1. Growing up in northern Somalia
Dirie was born in 1905 in a family of nomads in the region of Ras Harfuun. His mother was Bullo Ali. In 1911 when she was again pregnant she asked the brothers of her husband to take Dirie and his two years elder brother Farah to leave the area because of the turmoil caused by the darawiish of Muhammad Abdille Hassan. They should stay at Warsheikh north of Mogadishu where they would meet later. However shortly later she was killed herself by two darawiish who could not agree on who should have her. Dirie was by that time five years old. He stayed with his father and brother at Warshiikh, where they were later joined by their younger brother Ali who survived the murder. However, their father died there due to malaria. Therefore the remaining family moved with an uncle to Jawhar.
In 1914 Dirie became the employee of an Erithrean civil servant of the Italian administration. He was very eager to learn the Qur'an every evening after finishing his work. His Erithrean employer noticed this and asked his wife not to charge the boy in the evening with further work. In 1922 Dirie opened a tee-drinking shelter in Jawhar. After some time this place became bigger and he engaged his brothers to work with him. Later the place became a little restaurant and Dirie employed one of his sisters as a cook. No doubt, Dirie was a self-made man starting from very modest beginnings just by himself.
2. Becoming a politically minded trader
About 1935 Dirie had enough capital to begin trading between the region of Raas Haafuun and Aden. In Somalia he bought animals and sold them in Aden. From there he brought back dates and clothes. He did this with a group of friends. Among them there was Hajji Mahmud Abdille. His trade brought him also temporarily to Mogadishu.
In 1938 he married Hawa Hirsi Nur. Her parents obliged Dirie to stay in Mogadishu. Some time later he undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca which owed him the title of hajj . In 1940 he married his second wife Hawa Hoosh.
At some stage Haji Dirie extended his trade to southern countries. He exported frankincense ( luubaan ), fish and ghee ( subag ) - the only allowed items of trade for Somalis - to Zanzibar and Mombasa and he imported from there spices and clothes which came originally from Europe.
Towards 1942, shortly after the beginning of the British administration, he set up a company dealing in wholesale import and export trade. He and other Somalis were by this possibility allowed to participate in trade which before was restricted to Italians and other non-Somalis.
For transport Haji Dire first rented a ship and later bought one. At one point he bought a steamer and employed a European captain and his crew. He was thus the first Somali to own such a big see-going cargo ship which even went to Italy. By this purchase he became the most important Somali businessman.
He organized trade from his office in Mogadishu. Communication was by telegrams and letters. The writing was done for him by his secretary Hassan Muhammad known as Waquye. Later Dirie participated in the banana Company of Somalia founded by Italians in 1935 under the name Regia Azienda Monopolio. He joined the Compagny with other Somali businessmen in 1955. In 1963 the Somali government became the most important shareholder of the Compagny. Dirie also held shares in the only textile Company of Somalia.
At some stage after the Second World War he bought a navy ship converted for commercial use. It was used for the transport of life stock (camels, cows, goats and sheep) to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Thereby he was the first Somali to own a modern steamboat. When it was shipwrecked it was a great loss for his affairs.
As will be apparent from his ambitious and innovative projects, the driving force behind entrepreneurship was never the desire to amass riches. He was more concerned with the future of his people and of Somalia than with his own private success. In this sense his vision and endeavor was more concerned with national politics than with his private advantage.
3. Concern for public welfare
Although Haji Dirie had no format education he was quick to learn from his business friends who were mostly Italians. These contacts and his travelling to other countries opened his eyes and made him understand how much there was to be done in Somalia. Consequently he became first well-known because of his activities for general benefit. in 1942 he founded on his own initiative the first full primary school of Somalia with a properly Somali curriculum for four years called Hamar Jabjab. Formerly Somalis could only join for three years one of the 29 elementary Italian schools of the country. The director of the school was Muallim Jaama'a. He had met him previously in Aden whence he invited him to open the school in Mogadishu. Teaching was in English and Arabic. In 1950 when the Italians had come back and began to prepare the country for independence they took over the school of Hamar Jabjab and extended its curriculum for secondary school.
