Koofi Cadde that he had suffered enough embarrassment and humiliation working under Abdirahman, the foreign minister, who was “someone whom Siad Barre himself had once implied had no brains.”

When I met Abdirizak in Europe, he was engaging and forceful in advancing nationalistic sentiments. He gave a powerful speech to Somali politicians, traditional elders, and intellectuals in which he called for transparency, clean governance, and commitment to do what is best for the country. On the side, I asked him about a few issues, including his relationship with Abdirahman. Though critical of Abdirahman’s heavy-handedness and unprofessional conduct in the foreign ministry, Abdirizak was adamant that he had resigned from his post due to serious disagreements with President Siad Barre and the wrong direction the country was headed. Interestingly, Abdirizak had no recollection of the incident between him and Abdirahman when the latter had allegedly offended him in his office. Abdirizak was more interested in talking about the future of Somalia than an obscure moment of bureaucratic bungling that had happened in the 1960s.

In summary, Abdirizak Haji Hussein was a statesman for many with convergent and divergent political views. There are those who fawningly lionize him and want to own his legacy to further their personal careers. There are others who see him as a national hero, but also as a man of obvious flaws in a country that was dominated by clan politics. In a way, he was hamstrung by a system that undermined his true potential. Moreover, he served as premier for only three years. In my humble opinion, however, he will always remain a unique leader whose equal has yet to be found in Somalia. Abdirizak had a rare combination of reform-mindedness, unbridled integrity, and burning nationalism.

Hassan M. Abukar


Hassan M. Abukar is a political analyst, a contributor to Wardheernews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at

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