RIP Abbas Idriss, the Somali Brit

Thursday, 28 July 2016
Richard Dowden

The remarkable John Drysdale was almost completely unknown in Britain but a national hero in Somalia, where he was known as Abbas Idriss. A short man with pebble glasses, he looked more like an old professor than a soldier-turned-activist. Last month he was given a state funeral in Hargeisa attended by the great and good of Somaliland where he spent the last years of his life (see photo above).

He first went to the Somalia during the Second World War in 1943 as a British army officer with the Somaliland regiment which fought the Japanese in Burma and Singapore. He stayed on in the region and wrote about Singapore and South East Asia and became an expert on the region, in particular on its ancient porcelain. 

He returned to Britain and joined the colonial administration and served in Ghana. But he was not a typical colonial officer. He sided more with the people he was supposed to be ruling than the imperial rulers. After Ghana’s independence, he became adviser to three Somali Prime Ministers in post independence Somalia. Drysdale spoke fluent Somali and wrote two books about the country, its people and their history and culture.

I first met him in Modagadishu in 1992, shortly after the fall of Siad Barre, when the UN and then the United States became involved in trying to impose peace between the clan warlords. He became adviser to the Americans after they had invaded the country in December 1992. He tried to bring together the clan leaders as well as warlords like General Mohammed Aideed. But the Americans would not listen to his advice. They decided that there were good guys and bad guys. Anyone like General Aideed who did not do what they wanted was a bad guy. They put a price on his head.

Aideed went into hiding but his fighters still attacked the American troops. Drysdale offered to go and talk to him and the Americans agreed. But every time he tried to meet the general he found he was being followed. This game went on for days and Drysdale got angrier and angrier and felt personally slighted and betrayed. In a typically Somali act he simply changed sides and became Aideed’s advisor.

The Americans were finally forced to declare a truce in October 1993 when Aideed’s fighters war shot down two US helicopters in the infamous Blackhawk Down incident. Aideed came out of hiding and the Americans announced their withdrawal. Had they listened to Drysdale the history of Somalia might have been very different.  

He returned to Somaliland in the 1990s as an adviser to the government and set himself the complicated, dull but vital task of conducting a survey and mapping the farm boundaries of Somaliland in order to prevent land disputes. 

Richard Dowden is director of RAS.