How an American Bureaucrat Became President of Somalia
He was a refugee who embraced U.S.-style democracy. Now's he's trying to bring it home. By TAYLOR GEE
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 an 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 one about the age-old conflict between basic democratic principles and the forces of political corruption. It begins in 1988, when Mohamed, then a 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 and acted as a spokesman for other refugees as an elected official, slowly absorbing the lessons of civil society and the basics of American midmanagement 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 county executive in Erie County, New York for whom Mohamed campaigned, then worked for, starting in 1999. “That was always his ambition.”
There are those who say that Mohamed, 54, 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 U.S. democracy works,” said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, a programs officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “I think that’s a skill set 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 Donald Trump’s, which would have barred Mohamed’s entry to the U.S.—it ultimately diminishes American influence abroad.
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