Dr. Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was born in 1919 to an aristocratic family in the Harardhere district of the Obbia Sultanate. He later moved to Mogadishu where he attended a government school and, after graduation, embarked on a career as a trader.
In May 1943 he became one of the early members of the first political party in Somalia – the Somali Youth League (SYL). The SYL’s founder, Yasin Haji Osman Sharmarke, was his first cousin. In 1944, when the British were in control of the administration of his country, Abdirashid entered the civil service. He continued to serve in the government service after 1950, when Somalia became a UN Trust Territory under Italian administration, rising to the position of Chief of the Department of Finance. While engaged in the government service by day, he pursued his education at night at the School of Public Administration in Mogadishu. He later earned a scholarship to study at the prestigious Sapienza University of Rome where he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science in 1958.
After returning to Somalia in 1959, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly from the Qardho district. When Somalia gained its independence on July 1, 1960, he was appointed by President Aden Abdulle Osman as the Prime Minister of the Somali Republic. Shermarke’s duties as Prime Minister saw him travel abroad extensively in pursuit of a non-aligned and neutral foreign policy. He remained Prime Minister until March 1964, when the first general elections were held.
President John F. Kennedy with Dr. Shermarke during his visit to the White House as Prime Minister of the Somali Republic (1962).
The 1967 Presidential elections, conducted by a secret poll of National Assembly members, pitted former Prime Minister Shermarke against President Aden Abdulle Osman. The central issue was moderation versus militancy on the pan-Somali question. Osman had stressed priority for internal development. Shermarke, who had served as Prime Minister when pan-Somalism was at its height, was elected President of the Republic of Somalia. The new President nominated as Prime Minister Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, who raised cabinet membership from thirteen to fifteen members and included representatives of every major clan family.
In September 1968, Somalia and Ethiopia agreed to establish commercial air and telecommunication links. The termination of the state of emergency in the border regions, which had been declared by Ethiopia in February 1964, permitted the resumption of free access by Somali pastoralists to their traditional grazing lands and the reopening of the road across Ethiopian territory between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. With foreign affairs a less consuming issue, the government’s energy and the country’s meager resources was now applied more effectively to the challenges of internal development. However, the relaxation of tensions had an unanticipated effect. The conflict with its neighbors had promoted Somalia’s internal political cohesion and solidified public opinion at all levels on at least one issue. As tension from that source subsided, old cleavages based on clan rivalries became more prominent. Resentment and discontent grew. It was during Abdirashid and Egal’s administration that the mass of Somalis became irrevocably alienated from the political system.
In 1968, President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke would narrowly escape the first attempt on his life when a grenade exploded near the car that was transporting him back from the airport. Of the dissatisfied groups, the most significant element was the military who, since 1961, had remained outside politics. It had done so partly because the government had not called upon it for support and partly because, unlike most other African armed forces, the Somali National Army had a genuine external mission in which it was supported by all Somalis – that of protecting the borders with Ethiopia and Kenya.
The stage was set for a coup d’état. On October 15, 1969, the second attempt on President Shermarke’s life would prove to be fatal. The President had been touring the country to witness the effects of a severe drought. During a stopover in Las Anod, police constable Abdulkadir Abdi Mohamed, a 22-year-old policeman who was sent to Las Anod on security strengthening for the Presidential visit, assassinated the President sending the country into shock.
At the time, Prime Minister Egal was overseas on an official visit, but upon his return Egal convened with members of his party to decide who should be Shermarke’s replacement. After careful deliberation, the decision was made to replace Shermarke with Haji Muse Boqor. The decision, especially when it became apparent that the selection would be confirmed by the National Assembly, angered certain members of the military.
On October 21, 1969, while the country had just finished observing the traditional 5 days of mourning, members of the military took over strategic points in Mogadishu, rounded up government officials, suspended the constitution, abolished the National Assembly, and banned political parties, effectively putting an end to the brief period of democracy in Somalia. Shermarke would be the last democratically elected President of Somalia.