Why is Somalia's former prime minister working in a Buffalo cubicle?
Last October, Mohamed Mohamed was working as a bureaucrat in a Buffalo office of the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT).
In November, he was sworn in as the prime minister of his native Somalia.
What came next was harrowing and hopeful - but ultimately unfinished.
Mohamed’s unexpected rise to power came after an introduction to Somalia’s president, who was visiting the U.S. Mohamed apparently made a good impression; he soon got a call from Mogadishu to come interview with the president.
“Honestly, when I went there I wasn’t thinking I’d be the next prime minister,” he says.
A short time later he left his wife and four young children in Buffalo, and flew to Somalia. He was sworn in as the prime minister of an East African country that has gone without a functioning government for 20 years - one that is plagued by poverty, warlords, Islamic militants, and now, a famine.
Becoming a target
Mohamed wasn’t the only person surprised by his rapid ascent to the political big time.
Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, says when he first caught wind of Mohamed he was a complete unknown.
“My first reaction was to look him up and to learn more about who he was,” Menkhaus says.
What Menkhaus found was a soft-spoken 48-year-old administrator who’d left his native Somalia about 20 years earlier. Mohamed was active in the Somali community in New York, but that didn’t exactly make him prime minister material.
Menkhaus says Mohamed instantly became a target.
“It’s very risky to be in Mogadishu and associated with the government right now. The jihadist movement has used assassination [as one of its] principle tools of intimidation. There have been quite a few individuals associated with the government who have been killed,” Menkhaus says.
Mohamed could have been the next casualty.
“Bullets reached my office on many occasions. That’s normal,” Mohamed says, and then correcting himself, “That was normal.”
Trying to succeed where many have failed
Last January, Mohamed appeared before the United Nations, obviously wearied. He was pressed on how he would stop the spread of terrorism in Somalia, and the pirates that patrol its shores.
“I have been in office for, as a matter of fact, 49 days as of today,” he reminded the crowd of international journalists. “We have been in preparation to strategize when and how we’re going to face our enemies.”
Part of facing those enemies was finding a way to pay the country’s military on a regular basis. Mohamed is credited with pulling off that gargantuan task, for the first time in years. He also appointed a new cabinet and put in 15 hour days, as he tried to bring his experience in state government to bear on Somalia’s notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional system.
“I wanted to bring the good things I learned from here to Somalia,” he says. “Everybody should work from 9 to 5 and get paid, earn honest living, to work hard, and to be honest.”
But just nine months into his term, Mohamed was pressured to resign by the speaker of the parliament and the president. He says it’s because he opposed a plan to delay elections scheduled for this fall.
People on the streets of Mogadishu came out to support him. Crowds chanted Mohamed’s nickname, “Farmajo,” while he rolled by in a tank, pumping his fist.
“I could [tell] their emotion was very very high,” Mohamed recalls. “They were chanting ‘Hagulesto Farmajo’ meaning ‘Stay in office. You will ultimately prevail’.”
But Mohamed didn’t prevail. He stepped down, he says, so the government could focus on Somalia’s growing famine - more than 30,000 are estimated to have died this year alone.
Ken Menkhaus says Mohamed’s departure was a loss for Somalia.
“He emerged as a symbol of everything that Somalis are frustrated with. That there are people of good will, like him, who are trying to do the right thing in Somalia. And they are constantly being sacrificed on the altar of political calculations,” Menkhaus says.
Now, Mohamed is back to work as a regional compliance specialist at NYSDOT. His job is to make sure minority contractors get their fair share of bids. He says there are some similarities between the two jobs.
“No job will train you or give you experience to do that kind of work. [It’s] two different titles. One, you are heading a nation, one, you’re a bureaucrat and civil servant. Both jobs have a purpose. Both jobs are there to help people,” he says.
Mohamed says he’s happy to resume his quiet life in Buffalo, where he isn’t followed by bodyguards or crowds on the street. He’s proud of his short time in office, but says he failed in his top goal: to make the country safe enough for his wife and kids to live there.