Somalia President-elect Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed quietly lived the American dream with his wife and four children on Grand Island. He provided his family with a comfortable lifestyle and put himself and his children through college.
A charismatic and humble man, he befriended fellow immigrants, political figures, sports celebrities. Former Buffalo Sabre Rick Martin liked to call him “Mohamed Squared.”
He could have forgotten about the war-torn country in Africa where he was raised. Yet from the moment that Mohamed arrived in the U.S. in 1985, it became clear that his goal was to help rebuild Somalia.
And after Somalia’s Parliament picked Mohamed on Feb. 8 to be the country’s next president, people who know Mohamed from the Buffalo area said that if anyone can save Somalia, it’s him.
“I don’t think they have seen the likes of someone like him in Somalia in decades,” said Makau Mutua, former dean of the University at Buffalo School of Law who was born in Kenya. “Generally political candidates are full of ego and are self-serving.”
But most people regard Mohamed as “a man of virtue,” Mutua said.
Wednesday, Mohamed is scheduled to be inaugurated as president of a country that’s halfway across the world from the four-bedroom house assessed at $270,000 that he and his wife own on a cul-de-sac on Grand Island.
In 1993, Mohamed earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UB. In 2009 he received his master’s degree in American studies. His thesis was entitled “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia: From the Cold War Era to the War on Terror.”
As a volunteer, he immersed himself in Erie County politics, attending fundraising picnics in the summer and getting out the vote in fall. Election season would find Mohamed and his recruits out on the streets working on campaigns – no matter how hard it rained.
Mohamed was a Republican who was skilled at networking. Friends called him a people person. He was active in the local Somali community and secured many jobs for acquaintances.
Early in 2010, Mohamed’s life changed forever when friends arranged a meeting at the United Nations between him and Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The brief encounter placed him in the running as Somali prime minister, a position he later secured.
“I was taken aback,” said UB Professor Donald Grinde, Mohamed’s thesis adviser. “He was a happy guy with a family and a good job. He never mentioned that to me about going back. I thought if he did go back, he’d be a consultant. I never thought of him becoming a leader.”
During his eight months as prime minister, Mohamed hit the ground running. He denounced corruption, reduced the size of the Cabinet and started to pay soldiers. In the end, an admittedly naïve Mohamed fell victim to clan politics, resigned from office and returned to Buffalo.
But the seed was planted.
This year, after almost a year of campaigning in his bomb-riddled country – about the size of Texas – Mohamed faced off in the presidential election against 19 opponents – and won.
In the final salvo, he won a run-off against incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who then peacefully conceded the election.
“It was a graceful transfer of power, unheard-of in Somalia,” said Mutua.
Mohamed will have 10 to 12 million constituents. Officials estimate another 8.5 million Somalis have fled and are living in surrounding countries. Ethiopia has 5 million, Kenya 3 million and Djibouti 500,000.
They call him ‘Cheese’
Italian colonization during the late 19th and 20th centuries introduced tomato sauce, pasta and cheese to the seaside country of Somalia. The onset of Italian restaurants followed, much to the enjoyment of Mohamed and his father, said Intisar Mohamed, Mohamed’s 24-year-old daughter, who talked of a nickname her father inherited from his father.
“People call him ‘Formaajo,’ short for ‘formaggio’ which is Italian for cheese,” she said.
Apparently Mohamed has adapted to his nickname. The official personal Twitter account of the ninth president of the Federal Republic of Somalia has the handle @M_Farmaajo.
His nickname may explain the choice of restaurant for one of Mohamed’s going-away parties in 2010 when he was appointed prime minister, said Angelo “Andy” Sedita, Erie County commissioner of parks, recreation and forestry from 2005 to 2008.
“We had the party at Casa di Pizza on Elmwood,” Sedita said. “He was fun to be around, a wonderful guy. He was always looking to get people jobs, always looking out for people.”
