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Abdirizak Haji Hussein: The Audacious and Principled Leader

By Abdulrahman Baadiyow

Somali Prime Minister Abdirizak Haji Hussein is portrayed as an audacious reformer and principled leader in historical accounts and assessments. President Adan Abdulle Osman recognized Hussein’s potential as a statesman due to his energy and honesty, contrasting him with the corrupt political class. Hussein’s integrity posed a threat to entrenched interests and deep state establishment, making him stand out in a political environment marred by corruption and resistance to change.

Former Prime Minister Abdirizak Haji Hussein

In culturally divided societies plagued by corruption, the role of a reformer is challenging, but individuals like Abdirizak H. Hussein possess the audacity and integrity to confront these challenges. Understanding the short bio of such an exceptional leader while acknowledging his human fallibility is crucial, as his story serves as a lesson and inspiration for politicians and conscious educators. Nations led by principled leaders prosper, while those misled by pseudo-leaders face decline and may fail and collapse, as Somalia experienced in 1991.  

1. Brief bio of Abdulrazak H. Hussein

The biography of Abdirizak H. Hussein and his political legacy was made possible by a meticulous examination of four works: “Africa’s First Democrats” authored by Abdi Samatar, “President Adan’s Live and Legacy” and “Somalia: Untold History” penned by Mohamed Trunji, and the memoir Abdirizak H. Hussein.[1] Abdirizak H. Hussein was born around 1924/25 in the Nugal region in Puntland, Somalia. His father, Haji Hussein, held status as a respected elder within the Majeerteen/Omar Mohamud sub-clan. Despite losing his mother and father at a young age, Abdirizak’s upbringing reflected the resilience and resourcefulness typical of Somali nomadic tradition.

Working as a camel boy for the family during his formative years instilled in him a sense of responsibility and practical skills. His early experiences shaped his perseverance, hard work, and courage values. Abdirizak’s commitment to education led him to attend Quranic and Islamic schools in Eil and Galkayo. Despite facing adversity, he remained steadfast in his pursuit of knowledge, influenced by the teachings of prominent scholars.[2] These experiences profoundly shaped Abdirizak’s worldview and leadership approach.

In 1937, Abdirizak H. Hussein traveled to Mogadishu by chance to see his brother, but he enrolled in an Italian school that was closed due to the World War in 1939. Following the British occupation of Mogadishu in 1941, Abdirizak was employed by the British Military Administration (BMA). He joined a signal squadron in 1943, experiencing rigorous military training and participating in various military campaigns across several towns under BMA in the Western Somali territories. A critical event occurred in Qallafo when he stood up against oppressive and humiliating actions by a British officer, leading to his imprisonment and subsequent trial in Mogadishu, where he was ultimately acquitted. Then, he traveled to Dire Dawa to accompany his brother; however, this was not realized. He met influential members of SYL in Dire Dawa, frequented the study circle of Sheikh Azhari, and joined the Somali Youth League (SYL) in 1944.

Returning to Mogadishu, Abdirizak resumed a signal civilian service and was transferred to Isku-Shuban, where he met a clerk, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, and a SYL member, and both recruited more members for SYL. Later, he was transferred to Baidoa in 1948. However, with the return of Italy in 1950 and SYL being designated as opposition to Italy’s return, Abdirizak was persecuted by Italian authorities with a fascist background, imprisoned, and tortured. Police inspector Daud Abdulle Hirsi rescued the life of Abdirizak, calling the attention of the higher authority. Thus, Abdirizak was hospitalized and transferred to Mogadishu prison, where he was released after nine months. Abdirizak traveled to Galkayo, established a notary public office there, and continued his activism with SYL. In 1953, he accepted a political officer position in the office of the Egyptian Ambassador Kamalu Addin Salah.

