President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed: A Brain-teasing Legacy
It is not an easy undertaking to satisfactorily evaluate a life-time legacy of a personality such as the late President of Somalia Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed (1934-2012). His life had appreciably coincided with the unfolding of many decades of Somalia’s modern history from the days of colonialism to statehood and disintegration. Indeed a considerable part of that history is intimately intertwined with his public and political life. In his times, he had witnessed a significant portion of that history as it was happening; took his part in shaping some of it and undeniably left an enduring foot- print as the President of Somalia. It is a legacy that originates from a generation before I was even born and as such, nothing prepares me to be able to chronicle it thoroughly and responsibly.
Dispiritingly, I am mindful to the fact that Somalis continue to disagree on what to make of other legacies of past historic figures such as Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan and Mohamed Siyad Barre despite both leaving behind adequate records about their times, politics and leadership. In stark contrast to each other, there are those who revere both men as benevolent fathers of Somali nationalism and those others who adamantly dismiss them as being ultimate epitomes of evil on earth. Considering that, I am under no illusion that President Yusuf’s legacy, good or bad, would be equally as contentious in the eyes of many Somalis of different stripes. That should not dissuade me nevertheless from sharing with you my personal account of Mr. Yusuf, which is in my view genuine and significant. Perhaps sources like his memoir, Struggle and Conspiracy could help shed some light onto the extensive annals of his earlier times; I will however attempt to say few things about the legacy of Mr. Yusuf during his tenure as the President of the Puntland State of Somalia and as President of the Transitional Government of Somalia (TFG).
Our ways crossed in December 2003, during the Somali Reconciliation Conference (SRC) at Nairobi, Kenya. The then President of Puntland, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, asked me to lend a hand in his political campaign for the Presidency of Somalia which he would later succeed winning it in October 2004. Ever since that I was working with him and for him through most of his Presidency as Chief of Staff and as a Senior Advisor in Policy-making and International Relations. I had a physical close proximity and unfettered access to him all through our stay in Nairobi, Jowhar, Baidoa and Mogadishu and this gives me the confidence to reflect on his legacy as my firsthand take of his demeanor in running the affairs of the country. In a span of time close to five years, I grew to appreciate the man on several important aspects of his character and on several others of his political conduct and achievements. It only follows though that late President Yusuf had also his share of serious lapses and limitations that were peculiar to his approaches of governing and political discharge.
He was remarkably an honorable personality with the temperament of a dignified Somali elder. He was a man of his words, serious in his ways, eagerly engaging and truthful to a fault. Hardly losing his composure, President Yusuf was a rare genre of a man who remained graceful under all pressures. He used to diligently work in a daily routine of over 12 hours without weekends or resting days, despite being a senior citizen and on medications for his liver transplant. “…this way” he once quipped, “I would be able to deal with those of you who work in the day time and with those others who keep partying late into the night”.
Mr. Yusuf had the privilege of affecting the politics of Somalia for over 50 years and I am in no position to evaluate whether his earlier political struggles were justified, positive and favorable. Indeed, I have heard him musingly say on several occasions that, on hindsight, he wouldn’t have pioneered in forming the first armed struggle against the State had he known that the Somali State would, as a result, implode and disintegrate as it did in the early 1990’s. I would argue however, that his personal role in having some bearing on the politics of Somalia during the last twenty years of the civil war has been, at the core, positive and favorable.
If we are to understand a legacy of a leader only within the confines of the enduring achievements left behind by that given leader and to the affirmation of the most, I would want to hereby introduce a compelling and undeniable profile of his performance in the following order: Mr. Yusuf’s early achievements that quickly come to mind include the peace treaty that he brokered with General Mohamed Farah Aided in ending the armed conflict in the central regions of Somalia. He was instrumental in the creation of the Puntland State of Somalia and that was the first timely stitch in saving a considerable part of Somalia from sliding into chaos. He also brokered another equally important peace treaty with an internal armed insurgence within Puntland. Although alliances are often precarious and recalcitrant, Mr. Yusuf spent most of his time while running Puntland in incessantly forging political blocs with other Somali groupings at the national level. These efforts would come handy for him during Somali National Peace Conference in Nairobi Kenya, in 2004.