Also attending the dinner was a posse of politicians including former County Executive Joel Giambra and top Giambra adviser Bruce Fisher. The mood was upbeat, Sedita recalled, though Mohamed really did not know what to expect from his volatile homeland.
About a year ago, before Mohamed left to campaign for president in Somalia, the two friends met at Judy’s Deli in Waterfront Village.
“He was very serious,” Sedita said. “He told me he was going back to Somalia to run for president. He knew it was risky, an uphill battle followed by a lot of challenges. But he was determined to do some good for his country.
“‘I need to do this for the good of my people,’” he told me. ‘It’s got to get better – too much trouble,’ he told me. I wished him luck and that was it,” Sedita said. “Now I think about what he did.”
Mohamed’s work as first secretary in the Somali Embassy in Washington may have been his baptism into American politics.
“He began to see how things work when he was at the embassy,” Grinde said. “These are not abstract things in his life. He observed them at work, but working with me he saw them in an academic context. He understood it.”
During his time at the embassy from 1985-88, there was increasing instability in Somalia that led to the government’s collapse in 1991. Mohamed requested and was granted political asylum. Mohamed now has dual Somali and American citizenship.
In Buffalo, Mohamed’s employment history was politically driven. He served as a commissioner for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. In 2000, he took a position as minority business coordinator with the county’s Division of Equal Employment Opportunity under Giambra.
Since 2002, Mohamed worked for the state Department of Transportation in Buffalo dealing with affirmative action issues and contract compliance. His rate of pay was $87,351 for 2016, but he received only $1,749 that year, according to seethroughny.com. Several calls to NYSDOT’s state and regional offices seeking Mohamed’s current employment status were not returned.
Somebody’s got to do it
Transparency International, a global coalition that rates corruption by country, ranked Somalia as one of the most corrupt nations on earth.
Pre-election published reports from Somalia described millions of dollars changing hands in the weeks before Parliament’s early February election, which was moved from the police academy to Mogadishu Airport due to the need for increased security.
It’s also one of the most dangerous countries.
“Somalia has a terrible, terrible stretch over the past three decades – government collapse and civil unrest,” said Mutua. “The country suffered various insurgencies, most of them from political Islam. Al-Shabab, I’d say, is quite successful. It has taken a toll on the country.”
On Thursday, Mohamed received the keys to the presidential palace in Mogadishu, a ceremonial “handover.” As the ceremony wound down, explosions were heard near the palace, startling some of the audience members, according to an Associated Press report. Two people were reported killed during the mortar attack in a residential area of the capital. The attack, by al Qaida-backed al-Shabab, was the first in Mogadishu since the election.
Over the weekend, Somalia’s new president visited victims wounded by a car bomb in Mogadishu that on Sunday killed 34 people.
“Somalis are tired and fatigued of this conflict, and they just want to go on with their lives,” said Mutua. “The government in Mogadishu has a tenuous hold on authority, territory and security. Most countries have moved their embassies out of Mogadishu and into Nairobi.”
Grinde, of UB, recalls talking with Mohamed about the bulletproof windows installed in the presidential mansion.
“Some of the warlords and al-Shabab don’t like him, and part of their way of dealing with that is to shoot him, but he knows that, too,” said Grinde. “He has lots of armed guards.”
On Friday, Mohamed retweeted a photo of himself posing in Somalia with the U.S. Ambassador to Somalia, who also happens to be from the Buffalo area. Stephen M. Schwartz, a career diplomat who attended Williamsville South High School, has been the ambassador to Somalia since June. He was appointed by President Obama.
In the photo, the two men are holding a baseball cap with this slogan printed on it: “Make Somalia Great Again.”
Somalia is one of the seven countries from which Schwartz’s new boss, President Trump, banned all travel in a controversial executive order issued earlier this month that has since been rejected by a federal appeals court.
Perhaps one of the best ideas that crossed Mohamed’s mind in Buffalo was one that never got off the drawing board, said John Slisz, coordinator of corporate training and workforce development at Erie Community College.
