He was a refugee who embraced U.S.-style democracy. Now’s he’s trying to bring it home.
On the morning of February 8, a civil servant from Buffalo, New York—a Somali by birth but an American by choice—walked into a heavily-guarded airplane hangar in the battle-scarred capital of his native country where an important vote was about to take place. When he emerged that night he was president. His surprise victory, which was celebrated with gunfire and camel slaughter in Mogadishu and high fives at the Buffalo office of the New York Department of Transportation where he was still technically employed as a equal opportunity compliance officer, was all the more remarkable because it came at the very moment a federal court in the U.S. was deciding the fate of a travel ban that targeted refugees exactly like him.
The story of how Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed came to be the leader of a country that is synonymous with anarchy and terrorism is both a classic American immigrant’s tale and also one about the age-old conflict between basic democratic principles and the forces of political corruption. It begins in 1988 when Mohamed, then a 26-year-old first secretary for the Somali embassy in Washington D.C., decided it was too dangerous to return home and applied for asylum. Back then the U.S. was inclined to say yes to such requests.
Over the next 25 years he earned degrees in history and political science, served on local campaigns, acting as a spokesman for other refugees as an elected official and slowly absorbing the lessons of civil society and the basics of American mid-management that he knew he wanted one day to bring back to Somalia. He had become, in some ways, an export-ready product. Not soybeans or computer chips but democratic values.
“He’s always had an interest to go back and try to bring peace,” said Joel Giambra, a former Erie County Executive who Mohamed campaigned for, and then worked for, starting in 1999. “That was always his ambition.”
There are those who say that Mohamed, who ran for president on an anti-corruption platform, bought his way to victory. Those same people say it’s the ironic but inevitable cost of doing business in a still desperately unstable country. But tainted results or not, some say Mohamed, with his decades of experience in American governance, could be the very partner the United States needs to fight international terrorism originating in the Horn of Africa. “What I think Mohamed brings is hopefully the technocratic understanding of how US democracy works,” said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, a programs officer at U.S. Institute for Peace. “I think that’s a skillset that the two former presidents did not necessarily have.”
In fact, the refugee-turned-president might just be one of the most powerful arguments against a travel ban like President Trump’s, which would have barred Mohamed’s entry to the U.S.—it ultimately diminishes American influence abroad.
Mohamed had never been eager to leave Somalia. He was born into a well-connected clan, and his father, who spent much of his life under Italian colonial rule, was a government employee. He nicknamed his son “Farmaajo”, which is a local version of the Italian word for cheese, one of the boy’s favorite foods. After graduating from secondary school, Mohamed had access to a job with the foreign ministry, and in 1985 he was sent to Washington, D.C. to work in Somalia’s embassy. But in 1988 Mohamed criticized Somalia’s authoritarian government, and fearing he could not return home safely, he requested political asylum in the United States.
Mohamed brought his wife to Buffalo where a community of Somali refugees had begun to settle a few years earlier. They moved into public housing while he pursued a bachelor’s degree in history at New York State University in Buffalo. A year after his graduation, Mohamed’s fellow tenants elected him as resident commissioner, which automatically placed him on Buffalo’s Municipal Housing Authority. He earned a reputation as a community organizer who Buffalo immigrant and Muslim voters looked toward for leadership. In 1999, Mohamed rallied minority voters to support Joel Giambra, a Democrat-turned-Republican running for county executive, and Mohamed registered as a Republican. When Giambra won, Mohamed took a job in his office as the county’s minority-business coordinator. He parlayed that, in 2002, into a similar job with New York’s Department of Transportation. For eight years, Mohamed enforced non-discrimination and affirmative action requirements among state-employed contractors— policies that are totally alien to Somalia, where government jobs depend on clan membership and public lands are practically given away to friends and allies of those in power.
The people Mohamed worked with during those years describe him as a kind and humble family man. But his ambition was evident, too, and it wasn’t just to improve the percentage of minority hires by DOT contractors. He got a master’s degree in political science At New York State University in Buffalo. His thesis was titled: “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia.”
