Somalia: Omar Arteh: A Dissenting View
By: Hassan M. Abukar
In 1977, I saw something odd in the Hamarweyne District of Mogadishu. I saw a tall man riding a horse. For one thing, the rider was not a policeman. Then, after I looked at him closely, I realized it was none other than Omar Arteh Ghalib, the deposed foreign minister of Somalia. One pedestrian made a casual comment that Omar Arteh must have been depressed to be riding a horse in the center of the capital. Later, I found out that the horse was a gift from the people of the Nugaal region. Incidentally, Omar was the headmaster of an elementary school there in the 1950s.
From 1969 to 1976, Omar Arteh was the foreign minister. It was not strange when President Siad Barre decided to remove him from that position. The dictatorial system of Somalia did not make room for a foreign minister, or any other capable official for that matter, to be effective or powerful. Omar knew that he was merely a performer, perhaps, a facilitator, an implementer of Barre’s policies. All the hoopla that Omar Arteh was the man behind Somalia’s opening to the Arab world and to the country becoming a member of the Arab League is preposterous. Omar may have flattered and cajoled some Arab kings here and there, but he knew perfectly well that he was Siad Barre’s messenger. Moreover, the Arab governments were eager to have Somalia as a member of the league.
A case in point, when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia sent a special envoy, Shaikh Mohamed Mohamoud Al-Sawaf, to Barre in the early 1970s to lure the latter away from the Soviet orbit, Omar Arteh, according to a BBC interview with Mohamed Nur “Garyare” (then the director of religion in the ministry of religion and justice), was too timid to articulate the Arab king’s message before Siad Barre, and he instead pleaded with “Garyare” to deliver the bold message. Omar Arteh did not want to rock the boat or appear to be an official favoring special relations with Saudi Arabia. Barre, in that meeting with the Saudi Arabian envoy, was blunt and rejected King Faisal’s overtures. Only a few years later, Barre would grovel under the feet of Arab sheikhs, but that was not the time.
Many Somalis have questioned why Omar Arteh lost his job as foreign minister. There is no doubt that Omar spoke several languages, was charming and articulate. Omar, during the civilian government, had a cordial relationship with Siad Barre. In fact, Omar was mentioned as a natural replacement for Ibrahim Egal as prime minister. Prime Minister Egal and Siad Barre had a rocky relationship and there was even talk of removing Barre as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Until 1976, Omar was probably the longest serving cabinet minister in one ministry. By 1977, Siad Barre had a grand design to invade Ethiopia and even capture Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, as was later unveiled by Somali military commanders during the 1977-1978 Somali-Ethiopian War. Barre’s goal was not only to capture and liberate “Western Somalia,” but also to carve up Ethiopia. Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf was ordered to attack Ethiopia from the south and proceed all the way to Addis Ababa. Barre wanted to make sure that he had someone whom he trusted at the foreign ministry during that critical juncture and hence appointed his brother, Abdurahman Jama Barre, to the post. Jama Barre was the director general (DG) of that ministry. Somalis will always debate whether Jama Barre was the best qualified person to be Somalia’s longest serving foreign minister—about 14 years in total. (Full disclosure: Jama Barre and I are related through marriage.)
Even though Jama Barre was the foreign minister, Siad Barre used to send Hussein Abdulkadir Kassim, minister of mineral and water resources, to international conferences to represent Somalia. Barre also used Kassim for certain important meetings like the one on 10/8/1976 with Dr. Henry Kissinger, at the time secretary of state of the United States in the Ford administration, and the other on 12/8/1977 with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American national security advisor under President Carter. Kassim was well-educated, confident, articulate, well-versed with the history of the region, and adept at diplomacy.
Interestingly, Omar Arteh, the foreign minister in the early 1970s, now a glorified figure to the point of veneration, proposed in a meeting of the council of ministers, that Jama Barre be appointed as the DG. Omar Arteh, of course, was currying favor with Siad Barre. The president, the ever-consummate politician, considered the proposal a bad idea. But, oddly, Jama Barre did become the DG. This story is mentioned by Hussein Abdillahi Bulhan, a die-hard Somalilander, in his book, Politics of Cain: One Hundred Years of Crises in Somali Politics and Society (2008). In fact, Siad Barre was grooming his brother for the top job in the ministry. When, in 1976, Omar Arteh became involved in a petty bureaucratic fight with one of his subordinates, Dahir Yusuf Mareexaan, Siad Barre used that as a pretext to remove Omar Arteh from the foreign ministry and instead appointed him as the minister of higher education and culture. Dahir Yusuf, on the other hand, was appointed some time later as an ambassador to India and later to Libya.
Why did Omar Arteh propose Jama Barre to be the DG of the foreign ministry? For one thing, Jama Barre was either the second or the third employee ever hired by the new foreign ministry in 1960. Jama Barre was sent to Italy where he studied political economy and returned to Somalia. He was one of only a member of a small pool of university graduates in the entire country. Unlike Omar who had served abroad as a diplomat—he was an ambassador to Ethiopia from 1965 to 1968—Jama Barre toiled in the administrative aspect of diplomacy.
Some would argue that Omar Arteh proposed the appointment of Jama Barre as DG because it was an inevitable appointment waiting to happen. In fairness, Omar Arteh was loyal to Siad Barre, but he tended to flatter the dictator, a habit Omar had perfected and used profusely whenever it suited him.
When I came to the U.S, I saw three young Somali ladies in my university who told me that they all had scholarships from the United Arab Emirates. I had no scholarship and went into a painful financial crisis; once I even missed an entire semester because I was broke. I asked the young ladies, who were sisters, how they had gotten their scholarships. “Omar Arteh got them for us,” they told me. They also told me that they belonged to the same sub-clan as Omar. I was happy for them and thought it revolutionary to see Somali women getting a good education. However, I tried desperately to secure a scholarship for myself. Although I finally got one two years later, it was a long process that involved arduous work—too many applications and numerous letters of pleas. Many people were instrumental in helping me; including Somalis and others friends from the Gulf who attended the same university as I did, so I did not know which application of plea did the final work. I would say that Omar Arteh was the one who started securing scholarships for Somali students from foreign countries long before it was known to other Somali officials. I commend Omar for performing such a valuable service. Many of these scholarships unfortunately did not go through proper channels, such as the ministry of higher education. They were doled out at the backdoor, and, on some occasions, the beneficiaries were Omar’s relatives.
After all is said and done, I would still rather have someone like Omar Arteh as my leader than the crop of leaders we have today in Somalia. Among today’s leaders, Omar would be a man among boys. I know Omar Arteh was a nationalist and not someone known for selling the country to the highest bidder. Omar was a man with talent, but he was not perfect. He had a personal charisma, but lacked the type of political charisma someone like Mohamed Ibrahim Egal had to produce change. Omar was ambitious to a fault and, at times, lacked any guiding principles. Omar was the prime minister in the so-called government of warlord Ali Mahdi (from 1991 to 1993) and during the apex of the civil war. That was undoubtedly a black mark in his record. But, alas, at least Omar was ours and the son of Somalia.
Hassan M. Abukar