Cometh the time, cometh the man. Leadership personified — Lessons for all of us: Grow with Age
Ali Ibrahim — may his memory live on long after his time on this mortal coil
The line may be gender insensitive but the gentleman concerned did his piece for women’s empowerment and clearly had a lifetime partnership. I would not agree with all his cultural ways, but this is the essence of diversity. If we were all the same already, then the makers of flat grey suits would have long since taken over as the men making money and pictures of Ali Ibrahim with Jimmy Hendrix hair and fantastically coloured shirts would not grace walls.
When I first met Ali Ibrahim he was a United Nations person through and through. He dismissed me with the look of disdain of a person back in his birthplace but with the power to do more for people in Somaliland than the UN had done for some considerable time. Another gentleman desperately trying to kick off projects had introduced me to him. Ali was a political person; he did not look at the technical details at the time and only made strategic points as to how the ILO would engage in Somaliland. It would not be funded by the organisation I worked for, of this there was no dispute as the ideas were not well formulated. Ali had technical people building roads and raking soil into heaps as make-work, not the thinking he wanted to make his home thrive far beyond the immediate.
Years later, I returned as the ILO. Ali had retired. He did not remember us meeting — he was a big man and met thousands of bagmen who would not impact decisions. Now, as the new person heading up the work he had managed to kick off, Ali Ibrahim offered counsel as to the way forward. I did not take his counsel but set out to develop Decent Work Programmes — I would not use ‘Country’ as the team sought to build the distinctiveness of Somaliland and the issues faced elsewhere in Somalia.
Ali asked why are you bothering? Just do more EIIP projects. EIIP was employment intensive infrastructure projects. We argued — he talked immediate work, we said: Time for structural engagement. Time to cause structural change?
Ali Ibrahim became Minister of Planning and International Cooperation for Somaliland. He had finally left behind his UN hat and saw things differently. The debates we had changed and he saw what was being done as aid agencies simply used Somalilanders as numbers to put in proposals and perpetuate their bureaucracies. Yes, good was done. But more good could, should, be done.
We became collaborators if not companions. I would go to him as a matter of process to listen to his views, gain his perspective of things being planned and done. I would not always enact his views and points the same as he certainly did not pick up on everything I said. But different views brought fresh perspectives and fresh impetus to much of the work. Some of this work is still the basis far larger investments, particularly in youth employment fully a decade after we kicked it off. Good work and good people stand the test of time.
The culmination of this was a telephone call and then a day trip.
Crook, be at my house 7 tomorrow morning and you can come with me to Salahley.
Salahley was Ali’s hometown, the site of some earlier work and a nice day trip out from Hargeisa. Inviting me along was an act of friendship and mutual respect. I felt honoured, gave up my Friday off (our only day off since we respected the labour regulations of the State).
Drove out to Salahley, just Ali’s election team, I was Paul Crook, no badges to show off or hide behind. Watched Ali give a hard time to a man cutting trees for fencing and firewood. Ali cared about the conservation of the countryside but also knew the realities for the people. It was an amicable telling off in typical Somali fashion with fingers pointed and facts stated. We went on our way and the gentleman looked to do what he could do without offending Mother Nature anymore than was necessary.
In Salahley, straight into a youth meeting. Did those young men and women give Ali a hard time? Definitely. Did he avoid the questions? Not once. I enjoyed not being in the hot seat for a change. Ali tried to give himself time to think as the questions came thick and fast. He used the old — I need to translate this for Mr Crook. I replied with a smirk on my face — No, no Mr Ibrahim, I am following well. Although I missed the essentials of questions, I was enjoying the interplay and changing dynamics, watching the body language as the youngsters took the Minister, their Member of Parliament, to task on progress or the lack there of.
Ali made fun when we finished — you knew what I was trying to do Paul. Yes, you were certainly not enjoying the perks of being Minister of Planning there. We laughed together and agreed it was great to hear, see and feel the powerful intellects of youngsters frustrated by lack of opportunity.
As we moved toward a roast goat lunch, the elders meeting was much more predictable. We lose so much with age if we are not careful.
A little time later, as a new week started, this civil servant turned statesman took us out with a crew of engineers. He had his own community to the fore and was engaged in building a new road to Salahley — private effort far outweighed anything the internationals were going to do.
We stood on the road and Engineer Roble remarked the road was narrow. No no. No it is not — countered Ali.
Who has a measure? We did not not. Mohamed Hassan, Dhere as he was known, innovated. Laying himself down knowing his height we found the road was 15 cms too narrow. Ali was furious since this amounted to a great deal of materials when building 30 kilometres of road. We stood together in the middle of the road knowing someone was going to get a hotter roasting than us under the afternoon sun.
Lessons for all of us in our lives?
Watching Ali Ibrahim perform, he gained with age and gave much. He was a voice seeking to find positive ways forward. He was always a realist. But realism riven through with ideals. His name and his actions will live on.