Abdirizak was elected to become the chairman of SYL in 1956 while delivering the petition in New York. He replaced Adan Abdulle, who was elected speaker of the new parliament.  However, Abdirizak resigned in 1957 due to internal conflicts within the party. Continuing his political activism, he was elected a Member of Parliament from the Nugal District in 1959. In addition to his political roles, he held significant positions within educational institutions. He was president of the Higher Institute of Law and Economics and the University Institute. Upon Somalia’s independence, Abdirizak served as Minister of the Interior from 1960 to 1962 and Minister of Public Works from 1962 to 1964. He demonstrated a strong commitment to effective governance during his tenure. From June 14, 1964, to July 15, 1967, Abdirizak served as Prime Minister, leading extensive reform programs and anti-corruption initiatives. Despite opposition from anti-reform politicians and elements within the deep state, President Adan Abdulle Osman appointed Abdirizak twice as PM of Somalia and strongly supported his reform program and efforts.[3]

After President Adan Abdulle lost the election to Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke in 1967, Hussein encountered challenges with the new administration led by Sharmarke, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, and Yassin Nur Hassan. The new leader’s intolerable intentions and new political direction led him to break away from the SYL, in which Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was designated a newly created position of party leader. After performing his Hajj and touring some European countries with his friend Adan Abdulle, he established the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Regrettably, reform programs were sidelined, democracy was falsified, and fraud marred the 1969 election, prompting all Members of Parliament to rejoin the SYL under the new regime’s agenda as planned. One-party rule was promulgated.

Abdirizak remained the sole voice of opposition in the new parliament.[4] The mishandling of the election triggered a series of events, including the assassination of President Sharmarke on 15 October and a subsequent military coup on 21 October 1969. General Siad Barre’s military regime seized power, detaining political elites, including President Adan, Abdirizak, Egal and his council ministers, and many parliamentarians. This period marked the beginning of an authoritarian rule that lasted two decades.

2. The Political Culture of Abdirizak

In his book “Africa’s First Democrats,” Abdi Samatar outlines four key qualities that define Abdirizak H. Hussein’s political culture: a commitment to securing his livelihood, exceptional self-discipline, a diligent work ethic, and unwavering courage. These qualities shaped his leadership style and significantly impacted Somalia’s political landscape throughout his term in office. The following is his performance showcasing his political culture during various political period.

His Tenure as SYL Chairman (1956-1957): Abdirizak faced challenges as chairman, including internal divisions within the SYL and growing clannism. His resignation from the chairmanship and central committee aimed to address growing discontent and restore confidence in the party’s leadership. This decision reflected his commitment to integrity, unity, and the rule of law over personal power.

His Tenure in the Ministerial Positions (1960-1964): As Minister of the Interior and later Minister of Public Works, Abdirizak tackled challenges in consolidating the newly unified Somali Republic by effectively managing the referendum of the Constitution and dealing with internal security challenges professionally. He prioritized transparency and ethical governance, confronting corruption and inefficiency. As minister of public work, he established Somali Airlines and selected its human resources based on meritocracy, showcasing his commitment to fairness and equal opportunity for all citizens.

His Tenure as Prime Minister (1964-1967): Abdirizak’s nomination as Prime Minister was driven by his dedication to combating corruption and promoting ethical governance. Despite initial challenges, his government earned a reputation for efficiency and integrity. He pursued bold reform initiatives, including restructuring the civil service to prioritize meritocracy, solidifying his reputation as a statesman of unimpeachable integrity. His reform political culture angered anti-reform groups and clannism-driven, self-centered politicians.

Abdirizak’s political culture is evident through three key occurrences, showcasing his lack of interest in power and steadfast commitment to principles. Firstly, when President Adan offered him the role of Prime Minister, Abdirizak initially expressed hesitation and concerns about his health and reputation. He eventually accepted the nomination after extensive pondering and persuasion by Police General Mohamed Abshir. Secondly, during a dinner with Mohamed I. Egal after his defeat in a bid for parliament speaker in 1966, Abdirizak made it clear he had no ambition for the Prime Minister’s role after his term, suggesting Egal to join SYL if he had such ambition and recommended him to be accepted as a member of SYL. Lastly, Abdirizak resigned from the Prime Ministership after parliament rejected two government bills. However, the President rejected his resignation and instead recommended seeking a vote of confidence, which was successful. These three episodes underscore Abdirizak’s reluctance to pursue power for its own sake, unwavering adherence to principles, and prioritization of the greater good over personal advancement.

