Dr Adan Yusuf Abokor (‘Dr Adan’ to his colleagues and friends) who died last week in Turkey, was a remarkable man. Born in Hargeisa, Somaliland, in 1946, he grew up in Aden, Yemen, where he attended a Catholic mission school. With ambitions to further his education—at that point in time there were no universities in Aden—Dr Adan travelled to Munich, via Italy, where he stayed for a year before being awarded a scholarship to study medicine in Poland. He graduated in 1975 and returned to Somalia in 1977, where he started work as a doctor in Mogadishu. He worked there for three years before requesting a transfer back to Hargeisa, where most of his family lived.
Dr Adan started work in Hargeisa Group Hospital and, after a few months, an official from the Ministry of Health in Mogadishu, impressed by his skills as a doctor and organiser, promoted him to head of the hospital. As hospital chief, Dr Adan began to realise the extent to which his home region of Somaliland had been neglected by the government in Mogadishu: ‘I discovered Hargeisa hospital was in a very bad situation. It had been completely neglected by the Ministry of Health. And, this I realized was part of the government’s policy of oppressing people in the North.’
Deciding that the government was unlikely to be much help in improving conditions in the hospital, Dr Adan enrolled some of the young professionals that he knew in Hargeisa to do so, including fellow doctors, engineers and local businessmen. Dr Adan also secured the support of German Emergency Doctors—an organization that was working in Somaliland’s refugee camps—to provide resources and volunteer doctors. These schemes helped the hospital become one of the best in Somalia.
When the news of Hargeisa Group Hospital’s success under Dr Adan’s leadership reached the government in Mogadishu, suspicions were raised about the potential for a growing political consciousness in Somaliland. These suspicions were not without foundation, as friends of Dr Adan had started a newsletter called Uffo (Somali for ‘the sweet smelling wind before the rain'), which began to educate people in Somaliland about the oppression they were living under from the Siad Barre government. In particular, Uffo focused on the poor standard of services provided by the government, particularly in health and education.
The government cracked down on the doctors and other professionals who were running the self-help schemes to improve services in Somaliland. Dr Adan was one of the first to be arrested. He said that at first, ‘I did not feel bothered about being arrested. None of us were because when you know that you are innocent you don't have that fear.’ However, after several months of interrogation, Dr Adan and others were subjected to a show trial and given prison sentences ranging from three years to life. The shooting of several students protesting the trial are considered the first casualties in Somalia’s civil war.
The prisoners were taken to Labaatan Jirrow prison—about seventy kilometres from Baidoa—to serve their sentences. Dr Adan and his fellow prisoners spent most of the next eight years in solitary confinement. Deprived of contact with the outside world, the group had no knowledge of developments taking place in the country, including the rebellion of the Somali National Movement (SNM) in the north. After a while the group developed a way of communicating with each other, through their cell walls, by tapping out the alphabet. Dr Adan said this ‘actually saved our sanity. Once you can communicate with the others and talk and make jokes and laugh and reminisce and share memories of childhood, of when you were young, or when you were in Hargeisa or Burco, or in Europe, it gives you a great relief.’
Remarkably, Dr Adan, who had been able to secure a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina via a sympathetic prison warden, was able to help his friend in the neighbouring cell by reading the book to him using the ‘language of taps’. They were released in 1989 as the Barre regime came under international pressure as Somalia descended into civil war, which had seen Somalia’s air-force in 1988 bomb the northern cities of Hargeisa and Burco to destruction.
In 1991, as the war spread, the people of northwest Somalia declared independence as the Republic of Somaliland. In 1992, Dr Adan left for the United States, but soon returned to Hargeisa to start the Somali Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SORRA) to help with recovery in Somaliland. SORRA played an important organizing role in the 1993 Boroma Peace Conference that brought peace amongst Somaliland’s clans and agreed a Peace Charter to lead a newly selected civilian government.
In 1995, Dr Adan joined the Life and Peace Institute, a Swedish peace-building organization, as a conflict resolution expert and in 1998 became the Country Representative for the British NGO, Progressio. In that role he spent thirteen successful years supporting the development of Somali NGOs and civil society organizations, a role that earned him the nick-name ‘the father of civil society’.
Dr Adan came out of retirement in 2013 to become RVI’s Representative in Somaliland until he retired, again, in 2019. A devoted father, he moved to Turkey in 2019 for his youngest children’s education. He died there on 18 November 2020, a casualty of Covid-19. His body was repatriated to Somaliland, to whose people he had devoted so much of his life, and where he was buried on 22 November.
Dr Adan was a wise and well-respected colleague. To mark his retirement in 2019, RVI published his autobiography, For a Life of Peace and Justice: Dr Adan Abokor in his own words, based on a series of interviews.
Yassmin Mohamed, RVI Horn of Africa Programme Manager, who knew Dr Adan well, said: 'We are all deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend, Dr Adan Abokor, who will be remembered for his passion, vision and dedication to his work. His life history demonstrates the efforts of a kind and selfless man whose legacy continues to inspire many. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him as a colleague, he opened his home to us, introduced us to his family and was always a great inspiration. Dr Adan was a national treasure but to me he was a dear friend who will be sorely missed.'
Magnus Taylor, Senior Programme Manager, RVI