No one expected that President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” would fall from grace this soon. Not even his ardent supporters. After all, he was the leader we—a desperate nation perpetually yearning for someone to love rather than lead—were romanticizing about after years of misrule. From the day he suddenly burst into the national scene in 2011, Farmaajo captivated the imagination of most Somalis with his fervent nationalism, uprightness and apparent moral fortitude. Our love affair with Farmaajo was heightened by the infamous “Kampala Accord”, which President Musaveni of Uganda brokered to oust Farmaajo as a PM, as part of a grand settlement between then President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a meek schoolteacher whose own meteoric rise to power startled the nation in 2006 before it, too, dissipated, and then Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, arguably Somalia’s most crafty politician known for his double, triple and even quadruple deal-making skills.
At the time, Farmaajo garnered tremendous sympathy for he was seen as the pawn in a game of thrones. When he returned to Mogadishu, the public took to the streets to express their outrage at his sudden dismissal, only eight months into his turbulent premiership. What the public didn’t know, however, was that Farmaajo not only accepted a bad deal on his own terms, but, in fact, also installed Abdiweli Gaas as his successor in the hopes of reaping the benefits of his neighbor and friend from Buffalo, New York. Not only did Gaas accuse Farmaajo of stealing millions of dollars in a 2012 UN Monitoring Group report, but he distanced himself from him, confiding to friends that Farmaajo was a “fake”.
When Farmaajo returned to his lowly desk job as an “equal opportunity officer” at the Transportation Department of Buffalo, New York, he was deflated beyond imagination. The 8 months of premiership sounded like a surreal experience in his dreams. Unable to readjust to his cubicle job pushing papers in a heap of bureaucracy, he would return to Somalia a year later, in 2012, to run for president. When the votes were counted in the first round, Farmaajo was no longer using a pen a paper to count it, but his bare hands. The grand total was a dismal 14 votes. TV cameras showed him bursting out of the stage, looking rather startled by the mismatch between the huge public support and the miniscule votes—the exact size of the MPs from his clan in the Federal Parliament. What Farmaajo did next was a political invention of epic proportions: he bused hundreds of IDPs into the streets of Mogadishu, hoping that President Hassan Sheikh appoint him a Prime Minister. At one point, celebratory gunfire rang out across the city as rumor spread of the appointment of Farmaajo as PM.
President Hassan Sheikh told friends that he never considered Farmaajo for the PM job, because he found his populism ‘nauseating’. History would prove him right. Instead, the President selected Saacid Shirdoon, a businessman known largely as the loving husband of an astute activist named Asha Haji Elmi. Demoralized and embarrassed, Farmaajo, once again, went back to his cubicle job. He would reappear few months later, launching a political party oddly named “TAYO”, as if he was selling used cars. And the people he selected as members all had, unsurprisingly, the quality of a used car.
My encounter with Farmaajo
I met Farmaajo in Amsterdam soon after he launched his party. He was ‘shopping’ for members. A friend asked me to join him at an event featuring the former PM as a keynote speaker. When the MC called him to the podium, he was sitting hunched and seemed dazed by the smallness of the crowd: 17-19 mostly unemployed recent immigrants. However, he immediately settled into what he’s known best for: populist rant. After listening to him for 30 minutes, I left the room underwhelmed by the lack of substance in his remarks. I told my friend that Farmaajo struck me as a hot air balloon. He could go aloft, rather quickly, but would soon deflate and fall in the ground. My friend was incensed and accused me of, among other things, elitism. He insisted that we meet with Farmaajo in a smaller setting which would facilitate a more substantive discourse. I reluctantly agreed. The next day, I was among few “intellectuals” (I hate the word!) who were given the privilege to meet him. After another lousy performance, I started to ask him probing questions. One simple question I had was: what he would do differently than Hassan Sheikh, in substantive terms?
To my dismay, he said he would mobilize the public to defeat Al Shabab in two years, recruit 100,000 young people to what he ominously called “People’s Defense Forces”—a volunteer-based army, and would eradicate corruption. When I challenged him on how he would eradicate corruption, he claimed that he would offer prize money to whistleblowers! As an economist, this led me to ask him how he would raise that money in the first place, to which he responded, rather elementarily yet alarmingly, that “governments always find ways to do things.” His simplistic approach to complex policy and political matters was, on the one hand, naïve per excellence, and, on the other hand, criminal agnosticism.
That encounter with Farmaajo stayed with me. I felt incredibly bad for my native country. It was a powerful reminder of what went wrong. For weeks and months, I kept thinking about how people like Farmaajo rise to power without any professional, academic or even political experience. No wonder he had never risen up in his own job in New York despite two decades.
Farmaajo as a President
I consider myself a distant observer of Somali politics. However, I took a keen interest in Farmaajo’s Administration, partly because he’s the only senior Somali politician I ever met. I carefully listened to his inauguration speech and was, frankly, pleasantly surprised for its substance, though his delivery was dismal. Then again, I watched his keynote speech at the London Conference in May 2017. There again, I was impressed by its specificity and actionable policy orientation. I have also been in touch with my friend who introduced me to him years ago, and who retains a contact within the inner circle of Farmaajo. What he was telling me was reassuring. However, the presidency of Farmaajo was proving to be disastrous. Specifically, I have keenly observed the following:
First, the inner circle of the President is deeply troubling. Leaders are, to a large extent, shaped by their aides. Farmaajo is being advised by Fahad Yassin, a notoriously reclusive former journalist with Al Jazeera and current Chief of Staff. I first heard his name in 2009 when he prepared a report about President Sheikh Sharif’s meeting with then American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Instead of focusing on the significance of the first formal meeting between a US Secretary of State and a Somali leader since 1991, Fahad emphasized the “controversy” around an Islamist Sheikh Sharif handshaking with the an infidel woman.