When there was famine from September 1946 to June 1947 he contributed to the founding and running of a centre for the destitute called Suus-kitchen. The popular name is derived from a measurement of grain of 1 kg. This amount was distributed once a week to individual persons.
In 1956 during the Suez crisis he organized with some other Somali traders practical support for the Egyptians by sending living animals for the Egyptian army. He was also one of the main contributors for donations in money. Somali traders also tried to provide for a voluntary military force recruited in Somalia but this was prevented by the Italian colonial administration.
4. Struggle for independence
From the end-thirtieth onward Haji Dirie held the position of the leading elder ( odey ) of the northern community in Mogadishu. Having many contacts with other influential people he took first steps towards future Somali aristocratic government by promoting the settlement of nomadic Northerners in the southern coastal towns. His task was then to supervise this movement in Mogadishu while Adam Gass took charge of Merca and another elder of Kisimayo.
The role of Haji Dirie for the foundation of the Somali Youth League in 1943 is not well established. He probably was its most important financier: He provided the first office of the League in Via Roma and later headed the group of supporters who bought the well-known building of the SYL in Dhagaxtuur. Belonging to an elder and more respected age-group he was very influential behind the scene by establishing contacts and by promoting various political activities. The 'youngsters' of the SYL were good for programms and proclamations he was the leading elder to see for their implementation. Having the financial means he was free und unrestricted by group-considerations and he was free to launch activities which he himself considered most urgent. These undertakings for general benefit earned him great respect among the people of Mogadishu and many others.
For some years Haji Dirie was the leading Somali representative of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1947 the Chamber of Commerce comprised 220 members: 120 Italian, 45 Indian, 22 Somali, 2 British, 2 Jewish and 1 Eritrean.
In January 1948 United Nations fact finding commission visited Mogadishu. Haji Dirie was by then the leading Somali representative of the Chamber of Commerce of Mogadishu. The commission was set up by the Allied Council of Foreign Ministers which controlled the British military administration at time. It comprised representatives of Britain, USA, France and the Soviet Union. Haji Dirie repudiated the pro-Italian Memorandum drawn up by the Italian members of the Chamber of Commerce and presented to the commission. He strongly opposed the reestablishment of the Italian administration.
His criticism of Italian colonialism concerned five major points submitted to the UN fact finding commission in January 1948:
1. The expropriation of Somali farmers especially in Jowhar (Villagio de Abruzzi) and Jenale (near Merca) for the benefit of Italian settlers.
2. The lack of schools for teaching agriculture knowledge to Somali peasants.
3. The inability of the Italian administration to provide Somali peasants with appropriate agricultural toils and machines.
4. The food production policy implemented by the Italians resulted in the importation of oil, millet and grain from Kenya, Egypt and even Italy, this being changed by the British since their takeover of administration in Somalia.
5. During the Italian period Somalis were according to a Vice-Regal Decree forbidden to export local export crops. This policy also being reversed by the British there were at the beginning of 1948 200 Somalis engaged in the export-import trade, 80 of them in Mogadishu.
He produced a copy of the decree and handed it over to the Commissioners.
On 5 October 1948 the SYL organized a great demonstration in Mogadishu against the decision of the United Nations in favour of an Italian Trusteeship for Somalia. People carried banners expressing their opposition against the reestablishment of the Italian administration. Indeed, the decision of the UN ignored the position of the SYL for either complete independence or a trusteeship of several nations excluding Italy under the United Nations. Subsequently the British Administration forbade all political organizations and the police arrested the Somali leaders.
