The Bureaucrat From Buffalo Who Pushed Somalia to the Brink

NAIROBI, Kenya — During his years as an administrator at the Department of Transportation in upstate New York, the Somali refugee turned American citizen took courses in political science, imbibing democratic values he hoped to someday export again to his homeland.

That dream got here true for Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in 2017, when he returned to Somalia and was elected president in a surprise victory that evinced high hopes he would possibly reform — even remodel — his dysfunctional, war-weary nation.

But these aspirations have crumbled since Mr. Mohamed failed to maintain elections when his four-year time period led to February, then moved to prolong his rule by two years — a step many Somalis seen as a unadorned energy seize.

A livid political dispute turned violent on Sunday when a series of gunfights broke out between rival army factions in the capital, Mogadishu, evoking fears that Somalia, after years of modest but gradual progress, might descend into the sort of clan-based bloodshed that ripped it aside in the 1990s.

Now Mr. Mohamed’s democratic credentials lie in tatters and he’s in an open confrontation along with his former ally, the United States, the place he nonetheless has a household residence. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has publicly threatened to sanction Mr. Mohamed and different Somali officers, and this week American officers reiterated requires Somalia to maintain elections instantly.

“His entire brain power is focused on his ascendancy, and how he can dominate the scene,” mentioned Abdirashid Hashi, a former cupboard minister underneath Mr. Mohamed. “His brinkmanship allowed him to get away with a lot. But now all those tactical moves have culminated in the fiasco we are in.”

In an effort to defuse the disaster, Mr. Mohamed agreed to attend Parliament on Saturday. But the capital is on a knife edge, and the stakes are at their highest in years, in accordance to Somali leaders and Western officers. At danger are billions of {dollars} in help applications and debt reduction, the hopes of young Somalis determined to find a better future and progress in the struggle in opposition to insurgents with Al Shabab, one among the world’s best organized and funded Al Qaeda affiliates.

Mr. Mohamed didn’t reply to a request for an interview or to questions despatched to his aides.

Popularly generally known as “Farmaajo” — a derivation of the Italian phrase for cheese and purportedly his father’s favourite meals — Mr. Mohamed was as soon as the bearer of many Somalis’ hopes.

Celebratory gunfire erupted throughout Mogadishu in 2017 following his surprising election victory, and he shortly gathered assist throughout the political and clan spectrum from Somalis who supported his guarantees of an anti-graft, anti-Shabab campaign. “The first months were amazing,” mentioned Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, then the commander of Danab, an elite American-trained commando unit. “I thought I’d met my hero.”

American officers had been additionally impressed. Although at the very least 5 American passport holders ran for the presidency that yr, Mr. Mohamed was widely seen as much less corrupt, extra reform-oriented and fewer manipulated by overseas pursuits than the different 24 candidates.

“This is the beginning of unity for the Somali nation,” Mr. Mohamed advised supporters shortly after successful the election.

Mr. Mohamed got here to the United States in 1985 as a junior diplomat at the Somali Embassy and, as his nation tumbled into battle, determined to keep. A household good friend mentioned he first utilized for political asylum in Canada, the place his mom and siblings lived, and later obtained a Canadian passport.

But in the early 1990s, Mr. Mohamed, newly married, moved again to the United States the place his household finally settled in Grand Island, subsequent to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

He studied historical past at the University at Buffalo, grew to become an American citizen, campaigned for a Republican candidate in county elections, and in 2002, received a job at the New York Department of Transportation.

An episode from that interval of Mr. Mohamed’s life supplied a touch of the political fashion that has introduced Somalia to a harmful junction.

Several Somali-American leaders mentioned that in 2007, a bitter dispute erupted inside a Somali neighborhood group that Mr. Mohamed led in Buffalo. His two-year time period was coming to an finish, however some members accused him of attempting to cling to energy by manipulating the electoral course of, they mentioned.

The Somali-Americans, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to defend their connections to the president’s household, mentioned the dispute ended with the neighborhood group splitting in two.

Mr. Mohamed broke into Somali politics in 2010 when he so impressed the president of Somalia, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, on a go to to New York that Mr. Sharif made him prime minister.

