Journey From N.Y. To Be Somalia's Prime Minister
Originally published on Sun October 23, 2011 6:29 am
Somali-American Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed came to the U.S. in 1985 to work at the Somali Embassy in Washington, D.C.
When civil war broke out in Somalia, Mohamed decided to stay in the U.S., moving to Buffalo, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in political science at SUNY.
Mohamed held various local government jobs before becoming a regional compliance specialist at the New York State Department of Transportation, but just a few months ago, he was the interim prime minister of Somalia.
Mohamed tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that his journey from Buffalo to Somalia began last September when he met Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
The Somali president was addressing the United Nations in New York when Mohamed took the opportunity to talk with him about their country, the violence and poverty that was overtaking it, and what could be done to help their people.
The two men hit it off, but Mohamed figured that was it and went back to Buffalo.
"A couple of weeks later, I get a phone call from one of his associates asking me to submit my resume, so I can be one of the candidates for the prime minister," Mohamed says. "And I asked them, 'How many people are on the list the president is considering to be appointed?' And they said, 'Probably about 10.' And I said, 'Look, I will submit my resume,' but I never thought that probably I would be the one."
Mohamed had not been back to the capital, Mogadishu, since 1985. What he found last October when he returned as prime minister shocked him: The city was devastated, there was no street electricity and it was filled with abandoned buildings. Many of these problems, Mohamed says, were a result of the lack of government structure.
"To be honest with you, this is not what I was expecting," Mohamed says. "I was expecting somehow smooth, structured bureaucracy that easily can be managed, but that was not the case."
Working with Parliament and various government leaders in Somalia, Mohamed says, he established a budget to start paying salaries to all civil servants and soldiers, something that had not been done before in the country.
"It was totally new, unorthodox," he says.
Among the many political difficulties that Mohamed faced, there was also the constant threat of violence surrounding him. Al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, has been waging war on the country's weak government for years. Mohamed went from a quiet life in Buffalo, living in the suburbs with his family, to having more than a dozen bodyguards around him at all times.
"It was not easy, but someone has to do it," Mohamed says. "I mean, I [was] born and grew and educated in Somalia, and I feel that it's an obligation for me to go there and start to see if I can change the situation."
In June, Mohamed was forced out as a result of political in-fighting. He left Somalia and returned to Buffalo and his job at the New York State Department of Transportation.
Mohamed admits that he was a bit naive about his original goals and expectations for Somalia. A country that has been lawless for the past 20 years cannot change overnight, he says. But he remains optimistic about his time there and what lies ahead.
"As soon as I left, within a month's time, al-Shabab vacated the city of Mogadishu," he says.
Mohamed says he wanted to be part of the system that defeated al-Qaida and brought peace and stability to the country, but he says, "I'm sure that the current government will continue what we started."
GUY RAZ, host: Just south of the uprisings across North Africa in Somalia, a transitional government is working to try and stabilize the country after decades of civil war. One of the men who helped that process is Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
Up until this past June, he served as Somalia's interim prime minister, and the way he got that job was an accident of fate. Mohamed was born in Somalia, but since the mid-1980s, he's called Buffalo, New York, his home. And he spent years working quietly as a bureaucrat for the state.
Anyway, last year, Somalia's president came to New York for some meetings, and he also wanted to reach out to Somali-Americans, like Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
MOHAMED ABDULLAHI MOHAMED: And I said maybe it's a good opportunity for me to meet him.
RAZ: The two men hit it off, but Mohamed figured that was it, and he went back to Buffalo to his job working as the regional compliance specialist for the New York Department of Transportation.
MOHAMED: Couple of weeks later, I get a phone call from one of his associates asking me to submit my resume so I can be one of the candidates. And at the time...
RAZ: Candidates for prime minister?
MOHAMED: For the prime minister. And I asked them how many people are on the list the president is considering to be appointed, and they said probably about 10. And I said, look, I will submit my resume, but I never thought that probably I would be the one.
RAZ: You were, of course, selected as the prime minister. You were the one who was chosen. You get to Somalia a little more than a year ago - last October. What were your first impressions? You had - I'm assuming, you had not been back since 1985, right?
MOHAMED: Absolutely. The city was extremely devastated. You see a lot of abandoned buildings.
RAZ: Nothing like it looked when you were a young man.
MOHAMED: Nothing. No comparison.
RAZ: Talk to me about what you did, right? I mean, were you - did you go to an office? Was there a functioning bureaucracy? Like, how did you do your job?
MOHAMED: Well, it was not functioning bureaucracy because there was no real structure.
RAZ: I read that you didn't even have electricity at all times.
MOHAMED: There was no street electricity when I was there. And we put electricity most of the area that we control, that's true. It's totally different, to be honest with you. And this not what I was expecting. I was expecting somehow smooth, structured bureaucracy that easily can be managed. But that was not the case. Of course, there was no budget as well. There's no budget...
RAZ: There was no budget at all.
MOHAMED: No budget.
RAZ: What were you able to do?
MOHAMED: What we did was we established a budget as soon as we approved by the parliament to start paying salary to the civil servants and soldiers, which is something that has not happened before. So everything we did was totally new, unorthodox, which has not been done before.
RAZ: You went from Buffalo, New York, where - and you live in the suburbs of Buffalo, right? Just outside of Buffalo.
RAZ: To, you know, a quiet life - you've got four kids - to a situation where you had, what, more than a dozen bodyguards around you at all times, right?
RAZ: So your life was actually in danger when you were in Mogadishu.
MOHAMED: That's true. It was not easy, but someone has to do it. I mean, I born and grew and educated in Somalia. And I feel that it's an obligation for me to go there and start to see where I can change the situation.
RAZ: What was the biggest challenge for you? I mean, you're coming from Buffalo, and I read that your whole idea was to come there and to create transparent government and an accountable government and to have a working budget and to end corruption. Were you a little bit maybe naive about that?
MOHAMED: Yeah, I have to admit that. It's obvious that a country that has been a lawlessness for the past 20 years with no functioning government, you cannot expect to change things overnight.
RAZ: But did you expect to change things overnight initially?
MOHAMED: You know, no, but I thought that every little increment I contribute will definitely help to improve their lives.
RAZ: Mohamed, you were forced out as prime minister in June as a result of political intrigue and in-fighting and rivalries. You left Somalia soon after that and returned to Buffalo. Do you miss it? Do you miss being there?
MOHAMED: I missed being there because I always wanted to be part of the system that defeats al-Qaida and bring back peace and stability in Somalia, that's true. But I'm sure that I believe the current government will continue what we started.
RAZ: That's Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Up until last June, he was the interim prime minister of Somalia, and he's the current regional compliance specialist at the New York State Department of Transportation. Mohamed, thank you so much for telling us your story.
MOHAMED: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.