Yusuf Haji – Master of the balancing

Mohammed Yusuf Haji sports the classic door-knocker beard. It is a style he adopted after he left the provincial administration in 1997, when he was nominated to Parliament by former President Daniel arap Moi. He has mellowed with age too, in a departure from times past – in June 1988, for instance, he earned international censure from human rights organisations when as a Provincial Commissioner he had a man jailed for refusing to give him a lift. Haji’s official car had broken down and he flagged down a Peter Makau, an electrician who responded, “Go and find a Government of Kenya vehicle. My car is not a government vehicle.”

Within hours, the PC had reported the matter to the Officer Commanding Police Division Eldoret and the electrician was arrested. He was jailed for three months the very next day by a magistrate who said he had behaved “in a very unsocial manner… government officials deserve respect. The accused lacked respect… (and a) deterrent sentence should be meted out as a lesson to those with such mind and unbecoming behaviour.”

Having joined the provincial administration in 1960, Haji had a colourful career as an administrator, legislator and then President Mwai Kibaki’s Minister for Defence. His entry into the Cabinet in 2008 followed the 2007 General Election in which he won the Ijara parliamentary seat on a Kenya African National Union (KANU) party ticket. At the time, KANU was one of the parties supporting Kibaki’s presidential candidacy on a Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket.

But the elections ended in chaos after the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga rejected the results, sparking violence in Nairobi, parts of Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces. The violence left about 1,400 people dead and 500,000 others displaced, prompting the international community to step in. Following mediation efforts, Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing deal that resulted in a coalition government with Odinga as Prime Minister. The agreement also stated that they would share out Cabinet positions among their supporters. It was this arrangement that brought Haji into the Cabinet on Kibaki’s side of the coalition.

Soon after his Cabinet appointment, the Kenyan military faced an emerging Al-Shabaab militia in neighbouring Somalia. The militias had in 2008 strengthened relations with Al-Qaeda insurgents and were also carrying out soft-target attacks in Somalia. Their growing profile and notoriety posed a regional dilemma as various nations tried to strengthen Somalia’s internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which had been formed in Nairobi. The TFG had violently lost control of the country’s capital Mogadishu to the Islamic courts in 2006. In response, President Kibaki had expressed his government’s commitment to work closely with Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) member states, the African Union and the TFG towards sustainable peace in Somalia.

Born in Garissa on 23 December 1940 to an Ogaden Darod family, Haji was best known for his stellar performance as an administrator, having served in various parts of the country under presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Moi, Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta – the latter two as a politician.

Unlike other administrators with university qualifications, Haji had only a secondary school certificate before he joined the government and sat for the 1970 Administrative Officers Course at the Kenya Institute of Administration. Then stationed in Maseno, Kisumu District, he was forced to re-sit five of the six courses after which he was appointed a District Officer. Later on, he did a short course at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

As a young administrator at a time when Kenya was going through the Shifta war, Haji always found himself on the receiving end of senior administrators. He would later tell Parliament of this experience. “I remember as a young District Officer in Kisumu, I was the DO Boma. The District Commissioner was Mr. J.P. Bondo in 1969, when the President of Somalia, Mr. (Abdirashid) Sharmarke, was shot. I went to the office of the DC in Winam, which was the headquarters, to brief him. When I entered his office, the greeting was: ‘Oh, pole Bwana Haji, for the death of your President.’ I was shocked. I asked him, ‘Which President?’ He said: ‘The President of Somalia.’”

Haji’s meteoric rise began in 1981, when he was promoted to become the Siaya District Commissioner. By then the district was a hotbed of Opposition politics, with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga controlling Nyanza politics from there. This was Haji’s second stint in Siaya, having served there in 1970 as a District Officer. His return to Siaya came three weeks after Odinga’s bid to enter Parliament as the Bondo MP had fallen flat after he allegedly described President Kenyatta as a land grabber. Although Odinga denied making such a remark, he was denied a chance to vie for the Bondo seat.

With left-wing politics taking shape and with district commissioners enjoying unfettered power, Haji had been thrown into stormy territory. But after only one year, he was moved to Kiambu District at a time when Moi was concerned about the emergence of underground groups such as Mwakenya. Kiambu was also the political base for Charles Njonjo, who in June 1980 had been appointed Minister for Home and Constitutional Affairs and whose influence within the body politic was widely known and feared.  More so, Moi had started a crackdown on radical MPs who included Koigi wa Wamwere, James Orengo, Abuya, Onyango Midika, Chibule wa Tsuma, Lawrence Sifuna and Mashengu wa Mwachofi.

Haji did not stay long in Kiambu; he was promoted in July 1982 to Senior District Commissioner in the Office of the President with the likes of Stanley Thuo and Anthony Oyier. But this appointment was cut short by the abortive 1982 coup, and Haji was appointed Provincial Commissioner for Western Province as Moi reorganised the provincial administration and security department.

The attempted coup also brought the Somali community closer to the Moi presidency as the insurgence was crushed by General Mahmoud Mohammed. Shortly after, Mohammed’s younger brother, Hussein Maalim Mohammed, was appointed Minister of State in the Office of the President. He was the first Kenyan of Somali descent to be appointed to the Cabinet.