“We all got the sense that he just had a passion, and a heart for his country,” said Janine Shepherd, who worked in the next cubicle to Mohamed at the New York Department of Transportation. “He was always really bothered by the corruption there.”
“We had extensive conversations about developing countries that were authoritarian and what the steps were to achieve democracy,” said Professor Donald Grinde, his thesis advisor. They discussed the different models of democratic governance, warlordism and religious extremism. “He understands that democracy is an imperfect exercise,” Grinde says, “both in Somalia and the United States. But I think he would think it’s far better than the alternative.”
In his thesis, Mohamed identified “Islamic extremists” as a major obstacle toward stability in Somalia. Al-Shabaab and other terrorist organizations, he argued, were able to flourish because of the United States’ ill-advised policy in the region. “The Somali people have been victim of colonialism, dictatorship, and warlord thugs,” Mohamed wrote. “Now, they are at the crossroad of two extremist ideologies: George W. Bush’s Christian ideology on one hand, and Islamic radicalism on the other, which want to wage a holy war on each other not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Somalia as well. Sadly, the people who ultimately suffer most form the majority: they do not subscribe to these radical ideologies.”
In 2010, not even a year after receiving his master’s, Mohamed got a chance to talk about these issues with someone who actually could do something about them. The then-president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, came to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, and Mohamed, via friends of friends, arranged a meeting. According to Mohamed, he wanted to give the president his advice–one manager to another—on what Somalia could due to cut down on corruption. The meeting went well; so well, in fact, that a few days later, Mohamed received a phone call from the president’s staff. He was on the President’s short list for prime minister.
After discussing it with his wife, Mohamed asked his supervisor for three weeks of vacation, explaining he would go to Mogadishu for an interview, and there is a chance he wouldn’t come back. A month later, in Somalia, Mohamed was sworn in to his new position.
Mohamed’s sudden ascension to prime minister wasn’t as strange as it seems.
Diaspora politicians make up a third of Somalia’s federal parliament. It’s one of the quirks of a country that doesn’t have the kind of governmental farm teams that more developed democracies do. A Somali-American who spent most of his life in California returned in 2011 to become the country’s defense minister, and this year, of Somalia’s 24 presidential candidates, nine of them held American passports. The most amazing homecoming story of all is probably from 1996, when tribal elders elected to the presidency Hussein Mohammed Farah, a 33-year-old corporal in the Marine Reserves who a year earlier was making $9 an hour as a clerk in the suburbs of Los Angeles. (In that instance, it probably helped that the marine’s father was Mohammed Farah Aidid, a self-declared president who died in a firefight a year earlier; Aidid was also the general who fought against the Marine Corps in the battle immortalized in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.)
In fact, of the seven countries listed included in Trump’s attempted ban, most of them boast influential officials that spent time in the United States, usually to attend school. Former prime ministers in Yemen and Libya attended American universities. One of them, Shukri Ghanem, was a reformer who worked, with some success, to push Muammar Gaddafi toward reconciliation with the west. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who oversaw negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal, went to a private high school in San Francisco, received a B.A. and M.A. from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. An influential rebel leader from Sudan who was a key player in the country’s 2005 peace agreement, John Garang, attended Grinnell College in an Iowan town of 9,000, surrounded by corn fields.
Foreign leaders who’ve spent time in the United States can frequently, if not every time, give the United States government a leg-up when conducting diplomacy. Joel Giambra argues that will definitely be the case with Mohamed: “I believe he would love the opportunity to collaborate with the United States,” he said. “He always said to me that the most effective way to eradicate terrorism in the United States is to stop it in Somalia.”
