In his early days, Mohammed Yusuf Haji knew how to use power – given a chance – and, later on in life, and as wisdom came with age, he turned into a diplomatic figure. From Jomo to Kenyatta presidency, Haji has played the power games without dropping any balls.
By the time he died on Monday morning, President Kenyatta described him as a ‘patriot and dependable” and as 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."
Ruthless and uncompromising
But that is the Haji of later years. Previously, he was the face of the powerful second-generation provincial administrators, ruthless, and uncompromising and which consisted of the likes of Simeon Nyachae, Cyrus Maina, Joseph Kaguthi, and Hezekiah Oyugi – the men who controlled the Nyayo machine.
For instance in June 1988, during the clamour for multiparty democracy, Haji’s car broke down on the Eldoret Highway and he flagged down a Mr Peter Makau, driving a company pick-up truck, for a lift. It was 7.30am.
But Makau, an electrician, was not willing to carry the then Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner telling him: "Go and find a government of Kenya vehicle. My car is not a government vehicle.”
Within a few hours, Haji had mobilised the administration to hunt for the Eldoret-based air-conditioning technician who was working with Soma Industries.
While there was no law that demanded that government officials should be given free rides, Makau was promptly arrested and jailed for three months for what the magistrate said was behaving “in a very unsocial manner” and lack of respect.
“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," said the magistrate.
The case against Makau caused international uproar and was used by human rights groups as an indicator of the excesses of the Moi regime - and the apparent abuse of power by his provincial administrators.
Over the years, Haji, who died on Monday February 15, 2021, mellowed with age and his last assignment was that of chairman of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), an indicator of his role in the President Uhuru Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Odinga initiative that might redefine Kenya’s politics.
Haji was thrust into politics by President Moi who nominated him to parliament in 1997. Eager to cast himself differently, Mr Haji adopted the classic door knocker circle beard style – and abandoned the clean shave that he used to spot during his days as PC. A new Haji had emerged, and perhaps with a reason.
It was during his tenure as PC that the Rift Valley province was hit by tribal clashes, instigated by politicians, some army officers, policemen, chiefs and local councillors.
Haji was caught up in this triangular mess and later accused by the 1997 Akilano Akiwumi Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the tribal clashes of possible collusion and was to be investigated further. He wasn’t. Others named in the report included politicians Wilson Leitich, Ezekiel Barngetuny, Nicholas Biwott and Reuben Chesire.
So powerful was Haji, that even after leaving the provincial administration, he influenced the creation of Ijara District, curved out of the larger Garissa, in May 2000 by President Moi.
Ijara, with a population of 62,571, according to 1999 census figures, was one of the smallest districts in Kenya. It also had one constituency, Ijara, in which he became the MP in 2002 on a Kanu ticket – as Uhuru Kenyatta first vied for presidency running against Mwai Kibaki. Haji had by then become the face of Kanu within the larger Garissa and a political insider in the Moi administration.
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 and serving Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and finally Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta – the latter two as a politician.
The entry of Mr Haji into Kibaki’s cabinet in 2008 followed his victory in the 2007 general election in which he had, once again, vied for the Ijara seat on a Kanu ticket. Kanu was by then one of the parties supporting Kibaki’s presidential candidacy on Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket, though fielding their own candidates as legislators and councillors.
But the 2007 general election ended with chaos after the Orange Democratic Movement of Raila Odinga alleged that the election was stolen sparking violence in Nairobi, parts of Rift Valley and Nyanza.
In the Grand Coalition government arrangement that followed the signing of the National Accord, Mr Haji joined the Cabinet as the minister for Defence– and on Kibaki’s side of the coalition. It was a critical time since the military had, during the chaos, stepped out of the barracks to open up and clear the roads – though still inactive in politics.
Externally, and during Mr Haji’s tenure, the Kenyan military was to soon face the emerging Al Shabaab militia in neighbouring Somalia which had in 2008 strengthened its relationship with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and was also carrying out soft target attacks inside Somalia, and at times spilling over into Kenya.
Haji was the man who would play diplomatic roles trying to solve the Somali question from the Kenyan side as its eastern neighbour country posed the risk of becoming the incubator of terror gangs.
As various nations tried to strengthen the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which had been formed in Nairobi against Islamic Courts Union, Haji would play a central figure in the Kibaki administration in trying to bring the warring groups together and in the search for regional peace.
Haji was on odd administrator, too. Unlike other administrators with university education, Mr 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 (KIA). At first, he failed, repeated and passed.
It was a rare opportunity since, by then, the Jomo Kenyatta government was wary of Somalis irredentists – and he became ostracised by his fellow administrators for that:
“I remember as a young District Officer (DO) in Kisumu; I was the DO Boma. The District Commissioner (DC) was Mr J.P. Bondo in 1969 when the President of Somalia, Mr Sharmarke, was shot. I went to the office of the DC to brief him at Winam, which was the headquarters. 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.”
With the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, Mr Haji was one of the provincial administrators whose loyalty to Moi was not in doubt. In 1981, at a time when the Kanu government was cracking down on alternative voices, Mr Haji was promoted to become the Siaya District Commissioner.
