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A Tale of Two Cities

From Buffalo bureaucrat to Somali prime minister—and back.

Last fall, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed decided to use vacation days he had saved up in his eight years as a regional compliance specialist in the Buffalo office of the New York Department of Transportation. He told his co-workers he would be traveling to Mogadishu—the city he was born in, but had not seen since 1985—and that he would return in three weeks. What he didn’t reveal was the purpose of the trip: to interview to become prime minister of Somalia.

Mohamed, who is known among Somalis by the nickname Farmaajo, got the job. By the end of October, he had left his modest home in a Buffalo suburb for Mogadishu’s presidential compound, where he had a security detail of 40 bodyguards to protect him from the terrorist group Al Shabab. As the prime minister of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, he met with leaders in Kenya and Uganda, and, in January, he spoke to the U.N. Security Council, urging greater aid for the drought his country was experiencing.

Eight months after arriving in Mogadishu, however, he was back in his cubicle in downtown Buffalo, once again a regional compliance specialist.

“I DON'T KNOW WHY people love power,” Mohamed tells me, as he takes an apple out of his well-worn lunch box. We’re sitting in the corner of a Tim Horton’s coffee shop in Grand Island, the Buffalo suburb where he lives. At 49, he is slim and earnest, in black pants and a pink-striped, buttoned-down shirt. “I like this life. I like to sit here, get a newspaper or a book, and read here while I’m drinking my coffee.”

Mohamed didn’t grow up dreaming of being prime minister. He went to a government-run school in Mogadishu and wanted to be a civil servant, like his father, a senior official at the state-run Somali airline. (His father had also belonged to the Somali Youth League, the political movement that helped liberate the former colony from Italian rule and was later sidelined by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup.) After high school, his father helped Mohamed get a government job; in 1985, he was sent to the Somali Embassy in Washington. Three years later, he applied for political asylum. He had expressed disapproval of the Barre regime and feared persecution if he returned to Somalia.

His mother and brothers had recently moved to Toronto, where a large Somali community was beginning to settle; to be near them, Mohamed moved to upstate New York with his new wife and enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo in 1990. A year after graduating with a bachelor’s in history, he won a seat on the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority board, representing the public housing where he lived. He took to local politics quickly. In 1999, he worked on a campaign for county executive, helping the candidate round up votes among Buffalo’s immigrant community; in return, the executive made Mohamed the county’s minority-business coordinator. Three years later, he started a job in Region 5 of New York state’s Department of Transportation, ensuring that state-employed contractors provide equal opportunity employment. During those years, he was also busy helping Somali immigrants and refugees, but he stayed away from Somali politics.

It wasn’t until September 2010, when Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the president of Somalia, visited New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, that Mohamed ventured, hesitatingly, into the affairs of his native land. Through friends of friends, he arranged a meeting with the president to offer advice on reducing corruption. “Since I had long years of experience in management and administration and dealing with conflict resolution,” he told me, “I thought I had some suggestions for him.” The meeting concluded amicably, and Mohamed returned to Buffalo. A few days later, he received a phone call from a member of the president’s staff. The president was looking for a new prime minister. Would he submit a resumé? Mohamed was reluctant, citing the distance and his responsibilities in Buffalo. But the president’s messenger was insistent: Mohamed was near the top of their short list. By October 31, he had been sworn into office.

MOHAMED THOUGHT HE KNEW how governments worked. But the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia isn’t like most governments. “No budget! There was no budget!” he told me. “Nobody got paid!” Though it controlled only parts of Mogadishu and provided few public services, the government had more than 500 members of parliament (many of whom live in Nairobi) and 39 Cabinet ministers. The international community has donated millions of dollars to the Somali government in the past two years; most of it, experts say, has gone into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Mohamed winnowed the Cabinet to 18 members and tried to ensure that soldiers were paid and long-closed roads were repaired. He worked 16-hour days. On most mornings during the first two weeks, his house was peppered with gunshots. When we met at Tim Horton’s, he pointed out the window to a tree, maybe 500 feet away. “Do you see that tree? That’s how close Al Shabab was.” Five of his bodyguards were shot and killed in six months. He missed his wife, an elementary school teacher who had remained in Buffalo with their four children. When he briefly returned to Buffalo a few months after taking office, he looked worn-down. A friend, whom he met at a local pizza place, said he had lost weight; gray hairs had sprouted in his mustache.

Back in Somalia, Mohamed was determined to instill some of the bureaucratic style of his Buffalo workplace. Almost all of the 18 Cabinet ministers Mohamed appointed hailed from outside of Somalia—places like Minnesota, Ohio, England. He tapped his friend Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, an economics professor from Niagara University, to run the ministry of planning and international cooperation. This is part of what political scientist Ken Menkhaus calls the “diasporization of Somali politics.” “They come into a country that they don’t recognize anymore. They are newcomers to political dynamics there and can become victims of political machinations,” Menkhaus says. “And that’s what happened to [Mohamed].”

Mohamed got caught in a power struggle between President Sharif and the speaker of the parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. The transitional government was set to expire, and elections were scheduled for August of this year; the president hoped to delay them, but the speaker wanted to run for president himself and opposed the postponement. A deal was eventually brokered to extend the government until August 2012. But the speaker saw Mohamed as a threat because of his anti-corruption stance and popularity, and he became the sacrificial lamb. “I never thought that they were so disingenuous and dishonest,” Mohamed told me. When the agreement was announced, riots broke out in Mogadishu, and Somalis as far afield as Nairobi and Minneapolis protested. Many wanted Mohamed to challenge the arrangement, but, on June 19, he resigned, insisting that his friend Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the professor from western New York, be appointed his successor.

Returning to his civil service job was “a little awkward,” Mohamed admits. His co-workers had posted news clippings from his tenure as prime minister all over his cubicle, but he quickly took them down. Now, the walls of Mohamed’s cubicle bear no signs of his former eminence—just photos of his wife and kids, a framed copy of his diploma from suny Buffalo, and two certificates for employee excellence.

Still, in the past month, he has traveled to Minneapolis to headline a famine fund-raiser and to Oslo to speak to the local Somali community. There’s a rumor in expat circles that he’s contemplating a run for president. But he has also been turning down invitations to speak, unable to take the time off from work. He has to support his family, and, as he told me more than once, he is just seven years away from retiring with a pension. 

Esther Breger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.