Abdulrahim Abby Farah: The most important Welshman
you’ve never heard of
9th June 2020
My hometown, Barry, is a remarkable place which has produced some
Former Plaid Cymru leader, Gwynfor Evans, was named the 4th most
important Welsh person of the last Millenniu m.
The story of Gareth Jones, who wrote about Stalin’s man-made famine
in the Ukraine, has recently been turned into a Holywood film.
But few in Wales could tell you much about
Abdulrahim Abby Farah,
the man from Barry who became
a senior Un ited Nations diplomat,
leading the 1990 UN Mission that
oversaw the dismantling of South Africa’s
Farah was born in October 1919, the year of the
Race Riots; only weeks after the murder
of Chilean sailor, Jose Martinez, on a neighbouring street to
Thompson Street where Farah was raised. His mother, Hilda Anderson,
ran a boarding house while his Somali father,
Abby Farah, was a
sailor and entrepreneur.
The young Farah attended Gladstone Primary School and Barry County
Grammar School, while his parents were am ongst a group which
founded the multiracial Domino’s Club on Thompson Street. Most of
the street was later eras ed in clearances of the Barry Docks area
running south of Holton Road, a less famous and less romanticised
versi on of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. His father was a member of Thompson
Street’s Colonial Club Committee and awarded an MBE for his wartime
support for international sailors.
As a seventeen-year-old, Farah was sent to Hargeisa, in British
Somaliland, where he became a clerk and then ma gistrate with the
British Colonial Services, fighting in World War Two as a commando
for British Forces in East Afri ca.
After the War, he graduated from Exeter and Oxford in civic
administration, before returning to the horn of Afri ca, where he
spent the 1950s working in the Trust Territory of Somaliland, the
Italian administered territories which had Mogadishu as a capital.
The independent Somali Republic in 1960 was formed by the merger of
the two British and Italian protectorates, the British Somaliland in
the north understandably being the region with closest links to
In 1961, Farah became the Somali ambassador to Ethiopia, then under
the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. This was perhaps the biggest
role for a Somali diplomat – as the two neighbours continued an
ongoing border dispute over the Ogaden region, considered part of a
‘Greater Somalia’. He represented the new country at the
Organisation of African Unity and to the United Nations Economic
Commission for Africa.
In 1965, he became the permanent representative of Somalia to the
United Nations, a post he held until 1972. During that era he served
as Acting Director of Somalia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, in
1969, became the Cha ir of the recently formed UN Special Committee
on Apartheid, created by UN resolution 1761. Many Western coun tries
did not participate in the committee’s early years because they
would not support an economic boycott of South Africa.
Somalia underwent regime change from 1969 onwards. Mohamed Siad
Barre’s revolution declared Somalia a soci alist state, and it
appears that Farah, who was linked with the previously elected
Somali Youth League, took a backseat in terms of Somali domestic
Barre led Somalia to a disastrous war with Ethiopia in 1977-78, and
the 1980s civil war and attempted genocide brought about the 1991
Somaliland declaration of independence for the north, the former
British colony. Since that time, Somaliland has self-governed,
whilst the remainder of Somalia is frequently described as a failed
state lacking in democracy and governance.
Internationally, Farah continued his work. He is credited with
arranging the UN’s meeting in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in
1972 – the first time since the permanent location in New York was
established in 1952 that they had met elsewhere.
He was President of
a six-day UN Security Council meeting on ‘Questions relating to
Africa’, alongside Umar Arteh Ghalib, with votes taken on
resolutions about independence for Namibia, criticism of South
Africa’s apartheid regime and ongoing repression in Portuguese
territories in Africa.
Writing in 1974 on apartheid, he began
his case by arguing that: “The existence of the Government of South
Afr ica’s apartheid policy which is racism in its most extreme form
— is a challenge of the same moral order as slavery in the
eighteenth century, or the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the
twentieth century.” This was a diplomat who wasn’t sat on the fence.
Back in New York, Farah continued to work within the United Nations,
becoming first an Assistant Secretary-Gene ral for Special Political
Questions between 1973 and 1978 before becoming the Undersecretary
General from 1979 until 1990.
In 1990, Farah led the UN Mission on ‘Progress made on the
Declaration on Apartheid and its Destructive Conseq uences on South
Africa’, effectively the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid
state, meeting the newly freed Nelson Mandela, South African
President F W de Klerk, and completing the work of several decades
of campaigning at international non-governmental level.
In ‘retirement’, Farah helped to start the Partnership to Strengthen
African Grassroots Organisations, Pasago, which he chaired, and
established a hospital for landmine victims in Somalia.
Abdulrahim Abby Farah died in New York in May 2018, aged 98 years
In writing this brief biography, I make no claim to be an expert on
Abdulrahim Abby Farah. If I have misunderstood or misinterpreted his
aims, goals or beliefs, I apologise, and am happy to be corrected so
that our understanding of him can be improved. But that is perhaps
my point: how is a man who clearly achieved so much in the world, re
main so unknown in the country in which he was born and raised?
I also offer no expertise in Somali politics, but hope that readers
will recognise the importance of Cardiff-based organisations the
Hayaat Womens Trust and the Somaliland
Mental Health Organisation, and also reflect on how little
most of us know about Somalia considering its centuries-long
relationship with our communities in Wales.