Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed: Warlord who as president failed to restore order to Somalia

He gained a reputation as a ruthless operator who jailed and sometimes killed his opponents

When he became president of Somalia in 2004 there were hopes that Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who had experience both as military strongman and politician, might help heal a country shattered by years of anarchy and chaos. But in his four years in office he failed, as the rest of the world failed before and since, to restore order to the stricken African country which has been called the world's worst failed state.

One graphic insight into the plight of the Somali people was given in a report which classed it as the world's worst place to go to school. Its authors wrote: "Only 10 per cent of children are enrolled in primary school. Ongoing conflict, civil unrest and fragility have had a catastrophic effect." Some of those children are not at school, according to aid agencies, because warlords have conscripted them into militias. Factor in the deaths of up to a million people, chronic instability, drought, the presence of Al-Qa'ida and Islamist fundamentalist fighters, as well as piracy, and it is hardly surprising that Yusuf failed.

His career is to be seen against the backdrop described by the Africa expert Richard Dowden, who wrote: "Like a fire that incessantly re-lights itself, Somalia has erupted again and again since 1991 in battles for territory, power or honour. The reasons: outside interference and the fractious rivalry between the clans and sub-clans. The individualistic and recriminatory Somalis find it hard to make the compromises necessary for national coherence."

Yusuf, born in 1934 in the Puntland region on Somalia's north-eastern tip, studied law before joining the Somali army and training in Italy and the Soviet Union. He saw combat in one conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia. He rose to the rank of colonel but was jailed for refusing to take part in a military coup staged by another officer. The coup's leader, Siad Barre, established himself as dictator and punished Yusuf by keeping him in jail from 1969 to 1975.

Three years after his release Yusuf tried to overthrow the Barre dictatorship but failed and fled to Kenya, where he put together a guerrilla movement. He formed a relationship with Ethiopia but when this soured, as it did in 1985, he was imprisoned there for six years.

He was released in 1991, in the same year as the Barre regime was ousted and civil war erupted. Yusuf became the dominant force in Puntland, which remained relatively peaceful while conflict and power struggles raged in other regions. Under Yusuf it was, however, by no means a haven of pacifism, since he gained a reputation as a ruthless operator who jailed and on occasion killed opponents. Disputes with rivals often ended in gunfire. An associate said bluntly: "You're either with the colonel or you are an enemy."

He lost power there for a year before making a comeback, and was an important figure when 2002 saw the opening of internationally sponsored talks in Kenya aimed at restoring some semblance of order to the ravaged country. Two years of hard bargaining followed before Yusuf emerged as president, with UN backing, of what was called the Transitional Federal Government.

On assuming office he appealed from help from other African countries and the international community, saying his aims were disarmament, integration and restoration of the rule of law. He described the havoc wreaked by 14 years of conflict, saying: "Up to 300,000 people were killed during the war, about two million others were displaced and national institutions were destroyed. But it is my belief that if we all work together the timeframe of pacifying Somalia will be much shorter than anybody thought."

This hopeful assessment turned out to be hopelessly optimistic. The theory was that Yusuf would be strong enough to create an element of national unity, but from the start large parts of the country were outside his control. For several years it was too dangerous for him even to visit the capital, Mogadishu. He was also the target of several assassination attempts, one of which killed his brother and several bodyguards in 2006. Yusuf's years in office were thus unhappy ones both for himself and for Somalia: looked to as a strongman, he failed to assert authority and failed, too, to act as a unifying figure. His four years as president saw both a rise in violence and much infighting within his administration.

In 2006 the administration faced a major threat from a powerful Islamist movement which took control of much of south and central Somalia. He reacted by calling in Ethiopian military intervention, which was initially effective in propping up his government. But the memories of previous Somali-Ethiopian wars and the presence of soldiers from a Christian nation in a mainly Muslim country increased his unpopularity and further weakened his authority.

According to the BBC analyst Mohamed Mohamed, "In southern Somalia, he was viewed as someone who brought Somalia's enemy into Somali territory to fight his own brothers, instead of sorting out the political problems in a peaceful manner." The Ethiopian troops did not achieve peace, since the Islamists went on to stage an insurgency with the help of Eritrea. Some of the insurgents later, to international dismay, aligned themselves with Al-Qa'ida.

The international community became disillusioned with Yusuf and what was viewed as his habit of going for military solutions instead of negotiation: he came to be seen as too much of a warlord and not enough of a politician. In 2007 he convened a reconciliation conference in a heavily guarded police compound in Mogadishu, which passed upbeat resolutions but had little obvious effect in establishing lasting progress. The difficulty of making headway was illustrated when the compound came under mortar attack on several occasions.

The political end came for Yusuf in 2008 when he quarrelled with the prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein, who unlike Yusuf, but in line with most western opinion, favoured a broadly-based government which could include some moderate Islamists. When the Somali parliament overwhelmingly backed the prime minister the remnants of Yusuf's authority vanished and he resigned. Out of office, he initially lived in Puntland but moved to Dubai.

Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, politician: born Galkacyo, Puntland, Somalia 15 December 1934; President of Somalia 2004-08; married Hawa Abdi Samatar; died Abu Dhabi 23 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'