One of very few Kenyans of Somali descent to have risen to positions of influence in President Daniel arap Moi’s administration, Hussein Maalim Mohamed was a politician who tactfully avoided controversy, except when it came to defending the rights of his people. He made history as the longest-serving Cabinet minister from the region formerly known as North Eastern Province (NEP).
No other MP from the region has managed such an uninterrupted political career. Mohammed never lost a parliamentary election and represented Dujis Constituency (formerly Garissa Central and later renamed Garissa Township) for five consecutive terms, serving as a nominated MP during one of those terms. He chose to retire from politics in 2007.
Mohamed was not known beyond the boundaries of NEP until one year into Moi’s presidency in. It was 1979, when the newly installed President formed his first government after a General Election in November. Mohamed was among the people Moi nominated to Parliament. The President was keen to promote the interests of small communities that had been marginalised since the colonial era.
Mohamed was neither from an influential family nor did he have a good education. He had dropped out after primary school and made a name for himself in business. He was a popular businessman in Garissa Town before people chose him to be their civic leader in the 1974 elections. His popularity spread throughout the province for his role in helping Somali students seek higher education abroad. People even nicknamed him Hussein Maendeleo (Kiswahili for development) on account of his business, which he operated under the trade name Maendeleo Stores. The retail store was among the first businesses in the town in post-independent Kenya.
Before finishing his term as a nominated MP, the attempt in August 1982 by soldiers from the Kenya Air Force to overthrow the government would change the fortunes of Mohamed and his family. Coincidentally, it was Mohamed’s older brother, Mahmoud Mohamed, then a senior military officer, who was instrumental in saving the situation by suppressing the coup.
Moi then appointed the older Mohamed, a Deputy Commander in the Kenya Army, as Commandant of the renamed 82 Air Force. Four years later, he was named Chief of General Staff. The younger Mohamed, who was already in Moi’s good books, contested the Garissa Central parliamentary seat in the 1983 snap elections that Moi called to reorganise his government following the attempted coup. He won easily, beating the incumbent, Abdi Arres Mohammed.
Moi went on to appoint him Minister of State in the Office of the President alongside Justus ole Tipis and Peter Nyakiamo. Mohamed was not only the first Cabinet minister from North Eastern Province, but also the first one to hail from the Muslim community in Kenya. Likewise, his brother was the first from the Somali community in Kenya to hold such a position; he was the highest ranking General in the military. For years, there had been mistrust between the government and the Somali people living in Kenya owing to their marginalisation since colonial times. By appointing Mohamed to the Cabinet, Moi began a process of building a new culture of trust between his government and the people of NEP.
One of his first duties as a minister was to help the government combat insecurity and banditry in northern Kenya. Another was ending the suspicion that existed between the people and the government.
A key issue that the government needed to deal with even before addressing insecurity in NEP was the political dynamics in neighbouring Somalia, which directly affected Kenya. In 1977 Moi, then the Vice President, raised concerns about the alleged recruitment of Kenyan Somalis to fight in the Ogaden War which had broken out in July of that year between Somalia and Ethiopia; both countries were laying claim to the Ogaden region. There were reports that Somalia government agents were issuing passports to Kenyan Somalis to go to Somalia for military training. It was feared that Kenyans recruited to fight in the war would later be used to attack Kenya in an old campaign to hive off the NEP and join it to the Republic of Somalia.
Moi, who held the docket of Minister for Home Affairs, ordered the screening of all Somalis in Kenya through registration, to make them easily identifiable by Kenyan security forces. This was deemed necessary because many Somali nationals had fled their country in the 1970s and settled among their relatives in NEP. Others had established a base in Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate.
After the Ogaden War, the Somalia government was under threat from opposition parties, portending more trouble for Kenya. The political tensions were not only felt in NEP but also in Nairobi, since Eastleigh was slowly becoming the home of fleeing refugees. For fear of reviving the expansionist dream of a greater Somalia by residents of NEP, the Kenya government had to tackle the crisis in Somalia with caution. And this is where Mohamed became instrumental.
