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Yusuf Haji, bridge of peace between Kenya and restless Somalia

By Special Correspondent | February 16th 2021

Yusuf Haji and his supporters in October 2002. [File standard]

Many will remember Mohamed Yusuf Haji as the man who chaired the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team, appointed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader, Raila Odinga. He will also be remembered as the two-term Senator for Garissa County. Yet he was much more than that, both in his public roles and in quiet behind-the-scenes tasks in Northeastern Kenya, all the way to the neighbouring countries in the north.

His suitability for the roles saw him straddle the four Kenyan regimes of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta. And he was always on the right side of power. This presence was, ironically, in part a factor of the Somali exclusion from the centre. But it was also a factor of his own ability to gel well with the centre and to remain relevant.

When the critical time came for President Uhuru to name a trusted and competent representative to co-chair the BBI, the lot fell on Haji. Even when he has been ailing, the President has allowed Haji to symbolically remain in the role, while the actual chairing and reporting on progress has fallen upon Raila’s representative, Prof Adams Oloo.

Separate from the rest

It has been a question of loyalty and trust, going hand in hand with competence. From the earliest of times, Haji was always able to read the mood and intent of his principals and to deliver the desired results with exemplary aptitude.

His hand in the affairs of State has historically and symbolically made him, over a long time, to be the face of an otherwise largely excluded Somali nation. In the process, he has also been part of the effort to address the congenital Somali challenge in the Kenyan nation.

At the heart of the challenge has been the matter of Somali nationalism and yearning for a unified Somali nation-state that would bring the Somali peoples of Eastern Africa under one sovereign flag. The coming of independence from European powers in the 1960s saw the Somali admitted into Africa’s club of new nations and States as a scattered people.

They arrived on the raft of diverse countries in Eastern Africa. This disturbed their own sense of nationhood – and probably continues to do so. They are the one community that got into independence as one race of persons with a common language, religion and understanding of their sovereignty, separate from the rest of the peoples of Eastern Africa.

Yet their desire for a consolidated Somali nation in Eastern Africa was not to be. For, they arrived in free Africa scattered across such diverse territories as Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. Across the entire region, they found it difficult to absorb this reality. Yet the newly independent states outside Somalia could not let them go.

In Kenya, for instance, the Somali made for just about one per cent of the population of 8.5 million at independence. But they also occupied a whole one-fifth of the country. The question for the Kenyatta government was how to allow one per cent of the population to go away with one-fifth of the territory.

Successive regimes, therefore, have found it necessary to work with key Somali leaders, in order to rein in that territory. Such leaders have been afforded comfort in government, while also being the custodians of keeping their people’s faith in Kenyan nationhood. Haji has been one such a leader.

The story goes that for a long time, the Somali considered Kenya to be the territory that begins south of the Tana River. They did not see themselves as a part of it. It did not surprise visitors to Garissa to be asked how things fared in Kenya. At the height of the search for Somali nationhood among the Kenya Somali, therefore, was the rise of the Shifta menace. This was a war that saw the Somali, virtually as a nation, attempt to break away from the rest of Kenya. It was an irridentist move that sought to make them a part of Somalia. President Mohamed Siad Barre of Somalia was not averse to this thought.

It required sober-minded leaders who appreciated the permanent separation of African families by the European partition of the continent to chaperon their tribesmen to the understanding that they were now members of new nations and states. Increasingly through the times, Haji became one of those leaders.

Haji goes away as a respected elder statesman from the Ogaden community of the greater Somali nation of the Horn of Africa. He is to be seen through the same prism as such other leaders as David Wabera, for whom Nairobi’s Wabera Street has been named. Wabera, a Gabbra from Marsabit, was killed in Isiolo soon after independence, his sin being that he was the face of the Kenyan government that would not let the Somali go.

Haji, as the Somali face in government, represented the voice of reason. He is to be counted among Somali leaders who have helped to bridge the troubling gap between Kenya’s Somali peoples in the Northeastern region and the rest of Kenya. It has not been an easy assignment and, despite the gains of recent times, it remains work in progress.

Haji was appointed a district officer before independence, in 1960. That was the same year that British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland were consolidated under one flag as the Republic of Somalia. Then came the push from secessionists to have Northeastern Kenya and French Somaliland (now Djibouti) to be part of the new republic. They formed a political party (the Northern People’s Party) with the express objective of seceding. Their sterling performance in the elections of 1961 gave them the confidence to carry on with that pursuit.

Took the firm position

Somali leaders in Nairobi, so to speak, were however unimpressed. They agreed with Kanu and Kadu leaders, who took the firm position that there would be no negotiation over Kenyan territory. The inevitable happened, Kenya went to a war of attrition in the northeastern.

But alongside the armed Shifta combat were quiet efforts to bring the Somali together with the rest of Kenya. Haji, as a senior leader in provincial administration, was a key hand, working through councils of elders to seek peace and unity. Even when the Shifta were subdued in 1968, there was the need to continue with peace discourses.

Through quiet diplomacy, he was part of the unending effort to rally the Kenya Somali securely in the national fold. But, beyond that, he remained one of the kingpins in the elusive search for peace among the Somali clans of Kenya. He was also key in the management of Kenya’s engagement against the Al Shabab terrorist group, as well as in the search for lasting peace in the Republic of Somalia.

Educated in Kenya and in the United Kingdom, Haji served in Kenya’s provincial administration at the height of state rule through this arm of government. Historians are agreed that President Jomo Kenyatta consolidated power under the Office of the President in the period 1965–1966. Thereafter, Parliament and the ruling party (Kanu) became forums for affirmation of the Executive will. The provincial commissioner (PC) became a very powerful state official.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga (right) with Suna East MP Junet Mohamed when they visited Garissa Senator Yusuf Haji. [File, Standard]

Haji became a PC in 1970, under Mzee Kenyatta. He would go on to carry through this role to 1997, under President Moi, thus becoming the longest-serving PC (27 years). When he left the provincial administration, President Moi nominated him to Parliament in 1997, signifying the important role that he continued to play as a bridge between the centre and the Kenyan Somali community.

He also served as an assistant minister in the Office of the President in the 1997–2002 Parliament. His primary and silent mandate revolved around security issues in the north of the country. Apart from keeping an eye on local conflicts in the region, he also monitored the situation in the Republic of Somalia, where order continued to deteriorate steadily, after the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991.

In 2002 and 2007, he was elected on a Kanu ticket to represent Ijara Constituency. The depth and breadth of his influence was reflected in the fact that although the country had hugely swung towards the Opposition, the region remained strongly in Kanu. It is, indeed, the irony of history that since the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in 1991, Northeastern does not vote as a block at any one time.

It votes both for the government and the Opposition. This is despite the fact that this was the one region which, at independence, wanted to break away. It is courtesy of the influence of respected local leaders like Haji.

In 2013, Haji was elected to represent Garissa in the Senate. He successfully defended the seat in 2017. An elder statesman aged 80 at his death, he remained a clear-minded, soft-spoken and level-headed politician, good enough for the President to trust with chairing the contentious BBI process. He leaves behind a family with many interconnections in the Kenya Somali community, largely through marriage. Two of his more outstanding progenies are Noordin Haji, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and businessman Abdul Haji. Mohamed Yusuf Haji was born in 1940, a member of the giant Ogaden clan of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

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