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A Role Model in Leadership: The Political Culture of President Adan Abdulle   

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow

Leaders play a pivotal role in shaping the fate of nations, wielding their attributes and authority to either steer them toward prosperity or plunge them into chaos. Visionary and virtuous leaders facilitate peace and progress, while those lacking vision and integrity lead their nations into crises and poverty. In “The Trouble with Nigeria,” Chinua Achebe asserts that Nigeria’s core problem lies in its leadership deficiencies. He argues that Nigeria, like many African states, grapples with issues such as tribalism, corruption, and social inequality due to ineffective leadership. Achebe emphasizes the potential for improvement if capable and ethical leaders take charge. In the tumultuous landscape of post-independence Africa and Arab countries, typified by authoritarianism and a sense of ownership over states, Somalia stands as a bridge between these regions.

The late President Adan Abdulle

Despite this, a few remarkable leaders, like President Adan A. Osman, showcased democratic credentials amid daunting challenges. While Somalia is often associated with military rule, state collapse, and civil war, it’s imperative to shed light on the democratic era led by President Adan. Understanding the qualities distinguishing him from most of his colleagues is essential in presenting him as a beacon and a role model for the new generation of Somali leaders. As the expert on the history of this period, Mohamed Trunji, aptly puts it, “Most of today’s generation finds it incomprehensible that the Somali leaders of such high caliber existed in recent history.”

 Adan Abdulle (1908-2007) played a significant role in the struggle for Somali independence, demonstrating his leadership abilities within the Somali Youth League Party (SYL). He served in various capacities during the UN Trusteeship period (1950-1960), including as deputy chairman of the Territorial Council and chairman of SYL (1953-1956). Adan’s astuteness was evident during the first parliamentary election in 1956 when SYL emerged victorious, leading to his election as parliament speaker. Since the 1950s, Somalia has embarked on the challenging task of modern state governance and democratic elections in its traditionally clan-based society. This transition led to politicized clan divisions, even within the Somali Youth League (SYL) party. Adan Abdulle, serving as parliament speaker and later as chairman of SYL and president of the Somali Republic from 1960 to 1967, played a crucial role in shaping the nascent Somali state.

During his term, President Adan and his governments focused on unifying Somaliland and Italian Somalia, promoting the Greater Somalia project, fostering democracy, and establishing governance frameworks. Adan navigated Somalia through the complexities of superpower rivalries during the Cold War, engaging with international organizations like the Non-Aligned Movement, the Muslim World League, and joining the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Somalia’s pivotal role in these international arenas was exemplified by hosting the 6th OIC conference in 1966, where the president recommended establishing the OIC.

President Adan Abdulle hailed as “the Father of the Nation,” is celebrated as a beacon of exceptional leadership in Somalia and a pioneer of African democracy. Renowned for his commitment to democratic values, the rule of law, and political inclusivity, he stood apart from many Somali elites’ prevalent political clannism and self-serving ambitions. His graceful acceptance of defeat in the 1967 election and peaceful power transfer marked him as Africa’s first president-democrat, as Abdi Samar calls him. Unlike many liberation movement leaders, Adan Abdulle did not form his political party. Still, he ascended democratically within the Somali Youth League, having a background of local education uncommon among his African contemporaries, mostly educated in Europe. Despite his limited formal education up to the 5th class, he embraced democracy rooted in Somali cultural consensus-building. He withdrew from active politics after the end of his term, working in his firm in Jenale, south of Mogadishu.

Adan Abdulle, born in 1908 in El-Qurun, Hiiran region, faced early adversity, losing his mother in his early childhood and subsequently his father later. Despite his challenging upbringing, he pursued education and various jobs, displaying resilience and determination. He was exposed to Italian colonialism and fascism, shaping his understanding of oppression and injustice. Adan’s joining the Somali Youth Club (SYC) in 1944 led to his leadership within the Somali Youth League (SYL) and ultimately to his presidency of Somalia from 1960 to 1967. Adan’s post-presidential years were marked by a continued dedication to Somali unity and reconciliation, leading the Manifesto group to prevent the collapse of the state in 1991 and civil war afterward. Adan Abdulle’s biography unveils a distinct political culture in Somalia, departing from the prevalent poisonous elite political culture. His approach contrasted sharply with Somali and Italian elite cultures, collectively shaping Somalia’s politics, emphasizing the following five points:

a. Encouraging Political Inclusivity: Adan advocated against majoritarianism in Somali politics, which the SYL party exercised. He persistently proposed inclusive approaches to government formation despite facing resistance within his SYL party. However, he ultimately succeeded in forming a coalition government of various parties after independence in 1960.

b. Despising the Culture of Political Clannism: Adan disdained political clannism and political polarization and mediated numerous crises and conflicts fueled by clannism among politicians, aiming to reconcile differences and promote national unity.

c. Scorning Corruption and Vote-Paying: Adan staunchly resisted corruption and vote-buying, even when his competitors were doing so, refusing to engage in such practices during presidential elections (1961, 1967). He always upheld principles of decency, honesty, and fair play.

d. Refraining from Campaigning for Political Positions: Adan’s political career was characterized by a refusal to campaign to be elected, relying instead on trust and integrity. His leadership was driven by a genuine dedication to serving the people rather than a personal ambition for power.

e. President Adan was a Reconciler among Political Elites: Adan played a crucial role in mediating conflicts within his party and among political elites, particularly between Hawiye and Darood politicians competing for dominance who were members of this party, SYL.