In 1949 some Somali leaders were imprisoned in Mogadishu and others were deported to rural areas. Haji Dirie, Mahmuud Maalinguur and Dahir Haji Osman (the only present survivor of the founders of SYL) were sent to El Bur north of Magadishu where they were well received by the local population. When they came back to Mogadishu early in the year 1950, they were celebrated as national heroes. Nevertheless, there was a strong opposition between the anti- and pro-Italians. On the 6th March Haji Dirie and Musa Boqor were waylaid and stabbed in the streets of Mogadishu by a group of adherants of Italy, one of whom was later convicted of assault. When the Italians took over the administration in April 1950 they could only rely on few organized people. The SYL was in opposition and therefore the Italians had to reckon with a national opposition watching carefully their dealings.
In 1950 the Italian Trusteeship Administration (AFIS) took over from the British government responsibilies for Somalia. It established a Territorial Council composed of 35 members, most of whom belonged to political parties such as SYL and HDM. On the long run members of the Territorial Council became the leading Somali politians. Since Haji Dirie did not belong to this Council his political influence began to decrease by the beginning of the Italian period.
Self-governement in Somalia began in 1956. People expected Haji Dirie to take a prominent position of political leadership. He refused, thereby priving himself of opportunities which others obtained, often favouring thereby only their own people. At the period when political positions became most important for general influence, the distribution of jobs and other opportunities his star began to fall. He was still one of the great leaders but others pushed themselves in the forefront by their greater influence in terms of followers and clientage. At a period when thew road to independence created new opportunities in terms of power and influence his assets just remaind his business. He continued to work, to promote and to advise but others became more prominent. All this contributed to the eclipse of his name in historical writings, more concerned with official positions than with de facto leadership. Only insiders were able to know how much he continued to influence Somali politics.
5. After independence: An advisory role in the background
At the time of the rise of official Somali leadership Haji Dirie remained in the background. He felt that his concentration on entrepreneurship would be more effective than any purely political activity. He therefore never accepted any official position in neither the SYL nor after independence 1960 in the government. After having gained commercial experience in the export-import sector he joined the Italo-Somali Agricultural Company when it was opened up by the British to Somali membership. First he was only holding shares of the Company later he became a leading member of its administrative council. By his own initiative he set up a soap factory, a factory for producing sesame oil, a factory for ice and a typography complementing two earlier existing typographies. He also became the president of the important salt pan at Jazira which produced salt for southern Somalia and exported extra quantities to other East African countries.
After the seizure of power by Siyyad Barre in 1969 commercial affairs suffered from state interference. Also Haji Dirie's enterprises were seriously affected by central control. Towards 1971 he lost the possility to continue his import-export business because government agencies took over this kind of private enterprise. At the same time the two existing private printing presses, the one of Haji Dirie and the one of the Catholic Mission, were nationalized. His other enterprises like the factory for ice and the salt pan continued to function privately.
Haji Dirie did not protest publicly and he remained an important eminence grise who followed actively public affairs. Insiders remember that he intervened personally by meeting the President in order to obtain the revocation of the capital punishment pronounced against three high officials of the regime accused to have planned to overthrow the government: Muhammad Ainanshe Guled, Salad Gabeyre Kidiya and Abdulkadir Abdulleh (Dheel). This intervention failed, the three were executed on the 3rd July 1972 and violent repression of political opposition became from now on the rule. Haji Dire was himself threatened to be imprisoned. Siyyad Barre however acted personally as his protector by letting his entourage know that during his rule he should never be touched. Even the revolutionary guards ( guulwade ) who were very intrusif for normal people finally respected the privacy of his house. However, his affairs suffered more and more by state interference but he himself remained in an honorable position as a much respected fighter for independence, economic welfare and educational progress.
Haji Dirie died on May 18, 1976 in Bonn where he was flown out for medical treatment (Germany). He was buried in Mogadishu under great public attendance.
|Sources: Lewis, I. M, A Modern History of the Somali , 4th ed., Oxford 2002.
Pankhurst, E. S., Ex-Italian Somaliland , London 1951.
Ninth Hearing in Italian Somaliland , National Archives, Washington,
Shamsa Haji Dirie and Dierk Lange