Musa Haji Deria Mohamed (Johns ’61)

A prominent Judge, Musa Haji Deria Mohamed served as Attorney-General of the Somali Republic from 1970 to 1976, working to fuse the traditional Somali law system with elements of western legal systems.

The following profile is an excerpt from The biography of Musa Haji Deria Mohamed, originally published in the bi-annual Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society [Warsidaha Ururka Ingiriiska iyo Soomaalida], Autumn 2005, Issue 38, Page 14. Thanks to the Editor of this publication, David Brooks, for his help in sourcing the biography and for allowing it to be republished.

Musa Haji Deria Mohamed was born in 1938 in the small village of Taleh, some 150 kilometres northeast of Las Anod. Taleh is best remembered as the headquarters of the pre-independence Dervish State, established and commanded by Mohamed Abdullah Hassan known to the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’ for his part in the twenty-year campaign against British, Italian and Ethiopian forces. In fact, Musa’s paternal grandfather, Mohamed, was one of the Sayyid’s dervishes who ended up being killed by the Sayyid himself in a personal quarrel.

Musa was born to Haji Deria Mohamed, who himself was born in Burao and went to live in Berbera in 1928. There, he became a successful businessman. Musa’s mother, Halwo Jama, hailed from Erigavo, a town in the Sanaag region.

For two years from 1945, Musa attended the Las Anod Primary School which engaged his interest, while his two brothers were put to mind the family’s livestock. When it was time to leave this school, the prosperous Haji Deria wanted his son to follow him into his business but Musa wanted to carry on at school. The ensuing battle of wills produced a compromise: Musa could go to school but Haji Deria would not pay his fees. Musa solved this evident problem by coming top of his class at Sheikh Intermediate School each year from 1945 to 1951, which meant that his fees were waived. From there, he graduated to the Protectorate’s only secondary school at Amoud near Borama where his headmaster was Richard R. Darlington.

Musa’s progress there earned him a scholarship to study A-Levels in the UK (1958-60) which he did at Southend-on-Sea in Essex. In the summer holidays, he supplemented his pocket money by hiring out council deckchairs on the beach.

From Southend, Musa gained a place at St John’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he dabbled successively in natural sciences, geography and economics before settling on the law which was to steering influence on the rest of his life. As a Somali outsider, he was a shrewd judge of British character and he took a delight in the differences in human temperament he observed. In the Somali manner, he took an interest in world politics and engaged in vigorous debate, being mortified by South African apartheid and the lack of civil rights in the USA.

Upon returning to his homeland, Musa was appointed Judge in the Hargeisa District Court, a post to which was attached the considerable salary. By 1964, under President Aden Abdulle Osman, he was promoted to Judge of the Regional Court where one of his duties was to contribute directly to the formulation of Somali law.

In September 1965, Musa married Sirad Ali Shire in a ceremony at the Hargeisa Club. His four eldest children were all born by 1970 while his two youngest sons by his one and only wife were born twenty years later in 1990 and 1992.

In 1968, he was appointed Vice President of the Supreme Court in Mogadishu but the task of learning Italian did not appeal. When Prime Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Egal recognised Musa’s skills and qualities were more valuable in Hargeisa, Musa returned to his former position as Regional Court Judge in 1969, where he worked on the introduction of the jury system. With the March 1969 election approaching, Musa had by now become sufficiently well-known and highly-regarded that the people and elders of his clan – not to mention his father Haji Deria – wanted him to stand to become a Member of Parliament. Musa declined because he would only have wished to espouse an ideology and did not want to represent the narrow interests of a clan.
On 12 October 1969 President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, while paying a visit to the northern town of Las Anod, was assassinated. The army’s ‘Bloodless Revolution’ followed nine days later on 21 October, the country now being governed by the Somali Revolutionary Council consisting of 25 army officers, one of whom was Musa’s brother-in-law Mohammed Ali Shire, under the leadership of General Siyaad Barre.