When I inquired about him, it turned out that Fahad was a member of Al-Itihad militant group, and had been a fundraiser for Al-Shabaab for years. In addition to Fahad, the president is also advised by Abdirizaq Shole. A deputy of Fahad, Shole is, I’m told by people who know the network very well, an early founder of Takfir in Somalia, the software upon which Al-Shabaab operates. Add that to Ali Yare, Farmaajo’s chief propagandist. When Farmaajo was the PM, Ali Yare was responsible for image building. Before he immigrated to Sweden, Ali Yare was a hardworking day laborer in Dubai, helping Somali businessmen load their merchandize to their boats. His contribution to society is his capacity to ferry IDPs wielding Farmaajo posters to the streets of Mogadishu to produce the false of image of public support—a practice that continues to this day. Then there’s Abdishakur Ali Mire, an MP whose only professional job was a newsreader at one of the London-based Somali channels. None of these people, except Shole, has a formal education. Which leads me to wonder what kind of advice Farmaajo is receiving.
People who know Farmaajo very well told me that he’s deeply uncomfortable with people of substance, because they can raise critical questions. They say he gravitates toward individuals who mirror his personality—shallow, timid and populist. Which explains why some of the capable people around him during the first few months of his presidency are no longer there.
Second, Farmaajo’s choice for PM was a surprise to virtually everyone. Hassan Khaire was the campaign manager for former President Hassan Sheikh, to whom he was extremely close to. During the presidency of Hassan Sheikh, Khaire was widely known as the “chief troubleshooter”. Ministers, businessmen and virtually anyone who wanted anything from Hassan Sheikh would court Khaire for access. A week before the election, Khaire left Mogadishu for Nairobi, changed his numbers and got married secretly. Hassan Sheikh and his team were baffled by this move from one of their icons in the middle of the battle. Little did they know that Khaire, through his cousin Abdulkarim Gaambe, was double-dipping. (Gaambe is the manager of Jazeera Hotel, which is owned by the cousin of AhmedNur Ali Jimale, the majority shareholder of the largest company in Somalia, Hormuud).
Reliable sources indicate that Khaire contributed over $1 million USD to the Farmaajo campaign as a deposit for the premiership job. Until then, he was formally the “Director for Africa” at SOMA OIL, a shady oil company founded in 2013 and financed by a Russian oligarch. The day he was appointed PM, SOMA OIL had conveniently issued a statement, claiming that Khaire had “given-up” his $2 million USD shares. Few people believed that, and most know that SOMA OIL continues to operate, this time under the full protection of the PM and stewardship of his cousin Gaambe. By all accounts, Khaire is following the footsteps of Sharif Hassan as a wheeler and dealer who wines and dines with people of power and resources. However, his performance strikes me as a rabble rouser with perfect showmanship skills.
Thirdly, Farmaajo’s claim to moral fortitude was quickly decimated by his decision to hand over Abdulkarem Qalbi-Dhagax, an officer with ONLF—an armed group in Ethiopia. The administration of Farmaajo is the only in the world to recognize ONLF as a terrorist organization, in a desperate attempt to appease Ethiopia (a country he regularly railed against when he was not in office). Even Ethiopia recently rescinded its terrorist label of ONLF. When asked by a BBC journalist about Qalbi-Dhagax, Farmaajo said, shallowly, “the Parliament has decided on this issue”. Indeed, the parliamentary committee formed to investigate faulted the government on both counts: the handing over of a Somali national who fought against our army, and the designation of ONLF as a terrorist organization. Farmajo, of course, conveniently ignored that binding resolution. Now that PM Abiy Ahmed released Qalbi-Dhagax and accorded him a VIP status—a classical Ethiopian move to humiliate Somali leaders—Farmaajo and company are probably having a buyer’s remorse. Down the drain went his fake nationalist credentials, along with any claim to moral fortitude.
Fourthly, Farmajao’s handling of the domestic political situation and foreign policy is nothing short of criminal. He attempted, but failed miserably, to dismantle all of the federal member states so that he could install puppets. His “Mogadishu stabilization force” killed five Somali security forces guarding Presidential candidate Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame. Admitting guilt, he has since paid $70,000 to each of the families of the murdered soldiers, and has released AA Warsame from detention after they failed to prove anything wrong. On foreign policy, the claim to neutrality between the warring Gulf nations has quickly buckled under the weight of the Qatari influence in Villa Somalia. Farmaajo receives several million dollars a month from Doha, a slash fund he routinely uses to remove political opponents (Jawaari, et al) and recruit a legion of social media warriors to brandish his appalling image. His recent appointment of a junior inventory officer with Mercy Corps as the country’s Chief Justice will be remembered in the annals of history as the greatest abuse of power in the country.
Finally, the dramatic fall of Farmaajo from grace was no surprise to those of us who had an encounter with him. Not only does he lack an iota of leadership quality, but he embodies the most dangerous types of historical leaders. People often forget that Hitler, Mugabe, Netanyahu and Trump are all elected demagogues with a populist message. History will prove that Farmaajo is on his way to become the worst president that Somalia ever had, despite the illustrious image with which he came. His newfound dictatorial tendencies are reminiscent of our recent past, which led to the current state failure. No nation should accept to surrender its hard won gains to a demagogue like Farmaajo.
Guled Hagi Hersi
Guled is an economist by training and management consultant by trade.