Maanta Waa - Today is

Mohamed Ibrahim Egal

May 14 2002 President of the unrecognised Republic of Somaliland - On Monday the body of the first President of an African country quietly left a hospital in Pretoria on a last journey, back to his capital city, Hargeisa, in the Republic of Somaliland - a country recognised not by the United Nations, not by the regional organisations, nor any other nation, African or otherwise. Translate (for Somali articles no translation available, sorry!)

But Mohamed Ibrahim Egal did have status. In 1993, the elders and citizens of what was once the British Somaliland Protectorate chose him as President of the "Republic of Somaliland" precisely because of the supposed influence his name might have, due to the high standing he had earned amongst that generation of African leaders who first steered their countries from colonialism to political independence some half a century ago. But today, especially in the West, few comprehend the significant sense of history that pervades the Third World.

Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, politician: born Odweyne, British Somaliland Protectorate 15 August 1928; Prime Minister, Somaliland Republic 1960; Minister of Defence, Republic of Somalia 1960-62; Minister of Education 1962-63; Prime Minister 1967-69; Ambassador to India 1976-78; Chair, Chamber of Commerce, Mogadishu 1985-91; President, "Republic of Somaliland" 1993-2002; five times married (three sons, two daughters); died Pretoria 3 May 2002

Egal was born in 1928 at Odweyne, midway between the historic northern Somali trading centre and port of Berbera and the old escarpment town of Sheikh. His father, Ibrahim Egal, from the Habr Awal section of the Isaaq clan, was a wealthy merchant owning much property in the days when Berbera had served as the British colonial capital. To the west lay French territory - now Djibouti. To the east and south-east was Italian Somalia - now "Puntland" and the chaotic Somali Republic. To the south lay the Haud and the Ogaden, also in process of "pacification" but by the armies of the then empire of Ethiopia: their first governor, based in the walled city of Harar, was Ras Makonnen, the father of emperor Haile Selassie.

Thus on every frontier the population was also Somali. To the proud nomad such boundaries meant little and indeed were largely ignored, but to Mohamed's generation of schoolboys they were real enough. They all dreamed of a new Africa where a "greater" Somalia which might one day incorporate all Somalis, even as far as the NFD - the forbidding desert scrub lands of northern Kenya.

From his youth, Mohamed must have been conscious that such an aspiration could not be easily achieved, for he was one of the few lucky ones whose family could pay for further schooling in Manchester, England. For instance, he spent some time studying with the brilliant young Kenyan Tom Mboya, whose Pan-Africanism certainly did not extend to the further dismemberment of Kenya any time in the future. Britain had already handed over Jubaland with the southern Somali port of Kismayu to Italy to ensure the latter's anti-German stance in the First World War. However, when modern political expression in the form of clubs and embryonic parties began throughout the Somali lands, no aspiring nationalist could fail to address the seemingly alien and unjust colonial division of the Somali nation.

Mohamed Ibrahim Egal married Asha Said Abi in 1946 - who was to bear him three sons and two daughters - and was soon in the thick of political struggle. In 1956 he was elected to head the Berbera branch of the Somali National League. Although later he seldom hesitated to change from party to party, he was ever careful to pay more than lip service to the prospect of eventual Somali independence and unity. He was a compelling orator possessed of considerable charisma. Yet from the beginning astute observers detected an occasional lack of consistency and determination. However, by 1958 he had risen to be the SNL general secretary.

After the Second World War, Italian Somaliland was returned to Italy but as a United Nations Trust and the unanticipated prospect of their eastern neighbour's early independence startled the Somali Úlite in Hargeisa almost as much as it did the hitherto complacent British colonial administration. With hindsight, many see enthusiasm for unity on the part of the northerners as na´ve as the more numerous and politically experienced southerners quickly acquired most of the plum appointments. However, Egal and four colleagues journeyed to London and agreed that the British Protectorate should become independent on 24 June 1960. For five short days, Egal was Prime Minister.

On 1 July, former Italian Somalia followed suit: the two legislative assemblies met and merged in Mogadishu. Southerners held most of the keys to power and patronage but Egal became minister of defence in the new Somali Republic, and it was agreed that a referendum was to be held within a year to ratify a constitution in which all Somali people had a place. At the time few bothered that that never happened, rejoicing meantime that the first two of the symbolic five points of the white star on the azure background of their flag were united.

Radio programmes and determined young ministers and diplomats set out to persuade Arab and African leaders, the United Nations and, after 1963, the OAU of the justice of the Somali cause. But, in the real world, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia - not to mention the governments of France and Britain - did not share the Somali euphoria. Undeterred, the Somalis opened offices and training camps for "freedom fighters" were set up. All this against the ominous background of the Cold War. Development of the Somali military agreements, discouraged by the West, was entered into with the Soviet Union.

Aden Abdulla Osman was President with Abdurashid Ali Shermarke, then Abdurazaq Haji Hussein, as Prime Minister. Egal left the government in 1962 to form the Somali National Congress. In 1963, following a refusal to accept a Commission report which suggested the population of the NFD might favour independence under the Somali rather than the Kenyan flag, diplomatic relations with Britain were broken off.

Ambassador Lancelot Pyman described it all as "a very civilised rupture" - and well he might since he had even been consulted in the abstract as to how it should be effected - but angry Somalis set fire to the British Council library.

From 1962 until 1964, Egal led the opposition but in that year he disappointed many friends by unexpectedly joining the governing Somali Youth League, dominated by southerners. It proved a good career move. Some 62 political parties contested, but the SYL retained a majority and all the opposition with the exception of Abdurazaq Haji Hussein crossed the floor. Then, in 1967 Abdurashid Ali Shermarke was elected President and he appointed Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal Prime Minister. One foreign observer noted that the government remained riddled with "demagoguery, nepotism and sensational corruption" but at home it was condemned more for lack of progress in promoting "greater Somalia".

Egal, however, proved a pragmatist. Without renouncing the eventual irredentist aims of Somali foreign policy (which were in any case enshrined in the constitution) he skilfully used the OAU - and the good offices of Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia - to ease tensions with Kenya. Alarmed at the growing influence of the Soviet Union, the Ethiopian military had provoked serious frontier clashes in 1964, causing Egal to turn his undoubted charm on the United States, Haile Selassie's staunch ally. In return for some aid and a visit by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, he quietly reined in pro-Somali insurgencies in the Ogaden and particularly Bale. In 1968, low-key diplomatic relations with Britain were restored.

Segments of the Somali military and to a lesser extent the police and intelligentsia were becoming restive. Egal had a minor confrontation over the incompetence of the government, with the army commander, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre. He discussed sending the general on a course to the Soviet Union as a prelude to shunting him aside politically. It would have been easy: Somalis were the only Africans allowed, for example, to attend the Soviet Union's Úlite tank schools beyond the Ural mountains. But the wily Siad avoided the posting.

Egal was in Washington when disaster struck. On 12 October 1969, President Abdurashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated. Egal rushed home. A colonel - Mohamed Farah Aideed - reported the imminence of a military coup but again Egal failed to take incisive action. On 21 October 1969, he and others were rounded up and detained at the presidential palace at Afgoi, south of Mogadishu. A popular Supreme Revolutionary Council repudiated all frontier agreements, abolished the existing constitution and judiciary and decreed the formation of new organs to manage the state.

Egal and others were arraigned and disappeared. Years later Mohamed Barood Ali, a long-term political prisoner, described the dreaded secret maximum-security prison Labaatan Jirow, where there were strict orders not to write on cell walls. One day he discover the word EGAL scratched in an obscure corner, and was elated by the thought that he was inhabiting the same cell as had his prime minister.

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