It was in 2002, at the tail end of President Moi’s regime, that Mohammed Yusuf Haji became a Cabinet minister. Until then he was a career civil servant who had worked in the provincial administration for three decades.
As he was considering a much-deserved retirement, Moi plunged him into politics by nominating him as an MP in 1998. The President wanted Haji in politics to help him in his mission to pacify the people of North Eastern Province (NEP), as it was known then who had for a long time claimed to have been neglected by the government. Moi also wanted Haji’s help in campaigning for his preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in the province in the 2002 presidential election. His wealth of experience in the public service, especially in the areas of security and conflict resolution, was also valuable to the President.
Haji was the second minister of Somali origin to serve in Moi’s Cabinet after Hussein Maalim Mohamed, who also hailed from Garissa District (now Garissa County). The region had been somewhat isolated since independence because of the secessionist Shifta war that played out between 1963 and 1967. During this time the people of NEP, who were almost all exclusively of Somali origin, wanted to secede and become part of the greater Somalia. But their efforts were thwarted and the region was largely treated as a pariah territory – until Major General (retired) Mohammoud Mohamed, the elder brother of Hussein, helped to crush the attempted coup by a section of Kenya Air Force soldiers on 1 August 1982.
After the 1983 snap General Election and in appreciation of the General’s work, Moi appointed Hussein as a minister in his office. Mohammoud later succeeded Major General Jackson Mulinge as Chief of General Staff.
Born on 23 December 1940 in Garissa, Haji, who hails from the Abdalla clan of the larger Ogaden Darod, started school in 1946 in his native locality. In 1954, he sat for the Kenya African Preliminary Examination (KAPE) and later joined the British Training College, graduating in 1958. He enrolled at the Kenya Institute of Administration between 1970 and 1971 to study Advanced Public Administration before joining the provincial administration. Haji also studied for a Diploma in Management and Financial Control at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He graduated in 1983 and began his career in administration and management.
In the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security, he started off as a District Officer (DO) and rose through the ranks to become a District Commissioner (DC) in various parts of the country before being appointed Provincial Commissioner (PC), serving in Western and Rift Valley provinces and becoming widely known. As a long-serving administrator in the province where Moi hailed from, Haji was able to work closely with and cultivate a long-term friendship with the President, who spent most of his weekends at his Kabarak home near Nakuru in the Rift Valley. At Moi’s behest, he worked for many years in the expansive region.
In those days, provincial administrators were actively involved in politics and crowd mobilisation for Moi and the KANU party rallies. They also acted as returning officers during elections in the single-party era.
The former administrator was a humble person who was known to steer clear of commenting on issues he had no facts about. He was also among the few people who could see Moi without making an appointment
According to John Nandasaba, a retired DC who worked with Haji in various capacities, Moi liked the Rift Valley PC because he was an honest and forthright man. Nandasaba was of the opinion that these traits were what informed the President’s decision to nominate Haji to Parliament – so he could better help him politically and in matters of security.
The former DC described Haji as a government official who respected the President and those close to him, and who dealt firmly and successfully with insecurity. Indeed, he said, Haji earned respect for his ability to resolve conflicts among warring parties in the province. Nandasaba also said while Moi regularly called DCs and PCs directly to keep tabs on the political and security situations in their administrative areas, it was not unusual for Haji to receive more than one call a day. He praised Haji as a good administrator who left people with fond memories of him.
Julius Sunkuli, a Minister for Internal Security in the Moi government, recalled that Haji was respected by Moi as well as his Cabinet colleagues, adding that even as an Assistant Minister, he got along with all Members of Parliament. According to Sunkuli, Haji’s contributions in Parliament concerning his ministry were informed and well researched. “He earned Moi’s respect long before he joined the Cabinet. On issues concerning security, he was always on top of things,” said Sunkuli, who worked closely with Haji in the Cabinet.
In addition, the former administrator is credited with the reputation of a humble person known to steer clear of commenting on issues he had no facts about. He was also among the few government officials who could see Moi without making an appointment.
When KANU nominated Haji as an MP, he was appointed as an Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, a position he held until 2001. In 2002, he was appointed Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs. And in the December 2002 General Election, he was elected MP for Ijara Constituency.
Despite a successful career in public service, Haji, now the Senator for Garissa County, did face some low moments. One was when he was indicted by both the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Tribal Clashes and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya for involvement in the 1992, 1997 and 1998 ethnic clashes that reportedly left more than 1,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of others displaced.
He was the Rift Valley PC when the clashes broke out amid agitation for the introduction of multiparty politics. Among the areas that were hard hit by the clashes in the province were Nakuru, Burnt Forest, Narok, Molo, Olenguruone, Eldoret, Nandi Hills, Turbo and Kamasai. The Judicial Commission chaired by Justice Akilano Molade Akiwumi noted that in 1989, Haji allegedly ordered the eviction of non-Maasai people from Lolgorian Division in Transmara District. The Commission’s report further said that he sent Administration Police to evict people from the Kuria community, who were considered non-locals, from Lolgorian.
“During a baraza that he held on January 9 1989, Mohammed Yusuf Haji threatened non-Maasai who did not move out within 14 days would be forced out and their houses burnt. Indeed, during the execution of the eviction order on February 23 1989, all houses belonging to non-Maasai were burnt,” read the report. The violence, it stated, was aimed at evicting people considered to be supporters of the government opposition movement.
The report further claimed that in the clashes that erupted in Olenguruone in 1992, there was possible collusion between Haji and Ishmael Chelang’a, who was the Nakuru DC at the time. It stated that on 28 April 1992, the two advised clash victims to return to their farms on grounds that security had been improved, yet they had flown over the area and seen that most houses had been burnt down.
“It was illogical to expect people to return to their farms when they didn’t have shelter and when the security situation was still volatile. This was conduct which showed extreme callousness on the part of security forces and the provincial administration for the plight of the victims and possible connivance of the clashes by them,” the Akiwumi report read.
The inquest also indicted Haji for preparing, but failing to implement, an action plan that would have prevented tribal clashes in Njoro and Ol Moran in January 1998. It further noted that after a tribal and politically motivated brawl erupted in Ndeffo near Njoro in December 1998, the PC chaired a joint security meeting to discuss the incident and its implications. According to the minutes of the meeting, there was consensus that the 1992 tribal clashes had erupted in a similar manner, and as 1997 was an election year, it was felt that the problem had to be instantly and decisively dealt with, hence the need to adopt the action plan.
The report nonetheless noted that although the action plan was impressive and appropriate, little if anything was done to implement it and as a result, the area was engulfed in violence a month after the 1997 General Election.
Justice Akiwumi recommended that Haji be investigated and prosecuted for his role in the clashes. The same recommendations were made in the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report and today, human rights groups continue to call for the prosecution of all those who were mentioned in the two reports.
Haji is the father of Noordin Haji, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Abdul Haji, who is remembered for his heroic efforts to rescue people trapped inside the Westgate Mall in Nairobi during the September 2013 terrorist attack.
In honour of Haji’s long and dedicated service to Kenyans, a school in Garissa County has been named Yusuf Haji Secondary.