Life & Work

Unmasking ‘Grand Mullah’ Ahmednasir Abdullahi



Publisher. Newspaper columnist. Tough advocate. Husband. Businessman. Father. Clothes horse. Hell-raiser. Arsenal FC aficionado. The Grand Mullah. Feel free to wedge any of these hats on Ahmednasir Abdullahi’s head. It will fit.

In the 1980s, Ahmednasir spent time tending to his dad’s shop in the border town of Mandera before he found his way into the city, lured and later embraced by education. Much of the rest, you already know.

But now he’s here; doing everything that he does and making friends and foes, and remaining spectacularly unapologetic.

We met in his office’s officious boardroom, surrounded by a forest of dark-spined and sneery law books. He pads into the meeting suitably suited, but shoeless. Surprisingly, he laughs easily, but generally he is as calm as glass. Let's hear what he has to say:


People call you ‘The Grand Mullah’. You know, as if before someone seeks your audience they have to bend and kiss the ring on your finger like you are Don Corleone, The Godfather…

(Laughs hard) People don’t know this, but I was given that name by the Chief Justice (Willy Mutunga) during one of our JSC interviews. Then after, I think when (former Chief Registrar of the Judiciary Gladys) Shollei’s issue came up, she leaked it to the press to create the impression of a godfather. But it was more of my expertise in Islamic law than anything.

Are you flattered by it?

Oh I love it! It’s because it’s used in an affectionate way.

How was your childhood?

I grew up in Mandera – the most interesting time of my life. In the 1980s it was big on commerce and a fashion centre. My parents had a big shop. I attended Mandera Primary School, then Nairobi School, University of Nairobi, Law School, then Cornell University in New York.

You have been called egoist, standoffish, aggressive. Is that who you are?

You know, I like it when people misread me because I think there is a lot of fun when people have a wrong perception about you. I like it. (Chuckle).

What’s the one failure in your life that has always stayed with you?

Yes, yes. I think it’s the fact that I have not done my doctorate. I think I will do it, but sometimes I don’t want to because I have this rule that your children should do things you haven’t done. (Pause). Maybe I will do it eventually.

Do you imagine that it will add more value to your life?

No, I think it’s just an ego thing. (Laughs)

What’s your biggest insecurity?

I can tell you that I have no insecurity whatsoever.

Navigating business and politics, dealing with egos and personalities, making friends and enemies, what’s the one lesson you have learnt?

Best lesson is to always be objective.

But are all the chaps you deal with objective like you?

I don’t care. You see the most important thing is to do it for yourself. For example, when I write an opinion, I cut every article and read it six months later and ask if I was objective or malicious and I can tell you every article I have ever written was objective.

What’s the one wrong decision you have made in your career that has stayed in your conscience ever since?

(Thinks and sighs) That’s a very difficult question. I don’t know, frankly. (Laughs). None.

Oh! So you are just the guy who measures twice and cuts once?

(Laughs) I’m comfortable with what I have done. I’m happy about all wars I fought, ones I won and lost. I’m content.

What’s your greatest extravagance?

Clothes. I think I have good taste in clothes; suits, shirts, ties, shoes. All my jeans and most of my suits are by Brioni. I’m into labels. I shop when I travel; my clothes remind me of where I have been.

Do clothes make the man?

Yes, absolutely! And I treat people depending on how they dress. However, I don’t dress for anyone, I dress for myself, so that I feel good about myself.

You have four kids, your last set being twins and your eldest 14 years old. Are you a good father?

Yes, yes.


(Chuckle, long pause) Because I do things. My wife is a better parent than I am obviously, but I try.

And what is your strength as a father?

I think my understanding of my kids. I’m not the disciplinarian, I make excuses for them. There is a saying in Arabic I tell my kids (launches into rapid Arabic). It means “you whoever works hard gets the reward”. For me, it’s not wealth you bequeath your kids, give kids education, discipline and character. That’s my obligation.

And what’s your weakness as a father?

I think my time. Yes, yes. I’m home late mostly, you know… those things.

Do you, like most people, wear masks to face the world and what’s your mask?

No, I don’t pretend. I’m a man if you say “smile for the camera”, I won’t because I have never smiled for the camera, I mean, I tell guys: 'If I want to smile naturally, it will come'. But I never do anything for the occasion or to please anyone.

So what brings out your genuine smile?

Questions like yours. (Laughs).

Nice one. What do you think is the one quality your wife most admires about you?

I think you should ask her.

Come on, humour me.

(Long pause) I think my time with her, my time for her, my time for my kids, my time for my family.

And what’s the one quality that she most resents about you?

I think my lack of time. (Broad smile)

Are you taking me round in circles?

(Laughs) No, no, no. I’m taking you in a very straight line.

As a Muslim, we understand you are allowed up to four wives: Will you one day consider getting a second wife?

(Laughs hard) No. No. You know people misunderstand marriage in Islamic law. You don’t wake up one day and get a second wife. There are regulations. I’m content with my wife.

What case have you handled that has always stayed with you?

I take cases for two reasons: Because the fee is good. You know, I was taught by the late Mutula Kilonzo in the School of Law in early 1990s and he said the more you charge a client, the more he loves you. I find that to be so true. (Chuckles).

The other reason is the human element; there are cases you get addicted to because of the injustice involved. I like cases where I want to show the rich powerful person involved that justice will triumph.

How do you unwind?

I’m a big sports fan. Last night I slept at 1am because I was watching football. I’m an Arsenal fan; it’s the only masculine team.

So Manchester United is girlie?

Very…very! (Laughs) Not that there is anything wrong with being feminine.

Are you a lover or a fighter?

A fighter. I don’t really fight people; it’s only the perception that I fight people.

Oh really? Will Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, one of your frequent sparring partners, agree?

No, no, Murkomen is my good friend. He’s a baby. He’s a good guy with great ideas. (Pause). You know, people thought I fought Shollei as well, but I never fought her, the system did.

Is that a genuine Montblanc pen?

Of course, Biko! I have never bought fake in my life. Never! I went to Hong Kong once with a lawyer friend of mine and bought this watch I’m wearing for Sh870,000. I live for today, I don’t save money, I don’t care what happens tomorrow. Only God has plans for tomorrow.

Who has been your greatest influence or inspiration?

People always think I’m arrogant when I say this, but there are guys I like who have done well, but I have never wanted to be anyone, but myself.

Are you a romantic?

(Chuckles) I don’t know. I tell my wife that the last time I was in a theatre was when I was wooing her. I remember we watched Shakespeare In Love. That was the last movie I ever watched. Every time she says we go for a movie and I refuse she reminds me of that.

I can’t just picture you being a romantic, it must have been disastrous, you must have wooed her for ages!

(Laughs loud) No, no. I think…(Pause) Maybe that’s a story for another day.

What does your wife do?

She’s a housewife, although she is an IT graduate from Middlesex University. She got a First Class Honours, but I employed her to take care of our kids. (Smiles).