President Yusuf likewise left a host of other political achievements during his tenure as the President of Somalia. After the successful conclusion of the Somali Peace Conference in Kenya, relocating the nascent Somali Government in exile from Nairobi to Villa Somalia was not an easy mission. I would permissively consider that as the biggest enduring political achievement of Mr. Yusuf, especially if one takes into account that he bowed out of power gracefully and peacefully thereby allowing the continuation of what has started for Somalia by way of renewed hope and a promising return of law and order. But within the womb of this grand accomplishment, there are smaller subsets of achievements and these include his crafty tiptoeing from Nairobi, Jowhar, Baidoa and finally to Villa Somalia which undeniably required exceptional skill, leadership and fortitude at each juncture of the Marathon that has taken two arduous years. Mr. Yusuf’s term in office brought back a wider recognition of Somalia by the international community after an absence of over 16 years. Envisioning a Peacemaking force of 20,000 strong for Somalia has since been recognized by the world as prudent and the sensible thing to do after 6 years of Yusuf’s proposal. Standing up to the radicals and successfully routing them both in Puntland and at the national level was an overarching and defining theme of his legacy. The rebuilding of Villa Somalia and other government premises in Mogadishu, Baidoa, and Puntland could be considered some of his tangible and visible accomplishments. I can go on and add few more of his deeds; however I am afraid I may risk pushing the envelope too much. I will stop here and do with what could be easily qualified as an enduring legacy that most Somalis would reasonably vouch for without bigotry and bias. My hat is off in tribute to the valiant man and I confirm that my admiration to late President Yusuf is undiminished as ever.
If my account of President Yusuf has to strive for any measure of credibility and fairness, I must not simply thrust under your chin a list of all the goodies about him. I recognize the importance of introducing to you the whole complexity of his personality as it relates to his political motives and judgment. With all due respect, President Yusuf had indeed his own share of limitations, controversial ways and perplexing approaches to his political discharge and governing style. Saddle up to know some of those in my following lines hereunder.
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed would typically come to power though acceptable proceedings and by transparent ballot-box counts as it were both in Puntland and Somalia. In both occasions he would personally insist on the development of a constitution on whose stipulations universal rights were to be enshrined and responsibilities of authorities were to be clearly delineated. Expert committees would often work until the wee hours of the morning studiously and laboriously to come up with a draft document and social forces would painstakingly debate, groom and weed off the draft constitution to the best of their ability. But you may be surprised to know that although President Yusuf used to insist on democratic ways and processes, he was of no democrat in his actual practices.
Those who share power with him by heading other organs of government would promptly win his unmistakable derision and disdain. Most of his term in office would be consumed by a constant seismic-level challenge between him and his speaker or Prime Minister that would slowly but surely grow to volcanic tremors. That is how his leadership would invariably unfold and end in the SSDF, Puntland and in his last days as President of the TFG. It usually took a fiasco of some kind to end the rule of Mr. Yusuf. It would seem that he haven’t had the gift to learn from any of those and the fallout would effectively deny him doing any of his mandate tasks and would rob him of a rare chance of coming through for Somalia. This unfortunate debacle would have the effect of paralyzing all institutions of government to the point that everything comes to a sudden halt and nothing would work without his approval or intervention. But even if he unwaveringly does all the right things for Somalia by himself, the work of one person would always proven to be insignificant in the aggregate and in the grand scheme of things.
The political to him was the personal and only through his personal actualization, by way of consolidating power and relevance, would Somalia benefit from his term in office. But there is another twist to it. Mr. Yusuf hardly qualified as a dictator. He had nothing to dictate to the public or to other members of government. He would typically neither offer a coherent vision nor instigate policy and he would be very coy in his political aims and goals. He drew some power from the inability of others in understanding what really makes him tick politically. I vividly remember a Western diplomat to reckon with teasing him with “Mr. President, you have a Poker Face; one finds it very hard to read your emotions…” These were, to my mind, components of an autocrat as opposed to a dictator. An important distinction here is that an autocrat is so staunch in amassing more powers onto his desk in matters pertaining to policy and authority while a dictator is busy in extensively furthering his powers wide and deep. An autocrat may not be that interested in interfering with your business or personal life and indeed President Yusuf was not interested in knowing who did what, when and how.