When Mohamed began his tenure as prime minister in September of 2010, he did in fact work to push back al-Shabaab, Somalia’s largest terrorist group, and he helped the army to establish the rule of law in 60 percent of Mogadishu. But what really won Mohamed the love of the people was his reputed distaste for corruption. He reduced the size of a bloated cabinet from 39 to 18 and nominated others from the Diaspora like himself. He required all of them to declare their assets and sign a code of ethics, a policy he possibly picked up from his time working for the New York state government, where he was required to sign a “Public Officers Law”. Mohamed also drew on his experience as a bureaucrat in Buffalo to establish a system in which commanding officers could not keep for themselves the stipends that were meant for rank and file soldiers.
Not everyone is convinced that Mohamed deserves the popular support he enjoys. “The improvements in Somalia have been in spite of the government, not because of the government,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Pham believes that for the most part, Mohamed benefitted from low expectations, and that credit for keeping the country stable should go to the African Union forces, which did much of the work to help secure Mogadishu and fight back al-Shabaab. “Anybody would have been an improvement over the president that appointed him,” said Pham, “who was widely acknowledged to have stolen roughly 96 percent of bilateral aid.” That’s $72.7 million that simply went missing.
But regardless of one’s opinion on Mohamed’s efficacy, his status as a popular hero in Somalia was cemented in June 2011, when Mohamed fell victim to a backroom deal engineered by President Sharif Ahmed, the man who appointed Mohamed, and Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, the speaker of parliament who was aspiring to the presidency himself and saw Mohamed as a roadblock to his ambitions. The two men agreed to postpone elections until August of 2012, giving President Ahmed another year of power. As part of the deal he would have to dismiss his popular prime minister.
The blowback was immediate. Rioters took to the streets in support of Mohamed. They burned tires and set bonfires, blocking peacekeepers from getting to their destinations. Soldiers, who Mohamed had won the loyalty of by guaranteeing their pay, abandoned their posts and joined the protests, waving pictures of Mohamed above their heads.
The deed was done, however, and Mohamed no longer had a reason to stay in Somalia. He returned to his wife and kids in Buffalo, and resumed his position as a regional compliance specialist for the New York Department of Transportation, with a salary of $83,954 a year and the promise of a state pension after only seven more years of service.
“He wasn’t the same,” said Galloway, describing an encounter with Mohamed after he had returned to Buffalo. “You could tell within his demeanor that he wasn’t back in Buffalo without intention to return to Somalia.”
Giambra agreed: “After he came back, he was disappointed, but he was committed and determined to go back and give it another chance.”
“We were all a little surprised,” said Shepherd, describing the moment Mohamed returned to his cubicle in Buffalo. “We could all sense from him that there was something more out there for him.”
Mohamed was glad to be reunited with his family and there were some things he definitely didn’t miss about being prime minister. Five of his bodyguards had been killed and he never forgot the sound of bullets hitting the reinforced windows of his house. But his colleagues were right that he hadn’t given up on his political dreams in Somalia. He decided to run for president in 2012. Mohamed, along with his former cabinet members, established a new political party called Tayo—meaning “quality” in Somali. Mohamed lost in the first round of voting, winning barely 5 percent of the vote. As a parting shot–payback might be a better term–he threw his support behind the candidate running against the incumbent president, the man who had dismissed him as prime minister. Mohamed’s man won.
Mohamed wasn’t done. Almost immediately he began to lay the groundwork for another run. He made trips to Somali communities around the world, places such as Minneapolis, Columbus and even Oslo, Norway. These are where many of the kingmakers live who can decide Somali elections. Diaspora communities are also a great source for campaign contributions. In 2015, he stepped up his campaigning, frequently taking leave from work. “He traveled extensively in preparation for this,” said Giambra. “He was very methodical and deliberate.”
Mohamed was using a playbook familiar to any American campaign, but news agencies were reporting that the election was shaping up to be a classically Somalian affair, possibly one of the most corrupt in the country’s checkered history. Security was so bad that a national election couldn’t be held. Just two weeks before voting, a car bomb attack on a Mogadishu hotel killed 28. That meant that once again it would be up to the 328 members of parliament, a notoriously bribe-susceptible group of politicians. Market prices for a vote were high, observers said. The incumbent president, who by all reports had only exacerbated corruption in Somalia during his tenure, was widely reported to have offered $50,000 to anyone who voted for him in the secret ballot.
