Saturday, August 18, 2018
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The Trials and Tribulations of Omar Pilot

By Adan Makina

Mistreatment of Somalis in pre and post-independent Kenya was precariously and institutionally carried out on a wide scale in brusquely overbearing ways.[i] The hardships endured by Omar Farah Hussein Ali who was among the first Somali pilots in Kenya, better known as Omar Pilot is worth contemplating. Born December 1951 in Raya near Garissa town, Omar and his other siblings were raised by their aunt after the death of their dear mother. They were transported to Kericho town which was home to their lovely aunt. Later on, the family moved to Tarime in north-western Tanzania to attend school. Omar and two other students were the first Muslims to be accepted to attend Alliance Secondary School in Musoma, Tanzania.

Omar flying KPLC helicopter

Omar’s veteran father received his military training in Italy and later years fought in WWII while holding the rank of Corporal in the Italian Colonial Army. He could have been stationed in the Gedo Region of Somalia or at Elwak in northern Kenya during the British-Italian War over Somali territories. During the British-Italian War over Somaliland, Italy conquered parts of Jubbaland in southern Somalia and Buna and Moyale in northern Kenya.[ii] Prior to the death of Omar’s mother, his indefatigable and war-hardened father, Farah Soldat (soldier in Italian), was with his children in Raya but moved to Balambala within Garissa District.

During a recruitment drive at Eastleigh Airbase in Nairobi for student pilots to serve in the Kenya Air Force in 1974, Omar was among eleven recruits from different ethnic groups who were selected from many unemployed youth. Indecorously, of the eleven recruits who were selected for the Air Force student pilot training, Omar and three others who were the only Muslims, were fired unceremoniously without just cause. Majority of the jobseekers travelled from other regions to partake in that scandalous and discourteous misconduct instigated by recruiters driven by ethnic favouritisms and nepotisms.

In another contravention of equally unabashed enormity, the Air Wing of the Kenya Police conducted an enlistment exercise at Wilson Airport in 1975. Unfortunately, since things aren’t always the way they are and that we think conditions never change, the recruiting officer, a White Officer who was the Deputy Commissioner of Police tilted the scale of balance by coming to the rescue of besieged and victimized Omar. Since Somalis were at the lowest step of the ‘citizenship ladder’[iii] in post-independent Kenya, the White Officer objected to the recruitment of ethnic groups from other regions of Kenya other than Somalis.

According to Abdilleh Soldat who is the younger brother of the Veteran Pilot, “in the 8 regions or provinces in the country, the requirement was to fill in their locals but, North Eastern being marginalized, the other locals who came from the other 7 regions took their slots to stop the Somalis to join the recruitment.”[iv] Astoundingly, majority of the other recruits were non-Somalis some of who had travelled from central Kenya to grab the employment opportunity reserved for the marginalized Somali. The White Officer hired Omar after sending home the other mischievous recruits.

With the restriction of Somalis for employment rife in the country, Omar encountered another hurdle: getting a national passport that would ease his travel to Oxford Air Training School, England to embark on his anticipated piloting course. Before getting attracted to the career of piloting airplanes, Omar was an Auditor at Garissa District headquarters office. Since obtaining a passport required the approval of the District Commissioner–a public figure Omar had worked with for years, a blunt rejection by the pestiferous DC to inscribe his signature on the passport application, created a new dilemma that ultimately infuriated the quintessential Mr. Douglas. By then all other candidates had secured their national passports except Omar.

Returning empty handed to Nairobi, Omar met with the White Police Commissioner who inquired if he had his passport in hand to which Omar responded in the negative. Enraged, the Whiteman instructed Omar to hop onto a two-seater plane. In less than an hour, the two landed in Garissa and headed straight to the DC’s office in Garissa in a reserved Land Rover. The White Commissioner kicked the door to the DC’s office with sheer force almost rendering it beyond repair. Like a rat startled by a cat, the DC signed Omar’s passport application on the spot. The duo returned to Nairobi on the same day where Omar’s passport was processed by the immigration department in a timely manner. Such was the individual and general subjugation of Somalis.

After two years of training, Omar and the rest returned to Kenya where he was forced to fly under difficult weather conditions. He flew into hostile tribal territories mostly in northern Kenya where pilots from other ethnic groups avoided for fear of being shot down. At times Omar would land on dangerous terrains that were reserved as airstrips. Those days, pilots and the rest of the police force wore short pants as uniform and it was Omar who came up with the idea of introducing long trousers. Omar claimed it was against his Islamic faith to expose his body parts, an idea that got the attention of his superiors. After serving six years while holding the rank of Senior Inspector, Omar decided to call it quits. To his amazement, he was denied to leave the police force ceremoniously while his logbook was withheld indefinitely. However, after three harrowing months, a decision was reached to let him go and his logbook released without strings attached.

Omar and son Samatar (1982)

After retiring from the Kenya Police Air Wing, Omar flew for different groups operating lighter aircrafts such as Frontier Airlines, Pioneer Airlines, Sunbird Aviation, Sky Masters Airlines, United Airlines, Western Airways, and the Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC) as a company Pilot.  Since KPLC owned a Cessna 303 CR that was not perfect for inspecting the grid lines from hydro electric power stations to Mombasa for faults, Omar switched to flying helicopters.

After leaving KPLC, the veteran pilot purchased his own Cessna 5Y-FUF. The last three alphabets, FUF, which denote Foxtrot Uniform Foxtrot was named after his daughter Fatuma Omar Farah. Unfortunately, the light aircraft crashed in later years while being piloted by a pioneer friend.

Omar had a strange story to narrate to the writer of this article. In 1991, after the collapse of the central government in Somalia, the former President, Siyad Barre who was holed up in Buur Dhuubo town in Somalia’s Gedo region, radioed Kenya’s leader asking for medical assistance together with a special British doctor to overturn his deteriorating health. After thorough discussion with his interior minister, a decision was reached to dispatch Omar for the dangerous and almost impossible mission. With two radars monitoring Kenya’s airspace, one on Mount Kenya and the other in Wajir military base, Omar had to do everything possible to evade radar detection.

For Omar, it was a hide and seek mission. Even though he was detected by the radar operated by the Kenya military in Wajir, his lame excuse bore fruit. He claimed to have been lost around Elwak–a border town near Mandera. With permission given to land at Elwak airstrip, Omar stealthily brought down the plane to a landing position then took off into Somali territory. Upon landing at the sandy airstrip of Buur Dhuubo, Omar was met by a retinue of Somali officers under the command of Siyad Barre’s son in-law, the famous General Mohamed Said Hersi Morgan who once commanded the northern-based 26th Division of the Somali Defense Force (SDF) and later was appointed Minister for Defense. Omar executed his dangerous mission successfully.

Adan Makina

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[i] Lochery, Emma. “Rendering difference visible: The Kenyan state and its Somali citizens.” African Affairs 111.445 (2012): 615-639.
[ii] “The loss of Italian East Africa (in Italian)”. La Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Archived from the original on August 2, 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2018.
[iii] Bezabeh, Samson A. “Citizenship and the Logic of Sovereignty in Djibouti.” African Affairs 110.441 (2011): 587-606.
[iv] Interview with Abdille Soldat, Garissa, 11 May, 2018.

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