Somali-American Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed came to the U.S. in 1985 to work at the Somali Embassy in Washington, D.C.
When civil war broke out in Somalia, Mohamed decided to stay in the U.S., moving to Buffalo, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in political science at SUNY.
Mohamed held various local government jobs before becoming a regional compliance specialist at the New York State Department of Transportation, but just a few months ago, he was the interim prime minister of Somalia.
Mohamed tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that his journey from Buffalo to Somalia began last September when he met Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
The Somali president was addressing the United Nations in New York when Mohamed took the opportunity to talk with him about their country, the violence and poverty that was overtaking it, and what could be done to help their people.
The two men hit it off, but Mohamed figured that was it and went back to Buffalo.
“A couple of weeks later, I get a phone call from one of his associates asking me to submit my resume, so I can be one of the candidates for the prime minister,” Mohamed says. “And I asked them, ‘How many people are on the list the president is considering to be appointed?’ And they said, ‘Probably about 10.’ And I said, ‘Look, I will submit my resume,’ but I never thought that probably I would be the one.”
Mohamed had not been back to the capital, Mogadishu, since 1985. What he found last October when he returned as prime minister shocked him: The city was devastated, there was no street electricity and it was filled with abandoned buildings. Many of these problems, Mohamed says, were a result of the lack of government structure.
“To be honest with you, this is not what I was expecting,” Mohamed says. “I was expecting somehow smooth, structured bureaucracy that easily can be managed, but that was not the case.”
Working with Parliament and various government leaders in Somalia, Mohamed says, he established a budget to start paying salaries to all civil servants and soldiers, something that had not been done before in the country.
“It was totally new, unorthodox,” he says.
Among the many political difficulties that Mohamed faced, there was also the constant threat of violence surrounding him. Al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida, has been waging war on the country’s weak government for years. Mohamed went from a quiet life in Buffalo, living in the suburbs with his family, to having more than a dozen bodyguards around him at all times.
“It was not easy, but someone has to do it,” Mohamed says. “I mean, I [was] born and grew and educated in Somalia, and I feel that it’s an obligation for me to go there and start to see if I can change the situation.”
In June, Mohamed was forced out as a result of political in-fighting. He left Somalia and returned to Buffalo and his job at the New York State Department of Transportation.
Mohamed admits that he was a bit naive about his original goals and expectations for Somalia. A country that has been lawless for the past 20 years cannot change overnight, he says. But he remains optimistic about his time there and what lies ahead.
“As soon as I left, within a month’s time, al-Shabab vacated the city of Mogadishu,” he says.
Mohamed says he wanted to be part of the system that defeated al-Qaida and brought peace and stability to the country, but he says, “I’m sure that the current government will continue what we started.”