A Discussion with Sheikh Abdullahi Abdi, Chairman of National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF), CEO of Northern Aid, and Chairman of the National Governing Council for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Nairobi, Kenya
July 14, 2010
Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Consuelo Amat interviewed Sheikh Abdullahi Abdi, chairman of the National Muslim Leaders Forum and CEO of Northern Aid, as well as chairman of the National Governing Council for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Nairobi, Kenya. In the interview, Abdullahi discuses his work as a Muslim leader and advocate of the rights of marginalized populations, including those in the coastal region, the pastoralists in the north, and the disabled. He also describes his involvement in the proposed constitution and the way that Muslims see the debate over the referendum.
Mr. Abdullahi, could you tell me about your work throughout the constitutional reform process as one of the most active Muslim leaders?
My involvement goes back a long time, but it is important to understand that Kenya has had three regimes since independence, and they all have had a struggle to reform the constitution. The Lancaster Conference, where Kenya’s independence was negotiated, produced our first constitution. This first framework became the 1963 Constitution of Kenya, which was very influenced by English law and had the purpose of ending colonial influence. There was little to no focus on democratic institutions, checks and balances, and setting up a system that worked for the people. Our first president, [Jomo] Kenyatta, amended the constitution and abolished the two houses, absorbed regional government, and consolidated power in the presidency. Few people were paying attention to these formidable changes because of the euphoria of independence.
As Kenyatta aged, Daniel arap Moi came into power, and he was worse on governance issues than our first president. Moi entrenched corruption in politics to an unimaginable level, and the prospect of having multiparty politics was not very good. In 1991 there was a major step forward as Kenya became a multiparty state. The Interparty Parliamentary Group of 1997 was formed to start a constitutional review process, but Moi handpicked all the members. Religious leaders, including members of the National Muslim Leaders Forum and other Muslims, took issue with this cronyism, and we formed a people’s commission for constitutional reform. This interfaith coalition, and especially the Muslims, brought together Protestants and Catholics who initially refused to join forces. The government made the compromise that Moi would appoint 14 members to the commission, and there would be 13 others chosen by other parties. This tumultuous process, which included the walking out of the government and significant amendments, led to the Bomas draft that failed in the 2005 referendum.
This takes me to the struggle we have today and the formation of the Committee of Experts (CoE). I think that the CoE is a great group of independent and freethinking people, and they have gone through the arduous process of harmonizing previous drafts. As it stands today, the proposed constitution is not perfect, but I support it because it is a major improvement on what we have today. The aspects that I disagree with are: the amendments that the parliament made in Naivasha, as they weakened the devolutionary process to two levels of government rather than the proposed five, and struck down the regional assembly. One of the most ironic things is that the very people who were amending the proposed document in Naivasha were advocating for the No camp to reject it—most notably, William Ruto. Despite these setbacks I am confident that Kenya will have a new constitution in August, and 95 percent of Muslims will vote for it.
Could you tell me how this process connects to the post-electoral violence of 2007, and about the work you are doing to prevent political violence during this politically sensitive time?
The post-electoral violence in 2007 and 2008 was truly shocking. Shortly before the tragedy I was actually abroad promoting business investment in Kenya and promising that our country was a safe, stable, and potentially profitable place. I never thought that something like it was possible anymore, but it clearly happened and I was taken aback, to say the least. I want to say that we have learned, but only to some extent. We can point fingers, but honestly, it is easy to spark fire but very difficult to make peace. Today the problem has taken on a religious dimension beyond the usual tribal tensions. The fact is that the leadership of the church in Kenya has been provoking Muslims, but we have to see these events in the larger context of “the war on terrorism,” increasing suspicion of Muslims, counterterrorism funding from the United States, and Somalia. The international environment is such that it is easy to demonize Muslims, but we are making an effort to stay composed and call for reconciliation, understanding, compassion, and dialogue. I have personally sent these positive messages every time I have an opportunity, but it is not as enticing or media-worthy to see a moderate Muslim speak of understanding as it is to see one with bombs strapped to his chest.
The issues that are probably making the church leadership hesitant about the proposed constitution are land and American pro-life money. The relevant clauses in the constitution on land are not that radical: the government will not just take away land—it will tax idle land and encourage its good use or else request the sale of the land. I believe that the qadi courts and abortion debate are a red herring. The church did not acquire land illegally, so it has not much to worry about—rather, they obtained most of it through gifts from all the past presidents. The issue is that there will probably be limits to the size of land that an individual can hold, and there will be restrictions on foreigners as well, but this will all be worked out by the land commission. On the other hand, it is important to clarify that the church has not been responsible for perpetuating the ethnic divide; politicians have taken care of that.
Could you speak about your work with the other organization, which helps marginalized communities in Kenya?
During the Berlin Conference in the late 1800s it was decided that Somalis needed to be divided because they were too difficult and needed to be “controlled.” As a consequence, Somalis were divided in five: Djibouti (which was French Somaliland), British Somaliland (Somaliland today), Italian Somaliland (Somalia today), the Northern Frontier District in Kenya (which was held by the British), and Ethiopia (from the former Abyssinian Empire). This is to leave no doubt that Somalis or Muslims are not immigrants in this region. In fact, during the dawn of independence in 1963 ethnic Somalis (or 87 percent of them) wanted to join the country Somalia. The British refused. With a history of oppression and massacres, the Northern Frontier District is the poorest in Kenya, ranking at the bottom in all development indices. Just to give you an idea, there is not a single university in the Somali cluster in Kenya.
I have worked tirelessly for justice in this region, which is where my family and I come from. For instance, I worked closely with Human Rights Watch when they were here producing a report on human rights violations against Kenyan Somalis and to seek accountability for the victims of the Mandera operation [extrajudicial killings by Kenyan security forces]. We recorded what the people endured in the hands of their country’s forces: beatings, rapes, killings, broken bones, etc. We have medical documents to prove it, and below you can see a picture of one of the binders where I compiled all the information when I was in the region.
I would like to make a clear distinction between the few self-righteous clergy and the Christian community—the masses and civil society—who have stood with us Muslims for justice and peace. Our Christian friends are also saddened and concerned about the few leaders who dishonor their religion, and they refuse to follow their example.