Abdirizak Haji Hussein’s death will be marked with state honors, and flags have been lowered in his home region of Puntland.

“He was an icon for the community,” said activist Abdi Bihi of the charismatic nationalist who lived in the Como neighborhood and died of pneumonia at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Hussein, 89, led Somalia from 1964 to 1967 and later served as its United Nations ambassador from 1974 to 1979. He sought political asylum in the United States after a Socialist regime took control in Somalia, living in New York before moving to Minneapolis.

“In the eyes of Somalis, wherever they are, he is like George Washington,” said another activist, Omar Jamal. “He transcended the concept of clan affiliation.”

Hussein started as an officer in the British military administration over Somalia, but in 1950 he was imprisoned for six months for leading demonstrations for Somali independence. He rose in the Somali Youth League, presenting its petition for nationhood to the U.N. in 1955. He held two ministries in the first post-independence cabinet.

As prime minister, he fought against corruption, becoming famous for distributing red envelopes that dismissed incompetent or corrupt government employees, and once fired his brother to make his point, Bihi said.

“He never used one penny of public money,” Bihi said. “It’s impossible in that part of the world.”

Hussein was imprisoned again for four years when a military coup overthrew the government in 1969, and was dispatched eventually as ambassador by the same opponents to get him out of the country, Jamal said.

Survived by two daughters and a son, Hussein was part of a huge extended family. “We refer to them as the Kennedy family,” Bihi said.

He was known in Somalia and abroad for advocating for national unification without regard to factionalism.

“He died sad having witnessed a country he once led disintegrating,” Jamal said.