Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed: Waiting for History’s Rehabilitation

Perhaps Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was not a hero, may even be a villain to many. But he was a remarkable political figure, one whose pages on Somali history is assured, for good as well as for bad, for now. Alive, he was equally loved and loathed. He meant different things to different people. That divisiveness, so emblematic of historical figures, will follow him to the grave. But history has a fascinating way of rehabilitating and cleansing historical figures, well after they are gone, buried in dark graves. No one remembers Che Guvera for the wives he deserted or for his suicidal revolutionary idealism. Mandela’s neglect of his progeny is forgiven. Sayid Mohamed fought not only colonial occupiers but close kins and tribes who resented his autocracy. He has composed numerous pejorative poems whose appeal and potency diminished as time passed. Heroes like all mortal humans err, after all. Yet, all of the Sayid’s warts were washed away by his nationalistic gallantry and defiance against colonialists. And history did rehabilitate him generously, pardoning his clannish escapades and highlighting his nationalistic grandeur, at least in the mainstream Somali history.

Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s patriotic achievements do not parallel those of the Sayid, but so does his political wrongdoings. A considerate History would judge Yusuf by his intentions rather than his achievements. A vindictive history would disregard his efforts and intentions, instead zooming on the dismal political results he left behind.

Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed

Wearing a consummate doggedness and self-belief that would define his long political and military career, Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, took his part in shaping Somalia’s political history and destiny for the last three decades. And because Somalia’s history was dark and desolate in those decades, it can correctly be concluded that his influence was largely adverse. It is hard to argue against that conclusion. In the end, if we judge him by what he had achieved, this is a man who failed to depose Siyaad Barre from power, having rightly pioneered the culture of fighting dictators in Somalia. This is a man who led Puntland to war with itself, having created it himself. This is the same man who led Ethiopia’s invention of Somalia in 2006 and vowed to flush out those who resist occupation, the same occupation he himself fought in the Ogaden (Somali Regional State) in 1977.

But if intentions are to count, which they must in the tempestuous contemporary politics of Somalia, this is a man who had taken the lead before anyone in trying to free Somalia from dictatorship, in resisting political Islam from taking roots, and in pursuing the dream of reviving a unified and strong Somalia State. If the result was bad, it is unfair to put all the blame on him. There were too many actors, too many issues, too many milieus that diminished his individual relevance in the goings of Somalia. He surely could not have lifted Somalia up alone, or taken it down alone. A fair judgment is that he tried to do what he could do for his country – sometimes the right things, many times the wrong way.

Zenawi, Abdullahi Yusuf and Ghedi

His worst political decision, allegedly, was to sleep with Ethiopia. Yet, the man did not always did their bidding and those who scrutinize his engagement with Ethiopia with an eagle eye would realize that Ethiopia was always a player in the Somali political equation since 1990, and therefore can argue that all he tried was to manage this interference, debatably for Somalia’s advantage. There is one fact that even his detractors cannot hide. This was the only Somali politician who the Ethiopians did not dare to push around as they wanted. He was stubborn and proud, traits that Ethiopian rulers do not find attractive in a Somali. It is this unease about his refusal to play to the tunes of Ethiopia that finally sealed his political career. Even on this issue, it is hard to disagree with the logic of his political decision, of course with the benefit of hindsight. The Ethiopian intervention we resented in 2006, today many, including Sheikh Sharif, accept it as an inescapable regional reality. Today, we know no one poses more fatal threat to Somalia than its bearded sons and camouflaged sisters. He foresaw this threat, decades back! He fought extremism and politicization of religion fearlessly. Few men could have assembled the resolve and valour he demonstrated in tackling the evil of terrorism and extremism. He risked losing limbs and legs to stand up to what he believed in, and stood up to bullying political Islamists where others have waivered. With what become of Somalia’s Islamists, few today disagree with his verdict on them.

After he left politics, he followed Somalia’s politics from afar with remarkable grace and with dignity that befits a former Head of State. He did not whine or curse his political foes, something that usually typifies retirement politics in Somalia..

Abdullahi with his wife

Where Abduallhi Yusuf receives an unqualified approbation is how he treated his immediate family and his political friends. Yusuf was a man who exuded all the good traditions of nomadic life: sharing, honouring commitments, and charming bluntness. Bred with the austere tenets of a nomad, he was not a greedy politician, ready to pilfer and live profligate life, unlike most of the young rulers who replaced him in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) or the shells that preceded it. The avuncular Yusuf, with uplifting distinct Somali features and nomadic mannerisms, led an exemplary family life, even laying the foundation stone for a Mosque in Baidoa in 2007, as a glowing résumé of his fleshly purity.

A divisive figure? Yes. A man with many political foibles? Indeed. Was his ancient political mindset one that doesn’t fit the demands of contemporary politics? Maybe. But Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was a “man”, in the parlance Somalis say that word. Few could begrudge him of that distinction. It is my wish that history will rehabilitate him to show his good intentions and the foundations he left behind for the rebirth of a Somali State, through unpopular but ingenious and effective political partnerships. Above all, this was a principled man, one who was loyal to what he believes in, and those who believe in him.

Today, with his death, a wail of distress engulfed the lands and hearts where he was popular. A garrulous meanness reigns in the valleys and bellies of those who hated him. But no amount of divergent monologues and soliloquies by foes or friends can take that unique nomadic lustre and pride away from this misunderstood political icon.

As a man who had resented his politics and hated his “I-live-by-the-sword” mentality, it was with a shock that I discovered the depth of latent admiration and even love I had for the fallen former president, when I heard the news of his death. I still roundly disagree with many things he did, but admire him for his loyalty to his own principles, philosophies, and friends. My condolences to his family.

May he rest in peace and sleep in the heavens!


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