Slisz met Mohamed through the state DOT to develop a training program for project managers. Afterward, Mohamed asked Erie Community College to hire him as a trainer on a different project – one closer to his heart.
Mohamed’s “Somalia Turnaround Project” would train local Somali immigrants in construction trade skills, Slisz said.
“He had returned from Somalia and saw that the country needed infrastructure but lacked skilled building workers. We would train people here and maybe a population would return to Somalia,” said Slisz.
“Over the course of six months – from late 2014 through mid-2015 – we put together a program that is still waiting for funding. He tried his best to secure funding, but the project sits on a shelf.
“I can see why people there love him,” said Slisz. “He really wanted to do something for them and the country. He talked glowingly of his country and how it was changed because of terrorism. It has the climate of San Diego, he said. We talked about getting our passports and going there. Who knows, if the program gets wheels?”
Now, as president, Mohamed might be able to revive that idea.read more...
Somalia’s new president says he will work to have his country removed from the list of nations whose citizens were — and may yet be — barred from entering the United States.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, more commonly known as “Farmajo,” told VOA of his plans in an phone interview late Thursday, a day after his unexpected victory in the Somali presidential election.
“It is part of my responsibility to talk this issue with the U.S. government by conveying our message to the president and his government that the Somali people are really good, hard working people,” Farmajo said. “They raise their families in the United States. So we will see if he can change that policy and excludes Somalis from that list.”
The future of the so-called “immigration ban” is in doubt after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a judge’s restraining order against directives that temporarily halted refugee resettlement programs and barred visitors from Somalia and six other Muslim-majority countries.
President Donald Trump has vowed on Twitter to challenge the decision, setting up a possible showdown in the Supreme Court.
Farmajo is a dual U.S. and Somali citizen who has spent much of his adult life in the United States, mostly in the northern city of Buffalo.
That didn’t stop Somali parliament members from choosing him Wednesday over incumbent leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and 20 other candidates to become the nation’s 9th president.
Farmajo told VOA his first priority is to appoint a new prime minister who will be in charge of dealing with Somalia’s security problems and a developing humanitarian crisis.
“There is a huge drought everywhere in Somalia which definitely will produce a famine,” he said. “We have to appeal to the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected people in Somalia.”
Following two seasons of weak rainfall, the country is experiencing severe drought and the United Nations has warned of the potential for a repeat of the 2011 famine that killed more than 250,000 people.
He said he expects that the new prime minister can assemble a new cabinet in 30 days, and said they will roll out a plan of action in the coming 100 days.
The new president admitted Thursday he is still adjusting to his new role.
“My feeling is surreal. My feeling is something I cannot imagine because I have been working hard for the past fifteen, sixteen months and I have been campaigning in Somalia as well as in Nairobi,” he said.
Broad public support
Farmajo previously served as prime minister for eight months in 2010 and 2011 and has remained extremely popular since then, said Sakariye Cismaan, a London-based Somali political analyst.
During his time in office, Farmajo was credited with ensuring that government workers and soldiers were paid on time, cracking down on corruption and helping liberate territories from al-Shabab.
“The Somali people really trust him and believe he will put the common good before his own self-interest,” Cismaan said. “The whole country is extremely optimistic now.”
Wednesday’s election was conducted by the 328 members of the two houses of parliament. This is different than previous elections where clan elders played a significant role in choosing the president, Cismaan said. He said it was also more representative of the will of the people.
“It is the most diverse [electorate] in terms of gender and age, and I think they were sick of the corruption that was taking place throughout the election season and decided to vote for the candidate the public actually wanted,” he said.
Cismaan said Farmajo’s main concern will be the security situation in the country. Although al-Shabab has been driven out of the major population centers and controls less than 10 percent of the country’s territory, the Islamist militant group remains a potent threat, bombing hotels in Mogadishu and attacking military bases.
Wednesday’s election was moved to Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport, one of the few secure places in the country, following threats from al-Shabab and worries about security at the original venue, the Mogadishu police academy.
