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The Buffalo bureaucrat who pushed Somalia to the brink

NAIROBI, Kenya – During his years as an administrator in the upstate New York State Department of Transportation, the Somali refugee-turned-American citizen took courses in political science, imbibing the democratic values ​​he he hoped one day to export to his country of origin.

This dream came true for Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in 2017, when he returned to Somalia and was elected president in a surprise victory that showed great hopes for reforming – or even transforming – his dysfunctional and war-weary country. war.

But those aspirations have collapsed since Mr. Mohamed failed to hold an election at the end of his four-year term in February and then decided to extend his rule for two years – a step many Somalis saw as a real takeover.

A furious political conflict turned violent on Sunday when a series of shootings broke out between rival military factions in the capital, Mogadishu, raising fears that Somalia, after years of modest but gradual progress, could slide into the genre of clan bloodshed that apart in the 1990s.

Today, Mr. Mohamed’s democratic credentials are in tatters and he is in open confrontation with his former ally, the United States, where he still has a family home. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has publicly threatened to sanction Mohamed and other Somali officials, and this week US officials reiterated their calls for Somalia to hold elections immediately.

“All of his brain power is focused on his ascendancy and how he can dominate the stage,” said Abdirashid Hashi, a former cabinet minister under Mr. Mohamed. “His mastery of the rope allowed him to get away with a lot of things. But now all of these tactical moves have resulted in the fiasco we find ourselves in.

In an effort to defuse the crisis, Mr. Mohamed agreed to attend Parliament on Saturday. But the capital is on a razor’s edge and the stakes have been at their highest for years, according to Somali leaders and Western officials. Billions of dollars in aid and debt relief programs are threatened, hopes of young Somalis determined to find a better future and move forward in the fight against the insurgents with Al Shabab, one of the affiliates of The best organized and best funded Al Qaeda in the world.

Mr. Mohamed did not respond to a request for an interview or to questions addressed to his collaborators.

Popularly known as ‘Farmaajo’ – derivation of the Italian word for cheese and allegedly his father’s favorite food – Mr. Mohamed was once the bearer of the hopes of many Somalis.

Celebratory gunfire erupted across Mogadishu in 2017 following his unexpected electoral victory, and he quickly garnered support from across the political spectrum and Somali clans who backed his pledges of an anti crusade. -corruption and anti-Shabab. “The first few months have been amazing,” said Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, then commander of Danab, an elite commando unit formed in the United States. “I thought I met my hero.”

US officials were also impressed. Although at least five U.S. passport holders contested for the presidency that year, Mr. Mohamed was widely seen as less corrupt, more reform-oriented, and less manipulated by foreign interests than the other 24 candidates.

“This is the start of unity for the Somali nation,” Mohamed told his supporters shortly after winning the election.

Mr. Mohamed arrived in the United States in 1985 as a junior diplomat at the Somali Embassy and, as his country fell into conflict, decided to stay. A family friend said he first sought political asylum in Canada, where his mother and siblings lived, and subsequently obtained a Canadian passport.

But in the early 1990s, the newly married Mr. Mohamed returned to the United States where his family eventually settled on Grand Island, near Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

He studied history at the University of Buffalo, became a United States citizen, campaigned for a Republican candidate in the county election, and in 2002 got a job with the New York Department of Transportation.

An episode from this period in Mr. Mohamed’s life provided insight into the political style that brought Somalia to a dangerous crossroads.

Several US Somali leaders have said that in 2007 a bitter conflict erupted within a Somali community group led by Mr. Mohamed in Buffalo. His two-year term was coming to an end, but some members accused him of trying to cling to power by manipulating the electoral process, they said.

Somali-Americans, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their ties to the president’s family, said the dispute ended with the community group’s split in two.

Mr. Mohamed burst into Somali politics in 2010 when he so impressed the President of Somalia, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, during a visit to New York that Mr. Sharif appointed him prime minister.

But Mr. Mohamed only lasted eight months in his post, driven out by Somali political machinations, and he was soon back in his office at the Buffalo Department of Transportation, where he applied policies of non-discrimination and d positive action.

The high hopes that many Somalis placed in Mr. Mohamed in 2017, when he unexpectedly won the presidency, stemmed in part from his public image as a calm, bespectacled, if not charismatic, technocrat. But the disappointment quickly set in.

Mr. Mohamed played the clan politics of division and began to openly feud with the country’s regional rulers, undermining the power-sharing system that underpins Somali stability.

At the end of 2018, he arrested a potential rival, sparking protests in which at least 15 people were killed, and weeks later he expelled the UN envoy, accusing him of meddling in Somali affairs. .

Mr. Mohamed has come to rely heavily on his powerful spy boss, Fahad Yasin, whose security services have detained and tortured independent journalists, human rights groups, the United Nations and officials say. Westerners.

Mr. Yasin, a former Al Jazeera journalist, had become a channel for unofficial Qatari funds that were used to help elect Mr. Mohamed, and which he used to solidify his political base as he was in power, officials said. broader proxy battle for influence between rival oil-rich Persian Gulf states in the strategically located country.

Some members of Mr. Mohamed’s inner circle, including Colonel Sheikh, lost their illusions and resigned. “I was like, ‘These people are bad news,’ he said.

In 2019, Mr. Mohamed renounced his US citizenship. He did not explain the decision, but officials familiar with the case pointed to a possible factor.

By the time Mr. Mohamed returned his passport, his finances had been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service in the United States, said three Western officials familiar with the matter, speaking under the guise of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic concerning a foreign chef. of state.

Mr. Mohamed’s office did not respond to questions about an IRS audit.

As Mr. Mohamed contemplates his next move, his former U.S. allies say he needs to act quickly.

“It is time for President Farmaajo to step in and do what is best for his country,” Robert F. Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs wrote Thursday in an email to The Times. “The elections must take place immediately.”

In interviews, several Somali politicians have said the mess was also Washington’s fault, accusing the United States of failing to intervene with Mr. Mohamed when his authoritarian tendencies became evident several years ago.

Responding to criticism, a State Department spokesperson said the United States has “repeatedly and consistently urged President Farmaajo to constructively engage with the leaders of federal member states to advance reconciliation policy and build consensus on issues vital to the stability of Somalia. ”

Mr. Mohamed’s achievements as president include a major debt relief deal in 2020 that canceled at least $ 1.4 billion in arrears from the country. He also stoked nationalist passions by cutting ties with neighboring Kenya in December amid a long-standing diplomatic dispute.

His tough stance is popular among ordinary Somalis weary of foreign interference.

“The president is working for the interests of Somalia,” said Abdihakim Ali, 43, speaking by phone from the southern town of Kismayo. “Foreigners don’t want that.”

Yet Mr Mohamed also relies heavily on other regional powers – continuing to receive funding from Qatar and allying with the autocratic President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, whose army has trained thousands of soldiers. Somalis, according to Western and Somali officials.

“It comes like money and it’s incomprehensible,” Abdirizak Mohamed, former interior minister and now opposition MP, said of Qatari funds. “It is an open secret.”

Now, Mr. Mohamed is confined to Villa Somalia, the presidential compound in central Mogadishu, as military units loyal to his most powerful opponents – a coalition of presidential candidates and the leaders of two of the five regional states of Somalia – camped on a major crossroads. a hundred meters away.

Concerned residents say they are unsure whether the president’s latest concession will provide a real opportunity for further talks, or a pause before rival fighters open fire again.

“I feel a lot of fear,” Zahra Qorane Omar, a community organizer, said by phone from Mogadishu. “We have suffered enough suffering. The ball is not what this city or its people deserve.

Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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