On Election Day, parliamentarians met in a heavily-guarded airport hangar in Mogadishu. African Union peacekeepers stood watch outside, wary of attacks by al-Shabaab. The parliamentarians were forbidden from taking large amounts of cash or cell phones into the hangar, lest the voting floor devolve into a televised auction for votes as it had in the past. In the first round of voting, 17 of 21 candidates were eliminated. Then an additional candidate withdrew, leaving three contenders: Mohamed, incumbent president Mohamud, and former president Ahmed—the same man who had appointed and dismissed Mohamed seven years earlier.
To the shock of international news outlets, few of whom considered Mohamed a major contender, the bureaucrat from Buffalo won more than 50 percent of votes in the second round. Former President Ahmed was eliminated, and while the rules required that the eventual victor win two-thirds of votes, President Mohamud, who trailed Mohamed significantly in the second round, conceded defeat. While thousands rushed into the streets of Mogadishu and soldiers celebrated by firing their automatic weapons into the air, Mohamed declared in a televised victory speech that, “This is the beginning of unity for the Somali nation, the beginning of the fight against al-Shabaab and corruption.”
News reports largely confirmed that significant amounts of money had changed hands, despite the attempts to limit the vote-buying. According to Abdi Ismail Samatar, a University of Minnesota professor who was part of a commission appointed by parliament to observe the election process and stop the exchange of cash on the voting floor, there is little reason to believe any of the major candidates–Mohamed included–had abstained. “I am quite confident that all of the four or five major candidates were deeply implicated in the buying of votes,” Samatar told POLITICO. “That includes the incoming President Mohamed.”
Mohamed and his office could not be reached for comment.
But the reports of a corrupt election have not dimmed public enthusiasm for the civil servant who ran on the platform to clean up the Mogadishu swamp. Celebrations in the streets revealed a populace that was ecstatic to have a president that won their affection years ago—not a blatantly corrupt consensus choice of the clan elders.
“Farmaajo has come back to the country and the people are united,” a young Somali man told Agence France Presse. “Welcome, Farmaajo, we are under the sun because of you.”
U.S. officials might be feeling equally sunny about his prospects. Here is a man well-versed in the ways of American politics, who is deeply popular in his country, vocally supportive of beating back the forces of Islamic terrorism and committed to bringing stability to the failing institutions that often enable groups like al-Shabaab to thrive.
“You have someone who is a success story who can then talk about, ‘Hey, America is not what I thought it was. They opened their arms and now I understand how American democracy works,'” said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim. “I think that is only a win for the U.S.”
“I think there was a degree of pleasant surprise when he was elected president,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “Not just because of his connections to the U.S., but because of his previous stint as prime minister.”
Of course, Mohamed’s election alone will not solve Somalia’s problems. According to John Mukum Mbaku of the Brookings Institute, Mohamed has no hope of clamping down on corruption if he cannot strengthen the weak institutions that enable it. And as president in a constitutional system that depends on foreign financial support, he cannot enact reform through force of will alone. “Given the way that Somalia is, effective reform in the country will require the assistance of much more than just Mohamed himself,” said Mbaku. Others, like Dr. Pham, question whether Mohamed will be capable of reform at all. “We should entertain no delusions about the sort of partner we have in Farmaajo—and his limitations. Some of the over-the-top optimism of the last few days is simply not justified.”
Downie put it bluntly: “You could put Nelson Mandela in as president of Somalia and probably the same mess would persist.”
Still, the enthusiasm, justified or not, has spread. Even Abdi Ismail Samatar, the election observer who doubts Mohamed won a clean victory, finds reason for hope. “There is an incredible public hunger for a clean government,” said Samatar, “and therefore, regardless of what the process was like, and any money he used, there is a fantastic opportunity for him to march the country in a different direction.”
On his first day in office, Mohamed did take a small step forward. Avoiding any appearance of double-dipping, he resigned from the New York Department of Transportation.
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