With such networks, and years of building trust, Haji had by 1992 risen to become the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner – a coveted position within the public administration. He was the first PC from the Kenyan-Somali community.

The reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1991 had ignited ethnic tensions in the Rift Valley and clashes between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin communities had been witnessed in various parts. Haji found himself accused of doing little to stop the clashes. In Nairobi, Head of Civil Service Philip Mbithi blamed the Opposition for the skirmishes. Amid this criticism, Haji was sent to Western Province and replaced by Zachary Ogongo. But after a four-year stint in Kakamega District, he was moved back to Nakuru District to run the politically-sensitive province after Ogongo was accused of insulting Catholic Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki who had raised various concerns on security and further flare-ups of ethnic tension in the province.

In 1997, Haji finally retired from the civil service and became Moi’s campaign coordinator in North-Eastern Province. After Moi’s victory against Kibaki in the 1997 General Election, he was nominated to Parliament by KANU and appointed Assistant Minister in the Office of the President.

In Parliament, Haji became a fervent defender of the Moi regime and often clashed with members of the Opposition. For instance, when James Orengo moved a motion of no confidence in the government in October 1998, Haji dismissed it as “out of place” and described Orengo as an “infidel”.

“The mover of the motion and those who support it are people who are short-sighted, and no wonder the mover is wearing glasses because he is also short-sighted… President Moi has provided solid, sober and pragmatic leadership to this country. Only somebody who is day-dreaming (would) dream of removing KANU from power.”
So powerful was Haji that he even influenced the creation of Ijara District, carved out of the larger Garissa, and it became one of the smallest districts in Kenya. Interestingly, the district had only one constituency.

But he was still a respectable figure and in June 1998, he was part of a committee of legislators from the parliaments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania established to prepare for the formation of the East African Legislative Assembly. The Kenyan delegation was represented by Francis ole Kaparo, Samuel Poghisio, Haji, Paul Kihara, George Ngure and David Musila.

In March 2002, as Moi prepared to exit from power, Haji was made the KANU National Treasurer, cementing his place among the Moi loyalists. But when many of his fellow party members defected – including heavyweights such as George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka, Joseph Kamotho and Moody Awori – in protest over Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, Haji opted to stay on and fight for the Ijara seat on a KANU ticket.

And when his boss, William ole Ntimama, resigned as Minister of State in the Office of the President, Moi appointed Haji, then Ntimama’s Assistant Minister, to take over.

Haji would then campaign for Uhuru Kenyatta in North-Eastern Province and even managed to lock Kibaki’s National Rainbow Alliance (NARC) out. KANU captured 10 of the 11 parliamentary seats and won 62 per cent of the votes cast. Haji also won Ijara by 4,177 votes against NARC’s Nur Ahmed Sul who got 1,573 votes.

As the country prepared for the 2007 elections, Kenyatta declared that he would side with President Kibaki, who had won the presidency in 2002, and that KANU would not field a presidential candidate. Haji once again vied for the Ijara seat on a KANU ticket.

In the expanded coalition government between President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga, Haji as Minister for Defence worked with Gen (Rtd) Joseph Nkaissery and former Provincial Commissioner David Musila. Haji’s Cabinet position also helped Kibaki consolidate his support in North-Eastern Province, where Odinga had made inroads with his ODM party.

Haji would play a formidable role in negotiating peace in Somalia and he would later reveal that Kenya was in Somalia for a long stay. He said Kenyan troops were “pushing Al-Shabaab away from our boundary and securing our border and we will go as far as we will go…”

Some scholars say Haji was the brains behind the Somalia invasion and that he played a critical role in stabilising the war-torn country. He also played a role in mediating between the Ogaden National Front and the Ethiopian government as chairman of the mediation committee between 2012 and 2018. Later, at the request of President Uhuru Kenyatta, he mediated between Somalia’s President Mohamed Farmajo and Jubaland President in Somalia, Ahmed Islam alias Ahmed Madobe.

So powerful was Haji that he even influenced the creation of Ijara District, carved out of the larger Garissa, and it became one of the smallest districts in Kenya. Interestingly, the district had only one constituency

At a time when his age mates were no longer seeking elective positions after Kibaki’s exit, Haji decided to contest the Garissa Senate seat in 2013 on a Jubilee ticket – this time with Kenyatta as the presidential candidate. After winning the seat, he was appointed a member of the Senate Defence and National Security Committee. Under his watch, the committee remained off-camera, as a result of which he clashed with the Media Council of Kenya for restricting the entry of journalists to cover committee sessions.

As a result of his long career as an administrator and as a politician, Haji was appointed chairman of the Building Bridges Initiative Task Force, which was mandated to guide public participation in the quest for national unity, inclusion and consolidation of the 2010 Constitution. In the push for further constitutional changes, he supported the introduction of a clause to allow Members of Parliament to be appointed to the Cabinet. Mohamed Yusuf Haji died at the Aga Khan Hospital, Nairobi on February 15 2021 aged 80.In his condolence message to the family President Uhuru Kenyatta called Haji “a highly respected leader and elder whose wisdom, deep knowledge of the Kenyan society and long experience as a public administrator enabled him to serve the country in various leadership roles with distinction for many years.”

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