“Security is going to be his biggest challenge and the main issue that he will ultimately be judged on,” Cismaan said. “But he really has a golden opportunity here. He has the entire population behind him who are now feeling more patriotic than ever. He can use that support to delegitimize al-Shabaab.”
The international community has welcomed and hailed the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo in a tightly contested race last night while applauding outgoing president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud for conceding defeat to ‘facilitate peaceful and orderly transfer of power’.
In a joint statement Wednesday, the UN, EU, regional body IGAD and other countries said the new leader needs to move quickly to address a myriad of challenges facing the country particularly the ongoing drought which is fast evolving into a famine.
“President Farmajo faces a formidable set of challenges in meeting the expectations of the Somali people. They will expect the new federal government to respond to the country’s worsening drought crisis and avert another famine,” the statement read in part.
The partners assured the President of their support in implementing his election agenda notably improving security for all Somalis. “This will require continued partnership with the African Union and international donors,’ the partners added.
The President will also have to address other immediate challenges such as reconciliation and ‘peaceful resolution of a number of local conflicts and the resumption of the constitutional review process, not least to map out the pathway to one-person, one-vote elections in 2020,” the international community observed.
UN envoy to Somalia Michael Keating said the peaceful election of a new president should boost the confidence of the country’s future. “The international community is eager to partner with the new President, the Federal Government of Somalia, the country’s federal member states and the people of Somalia in responding to these challenges,” said Michael Keating, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia. “Yesterday’s orderly and peaceful transfer of power is a major achievement for Somalia and should boost confidence in the country’s future both at home and abroad.
Meanwhile other world leaders have welcomed and congratulated the new leader. UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson said in a tweet the UK was committed to supporting Somalia for a bright future.
“Congratulations to new President of #Somalia Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. UK committed to supporting a bright future for Somali people,” said Johnson.
The UK in Somalia also extended its felicitations to the new leader and echoed its country’s committement to Somalia.read more...
Kenya’s High Court has declared the government’s order to close Dadaab camp unconstitutional noting the Interior Ministry acted beyond its powers in ordering the closure.
In a ruling Thursday, Justice John Mativo said Interior Minister John Nkaisery and Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho violated the constitution by drawing on powers they were not bestowed upon by the country’s constitution.
The Judge ruled the government’s order to close the camp which is largely inhabited by Somalis amounted to state discrimination and violation of basic human rights of a group.
Kenya had mid last year ordered the camp be closed by November in what it considered the protection of the country from security threats posed by the camp. It noted the camp had been infiltrated by elements who planned terror attacks against the country. The Interior Minister noted later it would not close the camp as planned but was waiting for Somalia to be pacified.
Human rights groups however warned the closure of the camp was tantamount to gross violation of human rights and that forced repatriation would subject the refugees into further insecurity inside Somalia.
Judge Mativo directed the Kenyan government to device other mechanisms to ensure the department of refugees adopts more sustainable and humane approaches to the refugee issue.
The judge further directed the state to adopt mechanisms that would ensure the department of refugees is functioning properly. The government last May disbanded the Department of Refugees Affairs.
The African Union has praised the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo terming his election a product of a challenging process and compromise.
The AU special representative and head of the African Mission in Somalia Francisco Caetano Madeira also saluted the people of Somalia for the successful completion of the electoral process which culminated in the election of the new leader.
“The last couple of months, leading to this momentous day, have no doubt been challenging for Somalia in its effort to bring peace and stability. The electoral process journey was intricate, requiring negotiations and compromises to overcome the challenges that once appeared insurmountable. On behalf of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, I congratulate you all for making this historical moment a reality,” Ambassador Madeira stated.
Madeira also called on the new president to work with all leaders in uniting the country and ‘pursuing reconciliation to enable Somalia tackle the political and socio-economic challenges affecting the country’.
“I appeal to the new government that will be formed, to use the next four years in office, to enhance reconciliation and unity. The African Union remains committed to supporting you in your efforts to stabilise the country,” Ambassador Madeira added.read more...