Despite only a brief earlier experience of Mogadishu, Musa now returned there as Attorney-General of the Somali Republic, serving from 1970 to 1976. Amid the optimism and promise of justice and an independent judiciary in the early 1970s, Musa worked to fuse the traditional Somali law system of xeer (pronounced “heer”) with elements of western legal systems. In his official capacity as Attorney-General, he visited a number of countries including Germany, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Kenya.

In 1976, Musa challenged Siyaad Barre over the establishment of military courts which had neither juries nor rights of appeal. As a result, Musa was made a Judge in the Supreme Court which was, by now, powerless. He resigned a few months later.

A change of direction now seemed inevitable. Around the years of the Ogaden War (1977-78), after a lapse of some thirty years, Musa followed in his father’s footsteps in setting up his own business. In 1978, Musa went to live in one of his father’s seven houses in Berbera and rented out the other six. He established contacts for exporting Somali livestock by visiting Saudi Arabia. Within two years, in charge of a highly successful business, he was wealthy, the owner of three cars and two lorries and properties in both Burao and Hargeisa.

At the same time, he continued to use his knowledge of the law, acting, for example, as an adviser to the Chamber of Commerce. Such skills, always employed in good faith, did not always win him friends. During 1979, Musa was at an open air café bending over the food he was eating. Very close by, sitting on a low stool, was a young shoeshine boy, engaged in his innocent occupation. Someone yelled at Musa to watch out; Musa sat bolt upright. A spear, hurled with great force, thereby missed him. It penetrated the young boy and killed him outright. The murderer was in the service of a powerful businessman who was seeking revenge for Musa’s part in the legal prosecution of a friend.

In order to expand his business, Musa H. Deria Co. Ltd., Musa returned to Mogadishu once more in 1981. Meanwhile, Musa’s eldest son, Kamal, at school in Mogadishu, was learning Arabic, Italian and English. In 1984, while still at school he did his National Service, selecting the police division rather than the military due to his father’s abhorrence of the latter.
In 1986, Musa joined other businessmen to form the enlarged Mubarak Co. Ltd. He became one of the shareholders and managing director. By then, the company was importing timber and in 1986, Musa visited Bucharest to organise the import of Romanian cars which turned out to be a highly profitable venture. He hired a Romanian mechanic for six months to train Somalis in a service and repairs workshop in Mogadishu.

Aged 21, Kamal left school in 1987 and worked in his father’s business for the next three years. In the meantime, Musa continued to lead a double life, exposing himself to the ire of different parties – particularly the military government – for providing legal advice to defendants who sought it. One such man was falsely accused of looting government money; Musa somehow managed to defend him in a military court and the accused was acquitted.

In 1990, Kamal fled to Nairobi with his younger brother Ahmed. Kamal made contact with Amnesty International and spent three months in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before flying to Sweden by himself. Ahmed returned to Mogadishu. Kamal was allocated a small flat in a small village in an entirely Swedish community. He was given a small income and attended Swedish lessons but felt isolated and lonely, being so far away from home and family. The telephone was his salvation.

The Somali government was overthrown in 1991. In the ensuing armed struggle for power among the warlords, infrastructure was destroyed. For Kamal, Musa’s son, this meant the loss of telephone communication, which he felt acutely. For their safety, Musa fled with his family to the northern region. Soon, Musa was appointed the Chief of Justice in the Supreme Court in Hargeisa. By then, in Sweden, Kamal had trained as a teacher of Swedish and mathematics.

In 1995, Musa fell ill. Musa and Kamal met in Dubai where disease was diagnosed in the right kidney. Though doubt was subsequently cast on the decision, Musa was advised to have the kidney removed. Back in Hargeisa, he became ill again in June 1996. In the absence of an internationally-recognised passport, there was great difficulty in obtaining a visa for the purpose of visiting either Germany or the UK for medical treatment. Eventually, in March 1997, father and son travelled to Germany. There, the kidney stones were removed from the remaining kidney which was found to be infected. Liver disease was also diagnosed. By then, Musa was fatally ill. He died on 18 April 1997 and his passing was announced by the BBC Somali Service. He was buried in the German city, Bonn. 120 Somalis flew to Germany from other countries to attend his memorial service.