On this day, in June 2008, Aden Abdulla, the first President of Somalia, passed away at the age of 98, 41 years after he left office in 1967. This piece of writing tries to give the reader a brief account of the unique leadership qualities of the late President.
Although he had but five years of formal education, owing to the dismal nature of education opportunities at the time, he rose to become one of the most literate Somalis by the early 1940s. His rise from humble beginnings to achieving the highest office in the land is a remarkable story. His fluency in Italian was unsurpassed by many in the colony, and this, coupled with his wide reading in world affairs, soon established him as one of the most politically aware members of his generation in the country bringing him to attention of others and winning him recommendations for the different offices he held, often by the insistence of others and not his own.
He was one of a handful leading political figures who, despite their limited academic credentials and political experiences, succeeded in bringing the country to independence and unity in 1960. The public never had a chance to fully appreciate his extraordinary leadership qualities until many years after he left office. His stature grew with the passage of time and most of today’s generation finds it incomprehensible that Somali leaders of such high caliber existed in recent history.
Today, Somalia is torn asunder by internal conflicts destroying a state that existed for nearly three decades. At no point since 1991, when the military regime collapsed, has Somalia had a government worthy of the name.
Father of the Nation
The “Father of the Nation” is an honorific title given to a person considered the driving force behind the establishment of a country, state or a nation. The label, similar to the Latin phrases Pater Patriae, was a Roman honorific meaning the “Father of the Fatherland”, bestowed by the Senate on heroes. The recognition of President Aden Abdulla’s pivotal role in nation building in pre and post-independence era, led him eventually receiving the title of “Father of the Nation”.
Reference to Aden Abdulla as Father of the Nation began in 1967 when the second President of the Somali Republic, Abdirashid Ali, in a radio address to the Nation on 1 July 1967, referred to his predecessor as the “Father of the Nation”. This was followed by a resolution of the National Assembly (Parliament) conferring him the honorific title. (Somali News July 7, 1967). Although the Parliament conferred to him the honorific title, Aden Abdulla never courted titles; he was humble, always humble to a fault.
In fact, unlike many African head of States of his time, he has never become a focus of personality cult.
Personality cult emerges, among other things, when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods to create idealism, heroic and, at times, worshipful image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. The list of African dictators who were the subject of personality cult is long.
President Mugabe of Zimbabwe already had been dubbed "the most authentic, consistent and revolutionary leader" in the ruling ZANU PF Party's newspaper advertisements. His Kenyan counterpart, Daniel Arap Moi, was known as "The Glorious" ( Mheshimiwa in Swahili).
The octogenarian Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, was "The Lion of Malawi" or "Savior" ( Mkango waMalawi orNgwazi in the native Nyanja.). The Congolese President was known “Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (“The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”).
Many of the attributes heaped on African leaders by their subjects compare their powers to those of God or of a dangerous animal. In contrast, Aden Abdulla was a very modest man, refusing to take any credit for his achievements; His rigorous exercise routine that starts at cock’s crow every morning followed by healthy breakfast and hard day at the office kept him in good spirit. He had adopted the pleasant habit of performing the Friday collective prayers in different Mosques in the capital, among large congregation, often alone, driving his personal car.
A Gentleman of complete integrity
The following few examples, among many, denote the ethics that governed the way Aden Abdulla conducted state affairs throughout his long career in public service:
In 1956, when he was elected President of the Legislative Assembly, he was offered a large penthouse apartment, an official car and a driver. He accepted the car, but declined the apartment, advising the Cabinet Ministers to do the same. (Abdirazak Haji Hussein 2017, p, 114) He chose, instead, to stay in his own modest house, in Via Barone Raimondo Franchetti (later Weliyow Adde), with simple furniture and refused also to have domestic helpers on government payroll. He was deeply convinced that occupying government owned residences while getting at the same time housing allowances was a license for undue advantages in clear violation of the law. Regrettably few Cabinet Ministers and top civil servants appear to have emulated him.
Two essential qualities distinguished him from the rest of his fellow SYL party members: firstly, he was above the feuding factions within the party and, secondly, he scorned the corrupt election practice of buying votes in exchange for support in elections.
There was no lavish spending at the presidential mansion (Villa Somalia). The following entry in his diary illustrates his judicious use of public funds. “Today, I quarreled with my Chief de Cabinet, Mohamed Auale Liban, and Hagi Aues, the Head of the Administration and Accountant of the Office because they were seeking my approval to place order for the purchase, from Italy, of office furniture worth ShSo171,180.
A proposal I categorically rejected to authorize on the ground that there were more other deserving things to do with this amount of money”. (Diary January 8, 1963) It is known that whatever funds he was able to economize on the annual budget allocated to the presidency (Villa Somalia), he used for maintenance and repair works of the presidential retreat in Afgoi, in a time of extravagance and waste of public fund. (Ironically, from 1969 to 1973, the military regime kept him in detention, without formal charges, in the same building he took so much care of)
But, perhaps, no quote captures the values Aden Abdulla stood for better than this diary entry:
“The government persuaded me to travel to Mecca by using an 18-seat DC3 commercial plane chartered by the Aden Airways which would cost the government the sum of ShSo 36,000. However, the government will not be able to make me accept not to pay for me and for my spouse what we would have paid had we used a regular commercial airline. I do expect that Mr. Auale (Chief Cabinet of the Presidency) and others who are traveling to Mecca on their own be asked to follow suit” (Diary April 27, 1962) When he came back from the pilgrimage, he promptly reimbursed his share of the total amount the government disbursed in connection with his trip to the Holly Sites.
Evidence shows how Aden Abdulla was very much convinced of the duty of every person to contribute to public expenditure according to his capacity to pay. Based on this conviction, he never failed to make regular payments to municipal or central government taxation agencies of income taxes of his real property in Belet Uen or in Mogadiscio, (Article 48 of 1960 Constitution), a rare example in a country where the culture of tax payment is alien. Soon after his election as Head of State, he sold his shares in Agip, Somalia branch, and transferred all other private commercial businesses as required by the Constitution (Article 71 (3) of 1960 Constitution) He made no money through underhand deals, nor had he been bribed by any person into selling his conscience. What he owned was made legally out of intelligent private investment.
None of his children, siblings, or in-laws received employments or undue economic advantages under his patronage at a time when other African Head of States packed the civil service with their own relatives and supporters through political patronage.
After leaving office in 1967, the former President of Somalia returned and resumed life as an ordinary citizen. He spent his later years on his farm near Janale town, in Lower Shabelle Region of Somalia.
Very often he was seen standing in the normal queue in the offices and marketplaces to pay the account to cashier. No Show off and no corruption cases! All clear and Fully Honest Life, even after seven years terms in office. Stories like these added to his moral stature.
Aden Abdulla left a hole none of his two successors managed to fill, and while he completed his term of office and passed the torch with dignity, his two successors, regrettably, both left their positions prematurely and sadly in tragic circumstances.
In fact, Abdirashid Ali, the second President of the Republic, was brutally murdered in October 1969, barely three years upon assuming office, a circumstance, some believe, paved the way for the military to take over triggering the end of almost a decade stretch of democracy that had raised hopes for the wider region.
As for General Siad Barre, the leader of the 1969 military coup, abandoned and betrayed by his once mighty military establishment in power, fled the capital in January 1991 before completing his second seven-year term, leading to the fragile situation of today.