Moreover, Adan Abdulle’s political culture and leadership approach were shaped by six key factors:

a. Upbringing as an Orphan: Adan’s upbringing as an orphan instilled in him a sense of self-reliance and independence. He avoided reliance on extended family, defining himself through personal responsibility and determination.

b. Experience Working with Italians: His early work experiences with various Italian individuals exposed him to European work culture and professional practices.

c. Belonging to the Udeejeen, Hawiye Clan: Adan’s clan did not pursue dominance over other clans or state institutions and is known for individuality. Thus, he was immune from clan pressure, seeking privileges and power like other politicians belonging to clans with dominating culture.

d. Marriage to a Majeerteen/Darood Wife: His marriage bridged the Hawiye and Darood competing politicians, symbolizing a nexus of reconciliation between his Hawiye clan and his Darood brothers-in-law (Seediyaal). The conflict between politicians from these two clan families threatened national unity, which remains until today.

e. Religious Roots and Anti-Colonialism: Raised within a family deeply committed to Islamic values and anti-colonial sentiments, Adan internalized principles of equality, justice, and consultation. He was a practicing Muslim, calibrating his values with those of Islam.

f. Passion for Reading Literature: Adan’s love for reading various literature topics gave him insights into global politics, nationalist movements, and state-building processes. His extensive reading enriched his understanding of governance and democracy.

During his term as parliament speaker and president, Adan Abdulle faced opposition from diverse groups, each driven by distinct motives and agendas. In alliance, five main groups finally voted President Adan out of power.

a. Opposition from Some Hawiye Politicians: Certain Hawiye politicians opposed Adan Abdulle’s leadership, expecting him to prioritize their clan’s interests. However, Adan remained committed to national unity, leading to discontent among Hawiye politicians who sought more clan-centric policies. Internal party competitions and leadership challenges underscored the Hawiye community’s divisions regarding the direction of Somali politics under Adan’s leadership.

b. Leftist Opposition: The influence of leftist ideology, championed by figures like Haji Mohamed Hussein, posed a challenge to Adan’s moderate policy. Haji Mohamed Hussein, a founding member of SYC, and his supporters embraced leftist principles and criticized Adan’s leadership. This ideological split led to Hussein’s expulsion from the SYL and the establishment of the Great Somalia League (GSL), which became a formidable force advocating for leftist principles supported by some Majeerteen politicians.

c. Discontented Isaaq Politicians: Politicians from Isaaq’s clan, led by Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, the leader of SNL, expressed dissatisfaction with Southern dominance in the unified nation’s power. Events such as the aborted officer’s coup in 1961 and the resignation of Isaaq ministers showcased this dissatisfaction. Egal strategically allied with disgruntled Hawiye politicians to challenge Adan’s authority, forming the SNC party and later forming an alliance with Majeerteen’s opposition led by Abdirashid.

d. The Group of PM Abdirashid and Elements of Deep State: The president refused to nominate Abdirashid after the 1964 election even though the central committee of SYL recommended it. Thus, Abdirashid and some former members of his cabinet were engaged in fierce opposition to the Adan/Abdirizak administration.

e. Elements of Deep State: Many old-timers were fired from their positions during the civil service reform in the Abdirizak government (Busta Rossa). Some high-ranking bureaucrats who were fired entered politics and constituted new opposition to the Adan/Abdirizak administration.

These opposition groups, fueled by ideological differences, clan affiliations, and internal disputes, collaborated to bring about Adan’s downfall, highlighting Somalia’s complex power dynamics and socio-political landscape during this period. The 1967 leadership transition from President Adan Abdulle and Prime Minister Abdirizak H. Hussein to President Abdirashid Sharmarke and Prime Minister Egal marked a crucial moment in Somali history, highlighting significant shifts in political culture. While President Adan promoted democracy, reconciliation among clan-centric politicians, and combatting corruption during his tenure, the political environment deteriorated in the years following the end of his term.

Two years after President Adan’s term, a lack of commitment to democratic principles prevailed, with clan-centric politics fostering divisiveness and hindering national unity. Corruption became rampant among political elites, prioritizing personal gain over national welfare, while good governance practices were almost absent, leading to growing disillusionment among citizens and small unemployed educated elites. The culmination of this mishandling manifested in the rigged 1969 election, which led to establishing a one-party system. The tragic assassination of President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke in 1969 further destabilized the political environment, paving the way for military rule. The military takeover on October 21, 1969, replaced civilian governance, leading to the detention of political elites, including even President Adan Abdulle and Prime Minister Abdirizak. Unexpectedly, the Somali civilian political class was detained in the Afgoy presidential palace built by President Adan from the remnants of his presidential budget.

In conclusion, the thorough examination of this topic was made feasible through the outstanding contributions of Prof. Addi Samatar and Mohamed Trunji. Their work shed light on the biographies of some notable Somali leaders pivotal in shaping the democratic governance of independent Somalia.[2] The selected leaders serve as exemplary figures for aspiring politicians to emulate. Furthermore, this article underscores the disparity between the current political culture of the Somali elite and the imperative need for a culture conducive to building a stable state in Somalia.

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow
Email: [email protected]

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow is a Professor of Modern Islamic History and a Senior Adviser for the Somali President on Peace and Reconciliation. 


[1] Dr. Baadiyow is a professor of the Modern Muslim History and extensively write on the Somali issues of governance, political culture, peace, and reconciliation and famous for his drive of reconciling modern state and traditional society founded on clan culture and Islam. Currently, he is a Senior Adviser of Reconciliation for the President of Somalia.

[2] Abdi Samatar, Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Adan A. Osman and Abdirizak H. Hussein. Indiana University Press, 2016.   Mohamed Trunji, President Adan Abdulla: His Live & Legacy. Looh Press, 2023.

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