By then, the district was the hotbed of opposition politics with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga controlling the Nyanza politics from there. This was Haji’s second stint in Siaya having served there in 1970 as a District Officer.
The 27th April, 1981 return of Haji to Siaya came three weeks after Jaramogi’s bid to enter parliament as Bondo MP fell apart after he allegedly described Jomo Kenyatta as a land grabber. Although Mr Odinga denied making such a remark on April 4, 1981, blaming it on the media, he was denied a chance to vie for the vacant Bondo seat that had been left open after his proxy resigned to allow him enter the august House.
With Moi’s District Commissioners enjoying unfettered power, Mr Haji had arguably become powerful and loyal at the same time.
Besides Siaya, the other hotbed of politics was Murang’a and Kiambu and Haji found himself a trustworthy administrator. After the elevation of Simeon Nyachae from PC into a Permanent Secretary, and with David Musila taking over in Central province, he found that DCs in Central Province were, generally, uncooperative.
Moi, at one point, had to sack Murang’a DC, Hudson Misiko, for stopping a Joseph Kamotho harambee in Makuyu.
After that Makuyu incident, Mr Musila was asked by Moi to transfer the “rebel DCs.” Recalling the appointment of Haji as DC Kiambu, Musila wrote in his book ‘Seasons of Hope’, that he was looking for people he considered “loyal and efficient.”
So close was Haji to Musila that in 1985 he accompanied Musila as he went to deliver a letter declining a post as North Eastern PC, a transfer that, as he learnt later, was instigated by Kamba supremo Mulu Mutisya. Moi never saw them, and they were left at the State House reception with the letter.
Haji’s shift to Kiambu District in March 1982 came at a time that President Moi was concerned about the emergence of underground groups such as Mwakenya. Kiambu was also the political base for Charles Njonjo, who after the June 20, 1980 appointment as minister for Home and Constitutional Affairs had started to entrench himself.
But Haji did not stay long in Kiambu and was promoted in July 1982 to become a Senior District Commissioner at 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 Mr Haji was appointed Provincial Commissioner for Western Province as Moi moved in to reorganise the provincial administration and security.
The 1982 coup had also brought senior leaders in the Abdwak clan of the Somali community closer to the Moi presidency after the insurgence was crushed by Gen Mahmoud Mohammed who is from the Ugar section.
Shortly after, Mohamed’s younger brother Hussein Maalim Mohamed, was also appointed Minister of State in the office of the president, the first Somali to be appointed to the cabinet and as Haji became the first PC from the Somali community.
With Gen Mohammed heading the military, and his brother as Interior minister, Mr Haji’s clan was set for rise. By 1992, he rose to become the Rift Valley provincial commissioner – a coveted position within the public administration. It was in this position that Haji was entangled in the clamour for multi-party democracy tribal tensions and violence hit the Rift Valley.
Amidst criticism, that he was doing little, Haji was sent to Western Province and replaced by Zachary Ogongo.
But after a four year stint in Kakamega, he was in 1996 returned to Nakuru to run the politically-sensitive province after Ogongo was accused of insulting the Nakuru catholic bishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki after he raised various issues on security and concern of further flare-up of ethnic tension in the province.
But Mr Haji did not stay for long Nakuru and in 1997, he finally retired from civil service and became Moi’s Kanu campaign coordinator in North-Eastern Province – opting not to run for political office. After Moi’s victory against Kibaki in the 1997 general elections, Mr Haji was nominated to parliament by Kanu and appointed Assistant Minister in the Office of the President.
It was in Parliament that Mr Haji became a fervent defender of the Moi regime and often clashed with opposition members. For instance, when James Orengo in October 1998 moved a Motion of no confidence in the government, Mr Haji dismissed it as “out of place” and described Mr 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 a solid, sober and pragmatic leadership to this country. It is only somebody who is day-dreaming (who can) dreams of removing Kanu from power.”
Haji was forthright, and spoke his mind, on what he believed in. So powerful was Haji that he influenced the creation of Ijara District, curved out of the larger Garissa, and it became one of the smallest districts in Kenya. Interestingly, the district had only one constituency.
But still, and within parliament, he emerged as a respectable figure and in June 1998, he was a member of a committee of legislators from the parliaments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that was established to prepare for the formation of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). The Kenyan delegation was represented by Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo, Samuel Poghisio, Yusuf Haji, Paul Kihara, George Ngure and David Musila.
As Moi prepared to exit from power, he started a cooperation with Raila Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP) who had started warming up to Kanu. The entry of Odinga changed the post-Moi political matrix that would later wreck Kanu.
Mr Haji, at first, backed the Kanu axis that was accommodative to Mr Odinga and as NDP and Kanu merged on March 18, 2002, he was elected the National Treasurer with Mr Odinga getting the coveted Kanu Secretary-General position.
But Moi's decision to side-step Odinga and pick Uhuru Kenyatta as heir-apparent led to a split in the new Kanu. This led to a political walk-out that saw Odinga, George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka, Joseph Kamotho and Moddy Awori leave the party.
