Saturday, December 14, 2019
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Abdirahman Jama Barre: An Obituary

By Hassan M. Abukar

Abdirahman Jama Barre, former Somali minister of foreign affairs, died on Tuesday in San Diego, California. He was 83 years old.

Young Abdirahman in the late 1940s

Abdirahman was born in Luuq in 1934 and came to Mogadishu as a child under the care of his older brother, Mohamed Siad Barre, who was working as a police officer. Abdirahman fondly recalled his early days in the capital.

On one occasion, he came home to request money to buy a snack, and his brother gave him a half-shillings. It was good money for a child growing of the 1940s, but to Abdirahman, the money was a symbol of the love and care his brother had for him as an orphan. Abdirahman saw Siad Barre not only as his brother, but also as a father figure and mentor. This enduring relationship would last six decades.

Abdirahman received his early education during the Colonial period. Later, he became a teacher and taught in places like Buur Hakaba in the Bay region during the 1950s. In 1960, he was one of the first employees ever hired by Somalia’s then-nascent Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He won a scholarship to Italy, where he studied political economy. In light of the scarcity of university graduates in Somalia in the early 1960s, Abdirahman became an administrator in the foreign ministry after his return from Italy. In 1969, Abdirahman’s brother, Siad, staged a military coup and became the supreme leader of the country.

The turning point for Abdirahman was on July 27, 1977, when his brother named him Foreign Minister. It was an appointment that raised eyebrows among critics of the regime. Some saw the assignment as a classic example of nepotism. Abdirahman, however, believed he had paid his dues, given his undisputed seniority in that ministry. His first challenge arose from the fact that he had replaced Omar Arte Ghalib, an articulate, charismatic, and multilingual politician. Abdirahman had big shoes to fill. What he lacked in charisma, however, he made up for with his work ethic and sheer determination.

He was known for his relentless, singular focus. Abdirahman was the ultimate bureaucrat in a job that required exceptional strides in public relations. President Siad rarely traveled abroad and instead delegated to Abdirahman the responsibility of representing the country at the international conferences.

Abdirahman (R), his older sibling, Cascaseey (L), and Siad Barre (M)

Abdirahman was the longest-serving Somali foreign minister (10 years). In 1987, he became a finance minister and deputy prime minister. After the civil war began in 1991, he briefly became involved in politics again. He and his family came to the United States in 1993 and settled in the outskirts of San Diego. In his spare time, he started writing his political memoir, which was never completed. When I asked him why he had stopped writing the book, Abdirahman offered a mischievous grin. “My own people [clan] will not be happy with its publication,” he said. He was frank in his political views to the point of bluntness, and even criticized the way Somalia was run in the 1980s.

When President Siad Barre had a car accident in 1986, which compromised his abilities and vitality, a power struggle ensued. On the one hand, Siad Barre’s powerful wife, Khadija Moalim, became a power broker and waged a campaign to groom her oldest son, Maslah, as heir apparent. There was a second faction that portrayed itself as the “constitutionalists,” led by Ahmed Suleiman Dafle, who was the president’s son-in-law and a high-ranking official. This group called for the vice president, Mohamed Ali Samatar, to replace Siad in the case of his death or incapacitation. A third faction included Abdirahman and his friend General Adan Gabiyow, a former defense minister.

The power struggle was so intense that the president—or someone representing him— orchestrated Abdirahman’s demotion as a cabinet minister. It was, perhaps, the lowest point in the brotherly relationship. However, it was short duration, and the two were able to mend their fractured relationship. Many years later, Abdirahman lamented the missed opportunity in that juncture of the country’s history. He thought that a peaceful transfer of power would have prevented the civil war that occurred four years later and lasted 20 years.

In 2004, Abdirahman briefly came out of retirement and ran against Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf for the presidency. He lost and immediately returned to San Diego.

Abdirahman had three distinct qualities for which he was widely known by his friends and associates.

Firstly, he was a devout father who doted on his children. The once globetrotting diplomat became a suburban father in San Diego. He embraced his new role with verve, regularly taking his children to school, games, and practices, and attending parent teacher conferences.

Secondly, Abdirahman was a good conversationalist who regaled people with exotic stories about encounters with famous world leaders, including meeting six American presidents, from Kennedy to George H. W. Bush. He met nearly all African and Arab leaders and even developed personal relationships with some, such as the current emir of Kuwait, who was once a foreign minister of his country. Abdirahman also loved telling stories about Sayyid Mohamed Abdillahi Hassan, the father of Somali nationalism. Abdirahman was also known for his wry sense of humor. He had a habit of giving nicknames to people, especially the parents of his children’s schoolmates.

Finally, Abdirahman was an ardent nationalist and a believer of Somali unity. For fifty years, he constantly warned others about the grand designs that neighboring countries—especially Ethiopia—had for Somalia. Today, both Ethiopia and Kenya have troops inside Somalia.

Abdirahman will best be remembered for his dedication to his children, his strong commitment to protecting the sovereignty of Somalia, and his story-telling abilities. In addition to his wife, Lul Mohamed Nur, he is survived by 17 children and countless grandchildren. His marriage to his first wife, Zahra Hussein, and the mother of his eight children, ended in divorce. May God bless his soul and reward him bountifully.

Hassan M. Abukar


Mr Abukar is a political analyst, a regular contributor to WardheerNews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at [email protected].

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