On top of all this, there was an ivory smuggling ring operating between the two countries. Poachers believed to have the blessings of high-ranking officials in the Somalia government would cross over into Kenya’s wildlife sanctuaries, kill elephants and smuggle the ivory back into their country. Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya had denied the claims, but Mohamed insisted that the allegations were true.
The Weekly Review news magazine of 17 February 1989 quoted the minister issuing a bold ministerial statement on the matter: “Somali nationals are infiltrating the country, irregularly obtaining Kenyan citizenship and identification documents and supporting or engaging in poaching and banditry.” He went on to say that the same foreigners had amassed wealth through the transport and haulage business, real estate and other commercial enterprises, and that some of the proceeds were being used to finance poaching and other illegal activities against Kenya.
The statement sparked an unprecedented public row between him and MPs from Wajir and Mandera districts. Mohamed and an unnamed MP from Garissa District are said to have handed over a secret list of five Somali nationals suspected to be behind the poaching. The five, who owned transport businesses, were arrested in an ensuing crackdown but were released after questioning.
In the same month, there was an exchange of fire between Kenyan security forces and poachers who had invaded Liboi in the Tsavo National Park and killed six elephants. One Somali poacher was killed and another, who turned out to be a soldier in the Somali National Army, was injured. After taking such a bold stance on the poaching issue, Mohamed grew in popularity. Moi retained him in the Cabinet and he was now viewed as a spokesperson for NEP; the residents praised his efforts to incorporate them in government.
By the early 1990s, the Garissa MP had become a decisive leader in the ruling party, KANU, following agitation for the re-introduction of multipartism in the country. Mohamed had been elected as the KANU Assistant National Organising Secretary and was the party’s leading light in NEP as well as Moi’s point man in the 1992 General Election. He was able to bring together other leaders in the province who voted overwhelmingly for Moi’s re-election as President. The minister himself won the Dujis Constituency seat for a third consecutive term.
Prior to the elections, the rather reserved politician had embarked on a campaign in which he criticised Moi’s administration, accusing it of neglecting the Muslim community and failing to end insecurity in NEP by not providing adequate security. Mohammed had even hinted at forming a broad-based Islamic Party that would serve the interests of Muslims in the country. Four other KANU MPs from the region supported him.
Although this irked the government and other KANU leaders, they could not afford to discard the Dujis MP in the face of an increasingly strong opposition. The FORD-Kenya party had made inroads in NEP in the 1992 election campaigns. Party luminaries led by their chairman, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, accused Mohamed of doing little to end banditry in the region. And following intense campaigns in which they promised to end insecurity, the party managed to win Lagdera Constituency through their candidate Farah Maalim.
In early 1993, Mohamed found himself colliding with the Provincial Commissioner of NEP, Amos Bore, who he accused of failing to fight insecurity in the region. At a public meeting in Garissa Town in February, the politician claimed that ammunition was being obtained easily from the security forces in exchange for money. “I am now happy the security in the area has improved two-fold. But I am not happy that there is a syndicate on arms in Garissa Town involving the police and civilians,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Nation of 22 February 1993. In April, in what was seen as a demotion, he was moved to the Ministry of Culture and Social Services. The minister later claimed he had criticised KANU from within “… only in the spirit of constructive criticism.”
Not much was heard from him after that as he dedicated his time to his ministerial duties. In the 1997 General Election, he again surprised the opposition by retaining his seat with ease. Moi appointed him Minister for Research, Technical Training and Technology, where he served for only one year before he was moved to the Ministry of Rural Development. He was then moved to the Ministry of Women and Youth Affairs. By the time Moi was concluding his tenure in 2002, Mohamed was in the position of Minister for Medical Services. In the elections that year, he was yet again one of the few MPs who did not struggle to retain their seats.
Mohamed found himself in the opposition after KANU’s presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, lost to Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In 2007 he opted to resign from active politics and the Dujis seat was won by a relative, Aden Duale, who was later to become Leader of Majority in Parliament and is married to the daughter of Mohamed’s older brother.
In 2016, Uhuru Kenyatta would appoint him Chairman of the Ewaso Ng’iro North Development Authority.