Another extraordinary attribute of President Yusuf was the fact that top government officials could freely criticize him in public or in person and he would not at all mind it. He was the only political leader in Somalia that I knew of who would simply glow a smile when his Prime Minister, Speaker or a Minister publicly levels a heated criticism against him over the media or right in front of him. Cases in point were his Vice President and others in Puntland as well as his Prime Ministers and Speaker at the TFG who repeatedly used to take their grudges with him to the airwaves. Such a thing would be so inconsequential and without any repercussions to others and he essentially believed that “venting” is a healthy thing in a political relationship provided they don’t mess with his authority in any practical ways. He once had a rip-cracking laughter when his Vice President in Puntland, compared the ways of Yusuf in governance something akin to the attitude of General Charles de Gaulle, ascribing the famous assertion of l’Etat c’est Moi, or “I am the state” to the General. To be sure this historic pronouncement is reputed to have been said instead by the French King Louis XIV. Mr. Yusuf used to adhere unto his own laws and norms and he was in fond of passing on some legendary events and narratives about World War II, but he was nothing like the larger-than-life French General for all purposes and intentions.
President Yusuf didn’t like to be blinded with science and complex jargons of policy and administration, but sound ideas did illuminate him and he may even develop them better than the original ones given that he understood them in his own terms. He was better suited than most in putting things in perspective and within the context of his personal political designs. I once unwittingly volunteered in one of our discussions over an issue at hand “what is so political about things like charity and wisdom; these things must be discrete virtues of their own”. “Don’t be silly now” he retorted “politics are in everything and in everywhere”. That sounded a bit like the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci to me but as far as I can tell old Yusuf loathed everything about Communism and the dizzying buildup of its raison d’être and rhetoric. They lived in different times and I cannot possibly imagine Abdullahi Yussuf reading communist pamphlets like Avanti in his days of training in Italy as a young cadet officer for the Somali Army. If anything, Mr. Gramsci was known to have had the reputation of rather quickly labeling men with the similar mantle of Mr. Yussuf as being more like “Fascisti” than Communists.
For all the notes and observations above, I would characterize the person in President Abdullahi Yussuf Ahmed, as a true gentleman and a humble libertarian with crude autocratic tendencies. He was neither a democrat nor a dictator – and one could not find Yusuf in those terms – but he had a strong inclination to liberal ways and thoughts. Mr. Yusuf clearly understood the importance of democracy in his political manifestations albeit only in appearance and as a public relations utility. He was a proponent of civil liberties and had no qualms with universal rights and freedoms but he had no patience listening to long lectures in public policy. He showed exceptional leadership during times of confusion and thrived in doubtful environments as a guide like the Northern Star and as a troubleshooter. One can safely say that he ruled but shied away from actual governance for its intractability, boredom and time consuming nature. Nonetheless, I approve the legacy that he left behind as being substantive and politically enduring both in Puntland and at the TFG. Whatever shortcoming he may have had pales into comparison with his overall chain of achievements. That is the Abdullahi Yussuf I knew.
In observance of common mores now that his soul is laid to rest for good, I have refrained from venturing into anything personal about him and I chose to highlight some areas of Mr. Yusuf in so far as they affected the course of events and the politics of Somalia in general. It is my considered opinion however that the following caveat should be established here: admittedly and understandably there were other aspects of the President that still beat me for good or worse, in spite of my best effort and dedication to unravel them. This utter reservation of mine notwithstanding, making sense of these enigmatic areas of him, I am confident, would not have had the effect of altering any of my findings about President Abdullahi Yussuf Ahmed.
Abdirizak Adam Hassan was the Chief of Staff and a Senior Advisor in Policymaking and International Relations for President A. Yusuf. He is an independent consultant based in Nairobi and currently works as Strategic Advisor for the National Security and Stabilization Plan for Somalia (NSSP). You can reach Abdirizak A. Hassan at Adam_somalia@yahoo.ca