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President Aden Abdulle : His life and legacy: A book review

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa
Author: Mohamed Issa Trunji
Publisher: Looh Press
Pages: 224
Publication date‏: ‎2023

Mohamed Issa Turunji is an octogenarian who served the Somali government in various capacities from 1962 to 1991. When the Civil War erupted in 1991, he joined the United Nations Agency for Refugees until his retirement in 2005. Despite his advanced age, he did a Master’s Degree and embarked on a journey to collect Somali History. He spent a considerable amount of time in archives in London, Geneva, and Rome. It took him eight years to complete his first book(2015)  titled Somalia: The Untold History 1941-1969, which covers a crucial period of British Military Administration, UN Trusteeship, and the emergence of an Independent Somali under civilian administration. The dense book (542 pages) is the most comprehensive work of that time.

It is worth noting and admirable that Turunji funded his research project from his pension without any external financial support. Turunji’s new book President Aden Abdulle: His Life and Legacy, came out In July 2023.It took him five years to write the book, as he mentioned during  the book lunch in Mogadishu. The book chronicles the life and times of Aden Abdulla Osman, the first president of Somalia. It provides a detailed account of Aden’s journey from his humble beginnings to his rise to the highest office in the land. The book is mainly based on Aden’s diary, but he also draws from other sources.

Humble beginnings

Aden was born in EL Qurun, Hiiraan Region, around 1908 or 1909. Somalis didn’t keep records of their birthdays during that time. Unfortunately, Aden lost his mother at a young age. The family also lost their livestock due to an attack by the forces of Ali Yusuf, the Sultan of Hobyo. Aden’s father became limp when he was attached by a lion while herding camels for another family in the Bakool region. Since his father was unable to work, Aden was forced to take on various jobs such as waiter, cook, and domestic helper for the Italian colonists. During this time, he witnessed the Italian fascist’s harassment, intimidation, and cruelty firsthand. Aden’s journey from humble beginnings to the highest office in the land is a remarkable one. Aden faced several challenges from a young age, but he persevered and triumphed over them.

Educational Journey

Turunji reveals that Aden had only five years of formal education but he had become one of the most “literate “Somalis in the 1940s. He notes that he was widely read thus became aware of the world affairs. During his free time, Aden enjoyed reading books, which is not a common cultural practice among Somalis even today. Aden enrolled in an Italian language and clerical course in order to qualify for the colonial civil service. He occupied various positions until 1951 when he became a member of the territorial council.  Aden had a passion for social justice and politics, which he had developed through his extensive reading. Unfortunately, the fascist regime prohibited free speech, so Aden kept his interests to himself.

Political Career

Turunji delves into how and when Aden joined the politics. He then attempts to study his leadership skills, democratic credentials and his attempts to moralize the government .

Aden joined the Club in 1944 and assumed the leadership role of the newly established Somali Youth Club (SYC) branch in Beledweyne. This opportunity gave him the chance to demonstrate his leadership abilities.

Aden Abdulla proposed the name Somali Youth League when it renamed  in 1947. Turunji points out  that Aden  was aware the politics in Pakistan thus derived the name  from  Islamic League. He was subsequently elected to the first Territorial Council as a member of the SYL party list in 1951 and later became the Vice President in late 1953. He went on to serve as a member of the legislative assembly, as well as the president from 1956 to 1960 and the president of the republic from 1960 to 1967.

Turunji underscore that Aden was a pragmatic individual who understood the benefits of collaborating with the Administering Power for the good of the party and the nation. He  notes that he  persuaded his fellow party members to establish a line of communication with the administering authority. Over time, the SYL recognized the merits of being moderate and engaging in constructive dialogue with the Administering Authority, leading to a shift away from their previously inflexible stance.

As the president of the national assembly, Turunji argues that Aden Abdulla recommended limiting the use of government cars to official purposes to reduce costs for taxpayers and combating  extravagant spending to ensure that the national budget’s revenue and expenditure remained balanced.

Trunji mentions that Aden Abdulla’s name was included in the list of candidates for party leader, despite his decision not to run for leadership. He was elected by a narrow majority of 44 to 42 votes at the party congress in 1958. However, upon his election, he declared that he would not accept the responsibility unless the party supported his reform policy and the government assured collaboration with the party.