Mr Haji is one of the Kanu veterans who did not follow Mr Odinga into Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and later into National Rainbow Coalition. He opted to stay on and fight for the Ijara seat on a Kanu ticket –which he won.
Meanwhile, when his boss, William Ntimama resigned as Minister of State in the Office of the President to follow the Rainbow dream, President Moi appointed Haji, then an assistant minister, into the docket.
Another appointment was that of Musalia Mudavadi, who had left Kanu and returned, who became Vice-President albeit for a few months.
It was Haji who would lead the campaign for Uhuru Kenyatta in North Eastern Province as the Kanu coordinator – and which led to the good relationship and trust that the President had in him, ever since.
Due to his clan networks, Haji managed to lock out Kibaki’s Narc out of the Province with Uhuru’s Kanu taking 10 of the 11 parliamentary seats and receiving 62 per cent of the votes cast. Haji also won the sparsely populated Ijara constituency seat by garnering 4,177 votes against NARC’s Nur Ahmed Sul who received 1,573 votes.
Unlike other Kanu insiders, who had been involved in scandals, Haji’s name hardly featured. Although Kanu lost the 14 October 2002 election, it had managed to get 64 MPs – giving it a say as the opposition party. It would later take advantage of the intrigues within NARC to nurture rebellion within the government. It was these efforts that became Mwai Kibaki’s biggest head-ache during his first term as an unholy alliance emerged between some of his party members, led by Odinga, and those of Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kanu.
As the push for a new Constitution reached crescendo, the ‘rebels’ coalesced around ‘No’ whose symbol was an Orange. It would later become the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). After the defeat of Kibaki at the referendum, he dropped all the Orange leaders from his Cabinet and later reached out to President Moi.
Kanu was by then split into several factions with Uhuru Kenyatta and Gideon Moi on one side – and Biwott on the other. On 30 June 2004, Kibaki executed his first major government reshuffle and expanded his cabinet by adding Kanu and Ford-People MPs. In came Njenga Karume and Simeon Nyachae into the Cabinet.
Haji remained on the Uhuru faction of Kanu and as the country prepared for the 2007 election, and Uhuru stated that he would side with President Kibaki and that Kanu would not field a presidential candidate, Haji would become Kibaki’s pointman.
But the 2007 presidential election triggered post-election skirmishes after the ODM candidate, Raila Odinga, called for mass action and alleged that his victory had been stolen.
In the expanded Grand Coalition Government between Mr Odinga and President Kibaki, Mr Haji was appointed as Minister for Defence to replace Njenga Karume, who had lost his Kiambaa seat. It was here where he worked with Gen (Rtd) Joseph Nkaisserry and David Musila, the former PC who was instrumental in Haji’s appointment as DC in Kiambu.
The entry of Haji into the Kibaki Cabinet also helped Kibaki consolidate his support in North Eastern Province where Mr Odinga had made inroads with his ODM party. More so, as an elder, he would help the government’s desire to streamline politics in neighbouring Somalia.
Haji, the diplomat
But it is his role in regional diplomacy that is hardly known. As Minister for Defence, Mr Haji would play a formidable role within the government in negotiating peace in Somalia and it was during his tenure as Defence minister that Kenya invaded Somalia to pursue Al Shabaab militia in October 2011 after a spate of kidnapping of aid workers and tourists.
Three days after Kenyan soldiers’ entry into Somalia Mr Haji flew to Mogadishu for talks with the TFG and witnessed the havoc within the city. During his visit, a suicide car bomb exploded in Mogadishu near the Foreign Ministry where he was being hosted.
Haji did not shy away from stating that Kenyan troops would stay for much longer than expected in Somalia after the fall of Kismayo. He said that the Kenyan troops “were pushing al Shabaab away from our boundary and securing our border and we will go as far as we will go…We never stated at any time that Kenya was going to Kismayo.”
It is now held by political observers that Mr Haji was the brains behind the invasion of Somalia and that he managed to play a critical role in the stabilisation of the country.
In Ethiopia, Haji also played a role in mediating between the Ogaden National Front and the Ethiopian government and was the chair of the mediation committee between 2012 and 2018.
Later on, at the request of President Kenyatta, he mediated between Somali President Mohamed Farmajo and Jubaland president in Somalia Ahmed Islam alias Ahmed Madobe.
In 2013, when most of his colleagues were quitting politics, Mr Haji went for the Garissa senate seat in 2013 on a Jubilee ticket, once again backing Uhuru Kenyatta. In the negotiations that led to the crafting of Jubilee Coalition between Uhuru and William Ruto, Haji had been selected to represent Uhuru in some of the negotiations.
After winning the Senate seat, he was appointed a member of the Senate Defence and National Security Committee. Under his watch, the Committee remained off cameras and he had been at loggerheads with Media Council of Kenya for restricting entry of journalists to cover Committee sessions.
But Mr Haji remained the loyal face of President Kenyatta all through and never betrayed him. That might be the reason why he was appointed as the chairman of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce which was to guide the public participation on the quest for national unity, inclusion, and consolidation of the 2010 Constitution.
His death leaves the North Eastern region without a powerful political mentor and it will be interesting to watch who will emerge after him.