But Mr. Mohamed lasted solely eight months in the job, compelled out by Somali political machinations, and he was quickly back at his desk at the Department of Transportation in Buffalo, the place he enforced nondiscrimination and affirmative motion insurance policies.

The nice hopes many Somalis invested in Mr. Mohamed in 2017, when he gained the presidency in opposition to all expectations, stemmed partly from his public picture as a peaceful and bespectacled, if considerably uncharismatic, technocrat. But disappointment quickly set in.

Mr. Mohamed performed divisive clan politics and commenced to feud brazenly with the nation’s regional leaders, undermining the power-sharing system that underpins Somali stability.

In late 2018, he arrested a possible rival, sparking protests wherein at the very least 15 folks had been killed, and weeks later expelled the United Nations envoy,accusing him of meddling in Somali affairs.

Mr. Mohamed got here to rely closely on his highly effective spy chief, Fahad Yasin, whose safety companies detained and tortured unbiased journalists, in accordance to human rights groups, United Nations and Western officers.

Mr. Yasin, a former journalist with Al Jazeera, had change into a conduit for unofficial Qatari funds that had been used to assist get Mr. Mohamed elected, and which he used to solidify his political base whereas in energy, the officers mentioned — a part of a wider proxy battle for affect between rival oil-wealthy Persian Gulf states in the strategically situated nation.

Some in Mr. Mohamed’s interior circle, together with Colonel Sheikh, grew disillusioned and give up. “I said to myself: ‘These people are bad news,’” he mentioned.

In 2019, Mr. Mohamed gave up his American citizenship. He didn’t clarify the determination, however officers acquainted with the matter pointed to one attainable issue.

At the time Mr. Mohamed surrendered his passport, his funds had come underneath investigation by the Internal Revenue Service in the United States, mentioned three Western officers acquainted with the matter, talking on the situation of anonymity to talk about a delicate matter a couple of overseas head of state.

Mr. Mohamed’s workplace didn’t reply to questions on an I.R.S. audit.

As Mr. Mohamed contemplates his subsequent transfer, his former American allies say he wants to act shortly.

“It is time for President Farmaajo to step up and do what’s best for his country,” Robert F. Godec, the appearing assistant secretary of state for African affairs, wrote in an e mail to the Times on Thursday. “Elections need to be held immediately.”

In interviews, a number of Somali politicians mentioned the mess was additionally Washington’s fault, blaming the United States for failing to intervene with Mr. Mohamed when his authoritarian tendencies grew to become evident a number of years in the past.

Responding to the criticism, a State Department spokesperson mentioned the United States had “repeatedly and consistently urged President Farmaajo to engage constructively with Federal Member State leaders to advance political reconciliation and reach consensus on issues vital to Somalia’s stability.”

Mr. Mohamed’s achievements as president embrace a serious debt reduction deal in 2020 that canceled at the very least $1.four billion of the nation’s arrears. He additionally stoked nationalist passions by cutting ties with neighboring Kenya in December as a part of a long-running diplomatic dispute.

His powerful stance is in style amongst strange Somalis weary of overseas interference.

“The president is working for the interests of Somalia,” mentioned Abdihakim Ali, 43, talking by telephone from the southern metropolis of Kismayo. “The foreigners don’t want that.”

Yet Mr. Mohamed additionally depends closely on different regional powers — persevering with to obtain funding from Qatar and allying with the autocratic president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, whose army has skilled hundreds of Somali troops, Western and Somali officers say.

“It comes as cash and it’s uncounted,” Abdirizak Mohamed, a former inside minister and now opposition lawmaker, mentioned of the Qatari funds. “It’s an open secret.”

Now Mr. Mohamed is confined to Villa Somalia, the presidential compound in central Mogadishu, as army models loyal to his strongest opponents — a coalition of presidential candidates and the leaders of two of Somalia’s 5 regional states — camp on a serious junction a couple of hundred yards away.

Worried residents say they don’t know whether or not the president’s newest concession will supply a real alternative for brand spanking new talks, or a pause earlier than rival fighters open hearth once more.

“I feel a lot of fear,” mentioned Zahra Qorane Omar, a neighborhood organizer, by telephone from Mogadishu. “We’ve gone through enough suffering. The bullet is not what this city or its people deserve.”

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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