Although the Central Committee of the ruling party endorsed Aden Abdulla’s candidacy for president in 1967, he refused to campaign, considering it to be “improper.” The Prime Minister and Cabinet members campaigned for him, but he refused to make any promises to MPs in exchange for their votes, a stance he upheld throughout his political career.

In 1964 parliamentary elections, Turunji states that Aden Abdulla observed that the ruling political party was exploiting state resources and administrative machinery to steal elections. However, his mediation helped the opposition parties achieve a good showing In the election.

In January 1967, the President rejected to sign a bill that would have handed each MP a single payment of ShSo 24,000, deeming it morally obscene and fiscally unsustainable. He returned the bill to Parliament for further discussion

Before the election in 1967, Turunji exposes several businessmen who offered to donate to Aden’s campaign, but he declined, stating that he did not pay anyone for their vote. The president is also concerned about the increasing sectarianism, which may be contributing to his reluctance to campaign vigorously.

Aden made history as the first African head of state to peacefully transfer power to his democratically elected successor. Turunji shows that Aden not only accepted his defeat but also asked for an earlier transfer of power so that the newly elected President could oversee Independence Day celebrations.

Turunji highlights that  his  wise decisions and strong leadership helped the country transition from a colonial order to a democratic polity. He contends that  he didn’t overstep  his role as the head of the state  which has no executive power. He was content with the powers vested  in the constitution and upheld  the letter and spirit of the constitution. He provided constant guidance to the government that shows his wisdom and courage .

Turunji reveals that  Aden jotted in his diary the satisfaction that he did his best for his country and people and was replaced by legal and democratic means.

Out of  public office

Both  in  and out public office, Aden was concerned to the betterment of his country. He would often meet with government officials to express his concern about the prevalent misconduct. His diaries demonstrate that these meetings were candid and straightforward.

In the 1980s, he and a group of elders tried to mediate the government and the opposition to prevent the country’s collapse, but unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful due to the dictator’s refusal to relinquish power. However, His legacy as a champion of democratic values and a man of integrity continues to inspire generations of Somalis.

Aden as A diarist

The book draws heavily from Aden’s diary, which he kept from 1958 to 1969. Turunji notes that Aden’s first entry was made in January 1958, but it is unclear what motivated him to maintain a diary. Turunji suggests that Aden may have been influenced by Gandhi, who was known for keeping a journal.

Somali leaders should keep a diary while in office, as President Aden did. The diary  will help them if they wanted  to write their memoir. Very few leaders who held top positions wrote their memoirs including former President of Somalia and Puntland, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed (Halgan Iyo Hagardaamo), former Prime Minister abdirizak haji Hussein (ABDIRAZAK HAJI HUSSEIN: My Role in the Foundation of the Somali Nation-State, A Political Memoir) Former Prime Minister and President of Puntland, Abdiwali M. Ali (Challenging Transition In Somalia: A Story Of Personal Courage And Conviction). Abdiwali stated during his book tour in the USA that he did not keep a diary while Prime Minister, but did during his Puntland presidency. As he stated his diary will inform his upcoming book on Puntland.

Conclusion

During a book discussion, Turunji   was asked why he focused solely on Aden’s positive side while disregarding his negative side. He responded that he found no writings on Aden’s negative aspects. The author was also asked about his criticisms of SYL’s failings while praising Aden, who served in top positions of the party. The author replied that Aden, as evident in his diary, was doing his best to rectify mistakes, but his fellow Party members were not as committed and idealistic as he was.

The book’s weakness lies as it does not provide any new information or fresh interpretation but rather confirms the premise of Abdi Samatar’s book Africa’s First Democrat: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussein,” which portrays Aden and PM Abdirizak as “democrats.” Moreover, it seems that the book extensively borrows from Abdi’s book.

Nevertheless, the book is an excellent tribute to Aden’s life and legacy, ensuring that his story will be remembered and stored for posterity. In addition, Trunji’s writing is captivating and easy to understand, making it suitable for both scholars and general readers.

Reviewed by: Abdirahman A. Issa 
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Abdirahman A. Issa is a researcher of Somali History, culture, society and politics. His interests also include governance and development in fragile and post conflict contexts.  He can be reached at [email protected]


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