After the 1967 election, a political shift occurred when President Abdirashid and Prime Minister Mohamed I. Egal took the top two offices. At the onset, Egal proposed opening the ruling SYL party to all PMs, enticing them with government positions and privileges. The objective was to destroy other parties and prepare the ground for a shift toward a one-party system. Abdirizak, the SYL’s Secretary General, cautiously accepted this proposal, showing his careful approach to political accommodation. However, when Egal presented his government program to parliament, Abdirizak stood alone in opposition, raising questions about his motives and revealing tensions within the new ruling class.

Efforts to remove Abdirizak from the position of SYL secretary general faced legal obstacles. Eventually, realizing the threat to the party he had dedicated himself to, Abdirizak resigned from SYL after two months of failing to find a middle ground with the new regime’s leaders. This resignation marked a turning point as Abdirizak sought solace through a pilgrimage to Hajj, a tour of Europe, a break from relentless political strife, and an opportunity for reflection and renewal.

3. Factors that Shaped the Political Culture of Abdirizak

Abdirizak’s political culture is shaped by several key factors influencing his worldview and guiding principles. Firstly, his family background, characterized by resilience, dignity, and honesty, instilled in him a profound sense of pride and determination derived from the virtues of his ancestors. This upbringing grounded him in a commitment to truth and integrity, guiding his political endeavors. Secondly, Abdirizak’s deep-rooted Islamic beliefs and adherence to its values significantly influenced his cultural identity. His dedication to Islam permeated every aspect of his being, shaping his character and actions and guiding his interactions with society.

Promoting Islamic values and morality was evident in his government’s program, which was submitted to parliament in 1964. Thirdly, Abdirizak’s staunch opposition to colonialism and unwavering nationalist fervor drove his political endeavors. His confrontations with colonial officers and enduring spirit in the face of injustice underscored his commitment to defy humiliation and defend his dignity. Fourthly, his military training instilled values such as loyalty, duty, respect, and selfless service, shaping his work ethic, discipline, and sense of responsibility.

Lastly, Abdirizak’s unwavering passion for literature and intellectual pursuits broadened his understanding of geopolitics and global affairs. His intellectual curiosity underscored his role as a principled leader, driven by a fervent commitment to emancipate his nation from external influences and chart a course toward self-reliance and empowerment. These factors collectively illuminate the factors that have shaped Abdirizak’s political culture, guiding his principles and actions throughout his political career.

In conclusion, Abdirizak emerges as a bold exemplar of principled leadership, shining amidst a political environment marred by nepotism, corruption, and electoral malpractice. His reform agenda was backed by President Adan, who shared his moral compass, Islamic values, and dedication to good governance. With their departure from the top national offices, Somali democracy plummeted, ushering in a dark era of turmoil, instability, and military dictatorship. As Somalia strives to rebuild, it falls upon politicians, intellectuals, and educators to glean insights from the legacies of Abdirizak H. Hussein and President Adan Abdulle. Learning from the political culture of these two leaders, Somali politicians must eliminate their poisonous political culture that destroyed the state and nation, which is interest-driven, nepotism, corruption, and foreign patronage. 

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] The four primary references of this paper are 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; Mohamed Isse Trunji, Somalia: The Untold History (1941-1967). Looh Press, 2015 and Abdirizak Haji Hussein, My Role in the Foundation of the Somali Nation-state, A Political Memoir, ed. Abdisalam Ise-Salwe. Trenton, NJ, The Red Sea Press, 2017.

[2] Sheikh Mohamed Isse, Abdirizak’s instructor at the Islamic school in Galkayo, was highly knowledgeable in Islamic scholarship. He frequently drew upon the teachings of Lebanese scholar Shakib Arsilan, notably his 1930 work “Why Muslims Lagged while Others Progressed.”

[3] The parliament did not approve Abdirizak’s first appointment as PM. However, the President insisted on his appointment and reappointed Abdirizak, and his government was approved.

[4] Abdirizak’s vibrant speeches were remembered as he repeated, “Allah is one, and I am alone.” This persistent position showcases his principled political culture, which does not succumb to personal interest.

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